Field Specializations Mark Significant Differences

A closer look at employment patterns across field specializations reveals striking differences in the employment prospects of students in different fields. Specialists in the history of North America comprised slightly over half of all PhDs conferred during the period under study, but made up only 41.0 percent of the departmental faculty listed in the AHA’s directory of history departments.7 Given the difference between the distribution of history PhDs and the composition of departments, it is not surprising that a much smaller proportion of specialists in North American history (only 43.9 percent) were found in tenure-track positions at four-year colleges and universities (Figure 3).

Figure 3In comparison, 51.8 percent of PhDs specializing in European history, and 65.0 percent or more of specialists in the histories of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East and Islamic world found tenure-track employment in four-year institutions. The only field with proportions similar to North American history was world history, with 44.1 percent of PhD recipients holding tenure-track posts.

Given the sharply lower proportions in tenure-track positions, it will come as no surprise that commensurately larger segments of specialists in North American and world history hold non-tenure-track posts (19.4 percent and 26.5 percent, respectively). But within the sample frame, we also found a large segment of PhDs in African (24.5 percent) and European history (17.4 percent) employed in non-tenure-track positions.

While specialists in North American history were significantly less likely to be on the tenure track than were specialists in other fields, they were more likely to be employed in public history positions. Almost 10 percent of the Americanists in our sample (127 of 1,296) held positions allowing them to make direct use of their historical training. In comparison, only 4.1 percent of the specialists in other fields held public history jobs, ranging from 5.9 percent of world historians and 4.6 percent of European history specialists, down to none of the sample’s Africanists.

Viewed across the three cohorts, trends among particular fields follow the same pattern as the averages for all PhDs—with the proportion of those finding working in tenure-track positions clustered around the mean for their particular subject fields, and highest among those who earned their PhDs between 2002 and 2005. Among the specialists in Latin American history, for instance, 69.8 percent of PhDs from the 1999 to 2001 cohort held four-year tenure track positions, compared with 73.3 percent of PhDs from the middle cohort, and 52.9 percent of the 2006 to 2009 cohort.

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7. See Robert B. Townsend, “Decline of the West or the Rise of the Rest? Data from 2010 Shows Rebalancing of Field Coverage in Departments,” Perspectives on History (September 2011).