PhD Student Examines Diversity in History Doctoral Programs

Posted: October 25, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

Robert Townsend, a PhD candidate in George Mason’s Department of History and Art History and assistant director for research and publications at the American Historical Association (AHA), recently had his study examining student diversity in national PhD history programs published by the AHA.

“I have been tracking data on the historical profession at the AHA for about 10 years now,” says Townsend. “So, I was working on these issues long before I entered George Mason’s program, but I’m fortunate enough to enjoy a terrific synergy between the AHA work and my doctoral studies.”

Townsend’s AHA study was based on data from the federal Survey of Earned Doctorates from 1966 to 2002 and the AHA’s Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations and Historians from 1990 to 2004. He found that during the last four decades, despite the lowering of social barriers, the roster of PhD candidates in U.S. colleges and universities has become less diverse in terms of educational background and geographic region.

The study found that the majority of PhD candidates in graduate programs at the nation’s top private universities earned their baccalaureate degree from private institutions of higher learning as opposed to general public institutions. Most history PhD students pursued their undergraduate studies in departments or programs that also granted doctorates, and almost 50 percent of U.S. citizens who received PhDs in history during the past 15 years earned them in the same geographic region as their baccalaureate degrees.

Townsend also found that the undergraduate educational backgrounds of minority and female history PhD candidates, which differed greatly in the 1960s and 1970s, are now much similar to the undergraduate backgrounds of their white, male counterparts.

“It has often been noted that history seems to be of particular interest to the elite in society, so I have been trying to think about ways of measuring the validity of that perception,” says Townsend. “Since both the AHA and the federal government collect information on where new PhDs did their undergraduate work, I decided to test that as a marker of elite status. I was surprised to find that when compared to other academic disciplines, history proved to be significantly more likely to draw students from private colleges and universities, and that the odds of getting into an elite PhD program at a private university are stacked pretty heavily against students from public colleges and universities.

“More importantly, perhaps, there was a clear trend toward greater openness and diversity in the discipline from the 1960s into the early 1990s, but the doors seem to be swinging closed again.”

His dissertation looks at the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and tries to answer why what is credited as history in academia – and who is credited as a historian – seems so much narrower than it was 60 and 100 years ago.

To view Townsend’s complete study, visit the web site.

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