The Ecology of the History Job: Shifting Realities in a Fluid Market

Robert B. Townsend, December 2011

Ask almost any historian employed in academia today, and they will tell you how lucky they are to have a job. The problems of the academic job market in history extend back to 1970, rising and falling through a series of seemingly intractable crises in every decade since. But the solutions, much like the problems, are not as simple or straightforward as they often appear. Bringing the number of new PhDs conferred each year into line with the number of new academic jobs that become available cannot in itself solve all the problems.

As a discipline, we need to get past the notion that the history job market is neatly characterized by the ratio of academic jobs to PhDs. Examining the relationship is important, as it does help us to see that the number of PhDs conferred in history has been fairly consistent—at about 1,000 per year for more than a decade—while the number of jobs has gone through a series of rather wild gyrations that generally follow the larger economy up and down (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of New History PhDs and Advertised Job Openings, 1970–71 to 2010–11

Figure 1But that is not the whole story. In many ways these two trend lines are much too simple as a description of the problem, as there are many other factors that actually shape the relationship between any two corresponding points. These include the number of new PhDs entering programs, the types of jobs they are prepared for, and a range of other potential shifts in academic employment that are slowly reshaping the careers and opportunities of those who find jobs.

One of the biggest challenges for students and the departments admitting them is the often dramatic changes that can take place between the time someone starts in a PhD program and the time someone actually finishes. As recently as 2008, for instance, there was every reason to be cautiously optimistic about where the job market was headed. For the first time in decades there were actually more history jobs than PhDs for two years running, and we had a record number of job postings in the discipline. Obviously since then things have turned quite bad, and this is not just in history but across much of higher education.

So it creates a real challenge for anyone trying to peer into the future and see where things are going, particularly at an individual level. And to the extent history doctoral students are trained to look narrowly only at jobs in colleges and universities, we are further facilitating new crises.

As a counterpoint, it may be more useful to start at the beginning, with a snapshot of the typical trajectory of students who enter doctoral programs. It is worth noting that only about half of the students who start in a PhD program will actually finish within 10 years (Figure 2). At the 10-year mark, departments estimate that only about 54 percent of their students have actually finished the program. Another 11 percent of the students who started a decade earlier are still counted as "in progress," but they are very not likely to finish after that point.1

Figure 2: Approximate Track of Doctoral Student Cohorts, from Matriculation to Completion, 1997 to 2007

Figure 2For students in each cohort who do complete their studies—which generally begins around five years after matriculation—a portion of the new PhDs move into transitional positions. These can range from adjunct positions to postdoctoral appointments. For a significant proportion this transition will be to a tenure-track position, but within the 10-year time horizon of this study, only about 31 percent of each PhD cohort can be traced from matriculation into tenure-track positions at a four-year institution.

A considerable number of the other students who finish their PhDs end up employed outside of traditional four-year college and university employment. For many of them, the transitional employment serves as a path leading out of the academy. As this indicates, within 10 years of starting a PhD less than a third of the students who started in the program a decade before are employed in the kinds of positions for which they have been acculturated and trained. And when one factors in the number of positions that are primarily focused on teaching, not research, the alignment between the training and employment of history PhDs seems even more out of balance.

Based on a series of surveys on the employment of history PhDs, it appears that about 67 percent of the employed population of history PhDs have jobs in academia (broadly construed here to include two-year colleges), 22 percent are employed in what are normally labeled as "public history" jobs, and the remaining 10 to 12 percent have gone on to jobs outside of history (Figure 3).2

Figure 3: Areas of Employment for History PhDs, 2010

Figure 3The Value of a Diverse System of PhD Programs

Given the fluctuations in the job market, why does the discipline keep admitting so many students? Part of the reason the number of doctoral students remains high, despite the continuing problems in academic placements, is the slow but steady increase in the number of programs conferring doctoral degrees in history (Figure 4). Over the past two decades—in a period when we passed through two substantial "crises" for academic employment—32 new programs have been established and just 6 have been eliminated.

