Publication Date

April 1, 1997

Signs of difficulty in the job market for history Ph.D.’s can be found on both sides of the interview table. At this year’s AHA Job Register, one search committee chair echoed the lament of many of his colleagues when he noted, “It’s sad that there are so many highly qualified applicants, and so few jobs.” And one job applicant, reiterating the complaints of many of his peers, described his three years on the academic job market as “completely dehumanizing.”

The pessimism they describe on a personal level is widely shared in the profession. The concerns heard at the Job Register were borne out in an AHA survey of department chairs conducted last fall. More than one-third of the chairs who responded expected fewer job openings in their departments in the next five years, and 20 percent doubted whether their college or university would allow them to replace one or more of their retiring faculty. Only one-quarter of the department chairs anticipated a net increase in their departments’ faculties. The news is no less troubling on the supply side. A survey of chairs of Ph.D.-granting departments supported other data that the AHA has collected, which indicates that Ph.D. production will remain at its current elevated level for another five to seven years.

Evidence shows that the problem in the job market is not long-term unemployment of new history Ph.D.’s—the most recent survey by the National Research Council (NRC) found less than 4 percent unemployment, even among recent Ph.D.’s. Recent Ph.D.’s still appear to be finding employment, even well-paid employment—as a group, history Ph.D.’s are the best paid in the humanities, according to the NRC.1

Rather, much of the current hardship arises from the disparity between the way new history Ph.D.’s are trained and prepared as opposed to where many new Ph.D.’s are likely to find employment. By and large, today’s history Ph.D.’s have been trained to work in the environment that produced them, the research university, even though an ever-decreasing number of them—fewer than two-thirds in the NRC survey—ultimately find jobs in the academy. When this disparity is combined with the widening gap between new Ph.D.’s and new jobs in the academy, a sense of crisis seems inevitable.

The more immediate cause of the current job crisis is the 36 percent increase in the annual production of history Ph.D.’s since 1991, and the lack of corresponding growth in the number of history job openings. As noted in the sidebar on page 9, this divergence between Ph.D.’s and jobs is neither unprecedented nor is it the largest disparity the profession has suffered. Contrary to what many in the profession believe, the steep competition for academic history jobs appears only marginally related to a real reduction in the number of history faculty. A number of recent AHA surveys indicate that although some departments have suffered painful reductions—particularly at state institutions in California and New York—these have had little effect on the total number of full-time academic history jobs available.

Despite the impressions and experiences of many in the academy, the underlying data suggest some good news. Given a recent sharp rise in the number of undergraduate history students and the large segment of the history professoriate approaching retirement age, the recent pattern of modest increases in history jobs most likely will continue.

AHA Survey of Department Chairs

To assess the demand side of the market, the Association surveyed 623 history departments listed in the 1996 Directory of History Departments and received responses from 335 departments (54 percent). Department chairs were asked to quantify the number of job openings in their departments resulting from retirements or from the creation of new job lines in the past five years. Chairs were also asked to provide estimates of the same for the next five years. According to the respondents, in the past five years history departments averaged almost 2.4 retirees, and lost a quarter of the job lines that were vacated. On average, less than one new job line was created per department (Table 1).

When compared to their estimates of the past five years, the chairs’ predictions for the next five years were fairly pessimistic. Most respondents anticipated a reduction in the creation of new jobs, a slowdown in the retirement rate, and uncertainty about how many openings (if any) schools and universities will allow them to fill.

The anticipated reduction in retirements may not mean a real reduction in openings, however. For example, California’s state universities recently bought out (but did not replace) a significant number of tenured faculty. This skewed the retirement figure for the past five years slightly higher, and explains the anticipated rise in the proportion of retirees that will be replaced—the attrition from retirement is expected to fall from 23 percent to 15 percent. There is strong evidence from the NRC and data in the Directory of History Departments that a large segment of the history professoriate is rapidly approaching retirement age. But the pessimism indicated in the survey of department chairs raises important questions about whether these faculty will retire when expected (particularly given the absence of a mandatory retirement age), and whether departments will be allowed to replace their retirees. In follow-up conversations with department chairs, a significant number indicated that their departments had been specifically targeted for reductions by their college or university administration—in many cases, even despite increased undergraduate enrollment and national recognition of the program. At the same time, the department chairs’ diminished expectations for future new job lines emphasizes the importance of faculty retirements in creating opportunities for recent and future Ph.D.’s.

