Key Differences between Programs

While the selection of a subject for study correlated with a significant difference in the PhDs’ career outcomes, their choice of programs also correlated with substantially different occupational paths in the years after graduation. The rankings of history PhD programs are properly viewed with suspicion, since it is not clear what rankings truly measure—the type of students that programs admit and support, the quality of their preparation of graduate students, the productivity of their faculty, or simply the name recognition of a few departmental stars. Regardless of what they actually measure, our study found that the most recent rankings of history PhD programs from the National Research Council (NRC) correlate to outcomes on the academic job market.8

Figure 4The program conferring a degree made a significant difference in the academic career opportunities of its students. We found 59.1 percent of the graduates from universities in the top quartile of the National Research Council’s 2007 rankings held positions on the tenure track, as compared to 57.8 percent of graduates from the second tier, and 41.9 percent from the third tier and below. The differences can be seen across the four largest subject fields, with tenure track employment about one-third lower among graduates from institutions in the bottom quartile (Figure 4).

The quartiles’ broad averages can be deceptive. The top five schools in the NRC rankings all had placement rates onto the tenure track of around 75 percent. Conversely, all of the students from three of the sample’s smaller, lower-rated institutions (accounting for 26 students) were found on the tenure track. In the end, our findings suggest that a wide variety of variables come into play in the match between a specific candidate and the available jobs in any given year (or years) on the job market. Earning a PhD from a particular institution or in particular field of specialization neither guarantees success nor proves an insurmountable barrier to securing a tenured faculty position.

Figure 5A significant difference between the top tier and the rest lies in the proportion of PhDs working off the tenure track at four-year colleges and universities. While 13.1 percent of PhDs from top-tier programs were teaching in two-year programs or employed in non-tenure-track positions at four-year institutions, over 20 percent of the PhDs from institutions at the other ranks were similarly employed (Figure 5).

The proportion of PhDs employed in non-faculty positions remained relatively consistent across the rankings at around 25 percent of students from each quartile. PhDs from top-ranked institutions were almost twice as likely to be employed in business as were those from other programs, while graduates from lower-ranked programs were more likely to be employed in government at the local, state, or federal level. Students from the lowest-ranked programs were also much more likely to be self-employed or independent researchers.

Part of the difference between quartiles may be attributable to the types of students who complete different programs. A much larger proportion of PhDs from the lower-ranked programs were retired—nearly four times the proportion of PhDs from the top programs—suggesting that top-tier programs housed significantly younger populations, on average, than the others.

The perceived quality of a program made a modest difference among field specializations. For instance, 54.0 percent of the specialists in North American history from top-quartile departments had tenure-track positions, more than 10 percentage points higher than the placement from programs in the bottom of the rankings (43.3 percent).

Across most other subject fields, PhDs from programs in the ranking’s top quartile were significantly more likely to have tenure-track jobs at four-year institutions than their counterparts from institutions in the ranking’s bottom half—a difference of almost 75 percent among specialists in Asian and European history. The gap between the top- and bottom-ranked institutions in the proportion of their PhDs with jobs on the tenure track was less than 30 percent for specialists in Latin American, African, and Middle East history.

Figure 6The program conferring the degree also made a difference in the types of academic institutions in which history PhDs found employment—raising important questions about the varieties of career preparation students should receive. PhDs are prepared primarily for jobs with a heavy research component, even though academic institutions may have widely varying expectations about the proper balance between publication and teaching.9 Our findings show that graduates of top-ranked programs were far more likely to be working at a research university (Figure 6). While 34 percent of the students from top-ranked programs (just over half of those working in academia) found employment at institutions characterized by the Carnegie Foundation as supporting “high levels of research activity,” less than 21 percent of the history PhDs from other programs had positions at research-intensive institutions.

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8. For this study, we used the R rankings in Jeremiah P. Ostriker, Charlotte V. Kuh, and James A. Voytuk, eds., A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011), broken out into four quartile groups. Unranked programs tabulated separately, but averaged with programs in the bottom half of the rankings where appropriate.

9. On the primacy of publication in the preparation of history PhDs, see Thomas Bender et al., The Education of Historians for the 21st Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), which “found that graduate departments rank preparing students for research as their most important educational task.” On the differential expectations for faculty among particular institutions types, see Robert B. Townsend, “What Makes a Successful Academic Career in History? A Field Report from the Higher Ranks,” Perspectives on History (December 2012).