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A new analysis of federal Survey of Earned Doctorates data by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences finds a substantial racial divide in who is accumulating debt in doctoral studies: from 2015 to 2020, approximately 55 percent of Native American and Black students with a Ph.D. in the arts or humanities graduated with more than $30,000 in graduate education debt, a much higher rate than for other racial groups. Approximately two-thirds of new arts, humanities and social science Ph.D.s in 2020 carried no or minimal graduate education debt, a considerably smaller share than new Ph.D.s in the natural sciences and engineering who graduate with no debt.

Looking at job commitments for new Ph.D.s, the analysis showed differences between fields: between 2010 and 2020, history graduates were less likely to have a firm job commitment in academe than their counterparts in letters or in languages and literatures other than English. History Ph.D.s were more likely to have firm commitments for nonacademic jobs than their peers in the other disciplines, however. From 1990 to 2020, the share of new arts and humanities Ph.D.s reporting a firm job commitment, academic or nonacademic, fell from 63 percent to 47 percent, while the percentage of humanities Ph.D.s reporting a commitment for postdoctoral study increased from 4 percent to 12 percent.

Another finding: among new arts and humanities Ph.D.s, the primary sources of financial support for their doctoral education changed significantly from the late 1990s to 2020, from personal resources to teaching assistantships (40 percent) and grants and fellowships (37 percent). Humanities Ph.D.s were much more dependent on teaching assistantships than their peers in other fields.

Robert Townsend, director of humanities, arts and culture programs at the academy, said Monday that “for some of us, it was surprising that so many new Ph.D.s are finishing with little or no debt from their graduate studies in the humanities. But the fact that 18 percent are finishing with substantial debt—and especially the rather stark racial divide on that finding—is really quite troubling. I have been studying these trends for decades now, and a recurring concern for the field has been the need to bring about greater diversity among those earning Ph.D.s. Our findings point to a significant ongoing challenge for the students who represent that much-needed change.”

Commenting on the findings regarding history, Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said the “continuing decline in tenurable positions available to history Ph.D. recipients remains a deep concern of the AHA, and we have devoted considerable energy and resources to thinking about not only additional career paths but also how to rethink graduate education to prepare our students for a wider variety of rewarding careers.”