Continued Problems on the Supply Side

The survey of department chairs (and related data in the Directory ) also indicates troubling news about the supply of new Ph.D.’s in the coming years. The competition for jobs is not likely to diminish, as history Ph.D.’s will continue to be produced at their present high levels for the next five to seven years.

New Graduate StudentsThe chairs of Ph.D.-granting programs were asked to assess the placement of their Ph.D.’s, describe any programmatic changes made to assist graduates in the job market, and indicate whether they have reduced or intend to reduce admissions to their programs. Two-thirds of the chairs said they had recently reduced admissions, typically either because of perceptions of the strained job market or in an effort to provide increased financial aid packages to their students. This is illustrated by data from the Directory that shows a significant drop in the admission of new graduate students to Ph.D. programs over the past two years. In the 1996–97 Directory , Ph.D.-granting departments reported they admitted 8 percent fewer new graduate students than they had estimated they would the year before.

This reduction follows a significant increase in admissions to Ph.D. programs between 1985 and 1993, however (Figure 1 ). The admission of graduate students to history Ph.D. programs rose almost 35 percent between 1985 and 1990. And even with the recent reductions, the number of new graduate students admitted to Ph.D. programs last year was still 22 percent higher than 10 years ago. The number of graduate students enrolled in these programs is now 39 percent higher, as well.

As an indicator of how significant this recent growth has been, it is worth noting that in 1989 William Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa suggested the need to increase humanities and social sciences Ph.D.’s (history included) by 45 percent between 1987 and 1997 to avoid a potential Ph.D. shortage in these areas. They expressed strong doubts about whether this could occur, and suggested a wide array of federal and institutional assistance to encourage such production. Even though few of their recommendations were implemented, the history discipline met and surpassed their projections, as Ph.D. production grew 51 percent between 1987 and 1995 (Figure 2).2 While all the other disciplines have increased Ph.D. production, only English and American language and literature surpassed the growth in history, as Ph.D.’s in that discipline rose 61 percent over the same period.

Given these large and sustained increases, and that it takes an average of almost nine years from admission to completion of the history Ph.D., merely limiting the number of new admissions is not a short-term solution to the job problem. The pipeline is already quite full, so it is not surprising that almost three-fourths of the program chairs indicated that their Ph.D. production would remain the same or grow over the next five years.

The Demographics of the Marketplace

In addition to the survey sent to department chairs, AHA staff also collected data from the Directory of History Departments for the past 10 years. These surveys highlight better (but still mixed) news for history job seekers. It is evident from the data that downsizing is one of the smallest causes of the current job crisis. The most positive news is early evidence of a wave of retirements from the large cohort of Ph.D.’s that entered the academy in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the data also support concerns about the increasing use of part-time and adjunct faculty.

Comparative Production of PhDsAlthough a great deal of attention has focused recently on the problem of downsizing, the number of full-time faculty actually appears to have increased in the past 10 years. A survey of faculty from the 447 departments listed continuously in the Directory for the past 10 years indicates that between 1986 and 1992, the number of full-time history faculty rose 3.5 percent. Between the 1991–92 and the 1996–97 editions of the Directory , there was a slight (0.5 percent) drop from the highs of 1991.

There have been wide regional differences in these changes, however, with the most notable growth occurring in the Southeast (Figure 3) . As noted in last month’s Perspectives , this growth is a mixed benefit, because fewer job seekers are seeking employment in that region.3 Nevertheless, notable reductions in California and New York appear more the exception than the rule. Fifty-two percent of the departments reported the addition of one or more full-time faculty members between 1986 and 1996, whereas only one-third reported a drop in full-time faculty over the same period.

The more significant changes occurred in the faculty composition, as retirements from the top ranks opened the way not only for more junior faculty but also for the use of more part-time and adjunct faculty. According to the NRC, history departments have had a disproportionately high proportion of senior faculty for quite a few years. In part, this reflects one of the oldest cohorts of faculty, particularly because of the large number of historians who entered the academy in the 1960s.4

According to data from the NRC and the most recent Directory , almost one-third of current history faculty entered the profession before 1970. The NRC reports that this cohort’s average age was 32 when they received their Ph.D.’s. Even without a mandatory retirement age, retirement rates should rise dramatically as these faculty approach and pass age 60.5

There is early evidence of this new wave of retirements in the rising proportion of junior faculty. In the past ten years, faculty at the assistant professor level rose from 17 to 22 percent of full-time faculty, whereas faculty at the full professor level fell from 52 to 49 percent of the faculty. When we take a more detailed look at all the departments listed in the Directory for the past two editions—tabulating all additions, deletions, and promotions—this trend appears to be accelerating. At the 626 U.S. departments listed, there were 189 fewer full and associate professors listed in the Directory than the year before—a 2 percent drop. At the same time, the number of assistant professors rose by 155, accounting for an 8 percent increase in faculty at that level. Given the limited creation of new job lines indicated in the survey of department chairs, the recent pattern of job growth can likely be attributed to this increase in retirements.

