Publication Date

January 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Graduate Education

After hitting a low point in 1984–85, the number of new PhDs in history increased for the next three consecutive years, averaging a 3.5 percent annual rate of growth and ending twelve years of decline. Since graduate school enrollment data reported by the Council of Graduate Schools indicates growing enrollment in history and since data on BA and MA recipients from the Department of Education reveals a similar pattern, we assumed that upward curve would continue, nurtured by the improving job market and growing confidence in general about the profession. That is not the case, however, according to the most recent information available from the National Research Council. (See Table 1.) Data not yet published by NRC but made available this fall in NEH’s Humanities Deskbook reveal a dramatic drop in 1989 in the number of doctorates awarded in history—falling by 11.3 percent to 535, the lowest number in two decades.

According to NRC data, among the other social science and humanities disciplines, only political science and international relations experienced a similar drop in the number of new doctoral recipients. Overall, the number of new PhDs in the social sciences actually increased in 1989 by 3.2 percent, while growth in the humanities stalled with only a .1 percent increase. The latter is attributable to history—the number of new humanities doctorates other than in history increased by 2.5 percent in 1989. For all fields, NRC reports an increase of 2.6 percent, compared to an increase of 3.7 percent the previous year. In short, the decline in the number of new history doctorates cannot be explained as part of some larger downturn.

How then can this sudden change be explained? To be honest, we do not know. It may be that the 1989 drop is some sort of aberration or statistical fluke and that the 1990 data will be more consistent with the previous growth trend. But that may not happen, and we may find instead that 1989 marked a significant down shift in the profession’s growth rate. Since the average years to degree for doctorate recipients in history is 12.3, we should be able to trace that fall-off back to declining enrollments in the late 70s and early 80s. Unfortunately, the Council of Graduate Schools did not begin collecting discipline-specific data until fairly recently, but surveys conducted by the AHA covering the years 1979–82 indicate that, while enrollments were declining, there was no dramatic drop that would trigger the sudden reversal in 1989 in the growth rate of new doctorates. For example, 62.8 percent of graduate departments reported in 1980 that they had had stable or increased enrollment compared to the previous year. Moreover, while the previous downturn (1974) was preceded by a drop in BAs three years before and in MAs the previous year, there was no such prelude to the 1989 drop. (See Table 1.) Rather, the number of recipients of both degrees has continued to grow.

Perhaps the problem then is not the pipeline or declining enrollments but simply that there is less reason to complete the doctorate and enter the job market. Yet as the discussion below of the “demand” side indicates, there has been no reason for a sudden surge of pessimism in regard to employment prospects. Moreover, the NRC collects data on years to degree for doctorate recipients in history, and the median for 1989 recipients is 12.3 years, actually down slightly (.2) from 1988 and not significantly different from the 1984 median (12 years). In other words, we do not have evidence of doctoral students stretching out the time to degree.

But the drop in the number of new history doctorates is only part of the story. The demographic profile of the 1989 history doctorates reveals that the percentage of history PhDs earned by women decreased in 1989 from 36.0 percent to 33.8, below that reported in the previous two years. (See Table 2.) As in the past, history continues to lag behind other humanities disciplines in achieving parity. In fact, as the percentage of history doctorates awarded to women declined, the percentage of humanities doctorates overall awarded to women increased from 44.3 to 45.5 percent. NRC also reports an increase for all fields, with 36.5 percent of doctorates awarded in 1989 going to women, up from 35.2 percent in 1988. Again, history seems to be bucking the trend.

History fares more favorably in regards to race and ethnicity. Of the 1989 history doctorates, 10.8 percent were awarded to individuals from racial and ethnic minorities, compared to 9.6 percent for the humanities overall. This is a welcome change from the situation reported last year. (See Table 3.) The NRC’s 1988 data revealed a 26 percent fall off in the share of PhDs earned by minorities, reflecting a 68 percent drop in the share of doctorates earned by African Americans. But while the number of new history doctorates otherwise declined in 1989, both the percentage awarded to minorities and the actual number of minority recipients increased. In 1989, minorities earned 49 history doctorates, ten more than in the previous year for an increase of 25.6 percent. Particularly significant is the doubling of the number of African Americans receiving history doctorates, from 9 in 1988 to 18 in 1989. Even so, the number of minority historians remains distressingly low, and efforts to foster diversity within the profession must proceed.

