History Profession Growing but Problems Remain

AHA Staff, May 1989

According to data just released by the National Research Council, the number of new PhDs awarded in history in 1986–87 was 4.2 percent above that reported in 1985-86, when the discipline experienced the first increase in output since the peak year 1972–73. The "supply" of historians now appears to be growing at a rate faster than that for the humanities as a whole, which experienced only a 1.3 percent increase, and for all fields, which increased by 1.4 percent. Although the annual output of new PhDs in history remains far behind the 1973 peak level, the worst appears to be over.

The NRC report also provides demographic data on the discipline. Table 2 charts the changing ratio of men to women among PhDs in history over the period 1970–87. After a modest decline from 1984 to 1986, the percentage of history doctorates earned by women has increased to 34.4 percent, exceeding that reported in any prior year. The discipline, however, still lags far behind other humanities disciplines in achieving parity. The increased percentage of history doctorates awarded to women does not compare favorably with that of English and American languages and literature (56.1 percent awarded to women), or foreign languages and literature (59.0 percent awarded to women), or the humanities overall (44.9 percent awarded to women). NRC also provides data for the population of humanities doctorates who earned their degrees between 1944 and 1986. History again does not compare favorably with other humanities disciplines. Only in philosophy is the percentage of women holding PhDs lower (at 15.6 percent) than in history (at 18.2 percent). Both fall far short of the 30.0 percent of degrees held by women in all humanities fields. NRC also reports that, since 1977, the percentage of women holding doctorates has declined in only one field—U.S. history, where the percentage has declined from 15.8 to 14.9. Modest as that decline is, it does represent a step backward for a discipline already lagging far behind in achieving parity.

NRC data on race and ethnicity certainly provides little reason for optimism. Table 3 breaks down the data on new doctorates by race and ethnicity. The percentage of degrees awarded to minorities has increased by .5 percent, which translates into only three more minority historians earning degrees in 1987 than in the previous year. The overall figures are even more dismal: in 1985, 92 percent of the population of history doctorates was white, but that figure rose to 94.9 percent in 1987. Clearly, despite efforts to foster diversity within the profession, we have not yet resolved the problem of underrepresentation of minorities.

On the other hand, the "demand" side appears to be improving significantly. If we look at the number of positions advertised in the EIB section of the newsletter over comparable periods, we find that the number of announcements in 1988 was 2.75 times that in 1982, when the EIB first became part of Perspectives. More-over, activity in the Job Register at the AHA annual meeting has increased, with 103 institutions interviewing in 1988 compared to only 40 in 1985.

And those jobs are paying well. According to the NRC, the median annual salary for historians is higher than that for any other field in the humanities. U.S. specialists earn a median annual salary of $43,800, compared to $40,800 for other historians and $38,900 for all fields. Unfortunately there are significant gender differences. The largest gender gap in income in the humanities is in U.S. history: the mean annual salary for males is $45,400 but for females is only $36,600, a difference of $8,800. The gap for other historians is slightly smaller ($4,500) but still troubling. On the other hand, the history profession compares more favorably in regard to tenure status. NRC data on the population of doctorates who earned their degrees between 1944 and 1986 reveals that 73.2 percent of male historians and 50.6 percent of female historians hold tenured positions, compared to 73.6 percent and 49.1 percent for all humanities disciplines. And, 29.8 percent of female historians hold the rank of full professor compared to 23.9 percent of women in the humanities over all.

Predictions of increased demand for historians in the 1990s assume a dramatic increase in retirements in the last half of the decade. While the end to mandatory retirement in 1994 will undoubtedly complicate the situation, NRC data does confirm perceptions of an aging profession. In 1987, 46 percent of all individuals holding doctorates in history were fifty years of age or older. Obviously, a sizeable cohort will reach retirement age in the next decade, and we may actually face the first shortage of historians since the boom of the 1960s.

As the academic job market shrank in the 1970s, employment in public history expanded. Will the opening up of the former result in declining interest in the latter? NRC data suggests that this may already be happening. In 1985–86, only 54.9 percent of those earning history doctorates planned to work in two- and four-year colleges and universities, but that increased to 58.3 percent in 1986–87. An earlier NRC report indicated that 39.6 percent of those who earned history doctorates between 1979 and 1984 did not pursue academic careers, while only 34.2 percent of the 1981–86 cohort are employed outside the academy. While the proportion of history doctorates going into academe still remains considerably below that prior to 1980, this data does raise questions about the structure of the job market over the long run.

For more information, contact the Doctorate Records Project, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20418.