The Depressed History Job Market

As analysis suggests decline of 15 percent or more in openings, those on the job market and those hiring ponder choices and trade rumors about next searches to be called off.
January 5, 2009

NEW YORK -- This year's decline in academic jobs in history may be 15 percent or higher, according to preliminary data presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The figures came as no surprise to the graduate students here seeking jobs. Reports abounded of job searches being called off, or of people in interviews being warned of the strong possibility that the openings might not be filled this year. People leaving the job interview area of the meeting were trading stories about which jobs might actually be filled. Job candidates who a year ago had goals of four or five interviews here were thrilled to have one.

Historians blogging the conference are writing about "the smell of fear" among job seekers or suggesting -- with some stretching to make their point -- that those in the career center would be worthy subjects for photography by Walker Evans.

Robert Townsend, the AHA's assistant director for research and publications, said in a paper he presented that the economic downturn's impact is affecting multiple generations of professors: Some departments are reporting that professors who had planned to retire at the end of this academic year, but who had not formally started the process, have reversed course and announced they will stay -- after departments started advertising for their positions, meaning more of the apparent openings may be phantom possibilities. One Ph.D. student leaving an interview said that she was having better luck than many of her colleagues, having landed two interviews here. But she had three positions for which searches were called off after she applied.

Townsend's projections come from an analysis of job postings by departments with the association's listing service, which are down 15 percent compared to last year. Association job listings aren't an absolute measure of job availability, as not all colleges use them. But over time, the rises and falls of these listings tend to be an accurate reflection of the state of the job market -- especially for the entry-level, tenure-track slot that is most sought by new Ph.D.'s.

The current bad news follows several years of more encouraging news for those seeking history jobs, although even in recent years, there have been concerns over a mismatch of the specialties of new Ph.D.'s and where the jobs are. The data are being released just weeks after the Modern Language Association reported drops of 22 percent for English language and literature positions and 20 percent for foreign language positions. Other humanities associations have also been seeing jobs disappear.

In a report that will be published by the AHA, Townsend writes that the data should promote "caution among those considering doctoral studies, or those considering taking more students into their Ph.D. programs." While Townsend notes trends that could help job seekers -- such as planned retirements of many historians and increases in history enrollments -- he also notes ominous signs for those seeking good jobs. For instance, the fall in investment accounts has many delaying retirement, and more colleges are opting to hire adjuncts rather than creating tenure-track positions.

It is extremely difficult to predict the availability of jobs for those entering programs, Townsend writes, because it takes an average of eight years to finish a history Ph.D. -- a time period long enough to see "dramatic fluctuations in the market."

In his comments at an AHA session on the job market, Townsend had more bad news for job seekers. Data from the AHA suggest that it is taking an increasingly long time (three years isn't uncommon) for new Ph.D.'s to land a tenure-track job. The "threshold period" is getting longer and more difficult, Townsend said. Further, reports suggest that those who accept low starting salaries and who end up at an institution that isn't the kind of place they were hoping for are going to have a tough time moving. Mobility among sectors appears to be on the decrease, Townsend said, so "the kind of institution where you start is where you are likely to end up."

Townsend did present some glimmers of hope, depending on the career ambitions of the doctoral students. Much of the growth in doctoral enrollments over the last decade, he said, hasn't been in the most prestigious research universities, but in regional institutions. Many of those institutions have very good placement records, he said, seeing their graduate students land jobs at community colleges, high schools, or non-doctoral granting institutions in their state. These are programs "serving a different market," he said.

One reason that new historians are so frustrated this year is that, up until this year, the changing patterns in production of Ph.D.'s (total and by specialty) and the availability of jobs (also including changes in the availability of positions in certain specialties) had been leading to a decrease in the number of applicants per job opening for junior faculty positions -- and that decline has been dramatic in some cases. (Of course the dramatic decline doesn't erase the reality that the odds never particularly favored job candidates, and many new Ph.D.'s have been working off the tenure track, outside their areas of specialty, or geographically far from their spouses and partners, and so have continued to look for the good first job.)

Here are some figures, however, that show the improvements in the odds for job seekers -- although these do not count the current, tough hiring season.

Average Number of Applications Per Junior Faculty Opening -- Before the Economic Downturn

Specialty 1995-6 2007-8
Africa 48 40
Asia 63 38
Europe 111 71
Latin America 75 38
Middle East and Islamic world 61 42
United States and Canada 120 72
World and transnational 89 56
Thematic or unspecified 119 51
All 102 56

To Fight a 'Rigged' System, a Call for New Strategies

Also appearing at the panel with Townsend was Sterling Fluharty, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma who writes extensively on job market issues on his blog Ph.D. in History. Fluharty argued that -- bad as the recession is -- historians are victims of some longer-term trends in academe and in their discipline. For an increasing number of historians, he warned, a tenure-track job may be "an impossible dream" because of a system "rigged against historians."