Proportion of Faculty by Rank/StatusUnfortunately, while recent retirements opened the door to new full-time faculty, they also cleared the way for the increased use of part-time faculty (Figure 4). When part-time, adjunct, and emeritus faculty are included in the survey, the total number of faculty in these departments grew almost 14 percent in the past 10 years. As a result, the proportion of full-time faculty fell from 88 to 77 percent of the historians affiliated with these departments.

As large as these changes are on the surface, the numbers likely mask a larger shift toward the use of part-time and adjunct faculty. Data from other surveys suggest that the listings of part-time and adjunct faculty in the 1991–92 and 1996–97 directories actually undercount the number of faculty in these categories by about 55 percent. Given the fluid and often ephemeral nature of such transient appointments, this is to be expected.

Increased Demand in the Classroom

One of the more positive signs in the Directory survey is the sharp rise in the number of undergraduate history students. Both the rise and the slight decline in the number of history faculty seem to have corresponded to similar directional shifts in the number of undergraduate history majors. Although the number of undergraduate majors is not a perfect predictor of demand for faculty in the classroom, it does serve as an indicator of demand for the overall program. The number of history majors at departments listed in the Directory rose dramatically—almost 33 percent—from 1985 to 1991 (Figure 5) . Note that this corresponded to an increase in the total number of B.A.’s produced in the same period.

Undergraduate MajorsGiven the smaller increases in faculty over the same period, the ratio of undergraduate history majors to faculty rose sharply and remains quite high. In 1986 the ratio of undergraduate majors to full-time faculty in the history departments averaged 6.75 students for every full-time faculty member. In the most recent Directory, the ratio rose to more than 10.25 to 1. The increase is less pronounced when part-time and adjunct faculty are included—from slightly more than 6 to 1 in 1986 to 8 to 1 in 1996—but the ratio still remains well above its level of 10 years ago.

In follow-up interviews with department chairs, a significant number said that their colleges and universities were simply willing to accept this situation. Jerry Combs of San Francisco State University observed that, “Given financial constraints, universities just increased the student-faculty ratio and accepted larger classes rather than hire new faculty to deal with the new student demands.” But many of the chairs who anticipate new job lines cited this rise in undergraduate support as cause for bringing in new faculty. And even a few of the more pessimistic department chairs cited increased student demand as staving off further reductions in their faculty. Moreover, although it cannot be quantified in the AHA surveys, a number of department chairs cited the reintegration of history surveys into the general education requirements at their college or university as important factors in maintaining or adding new faculty positions.

The slight decline in undergraduate majors over the past four years reflects a much deeper drop in undergraduate enrollments in the academy at large. However, the U.S. Department of Education projects significant increases in enrollment for the next 10 years.6 This does not necessarily mean there will be a commensurate increase in undergraduate history majors—the number of history majors fell dramatically in the 1970s even as total enrollment at colleges and universities remained fairly stable—but it does provide some grounds for encouragement.

Efforts to Assist Graduates

In fairness to the mentors of the current crop of Ph.D.’s and Ph.D. candidates, when history faculty encouraged students to pursue the Ph.D. five or ten years ago, they were using the best information available at the time.7 And as some of the positive news above indicates—such as increased undergraduate enrollment and rising retirement rates—many of the specific underlying projections proved to be correct. However, the predicted surplus of jobs has not and likely will not occur for other reasons, which have also been noted—the unanticipated large rise in Ph.D. production, the increased use of part-time faculty, and the willingness of institutions to accept larger class sizes rather than hiring new history faculty.

