No matter how much academics in the blogosphere bitch and moan amongst themselves, those crazy, cockeyed, optimistic kids keep signing up for graduate school in ever greater numbers! According to this report at Inside Higher Ed, “More Historians on the Way,” based on this report by the American Historical Association, applications and enrollment in Ph.D. programs are up, but so is attrition from said programs. Only 49 percent of graduate students have finished their degrees in under 10 years.
Historiann could have told you this was going to happen, as it has in every economic downturn over the past 20 years. I started graduate school just before the 1990-91 recession drove up applications in my graduate department (Après moi, le deluge!), and I’m sure that the current recession is a good part of what drove applications up this year. Twenty-two year-olds with liberal arts degrees look around and say, “whereas we used to be able to count on working at Whole Foods or Barnes and Noble with our B.A.’s while we decided what we wanted to do in life, now we can’t even count on getting a boring retail job.” (Well, that was Historiann’s choice, anyway–while most of the rest of her generation became slacker baristas ca. 1990-94, and then became internet millionaires in 1998-99, she got a Ph.D. instead.) Compared to unemployment, working in a library for five to ten years looks pretty good, and I’m sure most will stay long enough to get their Master’s degrees, and maybe even figure out their true calling. And there are worse things than spending a year or two achieving a greater knowledge of history, even if you don’t become a professional historian, so long as you’re not racking up too much debt. You’ll lower your lifetime risk of skin cancer, at the very least, and learn how to pronounce “Michel Foucault” the fancy French way. (The only downside of graduate history education is that every U.S. Civil War buff at every party you’ll attend for the rest of your lives will find you and want to get your opinion on his pet theory on the Battle of Waxahatchmo Crick, even if you studied monastic communities in medieval Flanders.)
The author of the AHA report, Robert Townsend, will appear at the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at our opening night plenary session, “The Changing (?) Status of Women in the Historical Profession,” Thursday June 12 at 7 p.m. at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Along with Noralee Frankel (also from the AHA), he will provide the statistics, Paula Sanders will speak to best practices, Elizabeth Lunbeck will speak about women’s experiences in the academy over the past 40 years, and Muriel McClendon will address the experiences of faculty of color. The session will be chaired by Mary Maples Dunn, a longtime member of the Berkshire Conference and whose professional interest in this issue over a nearly 50 year career as a faculty member and administrator is legendary. Stop by to ask them some tough questions. I’m not sure they’ll necessarily have all the answers–or the answers you’ll want to hear–but it should make for a lively conversation. (See the links on the left sidebar for conference details and a PDF of the program.)