He reviewed trends in which colleges have responded to enrollment demands by hiring not tenure-track professors, but adjuncts. Of particular importance to historians (and to those in other humanities disciplines), he noted that history departments have the most success at attracting majors at research universities and at elite liberal arts colleges, while these programs are less popular at community colleges or urban public master's universities that cater to nontraditional students.

The reason that matters, Fluharty said, is that those are the institutions that are experiencing rapid growth right now, and those are the institutions that have a better track record of serving the nontraditional students -- many of them low income and minority -- that are making up a larger and larger share of the student body in the United States.

If historians want to see job opportunities grow, he said, they should be talking to more community colleges about ways to convert a few course offerings into a full-fledged program, or they should spend time considering why history programs don't attract students in large numbers at institutions that serve the disadvantaged.

Other steps he suggested that historians should consider in light of these trends include:

  • Enhance history master's degrees. If people saw a history master's degree as enhancing their ability to perform jobs other than becoming a professor, especially if these were "marketable" jobs, the discipline might have an "area for growth" that would support more full-time faculty jobs. But he said that this wouldn't work if people just tried to market existing master's programs.
  • Give public history a more prominent place in the profession. The state and federal governments, and various other non-academic groups, hire many historians, but relatively few programs train students for these jobs or promote the option, Fluharty said.
  • Add more technology education to history programs. Fluharty noted that history as a discipline has embraced technology and that the way many scholars collect, analyze and disseminate information is radically different as a result. But he said that programs that train history Ph.D.'s should be doing much more to integrate these approaches into the curriculum.

Dealing With the Situation This Year

While Fluharty was urging historians to plan for long-term changes, others here were focused on finding jobs right now. Each year, the AHA sponsors a program for those who are about to have their first round of job interviews. Volunteer professors from different kinds of institutions sit at round tables and field questions from graduate students about the kinds of questions they might be asked, and how to prepare. AHA officials stressed the importance of the grad students going to multiple tables and not just just having their hearts set on one kind of institution.

At the table presided over by Katharina Tumpek-Kjellmark of Iowa's Grand View University, on working at teaching-oriented, undergraduate private colleges, students agreed to let this reporter listen in on their questions, provided their names weren't used.

In many cases, it appeared that students with more of a research orientation (natural, of course, for those who have been immersed in dissertations) were thinking about how to position themselves for teaching institutions, their most likely employers. A student who studies French colonialism asked how to pitch herself in terms of undergraduate teaching. Tumpek-Kjellmark suggested she think about her ability to teach introductory courses on the history of Southeast Asia or Africa.

While a student said she worried about "how much I can stretch myself" in terms of teaching areas, Tumpek-Kjellmark advised students to prepare themselves to be credible candidates to teach just about anything. "I have wide interests and I read widely," is a line Tumpek-Kjellmark suggested. And to back it up, she said it was important to think about going to conference sessions or entire conferences outside their areas of specialty.

The graduate students were also urged to start to recognize that they "are not normal" in the context of most student bodies. Most history students at non-elite colleges are in class to fulfill a requirement, not to become a major, let alone a historian, Tumpek-Kjellmark said. So the grad students need to talk about how they would reach such students, and how they can help colleges fulfill various goals they have. For example, Tumpek-Kjellmark said many history courses attract students training to be teachers, a group of students many Ph.D.'s haven't thought much about. And history, like English, is a discipline colleges rely on to teach writing. So a department is likely to be impressed by a job candidate who has given some thought to the teaching of writing.

One student asked Tumpek-Kjellmark what questions not to ask of those interviewing him, given that grad students are told to have lots of questions prepared. Tumpek-Kjellmark said to avoid detailed questions about research leaves or research support, since these may be seen as flags that a candidate doesn't understand the teaching role of the college. On the other hand, questions about the support students receive -- writing centers, tutoring options and so forth -- suggest a better fit.

Fit will be a huge issue right now, she said. Departments need enrollments to justify sections and faculty slots, she said, so hiring committees are going to think about how to attract students. This is a time, Tumpek-Kjellmark said, "when students are thinking about taking your survey history course or the one at the community college nearby."

There is one aspect of the job market that may leave graduate students feeling better this year than last. The situation is so bad this year, said one job seeker who asked not to be identified, that it's less personal. If you didn't get any interviews or decent interviews during years when the economy was better, "it was personal," and graduate students pondered whether they had enrolled in the wrong program or had dissertation advisers who aren't sufficiently connected or whether the grad students themselves somehow weren't good enough.

This year, "it's not your situation," this job seeker said. "Everyone can tell you an anecdote about this search or that search that was canceled."

This particular job seeker fessed up, on condition of anonymity, that he was the one who last year carried a sign at the meeting that read "Will Teach 20th Century U.S. for Food." He brought the sign back this year, but hasn't yet walked around with it. His situation is slightly more stable this year, and he has one job interview, so he feels that it's time to bequeath the sign to someone with more dismal prospects to act as the literal poster child for economic woes in the profession. There seem to be many such prospects.


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