Thursday, October 04, 2007

Why a Family Guy Won't Get a History PhD Any time soon

When I went back to school to get a degree in History for the fun of it, I thought (naively) that getting an MA was a logical first step. But as I progressed--and despite urgings from various prof's to go for the PhD, practical considerations came into play. First, assuming I could get into a "local" (ie; southern New England) History PhD program, it would be too expensive and take too long (h/t Ralph) for a guy trying to raise a family.
For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.... Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.
Well, since I started my MA at 34, I was already behind the curve! Oh well. I may not have been elite enough (via PhDinHistory) anyway:
First, doctoral students in history have come and continue to come disproportionately from relatively privileged family backgrounds. Second, the proportion and number of students in doctoral programs from first-generation college families is declining. This trend—if the weak data are sufficient to speak of a real trend—is relevant to both diversity and opportunity questions. And the data point to a third, more speculative point. The uncertainty of employment in history may be discouraging students from first-generation college families from pursuing history careers. One can understand their preference for more secure career paths, but the profession loses vitality and students of potential lose an opportunity to pursue what may be to them a substantively if not practically appealing life work.
Neither of my parents got their B.A., but all of their children have. For myself, I always loved history. Heck, in high school, I wanted to be a History teacher and a HS Soccer coach. But my parents steered me into engineering because, as they pragmatically pointed out, there is always a need for engineers. They were right. Sure, I still like History, but a PhD wasn't even on my radar coming out of High School.

Besides, being an engineer led to financial stability such that I could finally scratch that itch and get the MA. But the PhD just isn't practical for me right now, even though I'd absolutely love to do it.

PhDinHistory adds (check out his charts that illustrate the below):
I think we should be concerned by the way that history has suddenly become more elitist than almost every other major discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Like the authors in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, I worry that history faculty will have less and less in common with their students. I am concerned also that smart history majors from lower- and lower-middle-class households will be increasingly steered away from entering graduate programs in history. Lastly, I share the fear of the authors that this problem stems, at least in part, from the mismatch between PhD production and the demand for history faculty in the job market.
I think he's right on. Many of those "smart history majors from lower- and lower-middle-class households" already survived the temptations of following other, potentially more lucrative educational paths. They need to be encouraged to keep climbing the ivory towers. More diversity and more perspectives will strengthen profession. And maybe someday, people who have lived a portion of their adult life outside of the ivy walls will be better able to open the gates and climb the tower stairs.


Nathanael said...

I am over half done with the diss., yet my progress has slowed to a crawl with new fatherhood. (But I love my baby.)

Marc said...

Keep it up!!! The difference between I us (I believe) is that you were on the History track from the get-go, right?

Nathanael said...

Not whatsoever. I started my MA when I was 28, my PhD in a completely different university (I had to do everything over) when I was 30. We are closer in age than you think--I'm 37.

Marc said...

You're correct--I'm 38. I guess the difference is I already had 2 kids when I went for the MA and a pretty good career going. My hat's off!

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