Professional Issues

Analyzing Trends in the History Job Market

Susan M. Socolow, May 1993

In this time of growing anxiety about the state of the job market, the members of the Professional Division of the AHA decided to present a panel on the employment situation at the December 1992 annual meeting. My task was to research the current job market, or at least that part of the market that has traditionally employed a large number of Ph.D. recipients in history. I do not make any claims on predicting what the future employment situation will look like; rather, I hope that this brief overview of the "demand" for history professors will help graduate students, job seekers, and advisors in understanding the current employment picture.

Let me begin with an overview of the history job market, a rough calculation of supply and demand. For general purposes I consider the supply to be only new Ph.D.'s granted in a specific year. The demand side of the equation is provided by estimates of the number of jobs advertised in the Employment Information Bulletin (EIB) contained in Perspectives. The positions advertised in the EIB are overwhelmingly four-year college or university professor appointments, although a few public history positions appear in the column, as do occasional teaching positions at two-year or community colleges. This data, gathered by the AHA, is based on a simple count of the number of jobs advertised between September and December of any given year. Although there is no weeding out of ads for the same job repeated after an interval, a quick test of this data against more detailed data for 1991 suggests that these numbers represent 98 percent of the yearly advertisements, that is, that the real number of jobs is actually at least 2 percent larger.

As you can see from Chart 1, the supply of new Ph.D.'s in history has been rather steady since 1982, varying from approximately 550 to 700 degrees per year. What has changed greatly over the last decade is the demand, which has moved up dramatically from less than 300 teaching positions (268 in 1982) to over 800 (845 in 1990). A turning point was reached in 1987 when demand, that is, advertised teaching positions, outstripped supply, or new Ph.D.'s. But that optimistic demand curve, which has been moving steadily upward since 1982, has begun to move in a downward direction since 1990.

While these rough numbers can give us a general overview of the job market over the past decade, the data does little to answer specific questions about today's job opportunities. In order to understand the mechanisms at work right now, I undertook, with the help of my graduate student assistant Jeff Young, a detailed analysis of 1991 and 1992 job listings in the EIB. We analyzed each announcement appearing in the EIB, looking at the geographical location of the job, the rank of the position, the field of history specified, and any other descriptive data contained in the announcement. Like the AHA figures, our database is compiled from positions advertised between September and December, but duplicate announcements have been carefully weeded out.

First let us look at a comparison of the job market for 1991 and that for 1992. In both cases we have considered only those jobs announced between September and December so that our data is truly comparable. As can be seen in Table 1, overall there has been a decrease from 573 listings in 1991 to 474 listings in 1992, a downturn of 17 percent.

If we break down these announcements by the location of the position, we can see an interesting shift in the job market. Table 2 shows that in both 1991 and 1992 a plurality of all jobs in history are in the Northeast, the region of the country where a majority of institutions of higher education are located. But while the first three zones of employment in 1991 are the Northeast, followed by the Midwest, and the West, by 1992 this line-up has shifted to Northeast, Midwest, Southeast. Indeed, the Southeast is the only region where the absolute number of history teaching positions has increased. The dramatic downturn in the number of jobs advertised in the West no doubt reflects the economic recession, which has been especially severe in California and Oregon. Although our data does not differentiate public from private institutions, the decline of job openings in the West also suggests that much of the constriction of the job market is the result of a decline in hiring in public institutions of higher learning.

When we analyzed the job data for information on the professorial rank of the position being described (Table 3), we can see that in both 1991 and 1992 the vast majority of jobs advertised were at the assistant professor level. Indeed, over 80 percent of all jobs are for assistant professors or below. The growth both in percentage and in absolute number of jobs that fall into the "no information" category, that is, positions that fail to stipulate any rank, may mask the growth of positions which will be filled on the lowest possible level.

Our database also allows us to break down advertised jobs by whether or not they are for a tenured position or a position on the tenure track (Table 4). Although the overwhelming majority of all jobs advertised in both 1991 and 1992 have at least the possibility of tenure, there was a shrinkage in the tenure/tenure-track listings from 85 to 80 percent between the two years. Again there was growth in the "no information" category, perhaps suggesting that some positions might only come with tenure if the right candidate were to be found.

