Graduate Student Perspective: Structural Challenges to the History PhD

Overwhelmed graduate student

By Sam Hossack

The report of the CHA Task Force on the Future of the History PhD in Canada is now available (in English and in French). This is the fourth in a series of posts by Task Force members, offering their perspectives on selected themes from the report. encourages readers to join in the conversation, either in the comments or on social media, or by submitting a response piece to be considered for publication upon the series’ completion.

During the data collection phase of the Task Force on the Future of the History PhD, we spoke with graduate students in History programs across the country, including formal meetings with the Graduate Students’ Committee of the CHA, informal one-on-one meetings, and anonymous surveys. Over the course of these discussions, a common sentiment emerged: a genuine passion for history.

Graduate students care passionately about historical knowledge and methods — a passion shared by their faculty colleagues. Students believe in the potential of history to contribute to our communities. Those who pursue the PhD do so because they want to continue working in the discipline and contribute to historical knowledge. Their passion persists, despite multidimensional uncertainty and a lack of structural supports within PhD programs that inhibit student pursuits. Graduate students explained that they often feel unable to concentrate on their research due to the many demands on their time, and that they frequently reach the limit of both their mental and physical capacities.

The mental health crisis among graduate students is well-documented. During our discussions with History graduate students, comments about high levels of anxiety and stress during the PhD dominated the conversation. Importantly, students identified their anxiety and stress as structural rather than individual. No one disputes that a PhD should be challenging. But there is a difference between intellectual and structural challenges. The point of a PhD should be to challenge students to think more critically and to develop their intellectual capacity, not to determine whether they have the outside resources and support to overcome unnecessary structural obstacles. Primarily, students highlighted financial concerns, program expectations, the job market, and the perceived value (or lack thereof) of History degrees.

Financial concerns are the largest source of anxiety for graduate students. Nearly every student we spoke with mentioned concerns over funding. While structural issues with funding are clearly laid out in the Task Force Report, students’ concerns with funding are directly linked to their desire for work-life balance and financial planning. Students strongly emphasized the need to improve funding packages for PhD programs, noting that they did not receive enough funding to cover the basic costs of living — let alone tuition, fees, and research expenses. Insufficient guaranteed funding is a major source of anxiety for students who feel they cannot plan their lives so long as they are waiting to hear if they have received an external scholarship that may bring them above the poverty line. They also described either an inability to cover expenses such as rent and food when they were paid once per month or a need to budget and stretch start-of-term stipends to cover four months of expenses. Students almost universally noted that they had to take on additional paid responsibilities (e.g. teaching or research contracts, as well as part-time jobs on or off-campus) to make ends meet. The need to take on (at minimum) part-time work created major challenges for students expected to be working full-time on a PhD. Students were clear throughout our consultations that financial pressures had a direct influence on their ability to concentrate on their program.

The structure of PhD programs themselves was also a major source of discussion.  Students indicated that program expectations were often unclear, highly discrepant among and between programs, and at odds with student goals. The most common starting point for this conversation was around comprehensive exams. While faculty might tout the importance of comprehensive knowledge in a historical field, students often struggle to understand the value of these examinations, especially if they do not intend to pursue academia or teaching. More importantly, the criteria for evaluation is often unclear, causing students additional stress and anxiety, and even leading some to delay taking the exams.

Comprehensives are only one part of the program expectations equation: Students explained that the number of milestones in a four-year degree was incompatible with completing each milestone at a high degree of proficiency and balancing other life commitments. The combined stresses of coursework, professional development activities, language examinations, teaching, and research alongside financial and, in many cases, care-giving responsibilities have created a high-stress degree program linked with dismal job prospects along the traditional tenure-track faculty pathway.

Students expressed uncertainty about the expectations related to each program requirement, including the dissertation. Many programs suggest that a dissertation requires original research undertaken with academic rigour. However, terms such as “original” and “rigour” are rarely defined for students. At best, these terms and the expectations they represent are defined by a student’s supervisor, leading to the perception among students of discrepancies within departments and between institutions who have different expectations for students receiving the same degrees.

Perceived discrepancies in program experiences create additional stresses when students speak to one another, both within their departments and across institutions. Students have major concerns about long, structural delays to starting their research – extensive program expectations in the first two years prevent students from beginning the preliminary stages of research. These delays subsequently impede progress on publications and conference presentations, which ultimately affect their chances of securing external scholarships and adding valuable lines to their CVs. Research dissemination is a key component of the PhD process. PhD students want to do research – it is why they continued with their studies. Students find it demoralizing when they must delay or defer research to complete pre-research program requirements: the nature of “publish or perish” academic progression makes time spent not working directly on research goals feel like a personal failure.

As frustrated students contend with structural discrepancies in their PhD programs, they also have to think about their future careers. Graduate students know that there are a limited number of traditional, tenure-track faculty positions available in History and that their experiences in the PhD program have a direct influence on whether they can secure post-doctoral fellowships and be competitive for those few tenure-track jobs.

Students are not naïve to the bleak tenure-track job market and therefore have strong concerns about programs that continue to emphasize preparing students for an unattainable career path. The mismatch between program presumptions and the labour market that actually exists generates additional stress for students. The environment created by constant reminders of being trained for a position that does not exist is highly discouraging. Students explained that their concerns are twofold. First, uncertainty about the future leads to anxiety, affecting students’ capacity to concentrate and produce strong work. Second, the program environment suggests to students that their skills are not valued outside of academia. They know innately that their skills cannot truly be of no use, but they are given little or no indication within their programs that they will be qualified for other positions when they do complete their degree.

In turn, graduate students are increasingly concerned about the perceived value of their History degrees. Many students felt that there is a disconnect between what they believe to be the value of their degree and what society at large believes. Students were adamant that universities, departments, and other pertinent organizations (including the CHA) need to identify and promote the value of history and History degrees. By contributing to public conversations about history and using our collective knowledge to contribute to society, graduate students know that we can better achieve the fundamental goals of our discipline and contribute to more opportunities for PhD graduates.

Often, students indicated a strong desire to acquire a diverse range of skills that can help them integrate into communities during their programs and upon graduation. The development of professional skills has the benefit of preparing students for non-academic careers (addressing one of the major stressors of PhD students) and improving the perceived value of History degrees by developing community-engaged historians (improving students’ overall feelings of self-worth).

Graduate students are passionate about history and historical research. They want to pursue history professionally. However, the structure of the PhD program has created overwhelming challenges that are at odds with the intellectual pursuit of historical knowledge. But students are not hopeless about the future of the PhD. They believe that programs can be redesigned to offer better support and to improve the discipline. Advocating for better funding opportunities, recognizing the varied career interests and paths available to graduates, and actively engaging in the public sphere and local communities to improve the perceived value of history all serve to address the underlying concerns and frustrations of graduate students, while also relieving much of the unnecessary structural stress and anxiety that has come to define the PhD experience.

Sam Hossack is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Waterloo.

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