The Mixed History Job Market

Openings are up 18 percent, but other data suggest that finding tenure-track positions will remain challenging. And while applications to grad programs are falling, enrollments are not.

January 2, 2013

The number of faculty job openings listed with the American Historical Association in the 2011-12 academic year was up 18 percent. But a report being released by the association today cautions against any suggestion that the increase means that finding a job -- especially a tenure-track job -- is easy for new Ph.D.s.

Other data in the report show that the history job market has not yet recovered from the sharp drop in available positions that followed the economic downturn that started in the fall of 2008, that the number of new Ph.D.s continues to go up, and that there is not always a consistent alignment between the specialties of those earning doctorates and the positions that are available.

So while the association's report cheers the increase in the number of job openings (indeed the increase outpaces other disciplines that conduct such annual studies), the analysis -- by Robert Townsend, the AHA's deputy director -- is decidedly sober in reviewing the job market and the outlook for those seeking to start academic careers. One key data point: The recent Survey of Earned Doctorates found that in 2011, only 42.6 percent of new history Ph.D.s reported definite employment upon graduation. That's the lowest figure for history in the 43 years of the study.

The data on job openings are from those positions listed with the association. While the AHA does not receive notices of all openings, making the data set incomplete, most experts believe that the ups and downs noted in association listings are a good proxy for the history job market as a whole.

Job Reports in Other Disciplines

And the listings were indeed up in 2011-12.  But while the 740 openings reflect substantial growth since a low point of 569 in the 2009-10 academic year, they are well below the high of 1,064 in the 2007-8 academic year. And that year was preceded by two years in which more than 1,000 openings were listed. More context for the 740 total this year: From 1999-2000 through 2008-9, there were never fewer than 800 openings listed.

Even with the gains of 2011-12 in the number of openings, the data in the AHA report suggest a tough job market. For starters, the study notes that 1,066 new Ph.D.s in history were awarded in 2010-11, an increase of 5.6 percent from the year before. Some of those new Ph.D. recipients may not be seeking academic jobs, but the large proportion who are seeking positions in higher education also are joined by those from the previous few years who entered the job market at a terrible time, meaning that many of them failed to find positions or good positions -- and thus are still looking.

To some extent, the ease or difficulty of finding a job may depend on a historian's specialty.

As has been the case in recent years, the top subject matter sought for junior faculty positions was in the study of North America, followed by Europe. But while the number of North American history positions increased by only 6 percent, the number for European history was up by 31 percent. Meanwhile the number of Ph.D.s awarded in American history was up 11 percent in 2011, while the number in European history was up 16 percent. In an interview, Townsend said that the field of European history was particularly hard hit by the hiring freezes of recent years, with many departments putting new positions on hold while waiting for senior faculty members to retire. As retirements have started to take place, departments are moving to restore areas of coverage that might have been lost in recent years.

While the bases are quite low, the number of openings in African, Middle Eastern and Latin American history showed large percentage gains, while positions in Asian history showed a modest gain. But in some of these high-demand specialty areas, the output of new Ph.D.s isn't keeping up. The number of Ph.D.s awarded in African, Middle Eastern and Latin American history all showed modest declines -- despite the favorable job market for new graduates.

The growth in digital humanities teaching and research is having a positive impact on the job market for historians with digital expertise. In the last year, there were 10 openings listed in digital history, while 32 positions (with a range of specialties) listed digital expertise as a quality that would help applicants gain consideration. In contrast, in 2003-4, only three positions even mentioned digital skills at all.

The impact of the gaps between field of specialization and the job market can also be seen in the number of applicants per position.

Applicants Per History Position, by Specialization

American 118
European 100
Latin American 87
Middle Eastern and Islamic 64
African 53

The Graduate Pool and the Faculty Pool

The AHA report also features snapshot looks at key variables that will affect the history job market over the long term.

There has been much debate among historians over whether departments should be recruiting as many graduate students as they have in the past. A post -- "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot Be a Professor," on the blog Northwest History has achieved near-legendary status in the field (and tens of thousands of hits) for summing up the disappointments that would face those entering graduate school. Leaders of the AHA, while not discouraging graduate school enrollments, have urged graduate students and departments to view nonacademic employment not as a "plan B," but as a viable, meaningful outcome of a history Ph.D.

Data from the association's new report suggest that some potential students may be staying away. Last year saw a 12 percent decline in the average number of applicants per doctoral history program, down to 102.1. But the number of new students in doctoral programs was level, at 8.4. So for now, the graduate school population does not seem to be changing -- just the size of the applicant pool.


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