The Tightening Humanities Job Market

With big disciplinary meetings about to start, some reliable measures start to appear about how many colleges are really hiring -- and the news isn't good.
December 4, 2008

Throughout this semester, graduate students and others on the academic job market have been eyeing the news with deep apprehension. It has been hard to imagine that this year's academic job market would be anything but tight, given the number of colleges cutting back on hiring due to the recession. But many searches did start, and it was possible to build an anecdotal case that everything would be OK, since there were some good positions out there.

In the humanities, however, data are starting to come in that suggest that -- even if you heard about this or that great position -- there will be significantly fewer searches this year. The largest disciplinary meetings in the humanities will be taking place at the end of this month and the beginning of January -- and these are meetings that will feature recruiting sessions, interviews and the release of data about job markets. The news is going to worry new Ph.D.'s and others on the job market.

Take history, for example. The popular blog PhD in History, which tracks the job market in the discipline (and which is produced by Sterling Fluharty, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma), recently noted that by this time last year, the American Historical Association had announced how many departments would be doing searches at its annual meeting in early January: 185. The blog wondered why no such announcement has been made this year, and whether slow sign-ups for recruiting at the annual meeting might explain why the association is publishing a series on its Web site about jobs outside of academe.

Inside Higher Ed asked the AHA for this year's number and it turns out that only 159 departments plan to conduct recruiting interviews, down 26 departments or 14 percent. Obviously, only some formal recruiting takes place at the AHA annual meeting -- and plenty of hiring takes place before or after. But the meeting is always a focus for those doing hiring and the jobs at the meeting include many of the sort that new Ph.D.'s most desire: full-time, tenure-track positions.

When some of those jobs evaporate, there is a trickle-down impact elsewhere as candidates seek other possibilities. So these interviews -- in history and other disciplines -- are key for many graduate students' job hopes. Further complicating matters, the history job market (like others in the humanities) -- while reasonably healthy the past few years -- is still seen by many as recovering from past downturns that left many Ph.D.'s outside of tenure-track jobs.

Those disheartening numbers, however, may still be better than the ones in philosophy. The main recruiting venue for the American Philosophical Association is its Eastern Division meeting, which takes place the last week of December and attracts departments nationwide that seek to recruit. David Schrader said he couldn't tell how many departments had signed up, but that revenue from those departments was down 40 percent this year, and that the number of positions for which interviews would take place at the meeting was probably down by the same, large proportion.

He said he hoped that some departments were holding off and would recruit later in the academic year than is normal. But he said that he "can't imagine that departments are being encouraging" about positions this year. "I hope this is just a one-year dip."

At least six searches in philosophy that were started have been called off -- according to the philosophy jobs wiki -- and that doesn't count other positions that had once been thought possible.

Adam D. Blistein, executive director of the American Philological Association, said that the numbers aren't final yet for departments in classics and archaeology that will recruit at the group's annual meeting in January. But he said it was clear that the numbers were going to be down. The previous two meetings have seen job listings he estimated as being in the 70s or 80s, but this year is likely to be 50s or 60s. Last year was unexpectedly high, he said "so the numbers would be down even without Wall Street," but he said he was concerned about the declines.

The Modern Language Association is not seeing a decline in the number of departments signed up for interviews, but most institutions signed up before the Wall Street collapse in September that has set off so many economic fears.

The MLA will shortly be releasing figures on job postings in English and foreign languages for the year. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that while the figures aren't final, they will "show a downturn" in full-time positions. "This is hitting everybody," she said.


Back to Top