The History Job Market: Opportunities, Problems, and Fixes

graduate student sessionThis post is the fifth in a series of posts on sessions presented at the 123rd Annual Meeting. See also the introduction to this series, the first post on “Teaching and Learning through a Teaching American History Grant,” the second post on “A Historical Conundrum,” the third post on “Perspectives on Public History,” and the fourth post on “Innovations in Collaboration.”

This forum, headed by David Weber, explored the history job market, both past and present. Panelists studied statistics, surveyed PhD recipients, and offered advice to those hoping to enter the field.

Robert Townsend of the American Historical Association kicked off the panel with his discussion of “The Changing Job Market in History.” Before beginning his discussion, Townsend warned of the  somewhat dismal job outlook this year for history students, primarily due to the economy. With that being said, it’s nearly impossible for students to predict what the job market will be like once they’ve completed their doctoral studies, especially because it can take an average of five to eight years to do so. Townsend outlined four major stages most scholars go through in the academic job pipeline, starting with their academic training. For students thinking about where to go for their graduate and doctoral studies, Townsend advises thinking about a university’s demographic, since programs range anywhere from two to eight years. Prospective graduate students should also note a university’s tenure expectation and beginning salary numbers. Once a student has completed their academic studies, they move into an intermediary stage, which Townsend refers to as the threshold stage, where students begin to move into full-time tenure track teaching positions. The threshold stage can take one to several years while PhDs look for that first tenure-track job. Often, smaller universities have comparable success rates to Ivy League universities in placing PhDs in jobs, due to their placement of students into local universities and organizations. Further reading of Townsend’s research is available online: The Parlous Paths of the Profession.

Elizabeth Rudd and Maresi Nerad from the University of Washington’s Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education continued the panel by discussing “Career Paths of History PhDs Five to Ten Years after the Degree.” In a survey Rudd and Nerad conducted, they found that there are approximately 900 PhDs awarded each year in American history, which take an average of seven years to complete. Of those recipients interviewed, 85% of them wanted to pursue a professorial position post graduation, though most didn’t initially take on a tenure-track position. Despite the infamously difficult process of obtaining a doctoral degree, 80% of those interviewed said they would do it all over again. Their biggest complaint about their doctoral studies was the lack of career preparation, especially in non-professorial careers, and the need for better instruction on teaching practices.

Sterling Fluharty from the University of Oklahoma took the panel on a slightly different path in his discussion on “Reconsidering the Job Market from the Entry Level.” He began his discussion by laying out a few facts:

  • 50% of  history PhD students drop out
  • 65% of university professors work without a tenure-track option
  • 33% of university professors become tenured
  • 50% of college faculty are only part-time employees

Fluharty says that more and more students are attending less selective universities, most of which have few, if any, history programs, which makes restoring student interest in history that much harder for historians. Trends show that most students with history degrees come from middle to upper class families, meaning history as a discipline has a more limited representation of students in a changing undergraduate population. With that being said, Fluharty acknowledges that some of the more elite universities have begun to open their doors to lower income families, offering free tuition to students who come from families that make a joint-income less than $60,000, which has resulted in a rise in history majors. However, a history degree is often viewed as impractical and inapplicable in the workplace, again making it difficult for historians to restore student interest in the discipline.

Fluharty believes in encouraging more junior colleges to offer history programs, broadening the discipline’s exposure to various demographics. Beyond those currently knee-deep in their academic studies or those with a hot-off-the-press degree in hand, there are those historians already in the field who have, like many in other non-history jobs, come to a sort of rut in their career. Fluharty suggests the possibility of offering of seminars that could help historians retool for a changing work environment; more specifically, a work environment in a digital age. Historians with digital skills, Fluharty says, can cross over into other research fields that will likely pay well.

This session took place Sunday, January 4, 2009, at the AHA’s 123rd Annual Meeting. It was chaired by David J. Weber of Southern Methodist University and vice president of the AHA’s Professional Division.

Note: If you’re interested in the history job market, see also interviews with historians in the public history field, in the Jobs & Careers section of this blog.

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