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The U.S. academic job market has increasingly been characterized as a “nightmare”—an oversupply of doctoral graduates amid cratering numbers of tenure-track job postings. The most recent Academic Analytics database, however, reveals that demand for assistant professors is growing, but growth is uneven across disciplines.

Our data set includes information on hiring at 391 Ph.D.-granting universities. Over all, we found that the number of assistant professors increased in 101 of 154 academic disciplines between 2011 and 2021. The proportion of professors at the assistant level (compared to associate and full professors) also increased in 62 of those disciplines over the same time frame.

In STEM areas, health sciences professions and business disciplines, demand for new Ph.D.s is clearly growing. But this is not the case in education, in social sciences and in particular in the humanities, all of which are characterized by stable or declining demand for assistant professors. Large-scale quantitative data such as these provide an invaluable evidence-based context about the areas of scholarship in which institutions are investing new faculty lines, a matter of interest to deans of graduate schools and provosts alike.

The new data, described below and available publicly, largely complement the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. The SED shows that American universities awarded 55,283 doctoral degrees in 2020—15 percent more than a decade earlier. But growth in doctorates awarded is not uniform across areas of study: education and humanities disciplines are experiencing a decline in doctorates awarded, while the number of engineering and agricultural science doctorates grew by more than 30 percent over 10 years.

Our data affirm the well-documented decline of the humanities academic job market over the previous decade, revealing that the number of assistant professors at Ph.D.-granting universities in the humanities decreased by 16.8 percent between 2011 and 2021. Certain individual humanities disciplines, however, experienced population growth at the assistant professor level. Specifically, gender studies, general humanities studies and music all grew the number of assistant professors, but all humanities disciplines except music experienced a declining share of assistant professors, suggesting a slowing pace of hiring new junior scholars even in those humanities disciplines experiencing growth. The humanities fields are not alone: many education and social and behavioral sciences disciplines are also characterized by a decline in the share of professors at the assistant level, the number of assistant professors or both.

The biological and biomedical sciences are comprised of areas of growth and areas of decline in assistant professorships. This is surprising given the overall growth in bioscience Ph.D.s reported in the SED. Our data show that a narrowing proportion of assistant professorships in some biomedical and biological sciences disciplines—for example, in structural biology and biophysics—is contrasted with tremendous growth in both the number and proportion of assistant professors in other bioscience areas such as neurobiology and cognitive science. Our data source does not track the growth of the biotech industry or postdoctoral positions, but the biosciences are characterized by a large and growing number of postdoctorates compared to other broad fields. Future investigations might aim to understand whether increasing availability of postdoc positions has narrowed the number of available assistant professorships in some bioscience fields and/or if the lengthening of careers in these fields is contributing to a declining share of assistant professors.

In addition to most STEM areas, business disciplines (with the exception of business administration) grew the number of assistant professors, particularly in accounting, finance, marketing and management information systems. Agricultural sciences’ assistant professor population also grew, including a 33.5 percent increase in agricultural economics assistant professorships. In all health professions disciplines, the assistant professor population grew by more than 10 percent, including remarkable increases of more than 50 percent in nursing, pharmacy and public health.

The data set we analyzed does not account for several factors likely to influence the academic job market for early-career scholars. Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted hiring freezes at many U.S. universities, the effects of which are apparent in the decline in new assistant professorships in 2020 seen in our data. The long-lasting effects of COVID-19 policies on the academic marketplace are not yet known. Our data source does not contain information about adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty hiring trends, nor, as previously discussed, on postdoctoral research positions. Many graduates also go on to careers outside the academy, and a fuller account of the faculty job market should consider these and other factors modulating both the supply and demand for professorships. Finally, we only explored Ph.D.-granting universities; a broader approach considering other types of institutions (e.g., liberal arts colleges, community colleges and master’s-level institutions) is necessary to understand the full picture of academic hiring.

In broad strokes, growth in the job market for assistant professorships at American research universities is uneven. In STEM fields, health sciences professions and business disciplines, the demand for new Ph.D.s is growing. Not so in education, social sciences and the humanities, all of which are characterized by stable or declining numbers and proportions of assistant professorships. Importantly, these trends are consistent across institutional types, suggesting a fundamental shift in the American research academy strongly favoring new hires in STEM, business and health professions areas. We examined data specific to institutions from different Carnegie classifications, and for public and private institutions, Ivy-plus schools, and Association of American Universities members. In all cases, we observed the same overall trends. Nuanced policies to adapt graduate programs to the demand for new scholars will be necessary considering research universities’ changing hiring priorities.

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