On Production of PhDs

Marshall Poe, November 1999

To the Editor:

I was very surprised to see that the only response to Ted Margadant's article "The Production of PhDs" (Perspectives, May 1999) published in the September Perspectives concerned the success one institution had in placing its graduates. To trumpet the achievements of one university in PhD placement is to miss the point. Dr. Margadant's excellent piece made it abundantly clear that there is and long has been a deep crisis in our profession, namely, the systematic over-production of PhDs. True, many (and maybe even most) history PhDs fulfill their dream of becoming college professors. But many do not, as Dr. Margadant demonstrates. The University of Kentucky may have succeeded, but the profession as a whole has failed.

If Dr. Margadant's fine effort has a drawback, it is that he tactfully avoids the question of responsibility for the glut of doctorates in history and consequent job crisis. There are too many doctorates in history because too many candidates are admitted by PhD programs; that is, admitted by faculty members who have built or want to build PhD programs.

Professors at universities are responsible for the job crisis and always have been, for they are in control of the production of PhDs. There was perhaps a time when they were not fully responsible for PhD overproduction. I recall that when I entered graduate school in 1984, serious statisticians (in hindsight, seriously mistaken statisticians) predicted a shortfall of PhDs in the humanities. Departments understandably admitted many students at that time. But for the past decade it has been clear that this windfall of vacancies did not appear and would not appear any time soon. Every year, supply far exceeds demand. In other words, "we" have long been knowingly accepting too many PhD candidates, functionally condemning a predictable percentage to removal from the field after years of difficult training. Obviously this is a tragedy for those young scholars whose hopes are shattered. But it is also indicative of a moral crisis in our profession, for who would not agree that the practice of intentional oversupply of PhDs is irresponsible?

Some will reply that the origins of the job crisis are more complicated than I have indicated. True. But one aspect of the problem is crystal clear and in "our" power: until PhD-granting departments reduce the number of doctoral candidates they admit, the job crisis will continue, for there is no real hope of a considerable increase in the demand for historians. It is disturbing that the lights of our profession, not to mention the leadership of the AHA, have hesitated to point this obvious fact out or (more important) to do anything about it.

—Marshall Poe
University of Limerick