Publication Date

January 1, 2003

The recent rapid growth in history PhDs is leveling off according to the latest survey of new PhDs. The number of new history PhDs fell 3.4 percent, from 1,060 in 1999-2000 to 1,024 in 2000-01. This decline-small as it is-outpaced a general decline in the production of PhDs, as the number of doctorates in all fields fell a more modest 1.4 percent, to 40,744. This marked the first time in 14 years that history declined faster than the other fields.

Figure 1

The information comes from an annual survey of PhDs by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which collects the data for five federal agencies.1 The decline was less of a surprise than the fact that it came almost 10 years after members of the profession began raising alarms about a growing job crisis for history PhDs.2 History departments began to cut back on new admissions shortly thereafter, but in a field where the average PhD spent 9.3 years in graduate courses after the bachelor’s degree, it has taken some years to see a change in degree production. As we noted in our survey of trends in the job market last year, the broader trends in admissions, enrollments, and dissertations in progress all point toward a long-term decline in the number of new PhDs.

The report contains another positive sign—the number of new history PhDs with "definite employment" when they received their degree rose by more than 10 percent to 51.6 percent (Figure 1). This marks the first time in 10 years that more than 50 percent reported they had a job in hand when they received the degree.

Demographics of the 2001 PhD Cohort

The latest data also tends to confirm our observations that U.S. history is the dominant field specialization for history PhDs (Figure 2). Even with a fairly large number of degree recipients (25.9 percent) selecting the “general” and “other” categories, 41.3 percent of the new PhDs were in U.S. history. There was also a modest increase in the proportion of degrees conferred for European history as well, which accounted for 23.9 percent of the degrees in the field.

Figure 2

The demographic data also offers encouraging news for those concerned about the diversity of the profession, as the representation of women and minorities among new PhDs also reached the highest point in years. The proportion of women among the new cohort of history PhDs rose 5.2 percent to 40.3 percent of the new degree recipients-the second highest level since the high point of 41.3 percent in 1996. The representation of minority historians among new history PhDs reached the highest point on record, with a 12.6 percent share of the U.S. citizens receiving history doctorates-up from 12.4 percent the year before. This increase was not just in terms of the proportions (noteworthy as it was in a time when the overall figures were falling). Even the actual number of African American and Latino/Hispanic students receiving history PhDs also increased. However, the numbers still remain quite small, with only 42 African Americans and 49 Latino or Hispanic degree recipients in the new cohort.

These figures indicate that history continues to lag behind in representation of women and minorities when compared to PhD recipients generally. Minorities received over 18 percent of the PhDs conferred in all fields in 2001, and women received 43.9 percent of all new PhDs. The representation of women in history appears even more strikingly low when compared to other humanities and social science fields. Women received 50.4 percent of the doctorates in humanities fields (which includes history) and 54.3 percent of degrees conferred in the social sciences.

The time spent working toward the degree increased slightly among the 2001 history PhDs, from an average of 9 years registered for graduate courses to 9.3 years, and they received the degree an average of 11.5 years after completing their baccalaureate degree. However, the average age of the new history PhDs showed little change, with a median age of 34.7 years.

The age and years since the bachelor's degree are actually lower than the average for PhDs in non-science fields, where the median time since the baccalaureate degree was 14.3 years, and the median age was 38.6. However, those figures are skewed significantly higher by PhDs in education, where a PhD is a vital credential for advancement after years in the classroom. History continues to have the longest time spent registered for classes, with students in other fields averaging a half-year less of course work.

—Robert B. Townsend is AHA assistant director for research and publications.


1. Thomas B. Hoffer, et al., Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2001 (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2002) available online at

2. Paul Conkin, “Bleak Outlook for Academic History Jobs,” Perspectives (April 1993), 1; and Susan M. Socolow, “Analyzing Trends in the History Job Market,” Perspectives (May/June 1993), 3.

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