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Roundtable – The Future of the History PhD in Canada


In response to shifting trends in the discipline of history and academia in general, this committee has been investigating the requirements of PhD programs, the funding landscape, the time to completion, the lack of diversity in the historical profession and the outcomes of PhD graduates. The report provides the results of this research and examines ways of training PhD students that would improve their PhD experience and position them for a changing job market, including careers beyond the academy.

Thursday, October 6, 2022 was the long-anticipated roundtable by the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) on the CHA Committee on the History PhD in Canada Report. The committee, made up of Catherine Carstairs, Martin Pâquet, Christine O’Bonsawin, Sam Hossack, William Langford, Tina Loo, and John Walsh, met in front of over one hundred people from a variety of backgrounds. There were vibrant exchanges around this subject of incredible importance.

The members began by presenting statistics and observations regarding general trends in the History PhD, on top of stories most teachers, researchers, and students are familiar with. Between 2016 and 2022, the committee surveyed a total of 562 completed history dissertations in Canada, 460 in English and 102 in French. They found the pandemic had had a significant impact on thesis achievement, which shrank after 2020. More than half of these theses explored twentieth-century history, a similar proportion to the professorial posts at Canadian universities. The two most common geographical areas of study were Canada and Western Europe, though there was a large range of areas studied in total. A light tendency toward social, cultural, and political history was noted, even if all fields studied were generally equal.

On average, a doctoral candidate finished their dissertation in six years and one month, with sixty per cent of students completing in their seventh year. After graduating, only 108 graduates pursued a postdoctorate, and twenty-three achieved tenure-track academic posts; 431 chose a different path. Of those 431 graduates, most found themselves working at a university, even if it wasn’t necessarily as a professor. Several graduates became course directors, associate researchers, or worked in administrative posts. A significant number of graduates found work in the civil service, as archivists, or in non-profit organizations.

Funding the PhD was a central concern. None of the funding programs offered by Canadian universities allowed a student to live above the poverty line. If federal and provincial grants created the possibility for some students to better survive economically, they were too few and there were equity issues that needed to be discussed. Considering that 91 per cent of doctoral students are thirty years or older, it is equally necessary to adopt financing models that adapt to different age groups with different expenses.

The committee then looked at the academic work of PhD students. What were the goals of doctoral study, considering the limited employment hiring of university professors? It was agreed it’s important to make sure the skills gained pursuing a PhD can be mobilized in a non-university milieu, especially through co-op work programs. One option being developed by Canadian universities is developing workplace apprentice programs which would allow PhD students to transition into paid work associated with their studies. This way, especially during the first two years of their programs, students can build networks and relationships, while at the same time learning research skills transferable to other sectors. Workplaces would gain from the students’ expertise, and both groups would benefit from research and teaching more anchored in the community.

The board also considered the shape and content of comprehensive exams. Though comprehensive exams cover the details of a field of research, they can also be imprecise and a sort of “initiation” into academia that does not directly pertain to the skills PhD students need to develop. Alternatives to traditional comprehensive exams could favour research or teaching more anchored in the community.

The classic format of the doctoral thesis could be rethought along the same lines. On top of an original contribution to historiography – which would benefit from being further defined – a dissertation should be considered both according to its purpose and the process by which it is done. Here, a shorter thesis, with more diverse aims and a more varied doctoral committee, could transform the dissertation as we know it.

Finally, the committee stressed the necessity of highlighting learning outcomes that every PhD student should have. Every program should be based on three pillars: activities, evaluations, and learning outcomes. The committee identified trends that show most activities and evaluations relegate the learning outcomes to subtext, leading to unforeseen difficulties and pitfalls. In rebalancing these three pillars, the doctoral program can better adapt to its mission and would relieve stress on PhD students.

This roundtable was an opportunity to introduce the conclusions of a report every department and every student should examine. These recommendations, which detail the main lines the CHA committee has put forward, have the potential to remedy current shortcomings and better develop graduate programs. Far from gloomy, the future of the History PhD is varied – it opens the door to many avenues of reflection which permit all PhDs to integrate into their many milieux.

Christine O’Bonsawin, Sam Hossack, William Langford, Tina Loo, John Walsh.
Chair:  Catherine Carstairs

Report on the Future of the History Degree in Canada
Appendix 2

CHA President’s Letter to SSHRC regarding Graduate Students’s Financing.

The Recording of the Roundtable is available on the CHA YouTube channel.