Each year a double-line graph comparing the number of new history PhDs with advertised academic jobs appears in Perspectives' Jobs Report. Is it time to "retire" this graph?

Townhouse Notes: How Much Longer for the Graph of Doom?

Allison Miller, March 2018

The AHA TownhouseI have no illusions about the fact that many readers of this column are turning to it after skipping straight to this year’s full Jobs Report. Dylan Ruediger’s initial analysis appeared on AHA Today in November, showing another year of bad news: there were far more new PhDs than jobs advertised with the AHA. Accompanying this report was a double-line graph showing these competing data points, with the number of PhDs conferred winning the dubious contest. A version of the graph runs in Perspectives annually.

Among some in the AHA townhouse, this miserable visual has become known as the Graph of Doom. There is no way to sugarcoat its meaning. Although we collect data showing conclusively that history PhDs are employed in many industries (see Where Historians Work), the data also show that approximately half of us are in full-time, tenure-track academic jobs. These are the jobs most graduate students and recent PhDs want.

The Graph of Doom doesn’t just prove that these jobs will be hard to find—everyone knows that—it also contributes to the toxicity of the hiring process. It reifies a supply-and-demand model that transforms graduate students and recent PhDs into a market “glut” (a word banned from Perspectives, by the way), denigrating them and their contributions to historical knowledge. Last year Dylan and Emily Swafford noted that supply-and-demand isn’t the best way to think about the job market for historians, because it reinforces the belief that the only acceptable career outcome for history PhDs is professor.

Yet this realization doesn’t displace the Graph of Doom as a fixture in our professional life. I asked former Perspectives editor Rob Townsend, who wrote the Jobs Report for a number of years, what he knew about the graph’s history. He discovered that its first iteration appeared in the May/June 1993 issue of the magazine. The AHA had analyzed the pool of doctoral recipients for some time, but this was the first instance in which the number of ads for the past few years was plotted against the corresponding numbers of new PhDs in a double line—the first Graph of Doom.

After Rob became editor, he expanded the “supply” data point for the number of new PhDs by using the federal government’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, which had more complete data than we did. He also back-filled the “demand” data from AHA job postings going back to the 1970s. Whatever you think of the Graph of Doom, Rob’s years of research have provided the profession with pioneering quantitative analysis.

Conversations about the Graph of Doom have been ongoing in the AHA townhouse for more than half a year. It’s not that it’s depressing (bad news is news, after all), it’s that its representation of “demand” is increasingly out of whack with the ways history PhDs work as historians in jobs outside the professoriate. As I was working closely with Dylan, Emily, and Jim Grossman on the Jobs Report, a surprising back-and-forth ensued on the merits of one word regarding the Graph of Doom: “retire.” We ultimately decided that retiring the graph wasn’t what we wanted, at least this year.

But we’re not done thinking about how to represent visually the reality that history PhDs in most fields confront year after year, as they face a shrinking pool of full-time academic jobs and deal with departmental cultures that still often discourage diverse career paths. If anything takes the place of the graph, it must be more than a snapshot that leaves information outside its frame, however tightly focused the picture itself may be. The AHA has been a leader in trying to change the notion that nonacademic jobs are “Plan B”—consolation prizes for the washed out. The Graph of Doom doesn’t help.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.

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