Should Applicants to a Ph.D Program Have a Fully-Formed Dissertation Idea in Mind When They Apply?


I often counsel undergraduates and M.A. students, both my students and others, about applying to Ph.D programs.  I talked a bit about what I sometimes say to them in Episode 37 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Every now and then an applicant will tell me that they have been rejected by a graduate program in history because their potential adviser does not think they have developed a fully-formed dissertation idea.  (Or at least this is what the potential adviser told them).

So I ask our readers:  Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.

How many of you history Ph.Ds out there actually had a dissertation topic in mind the moment you set foot on the university campus to begin your program?

How to Advise Ph.D Students


Many of you recall Erin Bartram‘s viral post about her decision to leave academia.  We blogged about it here and will be talking to Erin in a forthcoming episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Her recent piece in The Chronicle Education offers some advice for professors who advise Ph.D students.  Her two main points are:

  1. Be honest about the limitations of your advice
  2. Try to recognize how little you may actually know about us as individuals

Read the entire piece here.

What Might a Ph.D in History Look Like in 2022?


Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, has a vision.  In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, he imagines what an orientation for new doctoral students might look like in 2022.

Here is a taste:

As academe moves (slowly but surely) to rethink doctoral training, I’ve been mulling the direction and implications of change.

Today, a new vocabulary has emerged in Ph.D. humanities education. Doctoral degrees are “malleable.” Their recipients are “versatile.” A discourse of “career diversity” will enable new cultures of “connected academics.”

Most graduate students today encounter that wider perspective of doctoral training as they near the finish line, yet they also inhabit an academic culture steeped in traditional norms of success and failure. Even graduate-program directors committed to a broad view of Ph.D. career options might include in their welcome messages the 40-year-old jeremiad about the narrowed academic job market — implying therein a standard of success. In a well-meaning attempt at transparency, they might include a reference to “placement rates” — underscoring the tenure track as the normative pathway even amid the rhetoric of “alternative” careers.

With resources from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, new projects aimed at changing graduate-school training and culture are emerging — some initiated by scholarly societies like the American Historical Association (the organization I direct) and the Modern Language Association, and others led by humanities centers, graduate deans, and even individual departments.

With these expanded visions gaining traction, I am ready to indulge in fantasy: What might a graduate orientation for entering students in my discipline — history — look like in five years? Let’s pick up where we left off with our hypothetical director of graduate students in 2022 …

Read the entire piece here.

$1.6 Million to Expand the Horizons of History Ph.Ds

Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA

Jim Grossman and his staff at the American Historical Association want to widen “the presence and influence of humanistic thinking in business, government, and non profits.”  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation apparently agrees with this vision.  They have just awarded the AHA $1.6 million to fund a series of pilot projects that will attempt to change the academic culture in history departments as it relates to the opportunities for history PhDs in society and the marketplace.

Here is a taste of Grossman’s post at AHA Today:

In particular, this project will:

  • –Compile data and narratives that will continue to improve our knowledge of the ways history PhDs have built rewarding careers in the world outside the academy, and then publicize what we have learned, in part to highlight the range of possibilities and in part to normalize these pathways and facilitate them through a “virtual mentorship” program.

  • –Prepare history PhD students for work and other activity beyond the professoriate through curricular enhancements that provide essential skills and experience.

  • –Transform a cultural environment within the academy, among faculty as well as students, that continues to define “success” exclusively as tenure-track employment at four-year institutions, even as such opportunities become less 

  • –Cultivate a broader understanding among potential employers of the skills, knowledge, and personal characteristics implied by advanced education in history and the completion of a PhD dissertation.
As I argued in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, historical thinking has the potential to make us better people, better citizens, and better employees in a host of professions. Needless to say, I find this is a very exciting venture.