Historians and the Job Market

Robert E. Wright, D. A. Jeremy Telman, Dino DelGallo, and Marshall Poe, May 2000

To the Editor:

When Professor Burnham ("Historians Have the 'Job Market' All Wrong," Perspectives online, April 2000) tenders his resignation so that he may pursue the more financially and intellectually rewarding experience of being a freelance historian, I will gladly assume his professorship.

The simple fact is that there exists little incentive for earning a PhD in history unless one can expect to receive a tenure-track professorship. In seven years one could earn an MA in history, an MBA, and a JD and enter the business world in any big way one may desire.

From the perspective of "classical economics," the academic job market is completely flawed. Despite the huge number of qualified applicants, departments engage in what economists call "nonprice rationing." In other words, hiring decisions are based on Lord knows what criteria, but applicants are not allowed to bid for jobs. The qualified applicants, in other words, are not being treated as equals—"perfect substitutes" in economic lingo. Minor, superficial differences between candidates, departmental power struggles, and other arbitrary criteria distinguish the "successful" from the "unsuccessful" candidates.

Has anyone noticed that the average salary for new faculty is increasing? Were the laws of supply and demand allowed their play, wages should have dropped precipitously. If that ever occurs, jobless historians would have to decide how much income they are willing to forgo in exchange for the privilege of teaching and tenure. At some point, say maybe $25,000 per year, alternative nonacademic jobs would begin to appear attractive and the pressure on the academic job market would be relieved. Surely Professor Burnham does not expect qualified historians to stop applying for jobs that offer higher pay, much better benefits, and much higher prestige?

This job market game, in other words, is clearly not being played within the rules of classical economics, it is being played within the rules of politics.

—Robert E. Wright
Charlottesville, Va.

To the Editor:

As a European history PhD who repeatedly struck out on the academic job market and has, at the age of 36, begun a new career, I read with interest John C. Burnham's essay. While I agree with much of Burnham's analysis, I do not think that the ills of the profession will be significantly reduced if PhDs seek employment as "postacademic historians"—hired as public historians or as private historians having "tenure" at AT&T.

First, while I agree with Burnham that the skills one acquires in a PhD program are useful in professional settings outside of the academy, traditional PhD programs are not well-equipped to train students efficiently in these skills. A program that focuses more intensively on professional training would better prepare aspiring historians to do the kinds of work that Burnham describes. Rather than encouraging more students to spend years writing dissertations that very few people will read, the historical profession could better achieve Burnham's goals by bolstering MA programs. This means that the professors who teach in these programs have to recognize, as Burnham does, that they are not exclusively training young people who will devote their lives to teaching and research in the academy. These programs must include, as faculty members who are central to the programs' missions, professional historians who work as museum curators, local historians, archivists, and the like. The focus of the program should be professional training that will prepare students for a broad spectrum of jobs related to history.

The second problem with Burnham's proposed solution is that it fails to recognize that many people pursue PhDs because they are interested in academic positions and have no interest in in-house positions at AT&T. These aspiring PhDs often have intellectual ambitions that they believe, rightly or wrongly, could not be achieved outside of the academy. Such people are unlikely to derive satisfaction from being "the only person in [the] office who knows how to look things up."

Burnham suggests that we cannot know whether the current decline in permanent, full-time teaching positions will continue. I hope that he is right and that universities will begin to create numerous new tenure-track lines in history departments. Until there is clear evidence of such a trend, however, it is irresponsible for universities to accept more students into PhD programs than they can expect to place in the types of jobs that those students seek. Getting a PhD is a costly endeavor, not only because graduate students are consigned to poverty and indebtedness while they pursue their degrees, but also because the PhD delays entry into the work force by seven years. Students who want to pursue the kinds of careers that Burnham describes should be able to prepare for those careers in high-quality professional programs that culminate in a masters degree. PhD programs are better suited for students who are exclusively interested in teaching in the academy. However, because teaching positions are difficult to obtain, PhD programs in history should be small—both in quantity and class size.

—D. A. Jeremy Telman
Coral Gables, Fla.

To the Editor:

I must applaud Burnham's viewpoints concerning the future of historians in "today's" environment. In an atmosphere of bleak job prospects and slowly diminishing enthusiasm among peers within our own field, it is refreshing to read accounts of what historians are trained to do and how this translates into other job markets.

I am a slowly aging, late entry into the historical field—now a graduate student at George Mason University. I have not followed the traditional route into historical training but have been employed in the private and public sector while working on my degree. If anything, Burnham's article is a positive reinforcement for someone in my particular position. I am also a realist. I know too well that I will never achieve a tenured position at a university. However, Burnham has provided a radically different examination of why we become historians in the first place and why this field of study is important for a variety of professions.

