Publication Date

January 1, 2002

A Depressing Job Market?

To the Editor:

I’m writing in response to the report on the state of the job market by Robert Townsend in the December 2001 issue of Perspectives. While the job market picture, despite the improvements cited in the article, remains rather dismal, the assertion in the first paragraph that “1ess than half of all history PhDs will find employment in the academy” seems unduly alarming. A 50 percent unemployment rate would be disastrous in any field, and such statements can only’ depress the already low morale of current graduate students. The statement should be qualified if it means, as I ‘suspect it does, that only a minority of candidates will find jobs immediately upon leaving graduate school. I would encourage the AHA to supplement this study with another to examine how many of those unemployed graduates have found academic employment five years after degree completion, and I think that a different, somewhat less depressing picture would emerge. What we are witnessing, I would argue, is a changing career path, brought on by the now decades-old job market crisis.

As the article demonstrates, a majority of history graduate students continue to receive their doctorates in either American or modem European history. These are still the largest fields in the profession, but due to years of "overproduction," they are also the most crowded, with many job openings, to be sure, but also with far too many candidates chasing them. New PhDs in these fields, no matter how qualified, often fail to get jobs in their first year on the market because of the backlog of unemployed, but more experienced, scholars ahead of them. This does not mean that they will not find employment in the academy, however, but rather than another hurdle has been added to the already arduous path toward a tenure track position. Many of them will succeed, in subsequent years.

My own experience, I think, is indicative of this change. Although I received my degree from one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, with a recommendation from the then-president of the AHA, no less, I came up empty on my first go-round on the market, at the 1999 AHA annual meeting. In the year that followed, I worked frantically to make myself more marketable, presenting my work at five conferences, drafting four articles from outtakes of my dissertation, two of which were later published, and revising my dissertation for publication, all the while teaching part-time at three separate institutions. The next time around, I was invited for 13 interviews at the AHA Job Register (an unlucky number, as none of them netted me a job offer), but as the annual cycle was winding down, I was called for a campus interview at my current institution. Finally, after well over a 100 applications, two years removed from graduate school, and a book contract for my revised dissertation in hand, I received a job offer.

My experience is far from unique, and demonstrates, I think, how much the goalposts have shifted in the past 10 to 20 years. "Publish or perish" used to mean that one had to publish a monograph or several scholarly articles to get tenure; now it seems to mean that one must have a strong publication record to get a tenure-track job in the first place. It is possible to begin a successful career even under such adverse circumstances, but an unusual amount of patience, effort, and—dare I say?—masochism are needed to bridge the growing gap between degree completion and regular employment.

My advice to current graduate students, and to those now struggling on this difficult job market, is to keep trying, and to do everything in their power to tum their dreams into reality. It isn't easy, and it may well not be fair, but it is possible. The door to full time employment may appear to be locked, but if one pounds on it enough times, it will eventually cave in. Take heart, and best of luck.

New College of Florida

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