What Can History PhD Programs Train Students For?

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Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada, https://cewilcanada.ca/CEWIL/About-Us/Work-Integrated-Learning.aspx

By Tina Loo

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 eighth in a series of posts by Task Force members, offering their perspectives on selected themes from the report. Activehistory.ca 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.

It’s clear from the CHA Task Force Report that there are far more History PhDs than there are fulltime, tenure-track jobs, and that many such degree holders have found work in other sectors.

Given that, if History departments wish to continue to have doctoral programs they should offer students more and different kinds of learning opportunities, ones that would both serve them well academically and position them for other kinds of jobs. Certainly, the participants in the CHA webinars on “Historians at Work” agreed. Employed outside the academy in the public and private sectors, these History PhD holders pointed to the utility of collaborative work experiences, quantitative and language skills (including programming languages), and learning to write for diverse audiences.

While many of these skills can be acquired in a university classroom context by allowing doctoral students to fulfill some of their program requirements with, say, existing undergraduate courses in statistics, languages, or GIS, I think there’s a strong case to be made for offering them the opportunity to pursue what’s known as “work-integrated learning” (WIL).

Work-integrated learning is “a form of curricular experiential education that formally integrates a student’s academic studies with quality experiences within a workplace or practice setting.” While there are a handful of History PhD programs that we know of which offer work-integrated learning opportunities, I’ll focus on the ones at UBC, my home institution, to convey what I think are the benefits.

Notably, at UBC, the WIL experiences offered to PhD students are all paid work.[1] Given the current funding crisis, this is no small consideration: WIL allows students to earn an income, practice applying their skills in a range of contexts, and extend their networks outside the university.

WIL takes a variety of forms, each entailing a different time commitment. For instance, UBC PhD students taking up a cooperative education opportunity work fulltime for three four-month terms, or the equivalent of one year.[2] Henry John, one of my advisees who is writing a dissertation on the battles over clear-cut logging in British Columbia in the 1980s and 90s, did his co-op terms at the Kaatza Station Museum on Vancouver Island. He was hired primarily to organize 300 boxes of union records.[3] He was supported in that task by one of the archivists at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections, and has written a peer-reviewed article about the collection and the possibilities it holds for researchers. In addition, Henry used his expertise as an historian to help revise the museum’s exhibits and assist in brokering a protocol agreement between the museum and the Ts’uubaa-asatx people, whose territory the museum occupies.

Like Henry, UBC History student Ryan Sun chose to do a co-op term in an area related to his dissertation research on the geography of Jewish exile outside Europe. In his case, he worked at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.[4] Currently, however, Ryan is undertaking a different WIL experience. He is part of an applied research project with the City of Vancouver with four other UBC graduate students from different disciplines. This collaborative cohort project has Ryan working with the City on how it communicates with Vancouver’s diverse cultural communities. This is part-time employment: the commitment is just seventy hours in a term – in contrast to the 196 hours that a semester-long UBC Teaching Assistantship entails. The flexibility in the number of hours students can work allows them to pursue WIL while at the same time doing other things like archival research and writing, or taking other courses.

At UBC we’re fortunate to have a strong co-op office in the Faculty of Arts, in addition to the Arts Amplifier, which offers a wide range of types of WIL. As the Task Force report notes, many universities have undergraduate co-op programs. It recommends departments explore the possibility of establishing paid work-integrated learning opportunities for graduate students with the relevant units on their campuses.

I also think that fulltime history faculty like me need to think about and communicate the skills we’re imparting in ways that make sense to other professionals and the graduate students we teach. What, for instance, is required to write a good literature review? In one of the CHA’s webinars, Dr. Sarah Shropshire, a History PhD who now works as a senior policy analyst for the Public Health Agency of Canada, gave us an off-the-cuff translation: in her view, a literature review involves “learning to assess the merits of different data sources [and] to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives in order to come to a holistic synthesis or analysis of a body of work.”[5]

Some may recoil at the language of “skills.” But to deny we have them and teach them and that they’re applicable beyond the walls of the academy is to debase both our expertise and our discipline. We do have skills, and we teach them. We just aren’t always able to identify and articulate what it is we’re doing very well. We need to get better at it – because, as Henry insists, “It’s time to stop framing career conversations as separate from the work we do as scholars.”[6]

Tina Loo is a professor of history at the University of British Columbia.


[1] PhD students in History are eligible for WIL once they have achieved candidacy at UBC.

[2] University of British Columbia Arts Co-op Program – PhD Co-op. https://artscoop.ubc.ca/graduate/phd-co-op/

[3] University of British Columbia Arts Co-op Program Success Story – Henry John. https://artscoop.ubc.ca/success-story/henry-john/

[4] Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, “Meet our Digital Projects Coordinator – Ryan Sun.” https://www.vhec.org/meet-ryan-sun/

[5] Canadian Historical Association webinar, “Historians at Work: Careers in History, 2.” https://youtu.be/LsLjjY7QZho

[6] Henry John, “Integrating the Public Humanities With Career Development,” Inside Higher Education, 2 November 2021. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/11/02/co-op-model-offers-phd-students-many-career-advantages-opinion

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One thought on “What Can History PhD Programs Train Students For?

  1. Shannon Stettner

    Or, we could stop overproducing PhDs. Yes, PhD holders have found work outside of the academy, but the PhD isn’t necessary outside of the academia.

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