Curricular Innovations: Preparing Historians of the Future

We began at the end: what skills and experiences do we want our PhDs to have?

If most faculty and students think that a PhD should take 5-6 years, why is it taking 9-10?

Our goal: to provide our students with superior career preparation in less time.

Here's how:

Our vision of a KU History PhD

The majority of KU PhDs end up at four-year colleges: sometimes Research I institutions, but more often undergraduate colleges. They have to be comfortable teaching ordinary students in a broad range of courses. They also need to maintain an ongoing research profile, and to be "good citizens" of their institutions.

Some of our students follow careers as historians for the military, or enter "think tanks" or non-profits. For them, "service" skills take on increased importance.

Profile of a KU PhD in History

Advising: the Heart of Our Program

Experts in higher education agree: the relationship between faculty members and the student is the single most important element in successful degree completion. We have taken steps to enhance advising:

Assigning advisors at the time of admission. This assures a good field match, and allows professor and student to become acquainted over the summer.

Teaching mentors. Students working as Assistant Instructors (teaching their own courses) choose faculty members to consult and evaluate them.

Peer mentors. Every entering student is paired with an established one, who can help the newcomer navigate the program, the university, and the town.

Placement officer. A faculty member assists students who are on the job market prepare their dossiers and practice interviews.

"Town meetings." A couple times a year, the History Graduate Students Organization holds an open meeting with the Graduate Director, to keep lines of communication open.

Incompletes: the Silent Killer

Few students fail out of graduate programs in history, but many find themselves in irremedial academic difficulties because of Incompletes. Students who take Incompletes by definition aren't making progress on their degrees. And Incompletes engender more Incompletes, when students fall behind in their current semester's courses while trying to finish up the work for a previous semester's.

Here at KU, we had students with as many as 6 (!) Incompletes dating back as many years. The Graduate School had no policy, and the department policy was lax in design (only more than 3 Incompletes were a problem) and non-existent in enforcement.

Enter our new policy: Students may now carry an Incomplete for no more than a semester and a summer. An Incomplete taken in the Spring must be made up by the end of the following Fall semester; an Incomplete in the Fall must be completed by the end of the following summer. If students fail to do so, they are put on probation for a semester, during which they must find a solution, such as a leave of absence or a retroactive drop, if they want to remain in the program.

For more information:

Contact Eve Levin, Director of Graduate Studies:

Or visit our website:

Shooting a Sacred Cow: Portfolios v. Written Exams

Written exams are a mainstay of graduate programs, but what purpose do they serve? Once graduate students become ABD, they never take sit-down exams again. Historians never compose essays on the spot, without books or notes. "Comprehensive" exams aren't; the secondary literature is so vast that the exams do no more than a random spot-check. Yet our students were spending a year or more preparing for exams, and then another year taking them, stressed out the whole time. What were gaining from the experience?

The benefit of the written exams, we realized, lay in the reading and synthesis students undertook to prepare, rather than in the exams themselves. Why not emphasize that experience, and convert the "exam" from an undergraduate-style exercise to a professional one?

Thus the Portfolio was born. It is modeled on the tenure file, minus paper overload. Physically, the Portfolio is a 3-inch binder. Beginning from their first semester, students fill it with the materials that demonstrate their command of their fields. Through annotated bibliographies and historiographical essays, they show their command of the literature. Through synthetic essays and course plans, they demonstrate an ability to impart material. Through seminar papers, grant proposals, and the dissertation prospectus, they show research and interpretation skills. The work students produce in their courses go into the portfolio, as well as other evidence of professionalization.

The Portfolio takes a lot less time to complete than the old exams; students present it the semester after they complete coursework. From the Portfolio, professors see clearly exactly how much students know. The Portfolio forms the basis of the Oral Examination--a Graduate School Requirement--which then focuses on conceptual issues, rather than recall of factual detail.

Portfolio Exam Requirements

Regularizing the Research Seminar

When we began the CID, research seminars were already a mainstay of our graduate program. But the department's standard, production of a "publishable quality" paper, was too vague. Some students wrote papers on original topics with primary sources; others wrote only historiographic essays or undergraduate-style papers based on a few sources in translation.

We standardized our policy, and clarified that the research seminar was a place for graduate students to try out an idea for dissertation research. We now ask for a "professional quality" paper, suitable for consideration for publication in a scholarly journal, with the following characteristics:

  • a significant topic.
  • original insight into that topic.
  • a source basis consisting of primary sources in the original language.
  • integration into the historiographical context.
  • full scholarly apparatus.
  • accurate and graceful prose.
  • length of 20-60 pages.
  • We encourage students to fulfill the seminar requirement in a classroom setting, where they can hone their ideas in discussion with their peers, gain practice in presenting their work formally, and learn to critique their fellows' work. We have consolidated half a dozen nationally-defined seminar courses into a "Pan-Europe" seminar, and we are creating a "Global" research seminar is well.

    The Dissertation Prospectus

    We now get our students started in thinking about their dissertations from their first semester in the program. That doesn't mean choosing a topic, but rather learning what makes for a good topic, and how to develop a concept into a workable project. Research seminars are a place to try out a topic and begin exploratory investigation. The dissertation proposal forms a key element in the Portfolio that substitutes for written exams.

    Dissertation Prospectus Guidelines

    Progress Grid: A Roadmap for Timely Completion of the PhD

    Graduate students were taking a long time to complete their degrees in large part because nobody showed them how to do it more expeditiously. The Progress Grid lays out a model program, showing year-by-year what curricular requirements a graduate student should complete. While the Grid is not a department policy, it does serve as a standard of comparison to help determine whether students are on track for graduate in 6 years (for students entering with a BA) or 5 years (for students entering with an MA).

    Progress Grid

    Professionalization Grid: Extra-Curricular Experiences

    Much that professional historians need to know isn't taught in any courses. Instead, graduate students learn about these things along the way, through experiences gained outside of class. But what sorts of experiences should students seek out in order to position themselves for career success? Our "Professionalization Grid" is designed to complement the "Progress Grid," laying out year by year the sorts of professional activities graduate students should have.

    To help students gain these experiences, the department's History Graduate Student organization arranges informal seminars, workshops, and gatherings on specific topics.

    Professionalization Grid

    A Rational Foreign Language Requirement

    The traditional foreign language requirement--"reading knowledge" of two languages, usually French and German--dates back to a century ago, when a lot of important scholarship wasn't in English and every "doctor" was supposed to know the major European languages. Graduate students rarely went further than their university library to conduct dissertation research, so needed no more than to pick their way through publications, dictionary at hand.

    But the old requirement isn't suited to our day. For historians whose sources are in a language other than English, a semester of (say) "Russian for Graduate Students" doesn't begin to provide them with the command they need. In order to conduct archival research and participate in foreign academic communities, they need advanced reading skills, and speaking, and writing, and often paleography, too. For students whose sources are in English (primarily American history), the "reading knowledge" courses represented only a hurdle. Students did not become comfortable enough to seek out foreign secondary works, or gain cultural knowledge. But we believe strongly that all professional historians study another language, in order to have the experience of perceiving the world through a different linguistic interface.

    Our policy now differentiates between the two purposes for foreign language training: usable skill and cultural breadth. The faculty in subfields now determine what languages (maximum of two) and what level of skill their students must possess. Students who need foreign languages in order to study their chosen areas must now demonstrate a higher level of skill. We make usable reading capacity a requirement for admission to the graduate program, even at the MA level, recognizing that students can make little progress on their degrees without it. Students who won't be using foreign languages in their studies have to demonstrate that they once studied one; usually they did, at the undergraduate level.

    Foreign Language Policy

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