Some of the more interesting findings of our analysis can be seen in Table 5. Here we look at the primary regional description contained in the job description. It should come as no surprise that the largest number of positions advertised in the EIB are for professors of United States history, but we note a slippage in the number of positions in American history between the two years. The approximate parity of openings in European history and the histories of so-called "non-Western" regions, each accounting for approximately 27 percent of jobs listed in both years, suggests the coming of age of the latter fields. Also instructive is the growth of advertisements that are so general in their description that they fall into a "no information" category. These advertisements suggest the possible growth of a demand for a "jack of all trades" historian, a scholar who can teach American, European, and Third World history.

As shown in Table 6, for those few positions that listed a secondary regional focus, "non-West" continued to be the predominant category. Sixteen percent of the jobs listed in 1991 and 11 percent of those listed in 1992 requested job applicants able to teach the history of at least one major geographical and cultural region in addition to their primary field of expertise.

In an attempt to provide more specific information as to what fields of history are most in demand, we further broke down the major geographic categories. In American history, for those jobs that specified a time period (and approximately half did not), the United States since the Civil War continues to be the field of greatest demand (Table 7). American colonial history and antebellum history were tied for second place. We again wonder if those positions where no information on time period was provided mask a search for a "jack of all trades" or perhaps a "jack of all eras." Unfortunately, information on the specific time period being solicited is of limited use, because we lack data that breaks down American history Ph.D.'s granted in any year by time period.

Table 8 looks more closely at the jobs advertised in European history. Unlike positions in United States history, there is a greater tendency to specify time period among European openings. Modern European history continues to be the field of greatest demand in both 1991 and 1992. Ancient history and medieval history, in demand in 1991, declined in 1992. Again, we lack supply data that provides us with information on the time periods and geographical or thematic subfields in which European history degrees are being earned.

A similar breakdown for "non-Western" history can be seen in Table 9, although here job openings have been classified according to geographic region rather than time period. Beyond a doubt, 1991 was the year of Asian history. In 1992, Asian history and Latin American history were the two "non-West" fields most in demand. Between 1991 and 1992 there was some shrinkage in the demand for African historians, but there was also an increase in the number of positions described simply as "Third World" history. Although not included in our calculations of "non-Western" fields, the demand for historians in Russian history is also down.

This analysis of the job market suffers from some serious drawbacks. We have no way of knowing how accurately the EIB listings reflect the universe of available positions, although we hope that advertising positions is becoming the professional norm. We have no information on the number of jobs actually filled, or on those jobs cancelled because of budgetary problems or other institutional constraints. We are unable to calculate the number of Ph.D. recipients who fail to obtain college employment in the year their degree is granted, and return at a later time to search for a teaching position. We also have no way of calculating how many people who are currently employed are searching for a change of position.

I started my comments by attempting to relate demand to supply, and let me return to this relationship again. While we do not have very detailed information as to the specific fields in which Ph.D.'s are being granted, some data collected by the National Research Council provides a rough division of history degrees by American, European, and "Other," that is, "non-Western," fields. Using this information for 1991, and comparing our data on job listings, we can see that for 236 new Ph.D.'s in American history last year there were 158 assistant professor jobs (Chart 2). On the other hand, in European history there were 126 openings for 119 newly-minted degree holders, and in "non-Western" history, a total of 105 new Ph.D.'s had a field of 120 jobs. This is of course a crude calculation, lacking reference to the specific expertise of the Ph.D. recipients or the time period or geographical region contained in the job description. Nonetheless it serves as a rough per capita measure of the job market. These figures suggest that there were 0.67 jobs for every one Ph.D. in American history last year while Europeanists had 1.05 jobs per person. For the "non-West" per capita demand was even higher; there were 1.14 jobs per Ph.D.

Whether or not the trends we have seen during the past two years will continue depends on both economic and cultural factors. Will the next few years witness an upswing in the general economy and result in increased funds available for higher education? Will demand for historians with specializations in fields that generally correspond to multicultural and world history areas continue? Will there be a change in the geography of the job market? As I stated at the beginning, I make no claim to be able to predict the future, but I do hope that the future holds overall growth in the number of positions for historians.

—Susan Socolow, Dobbs Professor at Emory University, was Vice-President of the AHA Professional Division from 1990 to 1992.