Evidence of Change in the Job Market

This study can only provide a snapshot of the employment picture at one moment in time. But by breaking the sample into three 4-year groupings, based on the academic years in which the sample’s PhDs received their degrees, our findings suggest some of the changes in employment prospects and the job market over the past 15 years.

Figure 2Colleges and universities employed 53.1 percent of the cohort that earned their degrees from 1998 to 2001 as tenured or tenure-track faculty, and another 13.5 percent as non-tenure-track faculty (Figure 2). For the 2002 through 2005 cohort, who graduated during a period when job advertisements were generally rising, 56.0 percent found employment on the tenure track; another 15.1 percent remained off the tenure track. Among those with PhDs earned from 2006 through 2009, 49.5 percent were on the tenure track; another 25.6 percent were employed in non-tenure-track positions.

It is difficult to say how the comparatively high proportion of non-tenure-track faculty found in the most recent cohort might compare to a “normal” job market, unencumbered by the budget cuts and hiring freezes of the recent recession. Nevertheless, the fact that 13.5 percent of the earliest cohort still appeared to be employed primarily in adjunct and contingent faculty positions more than 11 years after earning their degrees suggests the persistence of those posts, despite their limited salaries and conditions.

A few trends stand out in the patterns of employment outside the professoriate. The proportion of each cohort employed outside of faculty positions was larger the more time that had elapsed from the date on their degrees (21.5 percent in the most recent PhDs in the sample versus 23.7 percent in the middle cohort and 26.0 percent in the earliest cohort). The federal government appeared to be the area of employment with the largest difference (2.4 percent as compared to 3.5 percent) in the proportion of PhDs furthest from the degree (Table 2). The proportion employed in business was also larger, but only among the most distant cohort of PhDs (3.5 percent compared to 2.7 percent among both of the earlier cohorts).

Table 2The proportion of history PhDs in academic administration positions without faculty appointments was higher among earlier graduates. In interviews for previous studies, a few history PhDs described growing weary with the “grind” of classwork, but still wanting to stay in academia, and so choosing to take up administrative posts instead. That may be behind the small differences evident among the three cohorts: 2.1 percent among those who graduated three to seven years ago compared to 3.9 percent of the earliest cohort.

A significant portion of faculty members in the recent cohort now employed off the tenure track will likely shift into other employment sectors over time, thereby more closely resembling the employment pattern of the earlier cohort. Variation in the proportion of history PhDs off the tenure track was evident across the three groupings in our snapshot, data that accords with the 2004 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty and the AHA’s surveys of job advertisers, which show a significant drop in hires to tenure-track jobs five years after completion of the PhD.6

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6. In the 2004 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, the proportion of part-time faculty in history who had earned their degree within the previous four years was twice as high as the proportion of full-time faculty with degrees over that span. Data tabulated using the Department of Education’s DAS Online system. On the results of past surveys of advertisers, see Robert B. Townsend, “The PhD Gap: Worrisome Trends in the Hiring of Junior Faculty,” AHA Today.