The PhD Gap: Worrisome Trends in the Hiring of Junior Faculty

In response to a question from Stacy Patton for her Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Stale PhDs Need Not Apply,” I put together the accompanying chart from my surveys of job advertisers. The trends are quite fascinating, and could have significant implications for the training and preparation of new PhDs and the expectations of those currently in the history job market.

Members of the profession generally recognize that the traditional model of newly minted PhDs filling the junior ranks of the profession increasingly reflects a bygone era. But the findings reveal just how far we have come in the past 17 years. In a 1995–96 survey of Perspectives employment advertisers, 59.5 percent of the newly hired assistant professors and lecturers were either ABD or had earned their PhD within the past year. That fell to 46.8 percent in 2003–04 and just 40.0 percent last year.

The results of these surveys also suggest that PhDs who have spent some time in adjunct or other positions can still find long-term academic employment. Historians three years or more from the PhD accounted for 28.6 percent of the junior faculty hires in 1995–96, fell to just 25 percent in 2003–04 (a relatively good year for the job market), and then jumped up to 31.7 percent in the most recent survey. See accompanying image for a larger view of this data table.

The data raise some intriguing questions. First, what are PhDs doing in the gap years between PhD and hire, and how might we track their progress through the job market? (As our recent statement on transparency in placement suggests, we hope that doctoral programs will take more responsibility on this issue.) Second, if almost a third of the new junior faculty hires spent three or more years in other pursuits—presumably adjunct positions—does that indicate teaching experience is gaining significance in hiring decisions? And finally, what does the persistence of candidates with older PhDs on the academic job market mean for those earning PhDs today? Those are the questions that spring immediately to mind, but I welcome further discussion in the comment section below.

While I had the impression that the trend was moving in this direction, I never thought of actually delving into the data with this question in mind, so I owe Stacy Patton a debt of gratitude for getting me to take a look at the survey responses from a fresh perspective.

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  1. Maura Hametz

    My experience in having worked on several recent hiring committees for junior positions in our department is that we have more applicants who are already in tenured positions but are looking to move. We just hired someone who had spent the previous three years at a smaller, less research-intensive, more teaching-intensive institution. I don’t know if this is a trend. But, it seemed worth mentioning.

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  2. Ronald Granieri

    I really don’t see anything shocking here… in all three sets, more than two thirds of the recent Assistant Profs received their degrees within two years of hiring. The differences within those three categories are marginal at best.

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