Worrisome News in the Life Cycle of History PhDs

As the school year draws to a close, the new Perspectives on History features two articles on the life cycle of history PhDs that are not very cheering. Average salaries for historians in academia are just barely keeping up with the other disciplines (and inflation), at the same time there seems to be some slight erosion in hiring. Meanwhile, PhD programs are ramping up their admissions of new doctoral students, portending a significant surge in new PhDs about eight to ten years down the road.

The evidence for our report on history PhD programs comes from a survey of U.S. and Canadian history departments conducted last summer. Looking toward the fall of 2007, 164 U.S. and Canadian history programs out of the 184 programs listed in our History Doctoral Programs in the United States and Canada database) anticipated matriculating an average of nine students—up from an average of 6.2 students five years earlier.

And the survey also offers food for thought for students entering PhD programs, emphasizing just how long it takes to earn the degree. Although we cannot track total attrition rates, we do take snapshots of students at the five and ten year mark in their studies. After five years, more than 20 percent of doctoral students had dropped out of the program or could not be accounted for by their department. And at the ten year mark, more than a third of them had left without the degree, while 17 percent were reportedly still working toward the degree. The long durée indeed.

The news in our other report is no more encouraging. Drawing on an annual salary survey from the College and University Personnel Association–Human Resources (CUPA—HR), we find the average salary for historians at private colleges and universities gaining just a bit on their colleagues in the other disciplines, while historians at public institutions fell further behind. Notably, the benefits of the improved salary situation at private colleges and universities seemed to disproportionately benefit senior faculty. (Historians who still believe in class analysis can make of that what they will).

Meanwhile, the CUPA-HR survey also points to a slight decrease (of 4.3 percent) in the number of new assistant professors hired for the 2007–08 academic year. The number of new assistant professors hired is still quite high when we look back over the 23 years that they have been reporting those numbers, but that still bears watching over the next few years.

This is just a preview of the more detailed articles, of course. Be sure to check your mailboxes or visit the May 2008 issue of Perspectives Online for more.

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