In response to the growing concerns about the job market, a few Ph.D.-program chairs indicated that they are developing new ways to prepare their graduates for the job market. Slightly more than half of the programs indicated that they have changed or will change the way they train and prepare their graduates to improve their opportunities on the job market. A quarter of the survey respondents are placing increased emphasis on teaching, and another 10 percent are encouraging their students to specialize more broadly in world history to improve their ability to teach comparative and survey courses. Other departments cited efforts to improve students’ preparation for the job search, or noted that they encourage and assist their students to publish at least a few articles. The AHA’s recent survey of those who advertised jobs in Perspectives last year strongly suggests that these efforts are well placed. Teaching ability and demonstrated scholarship rated very high in that survey as factors for selecting the candidates hired last year.8

In the face of growing concern about the job market, it may seem surprising that only about half of the departments are seeking new ways to assist their graduates. However, most programs (76 percent) indicated that over the last five years they were “very successful” or “successful” in the placement of their graduates in the academy. These assessments were largely based on the program chairs’ own expectations. Some smaller programs indicated that they were “very successful,” when the department placed nearly 50 percent of their graduates in the academy. In contrast, one larger program assessed its placement of 75 percent of its graduates in the academy as “less successful.”

As the subjective nature of these responses reflect, the job crisis is not just a problem of numbers, a simple balancing of Ph.D.’s and potential jobs. As indicated in the NRC figures above, employability is not the issue—history Ph.D.’s enjoy some of the lowest unemployment rates and highest pay in the humanities. Rather, the problem lies in the discrepancy between new Ph.D.’s and new academic jobs, since the measure of success, as well as the training and preparation of new history Ph.D.’s, is directed toward the academy.

This discrepancy might explain why the perceptions of the departments contrast so sharply with the perceptions of many of their recent and current graduate students. In surveys of Job Register applicants and graduate students on the H-Grad list, recent Ph.D.’s and current Ph.D. candidates expressed intense concern about their prospects on the job market and deep disappointment about the mentoring and preparation they received for current job searches. In most cases, these job seekers lamented their lack of readiness for specific aspects of the academic job market, such as job interviews and the grind of numerous applications, rejections, and journeyman appointments as part-time and adjunct faculty.

However, in a context in which one-third of history Ph.D.’s will likely never find full-time employment in the academy, it is quite troubling that fewer than half (47 percent) expressed satisfaction with their placement of graduates outside the academy. Despite their dissatisfaction in this area, one of the underlying assumptions that came through in the survey of Ph.D. program chairs is that the departments still focus on preparing their candidates for the traditional academic job market. Only three departments mentioned efforts to improve mentoring of their graduate students to include options outside the traditional academy.

In the 18 years since the NRC started tracking humanities Ph.D.’s, the proportion of employed Ph.D.’s working at four-year colleges and universities has dropped from 87 percent to 65 percent. Many of the Ph.D.-recipients working outside the traditional academy are still teaching—slightly more than 5 percent are now employed at two-year colleges and 4 percent at elementary or secondary schools. Many are using their skills outside a college or even a classroom setting, however; 6 percent are working at nonprofit organizations, 5 percent at for-profit companies, slightly less than 5 percent for the federal government, and slightly more than 4 percent are self-employed.9

In the absence of dramatic improvements in the academic job market, which do not appear to be on the horizon, the job crisis is likely to continue until graduate students are made aware of, and prepared for, the larger employment picture for history Ph.D.’s.


1. Linda Ingram and others, Humanities Doctorates in the United States: 1993 Profile (National Academy Press: Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 40 (Table 8).

2. William Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa, Prospects for Faculty in the Arts & Sciences (New York: Princeton University Press, 1989), 168.

3. See Robert B. Townsend, “Studies Report Mixed News for History Job Seekers,” Perspectives (March 1997): 7.

4. Ingram and others, 45, 34. And see Robert B. Townsend, “Survey Finds More Ph.D.’s, Less Success in Job Market,” Perspectives (April 1996): 11–15.

5. Bowen and Sosa, 198–99.

6. U.S. Department of Education, Summary Projections of Statistics to 2006 (Washington, D.C., 1996).

7. The Bowen and Sosa study above, which projected a significant shortage of Ph.D.’s relative to jobs, was only one of the studies cited to encourage students to pursue the Ph.D. See also Debra Blum, “Moderate Increase in Faculty Retirements Predicted in Study,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 4, 1990): A1; and John H. D’Arms, “Universities Must Lead Efforts to Avert Ph.D. Shortages,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 17, 1990): B1.

8. For more information on this survey see Robert B. Townsend, “Studies Report Mixed News for History Job Seekers,” Perspectives (March 1997): 7.

9. Ingram and others, 41.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.