The findings in this survey should provide useful takeaways for everyone with a role to play in the academic system. For prospective graduate students—particularly those looking toward faculty careers—we hope this study sheds light on the odds for making it into the job of your dreams, and variables that may factor into the outcome. Students interested in careers beyond the professoriate should recognize the versatility of a history education and know that they, too, can leverage their PhD into a meaningful career outside the academy.
For doctoral programs, we hope the results will help to clarify their roles in the ecology of the history profession, indicating the range of careers for which they should be preparing students. As the AHA’s Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) observed a decade ago, “Graduate students want a more complex education than most PhD programs are offering.”12 While the survey cannot tell us whether programs revised their curriculum to address concerns expressed by the CGE, the results demonstrate a diverse array of career outcomes for their graduates.
The research for this study can only assess where a specific cohort of PhDs were at a specific moment in time. While we can separate out certain characteristics that a particular segment of history graduates might have in common, further study is needed to assess the specific life choices that led the PhDs in our study from their degree to their current occupation. We cannot resolve many of the crucial push and pull factors shaping each career trajectory to this point—from the initial selection of a university and program of study on through the tribulations of an often-hazardous job market. One of the more interesting questions is how many of the history PhDs who aspired to academic jobs found them, and what became of those looking toward nonacademic jobs. We encourage the American Historical Association to work on follow-up surveys with PhDs from this cohort, which could explore these and other factors in their careers.
About the Authors
L. Maren Wood earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm.
Robert B. Townsend is the former deputy director of the American Historical Association, and author of History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880–1940 (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Additional assistance in the development of the data and this report was provided by Julia Brookins, Carolyn Fuqua, Allen Mikaelian, and Liz Townsend.