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It Only Takes One: PhD Programs And Equality Of Opportunity

February 27, 2007

My friend and colleague Christopher Miller joined a spirited exchange last week on the merits and viability of small PhD programs in the U.S. That exchange began with a provocative reflection by Ralph Luker at Cliopatria. The number and energy of the comments Luker received clearly justified his post.

I want to come at this issue explicitly from the ‘equality of opportunity’ angle. Christopher’s post pointed in that direction, and I want to reinforce it. My perspective is colored by my own experience in a doctoral program, a philosophy of education derived from my education as whole, and my reading in the history of education.

I suppose my central contention is this: If a history PhD program exists in an area of the country where few users take advantage of it, then so be it. So long as participation in the program doesn’t put an undue burden on the school, or the school’s faculty, and all internal parties want to keep the program, then let it be.

Why? Because aspirants from all over the country deserve the chance to work toward a PhD without having to overcome unnecessary barriers to entry. These barriers include: geographic accessibility, overly high admissions standards, and perhaps money – depending on the standard of living of the university with a so-called “acceptable” superstructure.

The weakest of the barriers I list above is geographic accessibility. I will concede that air, bus, and train travel make most areas of the United States accessible to doctoral aspirants. But what of the aspirant’s family? Should a person with a family, both nuclear and extended, that is concentrated in say Manhattan, Kansas, be forced to study U.S. cultural history (for instance) on the East or West Coast? So long as that aspirant accepts the weaknesses of his program’s support structure, then he or she should have the opportunity to study where he or she lives. This of course necessitates that programs be extremely honest about outcomes and time of completion for incoming doctoral students.

Decreasing the number of programs will, of course, also increase the admissions bar in the remaining programs. What will determine the allowable number of new entrants? Funding? That’s a fine internal criteria, but how will programs adjust their external criteria, such as distinguishing between the “more” and “less” qualified? Will the “more” qualified be seen as those coming from institutions where the remaining, solid doctoral programs exist? That would seem natural, since those programs will then be viewed as having the most qualified faculty.

With the restriction of fewer programs, it will be much more difficult for late bloomers and those of less means to enter the field. That crowd won’t easily be able to start over at these more restrictive institutions. Do we want the late bloomers and poor folks screened out, denied an opportunity? Isn’t it good for the field to have practitioners of all ages and from all different backgrounds?

These career changers and late bloomers often possess drive in triple doses. Isn’t it difficult enough to figure out who has the drive to earn a PhD in history without adding more, sometimes false screening factors? Along with intelligence, isn’t drive one of the most valuable characteristics in terms of seeing the doctoral project through? There are lots of qualified applicants from great undergraduate programs, but how many of them really have the mature persistence to finish a graduate program? Getting rid of programs with fewer barriers to entry will necessarily exclude more applicants from the late-bloomer subset of driven students.

Many of the “best” programs in the country are located in urban areas, areas often with higher standards of living. This will require even more money than tuition from aspirants. It will require greater yearly stipends and assistantships for students. Is the field ready for this? In sum, it will cost the history field more overall to develop new doctoral-level historians. Is this a good thing? No. With that, states with a lower standards of living and several doctoral programs ought to continue their programs so long as the institution and faculty are willing.

The value of all doctoral programs, no matter where they’re located, is in the one or two worthy doctorates produced every few years. There’s no predicting the production site from which a doctorate will become a member of that “worthy” subset. Worthiness is certainly not determined by place of production (i.e. program, department, or university), or a candidate’s dissertation director, but rather by the productivity of the scholar after completion. The PhD with drive will, without question, compensate for almost every weakness in his or her program.

In the end, it only takes one new, worthy PhD, produced every 3 or 4 years, from a “marginal” program to give that program enough credibility to maintain existence. If the cost to maintain a doctoral program at a particular institution is marginal, then its marginal status can be tolerated. The opportunity afforded by one PhD program in the middle of “nowhere” merits the entire program’s existence, no matter its rate of production, size, or resources. – TL

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  1. Tim, It would be useful to think about what minimums one ought to expect of a doctoral program in history — and of the sub-specialties of history. Should a department have at least two full time African historians before claiming to offer a doctoral program in African history? What would be minimal expectations of on-site library facilities? Does the addition of a doctoral program unduly draw faculty time and resources away from the department's primary mission in undergraduate and Master's degree education? Once you've thought through those minimal expectations, then you can ask of particular departments whether they meet them. If they don't, then it's certainly fair to say: this department is reaching beyond its capabilities in trying to offer doctoral studies in history. It would better serve its constituency if it concentrated its resources on offering the best undergraduate and M.A. problems that it can muster.


  2. Ralph,

    Thanks for coming by. Here are my answers to some of your specific questions:

    1. “Should a department have at least two full time African historians before claiming to offer a doctoral program in African history?”

    TL: Yes. Right now departments do claim too much. I'd say that those immodest “claims” are a larger problem than the overall quantity of doctoral programs.

    2. “What would be minimal expectations of on-site library facilities?”

    TL: At the ~very least~ a PhD-granting institution needs to have a solid interlibrary loan division and photocopying expense account for graduate students.

    3. “Does the addition of a doctoral program unduly draw faculty time and resources away from the department's primary mission in undergraduate and Master's degree education?”

    TL: Of course this depends on the institution. Most PhD granting institutions will also have a faculty with mixed backgrounds: some MA-types teaching survey and middling classes, PhD/professor types for upper-level courses, and motivated professors with doctorates who are also interested in mentoring doctoral candidates. A PhD program gives those advanced, interested faculty an intellectual respite from the sometimes monotonous task of teaching the same courses over and over. Even if they only have a few students, a smaller school can support some number of PhD students.

    Here are my old-school ideas on the minimums for a good PhD program:

    1. One good diss. director on the topic the aspirant hopes to study;
    2. An institution with at least a good interlibrary loan program;
    3. A graduate faculty of 3-4 in the general category of a field (say U.S. history). Graduate students often take upper-level undergraduate courses anyway (but with added expectations); and
    4. Some minimal travel money for archive visits and conference/seminar participation; and
    5. Modest stipends from the department that are given every year one is making satisfactory progress in full-time pursuit of the doctorate.

    Why are my requirements so modest? Because committee members can be gleaned from other schools. Because courses, graduate courses even, can be taken from professors in other disciplines (esp. literature and philosophy). Because students can attend seminars at other institutions to gain the needed sense of fraternity and scholarly give-and-take.

    In sum, modest requirements for maintaining doctoral programs will leave room for those students with less access (money, geography), but a lot of drive. The end result will be diversity – whether by economic class, race, ethnicity, sex, or geography – in the profession. – TL


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