Publication Date

January 28, 2019

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Career Paths, Professional Life

Keeping track of the career opportunities open to history PhDs is an important task, but one that gets difficult as we consider that for decades about a quarter of history PhDs have built careers outside the professoriate. Since the 1990s, the AHA has reported annually on career opportunities within the professoriate, using data from our AHA Career Center (sometimes known as the AHA jobs board) and, since last year, from H-Net’s Job Guide as well. (We are grateful to our colleagues at H-Net for sharing their data.) Thus, our data for academic job postings are reasonably reliable. But finding comparable data on employment opportunities for history PhDs beyond faculty positions is next to impossible, in part because there is no national marketplace that can be tracked, and in part because the more we appreciate the diversity of employment that historians pursue, the more difficult it is to categorize precisely what jobs PhDs are qualified for and apply for.


The number of academic job listings changed little from last year. But that’s just a view from the distance. Peter Miller/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nevertheless, the largest employment category for history PhDs is college and university teachers, and that is the career choice many of them prefer. So this year, as part of our commitment to providing our discipline with useful data about history careers, we have decided to dig deeper into the academic job market—to use information that job ads furnish to the fullest extent we can—while we keep searching for ways to account for job types that are not well represented in the AHA Career Center or on H-Net. To that end, we are introducing several features to this year’s Jobs Report, which we have designed to help our community better explore trends in highly diversified academic hiring (see “Gathering New Data,” below). Since these data are new, we should not infer that they represent trends that will continue for years into the future. The AHA will continue to gather these data to eventually characterize historical trends.


The Basic Numbers

In 2017–18, the AHA Career Center hosted advertisements for 548 full-time openings for historians, an 8 percent increase from 2016–17. This is welcome news, though the overall number of positions does not indicate any sustained progress recovering from the 2008–09 recession.

The largest employment category for history PhDs is college and university teachers, and that is the career choice many of them prefer.

Job growth occurred more or less evenly across the two major faculty categories represented in the AHA Career Center. Tenure-track positions increased from 295 to 320, an 8 percent increase, while non-tenure-track faculty positions rose 7 percent. This broad-based but modest level of growth in advertisements is certainly better news than last year’s steep declines. But a more comprehensive look at job postings suggests a largely static academic job market, particularly for faculty positions.

The increases on the AHA’s job board were not matched by corresponding increases in the number of ads placed on H-Net. Last year, the advertisements placed in the AHA Career Center and the H-Net Job Guide totaled a combined 507 tenure-track positions open to historians; this year, the combined total was 515, an increase of only 1.6 percent. Positions beyond the professoriate likewise rose a modest 1.5 percent. Off the tenure track, faculty positions dropped 13 percent, from 231 to 201, while postdocs rose by a corresponding share. Overall, the number of unique faculty positions open to historians was essentially unchanged, increasing by just 2 positions. The total number of unique full-time positions advertised on both job boards inched up from 1,078 to 1,084, a barely discernable 0.5 percent increase. Seen from this larger perspective, faculty hiring in the discipline did little more than tread water.

Number of Unique Advertisements for Full-Time Positions

The combined number of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty positions (716) is higher overall than recent downward trends might predict. But like many aspects of “counting” careers, the factors affecting the “count” are more complicated than they appear. Approximately 200 of these faculty positions are outside the discipline but clearly open to historians with interdisciplinary interests or research agendas (such as, for example, some religious studies or area studies jobs). Although almost all of the 716 are full-time positions, several hundred are off the tenure track. Part-time, highly contingent adjunct positions are rarely advertised on national job boards, making part-time hiring all but invisible. The same might be true of full-time, non-tenure-track positions at the two-year colleges, regional public colleges and universities, and small private institutions that lack the budget or inclination to advertise nationally. For-profit institutions are virtually invisible. Without these data, we cannot fully understand this important sector of academic hiring or articulate the experience of history job seekers, beyond noting that approximately 16 percent of history PhDs are employed in non-tenure-track positions several years after graduation. On the other hand, the jobs we can track are a plausible representation of the number of full-time academic positions.

Gathering New Data

It is possible to do still more with the data we have. Beyond tallying how many jobs were available last year, the AHA Career Center and the H-Net Job Guide are rich sources of data about the details of faculty hiring in the discipline, particularly on the tenure track, including information about the desired rank of new hires, advertisers’ institution type, and desired research and teaching field.

A comprehensive look at job postings suggests a largely static academic job market, particularly for faculty positions.

Discussions of academic hiring cycles too often begin with the assumption that the number of faculty positions advertised in one year is a proxy for the number of positions open to new and recent PhDs. While this way of thinking is broadly true, a detailed breakdown of advertisements by desired rank shows that it has significant limits. While assistant-professor positions were the largest single category of tenure-track listings last year—totaling two-thirds of all advertised tenure-track positions—another 51 searches were “open,” meaning that ABDs and early-career PhDs who applied competed in a pool that included established scholars.

Advertised Rank of Tenure-Track Searches

Assistant-professor positions are an essential barometer of the health of the academic job market. So, too, are mid-career positions, which attract applicants interested in pursuing new professional opportunities, moving to a new geographical location, or teaching at a different type of institution. Associate and full professors had only 166 openings to consider last year, many of which included administrative responsibilities, such as chairing a department or serving as a dean.

Non-Tenure Track and Tenure-Track Searches, by Carnegie Classification

To better understand what types of academic institutions are hiring, we decided to add metadata about Carnegie classifications to this year’s analysis of job ads. A full two-thirds of searches for senior positions took place at research universities, with over half at the nation’s 130 “very high research activity” doctoral universities—the so-called R1 schools. Across all academic ranks, tenure-track hires were clustered heavily at research universities last year: research universities accounted for 56 percent of advertised tenure-track positions, with 37 percent of tenure-track positions posted by R1s.1 Research universities listed the majority (52 percent) of searches for non-tenure-track appointments as well.

