Not Self-Serving?

One of the challenges professional historians have faced in recent years is how to prepare PhD students for careers other than being professors. This is a response to both increasing pressures in the academic job market but also longstanding reality that there is much more that people do with a PhD than research and teach college students. Programs like the American Historical Association’s Career Diversity for Historians Initiative have grown out of a recognition that PhD programs have paid insufficient attention to how to prepare students for the variety of careers they will have to and/or want to pursue after graduation.

Of course, if we wanted to be more sympathetic toward PhD training in recent decades, we could note that programs haven’t a very good job of preparing students for “first-choice” jobs as professors either.

Oh, wait…

To be sure, PhD programs do train, or at least expect students to become competent researchers. And this is an important part of working as a professor. However, preliminary results from a study done at Boise State found that professors spent just three percent of their (sixty-hour, on average) workweeks on primary research and two percent on manuscript writing. They spent a far greater percentage of their time on teaching – in the classroom, preparing lectures, grading, etc. – and other tasks.

Together, research and teaching make up two legs of the three-legged stool of evaluation for professors. It’s no secret that the relationship between these two is lopsided – superlative research is a much more likely route to high levels of prestige and compensation in the academy than superlative teaching, even though it makes up a surprisingly small percentage of the average professor’s workweek. This lopsidedness also manifests in graduate education, although programs are increasingly requiring PhD students to at least gain experience teaching before graduating. Courses and workshops that train students to teach are, however, generally optional and are spread across individual departments and university units.

The third leg of the stool is service. Service can include serving on committees within a department or division, working as the editor for a journal, or contributing to the community (e.g. through programs at local schools). Graduate students also engage in various forms of service, like organizing workshops and serving on departmental committees. Even more than teaching, though, the rewards for service in terms of tenure and promotion are slight. This is especially problematic since expectations for service are unevenly distributed by gender and race.

This year I am serving as the president of our department’s graduate student association. This has entailed working with our board and members to manage our budget, schedule meetings, coordinate events, communicate with our department’s graduate student advisory committee, and maintain our lounge. It has taken a considerable amount of time and would take even more if I had it. I really enjoy some of the tasks involved. Others, I don’t particularly care for on their own, but I appreciate how they contribute to our community.

I also appreciate just doing things in an academic setting that aren’t research and teaching. It’s intellectually rewarding to shift my focus from my own research project to analyzing our budget or designing questions for our annual survey, like stretching a muscle after you’ve been sitting for a long time. Service gives me an opportunity to collaborate with gifted colleagues in ways that aren’t possible (or at least likely) in research or teaching. So service helps build (or at least keep from atrophying) skills beyond those which I use for my research and gives me experience working as part of a team, which is very different from my dissertation research, most of which really rests on my shoulders alone.

These happen to be some of the things that the academy is recognizing are essential for preparing graduate students for jobs both in and beyond the academy. Moreover, it seems that preparing graduate students to undertake administrative responsibilities would be one way to bolster faculty governance of academic institutions. Likewise, encouraging community engagement would help extend the influence of intellectuals beyond the “ivory tower.” Both of these should be welcome at a time when academics are anxious about their role in shaping debate in the public sphere and guiding the direction of their own institutions.

Nevertheless, the incentives for engaging in service are even slimmer for graduate students than for professors. Unlike teaching (or the dissertation, of course), service is not a requirement for graduation, nor is much (if any) funding tied to it. A record of service may help on the job market, but I think graduate students and hiring committees – at least at many institutions – see the benefits as marginal, at best.

This puts students in a difficult position. On the one hand, engaging in service provides tremendous potential benefits to both individuals and institutions. On the other hand, students, who are being expected to finish their PhD’s ever more quickly, can’t help but see these activities as an added burden that their current and future institutions are unlikely to value. This pattern is tailor-made for reproducing existing attitudes towards academic service. It is highly detrimental, though, for providing more comprehensive training for PhD students and improving the academy as a whole.


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