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American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Graduate education in the humanities is shrinking, according to a new report issued today by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Master’s degrees in the humanities, of which 16,057 were awarded in 1988, rose to 32,584 in 2012, the year they peaked. In 2020, they fell to 26,566, the report said. The number of doctoral degrees awarded also rose and fell during that time. There were 3,110 doctoral degrees in the humanities in 1998. The number rose steadily to 6,010 in 2015 but fell to 5,483 in 2020.

To some critics, this is a natural flow, as there are fewer jobs (especially in higher education) for Ph.D.s in the humanities. To others, the numbers reflect the tragedy of the academic job market failing to keep up with student and faculty demand.

The same years saw a decline in the share of all degrees earned in the humanities. In 1998, 9 percent of master’s degrees were awarded in the humanities. That rose to 11 percent but then fell to 7 percent by 2020. Humanities Ph.D.s made up 4 percent of all Ph.D.s in 1998. The figure grew to 5 percent before falling to 3 percent.

Among those Ph.D.s, six disciplines (English language and literature, communication, history, languages and literatures other than English, philosophy, and study of the arts) accounted for most of the doctoral degrees awarded annually in the field from 1988 to 2020, representing 78 percent of humanities degrees in 2020. In recent years, the number of Ph.D.s awarded declined among all the large disciplines except communication (which rose by 5 percent from 2012 to 2020). Programs in history and philosophy experienced the largest declines from 2012 to 2020 (falling 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively).

The report found an increase in the diversity of those receiving doctorates, but it may be going away, at least for women. The larger increase occurred among those receiving doctoral degrees, in which the share of doctorates conferred on women rose from 47 percent in 1988 to 55 percent in 2016 before slipping back to 53 percent in 2020. Looking at race and ethnicity among doctoral degree recipients, from 2000 to 2020 the share of traditionally underrepresented groups (Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders) increased from 11 percent to 20 percent over the same 20 years.

Another issue explored is time to degree for a Ph.D.

“In each year from 2004 to 2020, the median for those who finished a doctoral degree was just under six years among Ph.D. recipients generally, but the median among those earning humanities and arts degrees (data are not available for each field separately) is a year or more longer than in most other fields,” the report said. “Humanities Ph.D.s have consistently taken longer than doctorate seekers in any other field, though the time to earn a doctorate in the humanities fell modestly from 2004 to 2020 (from 7.2 years to 6.8 years).”

Robert B. Townsend, co-director of the Humanities Indicators Project, said, “It is hard to see much positive news in the overall trends. The people who think there are too many humanities professors in the world may find cause for joy in the decline there, and doctoral students may be pleased to see a decline in the number of other Ph.D.s competing for those precious academic jobs. But aside from that, the only clearly positive indicator is that almost all of the people who received graduate degrees in the humanities are satisfied with their jobs.”

He said the trends largely follow reports on undergraduate majors. “Fewer students majoring in the humanities generally means a smaller pool of applicants for advanced degrees,” Townsend said. “And a declining number of majors means less upward pressure to hire new faculty or replace retiring faculty.”

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