The Tenure Clock and the Biological Clock?

In 2010, the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians conducted a survey on academic career paths in history, contacting all associate and full professors in the 2010–11 Directory of History Departments. 2,241 historians responded. This is the second in a series of blog posts reporting the results of the survey.

As with any survey, the responses we received generated additional questions about gender and balancing work and family in an academic career. The committee hopes that these blog posts will generate discussion that will help us learn more about gendered issues affecting historians.


Robert Townsend noted in his initial analysis of the survey results that the average age at first hire for historians has been increasing for decades. Respondents hired for their first job between 1981 and 1990 were an average age at hiring of 33.3 years, between 1991 and 2000 of 34.7 years, and since 2000 an average of 35.7 years old. Women were hired slightly later in life than men (on average about 7 months older than men in the same cohort).

The reasons for the trend are not clear from the survey results. The average age for new history PhDs has been creeping up since the 1970s, as the time between the undergraduate degree and the PhD has grown, but it is not clear whether people are entering graduate school later, or taking longer to complete the PhD. Evidence from other surveys also suggests that historians are spending more time as contingent faculty and postdoctoral fellows before finding a full-time position.

For women who want children, the first permanent academic job may coincide with what is generally considered the end of their childbearing years. (Though a recent article in The Atlantic points out that media warnings that the biological clock expires at 35 may be exaggerated.) The census bureau reports that women with a college degree tend to have children at a later age than other women.

If age at first permanent hire and age at childbirth are increasing, what does it mean for women historians’ careers and family life? What are the implications for family leave policies? For historians’ career paths? Tell us your story in the comments.


Back to Top

Leave a Reply


* Required field

  1. Marie

    I received my tenure-track job at 31 (the same year I finished my PhD). I got pregnant with my son at 32, and planning on having another one at 35. It’s not easy being a new professor and a new mother at the same time. Luckily I have a great husband! My school doesn’t have maternity leave (unless I don’t get paid, but I’m the sole breadwinner). My friends who didn’t want to wait and had their kids in grad school have had a lot harder time finding tenure-track jobs. Many have decided to follow their husband’s careers and stay home themselves. They also took longer to finish school, since few grad schools offer maternity leave at all, and certainly not for grad students.

    Honestly, it’s not rocket science. How hard is it to give decent maternity and paternity leave for students and professors? How about in-university day care? It shouldn’t be hard or controversial.

  2. Jenny Barker-Devine

    I recently realized that I am the only female tenure-track assistant professor at my institution with children. And out of 103 faculty, only 11 of the women have children under the age of 18. It stopped me in my tracks and I’m still not sure what to think about it.

  3. Michael

    Academia frowns on families. That’s been the experience of my wife and I, over and over again, since interviewing, where we were both asked, repeatedly on nearly all interviews, whether we had children, how old there were, etc. (yes, I know this is illegal). When we were expecting our fourth child (we had three in grad school), our colleagues thought we were insane. One indicated that I might undergo an operation and another told my wife that she should get an abortion. My wife fought many hard battles against her department to get tenure, both in the interim review and tenure review, where one colleague (a male) wrote in his letter of non-support that my wife’s first priority seemed to be her family, as though this was some sort of crime. She encountered, and still encounters not a few older women who did not bear children and who are now extremely bitter. Psychologists would have a field day.

  4. Gabrielle Spiegel

    One way around this dilemma is to have children while still in graduate school. I had both my children while a graduate student, when in fact I had a lot more control over my time than when I first started teaching. It meant it took me a year longer than my colleagues to complete the PhD., but actually made things easier after the PhD, since the children were not longer babies. This was in the late 60s and very early seventies ( I started teaching in 1972), when almost no women in graduate school (a small enough number in any case) were pregnant, but it actually worked well and is something to think about, especially since the age at which people are getting degrees is climbing.

    1. Ty Geltmaker

      What an odd way to think about life. I am pro choice, have a Ph.D. in history, have taught in NYC and LA as an adjunct, uncomfortable when female colleagues shared their abortion and fertility stories especially as part of their tenure plans.