—Dino DelGallo
Sterling, Va.

To the Editor:

I applaud Burnham's attempt to confront the issue of the job crisis, but I find much of his argument incomprehensible. Burnham, from the lofty confines of a professorship at a well-endowed state university, seems to be blaming the victims of the job crisis themselves. The implication of his analysis is that unemployed PhDs in history (and, by extension, their advisers) are both careerists and snobs.

They are careerists in Burnham's mind because they think of historical study as a means to a material end, namely, academic employment. But, Burnham protests, the disappointed academic job-seeker must understand that "history is not an economic activity." "Doing history is an intellectual activity and enterprise," he writes. Burnham builds a lofty ivory tower indeed. To imply that graduate students and unemployed PhDs are somehow sullying scholarship by hoping for employment in an academic environment is hypocritical, for I imagine that he receives more than simple intellectual gratification for his good work at Ohio State University. It is demonstrably false that most—or even any—unemployed PhDs in history were in pursuit of gold or prestige when they entered graduate school. If they were, they were seriously misguided. Just consider the opportunity costs of pursing a career in history, versus, say, business or law. In history, the novice stands a one-in-two chance of never working at any academic institution, prestigious or not; in business or law, he or she is absolutely assured of wealth and, very likely, prestige or at least high regard.

Burnham assures us that historical study for its own sake is not "unrealistic" because there is a veritable ocean of demand for the skills of a history PhD. And with this we come to the implication that unemployed history PhDs are snobs. For, according to Burnham, the entire notion that there is a job crisis is the result of elitist attitudes toward employment outside the academy. If the whining unemployed mass and their advisers would just get off their high horses and look around, they would see that there are plenty of jobs for history PhDs. Again, there is a whiff of hypocrisy in Burnham's high-minded insistence that the historian teaching in grade school (one of Burnham's suggestions for the unemployed PhD) would be as esteemed as the historian teaching in a university. Historians, accept it or not, are highly trained specialists who should be working in a professional capacity. And, like it or not, the only place a medieval French historian (for example) can truly ply his or her craft is in academia. It is hardly snobbish to hope for and even expect that, having made huge sacrifices for one's profession, one should be allowed to practice that profession.

But, Burnham says, the unemployed French medievalists can put their skills to work outside the academy, if they would just open their eyes. And what sorts of employment does Burnham have in mind? All of his examples seem to indicate that the broad-minded, antielitist history PhD he imagines can look forward to a career of what might be called office work. I agree completely with Burnham that such work is no less valuable than his own as a history teacher and researcher. But that is not the point. The point is that one need not spend the better part of one's youth living in poverty and sitting in libraries to gain the skills necessary to do office work very effectively (and profitably). Burnham offers the example of a history PhD working in an "action agency" whose degree gave her the skills to "look things up." "Historians," Burnham tells us, "ought to be able to look things up better than anyone." Perhaps I'm unusual in this regard, but I was well able to "look things up" when I graduated from high school, that is, before I had invested about a decade learning everything there was to know about Russian history. Had I immediately begun to pursue a career in "looking things up" when I graduated from Wichita Southeast, I would be a considerably richer man today (though perhaps, as Burnham suggests, intellectually poorer). I think that Burnham misunderstands the nature of historical training, for it really provides a system of knowledge rather than a set of unusual (and marketable) skills. Graduate school taught me about Russian history, not how to "look things up." And when I was in the habit of perusing the want ads, the only jobs I found that required an extensive knowledge of Russian history appeared, oddly enough, in Perspectives.

And this brings us to Burnham's suggestion that graduate schools should continue to accept masses of history students, rather than curtailing admissions to ease the pressure on the academic job market. Now Burnham is not only blaming existing victims, but seeking to create new ones. Burnham properly warns us against predicting trends, but I will go out on a limb and predict that most bright students will matriculate in the big history programs for two reasons—because they want to study history and because they want to be professional historians working in colleges and universities. Wishing that this were otherwise or suggesting that history PhDs can find rewarding employment as grade-school teachers will not change this fact. If we follow Burnham's prescription, we will continue to make the mistake history departments have made for two decades—knowingly training students who are bound to be horribly disappointed when their dream of an academic job is shattered. This is frankly irresponsible. The senior faculty in history departments created the job crisis by producing too many PhDs. It's time they remedied the situation by bringing supply into proportion with demand.

—Marshall Poe