Figure 4: Number of Departments Conferring History PhDs, 1900 to 2010

Figure 4In times like these there is often a tendency to focus on the new and less prestigious programs as a significant part of the problem, and to call for their elimination. But here again, the picture is more complicated. Newer programs tend to confer only a relatively small number of degrees. But more importantly, these programs represent an important part of the larger ecology of history employment.

A prestigious program such as the one at Harvard University tends to feed out to a national market, consisting largely of other PhD-granting departments (Figure 5). Meanwhile, a smaller program, such as the program at Central Michigan University, tends to serve a regional employment market—feeding graduates into nearby two- and four-year colleges that students from the more prestigious universities (at least in normal times) would rarely consider.3 The smaller programs also tend to provide a home for older avocational doctoral students, who often come with a job already in hand.

Figure 5: Movement of Graduates from Two History Doctoral Programs to Academic Employment in 2011

Figure 5As a third model, consider the program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This is a little closer to the Harvard program, in that its students are spread out fairly widely across the country. But while there are no Harvard PhDs at universities in the Wisconsin system outside of Madison, there were 21 PhDs from Madison at other schools in the state university system. It appears, therefore, that the ecology of history in higher education relies on a diverse array of PhD programs, and not just on the elite programs to fulfill the need for history doctoral students in the broad system of higher education.

The picture is further complicated by the often wide disparities in interests among doctoral students. Almost a third of all students earning history PhDs are working in the field of 20th-century U.S. history, but only about 20 percent of the typical history department faculty are experts in that field. In comparison, the number of students earning degrees in the history of the Middle East is consistently lower than the number of available jobs. Those kinds of differences further complicate efforts to assess the market through a simple comparison of the total number of jobs and PhDs.

Feeding Growth through Undergraduate Education

History needs a healthy system of well-trained teaching faculty to support high-quality teaching in the discipline. It is important to keep in mind that, for all the hills and valleys in the trend line for academic jobs, the actual number of historians teaching full-time, on the tenure track, at four-year colleges and universities, has actually grown at a fairly steady rate over the past 30 years. As of 2009, there were almost 16,000 full-time history faculty in the United States—a historical high, and nearly double the number of historians the AHA estimated in academia 30 years ago (Figure 6).4

Figure 6: Approx. Number of Full- and Part-time History Faculty at Four-year Colleges and Universities, 1979 to 2009

Figure 6The use of adjunct and contingent faculty in history and other disciplines undercuts the number of positions in field, but it has not prevented substantial growth in the number of tenure-track jobs. The number of faculty in part-time and contingent positions grew at essentially the same rate as full-time employment, generally staying at about 40 percent of the total history faculty population over the past 20 years.

The overall growth in the number of history positions was based on a number of changes in history's place in higher education, the most visible of which is the sharp rise in the number of students majoring in history. Behind this was a substantial change in the way history fit into the core requirements of higher education. In the 1970s history was pushed out of the general education requirements at many universities, and as fewer and fewer students had occasion to take history at the college level, the number of majors declined sharply. When colleges added history back into their core requirements, the discipline was able to draw more students back into taking history as their major, which led in turn to more students taking upper level courses, and a greater need for faculty to teach those courses.

Given the rise in full-time employment, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on part-time employment as undercutting opportunities for full-time jobs in history. But we do need to be very conscious of the way the ecology of the history job market is built on contingent faculty. In a recent survey of department chairs, a number of them noted that the funds for contingent faculty were drying up faster than the funds for full-time faculty.5

As departments adjust by creating larger class sizes and a narrower selection of subjects for study, they may also be creating less appealing courses for undergraduates. If that continues, we have to worry about our continued ability to attract students into the upper-level courses that have helped to sustain and support the hiring of full-time and tenure track faculty.

