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From the AHA Activities column in the December 2001 Perspectives

Sources of Information for Doctoral Students in History

Philip M. Katz, December 2001

Earlier this year, the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) conducted a comprehensive survey of doctoral training in the discipline of history. A 41-page questionnaire was distributed to practically every doctorate-granting history department in the country (158 in all); to our pleasant surprise, 103 completed forms came back. Most of the responses came from directors of graduate studies, though a few questionnaires were also filled out by department chairs and other faculty members. The CGE will offer a preliminary report on the findings at the AHA's annual meeting in San Francisco on Friday, January 4, 2002 (2:30–4:00 p.m. in the Hilton San Francisco, Union Square Room 12).

One goal of the survey was to learn more about the formal requirements of different graduate programs: how many courses graduate students need to complete, how many foreign languages they are expected to master, how many fields they have to prepare for qualifying exams, when (and if) they need to defend a dissertation prospectus, and so on. Another goal was to learn more about the informal expectations of graduate programs, including the various ways that expectations are conveyed between faculty members and students. With these goals in mind, one section of the questionnaire asked respondents to describe the official and explicit sources of information available to their graduate students, such as university handbooks, departmental web sites, formal orientation sessions, and written reports on student progress. Elsewhere, we asked respondents to describe the informal flow(s) of information within their departments. Here is the question as posed in the survey: "For each activity listed . . . , please check the most important source of information and assistance for the graduate students in your department. These should be the most important sources in practice, not necessarily the sources suggested in departmental guidelines or other official statements." (The answers are summarized in a PDF table.)

There are some striking patterns in this data, starting with the commanding role ascribed to individual advisers in doctoral training: in more than half the cases (15 out of 29 activities), the bulk of survey respondents felt that a graduate student's own adviser was the most important source of his or her information. This was as true for some of the most straightforward activities on the list (such as selecting graduate courses) as for some of the least tangible (such as developing "survival skills" for the profession). This pattern may not be surprising, given the strong tradition of apprenticeship (and other kinds of mentoring) in graduate education. But should there be concern about graduate students' overreliance on this one source of information?

In some cases, we suspect that "adviser" was a default answer to this question: graduate students are picking up the information somewhere, so why not from their advisers? At the same time, the directors of graduate studies suggest that students are pretty much on their own when it comes to acquiring significant pieces of knowledge. For six activities, a plurality of respondents listed the "graduate student's own initiative" as the most important source of information. These included "keeping up with the current historical literature," but also "learning about the history, mission, and purposes of higher education" (which should be vital for any future faculty member), "learning about nonacademic job openings," and "following public discussions about the role of history in [American] society."

Finally, in a surprising pattern, no more than a few respondents ever listed "other graduate students" as a leading source of information about particular aspects of graduate school. For their part, graduate students may have a very different perception of how information flows through history departments; indeed, one of the firm conclusions that can be drawn from the CGE's survey of doctoral programs is that faculty and students don't always see eye to eye. The committee will continue to explore this phenomenon during a series of upcoming site visits to selected history departments. The aim of these visits is to clarify our sense of the problems facing graduate education, to get a better idea of what makes representative programs "tick," and to identify innovations in graduate training that other historians ought to know about. The list of potential sites is still being developed, but we expect to visit eight or nine departments between October 2001 and May 2002. During this period, the CGE will be working closely with the AHA's Task Force on Graduate Education to develop a survey of graduate students that will complement the data already collected.

—Philip M. Katz is research director of the Committee on Graduate Education.

Note

*Respondents were asked to identify the most important source of information for students in their doctoral programs for each of the activities in the left-hand column. In some cases, respondents checked more than one box; these multiple responses are included in the table, and rows do not always add up to 103 as a result.