The Many Careers of History PhDs: A Study of Job Outcomes, Spring 2013

A Report to the American Historical Association

By L. Maren Wood and Robert B. Townsend

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Table of Contents

IntroductionResearch MethodologyCareers in the ProfessoriateCareers beyond the ProfessoriateEvidence of Change in the Job MarketField Specializations Mark Significant DifferencesKey Differences between ProgramsGenderMobility and the Academic Job Market • Conclusion

A Visualization of Job Titles for 2,500 History PhDs Who Graduated between 1998 and 2009


Earning a doctoral degree in history presents a range of choices, starting with questions about where and what to study, and how to pay for the effort. Too often those choices have to be made with a significant amount of guesswork as to their potential outcomes. As part of the American Historical Association’s assessment of careers for history PhDs, the authors of this study undertook a detailed analysis of the current employment held by 2,500 history PhDs, all of whom earned their degrees between 1998 and 2009.1 In brief, we found that:

  • The overall employment rate for history PhDs was exceptionally high: only two people in the sample appeared unemployed, and none of them occupied the positions that often serve as punch lines for jokes about humanities PhDs—as baristas or short order cooks.
  • Figure 1Just over half of the PhDs in our sample—50.6 percent—were employed on the tenure track at a four-year institution, and another 2.4 percent held tenure-track positions at two-year colleges (Figure 1).
  • Specialists in US history were nearly 25 percent less likely to be employed on the tenure track than were specialists in other fields, but significantly more likely to be employed in history work outside the professoriate.
  • Receiving a PhD from a top-ranked institution improved the odds of making it onto the tenure track at a research university.
  • Gender played little role in employment patterns across particular professions and industries.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the PhDs in academic positions remained in or near the region in which they earned their degrees, but faculty who remained in the same region as their doctoral studies were significantly more likely to be employed off the tenure track.

Our findings can only show a snapshot of employment at one moment in time, clarifying the recent shape of the job market for history PhDs, and providing guidance to doctoral programs, graduate students, and newly minted PhDs pondering their futures.

Research Methodology

To identify the career paths of recent history PhDs, the AHA hired Maren Wood (Lilli Research Group) to track down the current employment of a random sample of 2,500 PhDs culled from a total of 10,976 history dissertations reported to the AHA’s Directory of History Departments and Historical Organizations from May 1998 through August 2009. The AHA’s Directory Editor, Liz Townsend, compared the data to employment information in the AHA Directory—which lists academic faculty—and the Association’s membership lists, and Wood used publicly available information on the Internet. Data was collected during February and March of 2013, and reviewed in June and July. Together, AHA staff and Maren Wood identified current employment or status information, as of spring 2013, on all but 70 members of the sample group.

We located people through digital research using publicly available data, most often gleaning a person’s employment information from university, company, or organization websites and directories. For stay-at-home parents and those who had retired, information was found through volunteer organizations, Facebook, newspaper stories, and personal blogs. We supplemented this data with academic and government conference programs and publications. We made limited use of LinkedIn and departmental newsletters; these are good places to start, but self-titled employment may differ from organization or university categories. For example, an adjunct faculty member identified as a “professor” on LinkedIn may not be employed as full-time, permanent faculty at their institution.

For each person in our sample, we collected an employer name and job title as described by the university, organization, or business, and used this information to categorize people into career sectors used by the AHA in previous studies. For the purposes of identifying the status of history doctorates in relation to society as a whole, it made sense to use place of employment as a primary variable: we wanted to know where history PhDs are working. But we also wanted to know what they are doing, and to get at this dimension, we looked at the titles and functions of people within their organizations.

Three categories may require further explanation:

  • Higher education administration includes only those who are primarily administrators; tenured faculty who have taken on additional administrative positions are categorized as tenured faculty; university librarians are categorized under “Library/Museum/Archive.”
  • Library/Museum/Archive includes people who work in federal, state, and local government; private museums and archives; and colleges and universities. We tabulated this category separately—regardless of the institution’s placement in other academic or governmental sectors—because it is commonly assumed to be an area where history PhDs can find employment.
  • Government includes any person employed in a federal, state, or local government agency. These include program directors, managers, researchers, diplomats, military personnel, and politicians. Excluded from “government” are those working at federal and state libraries, museums, and archives, because we wanted to test the assumption that history PhDs can find employment in these institutions. Thus, we categorized someone working at the National Archives under Library/Museum/Archive.

From the data gathered, we then imputed field specializations for the authors of each dissertation using their titles, advisor’s field of specialization, and area of expertise reported in their current employment. Additional demographic information on each PhD’s doctoral program and academic employer was then added from the National Research Council’s A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States (2011), and the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System’s institutional characteristics data file.

A small number of the PhD recipients surveyed (just 1.1 percent of the total sample) had already retired, indicating that they earned the degree as a late-in-life avocational project, in most cases at non-elite public universities. Finally, a small proportion of PhDs (1.2 percent) suffered some form of deep personal misfortune (either death or incarceration).

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1. Research for this study was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.