Does all this add up to bad news or good news? It all depends. On the one hand, a decline in the number of new history doctorates suggests a lack of confidence in history as a profession, not the long hoped for revival. But on the other hand, a decline in the supply of new doctorates may help us avoid another cycle of oversupply and slump. Stability or even decline on the “supply” side may be preferrable, at least until the “demand” side has sufficiently improved to deal with the backlog of unemployed or underemployed history doctorates as well as new recipients.

While we cannot yet claim there are more jobs than there are takers, we can point to continued improvement in the job market for historians. The number of position advertisements in Perspectives during the peak fall months is up again, by 11.9 percent compared to only a 3.0 percent increase last year. The volume of position announcements is over 3.2 times that in a comparable period in 1982, when the Employment Information Bulletin first merged with Perspectives. As this issue of Perspectives goes to press, 126 positions have been posted for interviewing at the annual meeting in New York—that’s more than last year (123), and we expect more to come in between now and the opening of the Job Register.

The impact of the changing job market can be seen in NRC’s biennial profile of the discipline. In addition to its study of the U.S. population of humanities doctorate recipients (defined as those who earned their degrees within the previous 42 years), NRC provides data on five-year cohorts—the 1987 report covered those who earned their doctorates between 1981 and 1986, and the 1989 report covers 1983-88. Comparing the two cohorts, there is little difference in terms of level of employment, but the two differ significantly in terms of type of employer and primary work activity. Of the 1981–86 cohort, 68.9 percent were employed in 1987 in educational institutions, but in 1989 80.4 percent of those in the 1983–88 cohort were so employed. Similarly, only 55.8 percent of the 1981–86 cohort compared to 63.3 percent of the 1983–88 cohort indicated that teaching was their primary work activity. Among U.S. historians, the difference was even more striking—46.8 of the 1981–86 cohort were engaged in teaching compared to 61.7 percent of the 1983–88 group. This suggests that the revival of the job market is not leading so much to increased levels of employment as to a more substantial portion of history doctorates again focusing their careers on academic employment. The consequence may be an even greater shortage of qualified candidates for public history positions.

This data also reveals other adjustments worth noting. Within the 1981-86 cohort of academically employed history PhDs, 8.9 percent of the women held adjunct positions in 1987 compared to only .6 percent of the men. But the situation was reversed for the 1983–88 cohort: only 3.8 percent of the women were adjuncts in 1989 compared to 10.7 percent of the men. Fewer men and women both, however, held tenured positions in 1989 compared to 1987. The percentage of women holding such positions declined from 13.6 to 9.2 while the percentage of men dropped 6.3 percent, from 17.1 to 10.8.

The longer-term profile yields fewer surprises. For example, according to NRC, 32 percent of women historians were employed as full professors in 1989, compared to only 29.8 in 1987, while the portion of men holding that rank declined slightly from 54.7 to 53.7. But perhaps most interesting in light of the above discussion of employment prospects is evidence of the aging of the profession. In 1979, approximately one-third (32.7 percent) of the population of history doctorates were fifty years of age or over; in 1989, nearly half (49.7 percent) were in that category. Clearly there is potential for a significant number of retirements in the upcoming decade, but the end to mandatory retirement in higher education in 1994 makes it impossible to predict what actually will happen. And even if the level of retirements increases dramatically, whether the positions will be filled depends on a variety of factors, including budgets and enrollments. In sum, we can report the status of the profession and raise questions, but we cannot predict the future.

For more information, contact the Doctorate Records Project, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20418.