Another important factor in the spate of hiring we saw between 2000 and 2008 was the effect of changing trends in retirement. The job crisis of the mid-1990s was built in part on the end of the mandatory retirement age. Following the formal end of mandatory retirement policies in 1986 there was a sharp increase in the proportion of faculty staying in their jobs past the age of 65, rising to almost 52 percent of the employed history faculty in 1995 (Figure 7). Many of the smart people who estimated that there would be a shortage of history PhDs back in the late 1980s were guessing that faculty would not stay on much past their eligibility for Social Security. But it became the new normal in history for faculty members stay on well into their 60s and even 70s.

Figure 7: Proportion of Full-time History Faculty 55 or Older, 1975 to 2010

Figure 7It was only in the 2000s that a large number of those older historians began to retire; when combined with the growing number of students earning undergraduate degrees in history, this led to the significant growth in hiring of the past decade. But this bulge of faculty at or near retirement is now fairly low (below 40 percent in the most recent Directory), which raises another caution flag for future hiring in the discipline. In recent years the proportion of faculty at the senior ranks has stabilized and is beginning to rise again, as historians hired over the past 15 years ascend in the profession. Recent hiring freezes also play a part, as they limit the number of new junior faculty to be hired. But very few of the department chairs surveyed last fall were willing to guess when they might be hiring again.

The Humanities Effect in History Salaries

One other change in the ecology of the academic job market is worth noting, as history salaries are now suffering from the "humanities effect." As history has become more closely identified with the humanities over the past 25 to 30 years, history salaries have fallen below the average for all disciplines.

Back in the mid-1980s—when history was more closely aligned with the social sciences—history was above the average in academia. Since then, the discipline has fallen decisively below the average and now stands close to the other humanities fields such as English and Foreign Languages.6

The disciplinary shift from affiliation with social sciences—often made tangible through administrative shifts of history departments from their universities' School of Social Science—had a direct effect on the resources available to departments. When combined with the large number of PhDs competing for a smaller number of jobs, wages in the discipline have been depressed for members of our discipline.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that the academic job market, particularly the four-year college market, is not the only reality for someone looking for a job with a PhD. Aside from trapping many doctoral candidates in a sense that they are stuck relying on the vicissitudes of a very hazardous situation in academia, it also tends to blind many students to the fact that there are a significant number of new job areas and opportunities opening up for people with history PhDs, particularly in the area of public history.

As we look forward to the future, the discipline needs to develop a more balanced approach to the situation—one that takes into consideration the full range of needs and opportunities that history PhDs can serve.

Robert Townsend is the AHA's deputy director. This essay is based on presentations at the 2011 AHA annual meeting, and to graduate students at George Mason University, West Virginia University, and the University of Wisconsin.


1. Data based on an annual survey of history doctoral programs over the past six years. Described in Robert B. Townsend, "Job Market Sagged Further in 2009-10," Perspectives on History (January 2011). The data here takes into account the departments' subsequent downward adjustments in the tabulations of matriculated students five and ten years earlier.

2. I hedge a bit here because the definition of history-related employment outside of academia can be rather flexible, depending on who is doing the defining. The data for this estimates is based on an extrapolation from the findings of the final Survey of Doctoral Recipients (in 1995), as supplemented by subsequent AHA surveys of placements from history doctoral programs, a multi-Association survey of public historians, and Maresi Nerad, et al, Social Science PhDs 5 Years Out (Seattle, Washington: Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education, 2007).

3. The program at Central Michigan University is singled out here because a 2005 analysis of the ratio of recent PhDs to faculty with degrees from each program employed in departments listed in the Directory of History Departments found that CMU had the highest placement rate. This is not entirely fair to the more prestigious programs, which admit a much higher proportion of foreign students (who will often take degrees back to their home countries), and whose students often find employment in departments other than history. This again highlights some of the ambiguities, even where the numbers can seem quite straightforward.

4. Comparison between data in the AHA Directory of History Departments and Survey of the Historical Profession, 1979-80: Summary Report (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1980).

5. Robert B. Townsend, "History under the Hammer Department Chairs Report Effects of Economic Woes," Perspectives on History (January 2011).

6. Robert B. Townsend, "History Faculty Salaries Fall Behind Inflation and the Rest of Academia," Perspectives on History (May 2011).