Rethinking Program Design: The Goals and Value of a History PhD

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 ninth (and final) 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.

Over the past month, members of the Canadian Historical Association’s Task Force on the Future of the PhD have contributed articles to Active History summarizing the major findings of our report. Many of the report’s findings suggest that the current state of the History PhD is dismal, including long completion times and poor career outcomes for graduates.

While many might rush to conclude that we should simply stop training History PhDs in order to better match the number of graduates and the number of academic jobs, doing so does not address the diverse reasons students pursue a PhD or the many structural problems that exist within programs. To improve student experiences and enhance the value of the PhD, departments need to acknowledge the flaws in current programs and recognize the effects of these flaws. We can re-think the design and purpose of our programs. The Task Force heard throughout our consultation process that there is value in completing a History degree, and History PhD training is important for those who work outside of tenure-track faculty positions. As historians, we know that there are numerous benefits of studying history and of doing so at an advanced critical level. The problem is not that there is no value in a History PhD. The problem is that we have not yet done a good job communicating the value and translating the benefits to other-than-academic realms.

We need to think about what History PhD programs teach and what graduate students learn. The first step in any program evaluation process is to reflect on and answer perhaps the most difficult question of all: What is the goal of a History PhD program? Most programs are implicitly designed to prepare students for academic careers, but that narrow goal is no longer appropriate. The current misalignment between program goals, program design, and post-graduation results shapes adverse conditions for students, contributing to mental health issues, dire financial situations, and long times-to-completion, in addition to precarious employment upon graduation. In spite of all of this, while only a small minority of graduates find tenure-track academic positions, many more graduates do use the skills they developed in their History PhD programs.

Good program design requires alignment of goals, activities, and assessments. An over-emphasis on assessments creates misalignment.

By re-evaluating the goals of the History PhD, departments can better support graduate students and the discipline as a whole. We should look beyond tying program goals to specific academic or non-academic career outcomes, especially when the world of work is changing so rapidly. Instead, we need to focus on the skills and attributes that an ideal History PhD graduate will possess. By reframing program goals in relation to competencies and considering the many, varied stakeholders with an interest in PhD training (e.g. students, academic institutions, public historical groups and institutions, governments, and the private sector), departments have an opportunity to craft programs that are more valuable to their students and society.

By identifying the skills graduates should have and what they should be able to know, do, and model upon completion of their program, departments can better understand the core principles of the History PhD. Do students need to read the entirety of their field to effectively engage with major methodologies and debates? Should students need to complete a first-draft of a monograph, or are there other ways to contribute to the scholarly knowledge in their field? These sorts of questions do not have simple answers, yet are critical to helping departments identify the skills (rather than activities) they value and inform program learning outcomes.

Clear program learning outcomes are critical for students: knowing what to expect at each step of the program and knowing that the expectations are consistent for all PhD students improves graduate student success and well-being. Learning outcomes also allow students to effectively articulate what they learned and accomplished during the program, something that will improve post-graduation transitions. Learning outcomes equally benefit departments and supervisors, defining pedagogical aims and ensuring more equitable experiences for students. Yet most departments do not have stated PhD program learning outcomes, or at least not publicly available ones. The Task Force’s Appendix of sample Learning Outcomes is a good place to start as departments evaluate their programs.

Once program learning outcomes are determined, departments can think about how students will achieve those goals (and do so in a time frame that aligns with available resources). Programs already have a list of required activities for students to complete before graduation, but it is important to consider whether those activities actually correspond to the intended program aims. For example, most programs include a coursework component. But what program goal does completion of coursework meet? Similarly, many programs require students to apply for external funding (specifically, to SSHRC). While there may be good financial and career benefits for doing so, the funding application requirement should meet a specific program goal.

It may also be the case that programs are missing activities. If departments decide that professional development activities are a key program goal, then professional development workshops or partnerships with other campus units (e.g. teaching and learning centres, career services, etc.) ought to be included within the program activities. Similarly, if departments determine that graduates should collaborate outside the university context, then inclusion of co-op or other work-integrated-learning programs is a necessary addition.

Once program goals and activities are better aligned, departments need to consider the assessment of student success in their programs. Evaluating whether current assessment tools (such as comprehensive exams and dissertation defences) reflect what students should achieve is critical. Many assessments have historic value within departments or are considered fundamental to the necessary rigour of a doctoral program. But the assessments themselves, or the ways in which they are used, may not support the program goals. Perhaps, we are testing the wrong things. Do comprehensive exams actually help students engage with the depth and breadth of their field? Or does the process amount to ritualistic, academic hazing? Does the dissertation, as a three or four-hundred page single-authored work, effectively communicate the four or more years of research and scholarship? Or could another medium be just as (or more) effective?

Whichever assessments are reformed, added, or retained, departments should consider how they prepare students for each evaluation. Do program activities support students in their preparation for assessments? Or are the assessments just additional, more stressful requirements?

Good program design begins with student-centered goals. By making students and their learning the focus, departments can ensure alignment between the goals, activities, and assessments within the History PhD program, to provide students with the support necessary to acquire valuable skills and achieve desired program outcomes. As the Task Force Report indicates, there is currently a misalignment between program goals, activities, and assessments that is causing problems for students while they are in their PhD programs, and adding to their uncertainty once they leave. By thoughtfully re-evaluating our programs and creating clear learning outcomes and well-aligned curriculum, departments can alleviate the stress and frustration felt by students, and improve overall experiences and results for graduates.

History PhDs have value. Articulating student-centered learning outcomes – the skills and knowledge students develop during a well-aligned PhD program – will only enhance that value, inside and outside the academy.

Sam Hossack is a History PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo and works in educational development.

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