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Study explores career paths of history Ph.D.s

Employed But ...
December 2, 2013

A new study looking at large cohorts of Ph.D. recipients in history is quick to point out that the doctorate in the field almost always seems to result in employment -- and not of the barista variety. Further, the study finds that many new doctorates are finding their way to the tenure track -- and that such positions still exist for those starting their careers.

At the same time, the report found large numbers of history Ph.D.s working as adjuncts well after they earned their doctorates -- apparently working off the tenure track for the long term. Further, the study found significant disparities by history specialty in the likelihood of landing a tenure-track job. And the most popular specialty for doctoral work (American history) appears to be the least likely to get someone a tenure-track slot.

The American Historical Association -- which produced the study -- does annual analyses of the history job market. But this study takes a longer view. It examines the current status of a random sample of 2,500 people who could be tracked down and who earned Ph.D.s in history from 1998 through 2009. (That's a substantial share of the nearly 11,000 who earned history Ph.D.s during the period studied.) Only two individuals were unemployed, only 1.1 percent were deceased and only 1.1 percent were retired -- so the pool over all is largely made up of history Ph.D.s at points in their lives where they would be (they would hope) advancing through the ranks.

Of the sample studied, 50.6 percent were either tenured or in tenure-track positions at four-year colleges and universities, while another 3.1 percent were on the tenure track at community colleges. Others were off the tenure track, with 14.7 percent holding such positions at four-year institutions and 3.1 percent at community colleges. About one-fourth were employed in non-faculty positions (although some of these positions were within academe).

When the researchers divided the doctorate holders studied into three cohorts, by years in which their degrees were earned, it becomes clear that many history Ph.D.s are failing to find tenure-track positions for long periods of time, and that those in the most recent cohort (which already is several years out of grad school) are most likely to be working as adjuncts. The table that follows includes the figures only for those in academe, so the numbers do not add up to 100 percent.

Employment of History Ph.D.s in Faculty Positions, by Year Doctorate Earned

Years Ph.D. Earned Tenure Track Off Tenure Track
1998-2001 53.1% 13.5%
2002-5 56.0% 15.1%
2006-9 49.5% 25.6%

While it has long been expected that it might take people a few years to land a tenure-track position, the figures for even the most recent cohort reflect those several years out, and the older cohorts for those more than a decade after earning the doctorate -- and employment off the tenure track is significant.

In terms of those working outside academe, the share in various professions is small, but shows increases that the longer removed people are from earning their Ph.D.s. The largest share for the oldest cohort (doctorates earned 1998-2001) is the 3.9 percent in academic administration, which is up from 2.1 percent for the cohort closest to earning Ph.D.s. The largest concentrations for those in the newest cohort (2006-9) are working in K-12 (3 percent) and working for nonprofit groups (3 percent). Those figures rise for those in the 1998-2001 group to 3.3 percent and 3.2 percent respectively.

The most dramatic pattern that is evident concerns the specialties among history Ph.D.s. Only 43.9 percent of those specializing in American history (from all three cohorts combined) have tenure-track positions at four-year colleges and universities. For those specializing in European history, the figure is 51.8 percent, while for those whose specialty is African, Asian, Latin American or Middle Eastern/Islamic history, the figures are all above 65 percent.

In looking at the specialties of those earning history doctorates today, American history remains the most popular, according to the most recent AHA annual jobs report, averaging about 400 new doctorates annually in recent years, compared to roughly half that for European and far smaller numbers (all well under 100) for other specialties.

While noting that many historians question the validity of National Research Council rankings of graduate programs, the study examined whether those who earn Ph.D.s at "top' programs are more likely to land tenure-track jobs -- and they are.

Of graduates of programs in the top quartile, 59.1 percent had positions on the tenure track, while the figure was 57.8 for the second quartile, and 41.9 percent for the third and fourth quartiles. But the study also found that there were programs (that it didn't identify, but said were small) that were not highly ranked that were placing all of their Ph.D.s in tenure-track positions.

The report was written by L. Maren Wood, a researcher for the education consulting firm Lilli Research Group, and Robert B. Townsend, former deputy director of the AHA.

Via email, Townsend said he was surprised not to see a greater share of the cohort having left academe for other positions, given the difficult state of the academic job market. (The AHA has been promoting the idea that non-academic jobs should be seen not as a "Plan B" for doctorate holders but as an equally valid use for a Ph.D. in history, and a path that many should pursue.)

While Townsend said he was concerned about the large number of doctorate holders who appear to be in long-term jobs off the tenure track, he said he was also struck by how many had found themselves positions on the tenure track.

"I do have to note that while the number of adjuncts is quite large in the sample," he said, "the numbers are significantly less than the kinds of numbers I've heard thrown around in a lot of discussions on the 'net, where I've heard speculation that as many as half of history Ph.D.s are winding up in contingent faculty positions."

The report generally suggests that there are combinations of factors -- with area of specialty being crucial -- that have a big influence on career success for history Ph.D.s. Townsend said that he hoped prospective graduate students and those already on the road to a Ph.D. would consider how the choices they make about programs and research focus could affect their career prospects. 

"If I was working in the field of American history, for instance, I would think carefully about the sort of skills and job networks I was developing both in my coursework and in any work I was doing on the side," he said. "And specialists in all subjects need to think carefully about how flexible they will be in their job applications, because the ability to travel long distances to a new job also seemed to make a difference."

 

 

 

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