Putting the Ph.D.'s to Work

Historians in the News

[Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University.]

Even old news can be dismal, and that is the case at hand. For about 40 years, by my calculation, American universities have been admitting too many candidates for doctorates in the liberal arts and the social sciences and, startling attrition along the way notwithstanding, have produced too great a supply of Ph.D.'s for a dwindling demand. There are proposed remedies for this injustice that prepares people exclusively for work that will not be available to them, but I want to address a different problem. What can we do with, and for, the Ph.D.'s and those who dropped out short of the final degree that will be useful for them and, not accidentally, provide a benefit to the nation?

Those who have earned or at least pursued doctorates in the humanities or social sciences, or professional degrees in law and business, whom I want to include in my argument, have learned how to learn, how to conduct research, and in many cases have acquired a second language. Field work or study abroad may have further informed them about other cultures. Thus, although their training has been geared to turn them into replicas, if not clones, of their former professors and reportedly has not prepared them for competing in the world outside the academy, they have useful skills, which could also be marketable. The question is how to bring them to market.

My proposal is for a national program that combines some of the elements of Works Progress Administration programs from the Great Depression, the Peace Corps, and the Fulbright Awards. I mention the WPA not because we have entered another depression — so far so battered, but also so far so good — but because its various programs took the unemployed and found them work which, with some notorious exceptions, the nation needed done. And this effort included support for writers and artists. The Peace Corps and the Fulbrights, with their histories of sending Americans abroad (and bringing foreigners here as Fulbright scholars) have proven their intellectual worth, their pragmatic value, and their foreign policy bona fides. I am, however, suggesting them as models of successes, not as templates.

Volunteers for this new program, after training most plausibly sponsored by the State Department, would be sent abroad, chiefly to developing countries where they could teach at high levels, in some cases study (especially languages), and work in civil programs according to their abilities and training, for example, in court administration and in the organization of self-help associations and business start-ups. The actual work will need to be directed by the skills of the volunteers, not from an arbitrary menu of projects or by ukase, though selection of the volunteers for the program will have to contribute to the shaping of its execution....

When the economy improves a bit, imagine some of the alumni of this program entering academe not bitter from four years of adjuncting without health insurance, but energized by new experiences, and bringing unusual combinations of knowledge to their universities. Imagine if every English or history department had someone who had recently lived in the Middle East or Africa?...

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vaughn davis bornet - 1/27/2010

Somehow, he knows! World War II interrupted my Ph.D. work by over four years. By the time I got the degree the jobs were scarce. At the same time, my major professors thought me too good for routine institutions.

I was not alone, however. The Ford Foundation gave many of us in mid-1951 full year grants to do research. The next year I did research for a famous scholar who had a big grant. Meanwhile, we narrowly missed out on maybe four good jobs.

Now I wrote a huge book for three full years for a famous non-profit. Then a foundation grant. Next, editing "at the top" for two more non-profits. RAND for nearly four years.

Only now, ten years later, an academic post, coming in high up.

There are problems in such a career, don't doubt it. But it can be done. After all that research and editing, it was hard to settle down in the professoriate and bureaucratic academia with never ending disputation over this and that, with nothing too unimportant to affect personal relationships. I know that what I had done was held against me, more often than considered a sign of my talent and dedication.

But, hell, it's a way to go through Life. And, certainly, without my Doctorate none of it would have been possible. And I ended up in the same directories that measure a form of worth (for some). Somehow my children and wife survived all THAT. And: the Moves. More power to them!

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D.,Stanford, 1951 (Emory, '39, '40G, UGA 1940-41 doctoral work. Navy, August, '41 to January, '46, Y1c to CDR. Now age 92 plus.