Arnita A. Jones almost gushed when she told historians about how many new Ph.D.'s she was chatting up at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta who were telling her, "I have four interviews tomorrow," or "I've got three interviews today."
Just a few years ago, one didn't hear so many positive reports from job seekers. But if the mood was generally upbeat about the job market, there was also a clear realization that historians don't have it easy when it comes to finding a job. Jones immediately followed her statement by imploring graduate programs not to increase their enrollments. It's better to have a glut of positions than a glut of historians, she said.
And for all the talk about an improved job market, it's clear that it's not improved for everyone. There was new evidence at the meeting of a mismatch between the areas of expertise of new Ph.D.'s and the available jobs. And there was also new evidence and much discussion about the various tiers of the graduate education and job markets, in which some academics launch great careers and others face huge debts and limited prospects for tenure-track jobs.
The Job Numbers
Position postings with the AHA (which does not list all openings, but which is a good measure of the discipline's job market) reached 1,030 last year -- the first time ever that the number topped 1,000. With the number of Ph.D.'s conferred falling to 924 (from 975), that makes last year the second in a row in which the number of new positions outpaced Ph.D. production.
Those figures suggest that it's a great time to be a new Ph.D. in history, but it would be more accurate to say that it's a great time to be a new Ph.D. in Asian or African history. History departments, many of which were once almost completely focused on the United States or Europe, are evolving, and an increasing number of new positions are for non-Western history. While more graduate students are focusing on non-Western history, there is also a mismatch in positions. The percentage of new Ph.D.'s in American and European history exceeds their share of job listings, while the percentage of new Ph.D.'s in the history of the rest of the world lags.
History Specializations of New Ph.D.'s and Job Openings
|Specialization||% of New Ph.D.'s||% of Job Openings|
An analysis of the job number, by Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research and publications, noted that not all positions specify a regional specialty. Also, as graduate students joked in between interviews, there is a fair amount of strategic repositioning that goes on when vying for a job, as anyone who did comparative work tries to transform himself or herself into an expert in the area sought by a desirable job.
Townsend's analysis also noted that the more optimistic job picture may have an impact on current graduate students. When they hear about an increase in opening, many push to finish up their Ph.D.'s to get on the market while there are more positions. So the relatively low number of new Ph.D.'s may soon see an increase.
Winners and Losers
Even while there was good news on the job market, historians were considering less favorable developments for their profession. At one session, data from the AHA showed that the percentage of historians at four-year colleges working part-time increased to 25 percent in 2003, up from 6 percent in 1979. At two-year colleges, the percentage working part time has always been higher -- and was 68 percent in 2003. Even full-time employment doesn't mean tenure track. Of those at four-year institutions in full-time jobs, 14 percent are off the tenure track.
Even more striking were statistics released comparing the gaps between the highest paid history professors at public and private institutions and the lowest paid full-time instructor. The data came from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and did not include names. At both public and private institutions, gains for the lowest paid instructors were modest over the last 20 years, especially when accounting for inflation. Not so for the fortunate highest paid history professors.
Highs and Lows for History Salaries
|Position||Salary 1985-6||Salary 2005-6|
|Lowest instructor -- public||$15,324||$21,410|
|Highest professor -- public||$69,200||$237,766|
|Lowest instructor -- private||$11,700||$27,000|
|Highest professor -- private||$86,200||$193,000|
Gerda Lerner, a professor of history emerita at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, noted that these were at least full-time positions. The history Ph.D.'s who are adjuncts endure "slave labor conditions," she said. Lerner noted that undergraduates rally on behalf of the factory workers abroad who produce T-shirts with college logos, and yet largely ignore the treatment of teaching assistants "right under our noses."
And those able to find jobs -- even jobs at relatively wealthy universities -- are increasingly likely to suffer economically because of the way graduate education is financed, according to Lillian Guerra, assistant professor of Caribbean history at Yale University.
Institutions like hers and a few others, she said, are able to provide solid packages to graduate students. But at most other places -- especially public universities -- "officially fully financed" doesn't really mean fully financed, she said, or it doesn't if you want to pay for food. Guerra earned her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and finished up with $105,000 in debt, which she's managed to bring down to $38,000 by spending about one-third of her salary on loan repayment.
Within academe, she said, senior professors consider it "gauche and strictly taboo" to talk about such economic realities. But those senior academics and administrators who think that their junior faculty members are well paid may not have much of a sense of how much debt takes away from their standard of living. It is "insanely demoralizing," Guerra said, "to live like a graduate student years after being a graduate student."
Beyond debt, Guerra said that the gap between the wealthiest and less wealthy graduate programs extend to how supposedly full packages of aid are put together. At public universities, teaching assistant loads are heavier and students must seek more sections for financial reasons. So they take longer to finish up, take on more debt, and the cycle just gets worse.
Other speakers at the session spoke of the need to unionize more academic labor and of the need to challenge "corporatization" and "market forces" in academe.
Amid a fair amount of administrator-bashing, one scholar-administrator presented the dilemmas in a different way. Edward L. Ayers, a Civil War historian who is dean of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia and was recently named as the next president of the University of Richmond, said of the financial balancing acts in higher education today, "This is my world."
He cautioned those worried about the financial state of professors that they shouldn't be so quick to condemn all market forces. He noted, for example, that when departments ask him for money to bring on a star professor, he constantly hears that a hire will "put us on the map," suggesting that professors can relate to certain kinds of market forces. And he said that when he explains the value of tenure to state legislators, the argument that they find most convincing -- after he's talked about academic freedom -- is that a university that did away with tenure would lose its best professors. So market forces can help preserve something professors value, Ayers said.
There's no way to avoid markets, he said, but at the same time, higher education must find ways to "insulate" key values from market forces. For example, Ayers said that he worried about the "market of prestige" in which flagship institutions like his have become so good, and so competitive, that people in some parts of the state feel disconnected from the institution -- despite the generous aid it provides. "The University of Virginia might as well be Oxford" to some people, he said. At the same time, he said, he loved the idea of the Virginias of the world offering truly world-class educations.
Dealing with these contradictions, he said, is one of the central challenges in higher education, and he urged professors to engage with administrators on these issues and not to "just demonize administrators" and "wash their hands" of the questions. If that happens, he said, "we are really in trouble."
Even on the question of pushing for more money for public universities, so that they can help more students and reward their faculty talent, he said that the choices are tough ones. Ayers described running into his state legislator (as it happened, a former student of his) a few years ago, in a period in which the university was taking serious financial hits from the state. Ayers asked him how he could be letting the university be hurt.
The legislator's answer, Ayers said: "How do I tell an unemployed textile worker that I should tax him so you can compete with Princeton?"