We cannot assume that the number of academic positions advertised in one year is a proxy for the number of positions open to new and recent PhDs.

Although these proportions likely over-represent institutions with the resources and inclination to conduct national searches, they are strikingly at odds with long-term trends in faculty hiring. According to Where Historians Work, a recent AHA data project exploring the occupations of 8,500 individuals who earned PhDs over a 10-year period between 2004 and 2013, only 33 percent of all tenure-track faculty worked at research universities, and only 19 percent were employed at R1s. Likewise, only 12 percent of historians working as non-tenure-track faculty did so at research universities. Knowing whether last year’s numbers are a one-year blip or indicate a new trend in faculty hiring in the discipline will require several years of additional data. What we have learned is that adding a single new data point, Carnegie classification, to our reporting raises significant questions about what is driving change in the academic job market for historians. Our hope is that by continuing to track these data, we will gain the capacity to track the contours of this market for historians in new detail.

Hiring trends by field (available only for advertisements placed through the AHA Career Center) largely show a continuation of long-term trends, though hiring for Africanists and historians of Asia (which were relatively stable for a few years) show clear signs of cooling down, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of advertised positions. In contrast, positions in US history—by far the largest geographical field—grew in absolute numbers, but held steady as the primary field of 27 percent of searches for full-time faculty. In a continuation of a long-term trend, 18 percent of positions were advertised as open or multiple-field hires. This share has remained relatively consistent since 2014.

Primary Field of Full-Time Positions

Data about open positions invites the question of who finally gets hired. Our window into the hiring process is necessarily limited, but we do survey organizations that post on the AHA Career Center for basic, quantitative information about their searches, including the approximate number of applicants for each position, whether the search was successful, and a few characteristics of the individual who was hired. This year, 117 advertisers replied to our query, 61 of them regarding searches resulting in tenure-track assistant professor hires.

Unsurprisingly, these openings attracted high numbers of applicants: a median of 82 and a mean of 122 per position. The large gap between median and mean results from significant variation in the number of applicants, which ranged from as few as 12 to reports of almost 700. Eight advertisers reported receiving 200 or more applicants, compared to 12 reporting 50 or fewer. Overall, the mean of 122 is an increase from the average of 96 applicants for each entry-level tenure-track position we reported for the 2015–16 year and presumably reflects ongoing fallout from several years of weak academic hiring—and last year’s historically low figures.

Last year’s faculty hiring favored very recent PhDs. Of the 52 assistant professor searches about which we have outcomes data, 54 percent of the jobs went to candidates who were fewer than two years removed from earning their PhD, and 12 percent of the jobs went to candidates who were still ABD at the time of hiring. The number of individuals hired before defending their dissertation has been trending upward since 2010–11. While 10 percent of these positions were filled by individuals who earned their degree five or more years ago, these numbers largely confirm anecdotal evidence that the faculty market sharply favors very recent PhDs.

To better understand what types of academic institutions are hiring, we decided to add metadata about Carnegie classifications to this year’s analysis of job ads.

Early-career PhDs are, however, continuing to find substantial employment in a sector of the contingent labor market that rarely receives as much attention as non-tenure-track faculty positions: the postdoctoral fellowship. Once scarce in the humanities, the postdoc has grown dramatically in numbers since the turn of the century and is a now a substantial sector of the annual academic job market for humanists of all stripes. Together, the AHA and H-Net advertised approximately 230 postdocs last year, many of them open to scholars from across the humanities and/or social sciences.

The number of postdocs available in any given year is difficult to quantify. Ads often indicate that selection committees will make multiple appointments without specifying a number and rarely indicate what kind of disciplinary mix committees are looking for. Any count of them ultimately relies on subjective criteria. Moreover, the term itself can be slippery. The job descriptions for most postdocs closely match the research-oriented work typically associated with them, but the term is also used to describe a wide range of campus roles. We defer to advertisers as to what constitutes a postdoc, but readers should be aware that some of these positions resemble a lecturer or visiting assistant professor position in their emphasis on teaching and/or service expectations.


We are now 10 years into the post-recession economy, still looking uncertainly for a secure floor in faculty hiring. The contractions in the academic job market have caused significant pain and anxiety for a generation of history PhDs. Simultaneously, there has been a quiet decline in the number of new PhDs being awarded in our discipline, which dropped 7 percent last year (to 1,066, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates) and has fallen 10 percent since 2014. In the current environment, discussion about program size and how best to professionalize students will undoubtedly continue, just as prospective graduate students will make decisions about whether to pursue a PhD in part based on the health of what remains the largest employment sector for historians, as well as the traditional career trajectory.

Advertised Job Openings Compared to the Number of New History PhDs

These are conversations worth having. But the past decade has also forced a recognition of the tremendous range of careers historians have long pursued in the shadows of a disciplinary culture fixated on the professoriate. The demonstrable spread of historians across economic sectors needs to inform any conversation about the ideal number of PhDs that should be awarded and the purpose and value of the degree. The AHA’s reporting on jobs has been shaped by these forces and conversations, both traditional and new, even as we continue to search for ways to better account for the full range of careers open to historians and to better understand the shifting landscape of employment within the professoriate.


  1. This small group of universities (only 3 percent of institutions of higher education in the United States) enrolls 17 percent of the nation’s college students. See “Enrollment by Carnegie Classification, Fall 2016,” in The Almanac of Higher Education 2018–19, from The Chronicle of Higher Education (August 19, 2018). []

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Dylan Ruediger
Dylan Ruediger

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