Historians Have the "Job Market" All Wrong

John C. Burnham | Apr 1, 2000

Historians are complaining about the "job market." They don't get it. They don't see that the world is changing, and changing for the better for history. There is in fact much demand for historians. In a credentialing society, graduate work in history has a bright future. But in that society, what historians need is not just flexibility, but a whole reorientation to the place of history and historians in our modern, global society.

The morale of many historians is low. They believe that the field is overcrowded. Some younger historians are having trouble "finding a job." Teachers of undergraduates feel unease or guilt when they encourage their best students to continue to study what they want to study: history. Some graduate advisers believe that restraint in recruiting has risen to the level of a moral imperative and that it is a virtue to cut back and deny many young people the benefits of graduate training in history.

All of this doom, gloom, and guilt is based upon a series of perceptions—perceptions that are to a substantial extent mistaken or outmoded. We historians ought instead to understand how circumstances should make us enthusiastic about encouraging undergraduates to enjoy doing history and to make a career out of doing what they like to do.

The facts are clear enough. What has gone wrong is the rigid and often biased way in which well-intentioned leaders of the profession (and some outsiders) are telling us to read the facts.

One classic error is making the inference that because in any given year or years some history PhDs are not working in exactly the academic positions they expected, the number of students admitted to graduate school should be decreased (a classic trade union tactic—but one wildly unenforceable, especially on a global scale).

This reasoning is at best unfortunate. One would think that members of a guild who know how difficult it is to determine what happened in the past would be cautious, if not downright humble, about predicting the future. Everyone knows that it takes about seven years, on average, for a person to earn a PhD in history. Who is so wise as to know what the world will be like in seven years? (In 1928 in the United States, one might have encouraged someone to finish in 1935.)

Suppose that one attempts to predict secular trends. Much fine talent has been devoted to this exercise. The same hazards apply. Using demographics, a substantial "demand" for historians was projected for the mid-1990s. It failed to materialize in substantial part because a new trend suddenly appeared: the increasing average student load per faculty member. Or one can take the latter and note a trend general all over the developed world: fewer and fewer resources devoted to higher education and/or liberal education. Again, who would be so foolish as to be certain—certain enough to discourage young people—that in seven years the trend will continue?

Applying the idea of "supply" to the "market" for professional historians involves some serious misperceptions.

History is not an economic entity. Doing history is an intellectual activity and enterprise. To say one should or should not do history based on the "job market" is simply to take an anti-intellectual stance.

Nor is such a proper and purist intellectual view of history unrealistic even from a cynical point of view concerned with creating employment. For there has been and is a growing market. But it is a market for history as an intellectual product. Everyone knows how shocked historians were when the Enola Gay and Freud exhibit incidents showed dramatically that the paying public was interested in history even beyond the Roots phenomenon. This is an interest that cuts across groups and cultures.

And the interest is tangible. In the state of Ohio alone, according to Amos Loveday, the state preservation officer, the state and local governments currently spend over one hundred million dollars a year on history-related activities! 1 And that does not include the teaching of history on any level, from grade school to graduate school. That is an enormous sum. And it is a "market."2

The greatest error historians have made is to treat the practicing of history outside of the academy as beneath one's dignity, often leaving it to untrained people. The time is long past when it is appropriate to set up a special category of "public history" so as to accommodate colleagues who do not fit a rigid stereotype. Indeed, some smart people have now accurately labeled their activity "postacademic history," a term that correctly suggests new circumstances.

In segregating "public history," professional historians in the past lost sight of the fact that history is an intellectual enterprise. The PhD really does qualify people to do things besides teach—and we ought to be very proud of all of the intellectual activity, even if it does not take place on a campus.

As historians, we take our training much too much for granted. We use it every day and do not appreciate it. We in fact have talents that are valuable in many settings. Quite by accident, I once ran into one of our PhDs who was working in a large action agency in Washington. "Gloria," I said, "how are you doing?" "Oh," she replied, "I am doing really well. I am the only person in my office who knows how to look things up!" Historians ought to be able to look things up better than anyone. And each of us can think of other benefits from our training, such as comparative perspectives. Other people have pointed out that historians in fact acquire substantial management skills just by organizing data and contemplating human activity—and above all, communicating.

Members of the public are in fact aware of the training in the intellectual enterprise of history. There is a story, which I believe is not apocryphal, about a historian who chose to follow her husband to a distant city. She did not immediately find a position in which to use her PhD, and so she opened an office, hung out a sign, "Historian," and soon had all the business she could handle.

One cannot help feeling some sympathy for the graduate teachers who attempt to perpetuate themselves through their students, and the students who in turn are taught to expect to emulate their teachers by becoming themselves graduate teachers. Attempting to preserve this sheltered, frankly narcissistic world lies behind most of the doom-and-gloom, "don't-go-into-history" propaganda. One hears the complaints of the most prestigious departments that lesser institutions are awarding the PhD and diluting what should be a small priesthood. The complainers are, I think, preoccupied by status, rather than by the intellectual excitement of doing history. The very documents most professionals produce on the subject create a deceptive and self-deceptive entity—a "job market" referring only to jobs in academia. It is pernicious to act as if one ceases to operate intellectually, constructively, and rewardingly outside of the supposedly "top twenty" departments.

Historians have been the main source of the constantly repeated idea that historical training is worthless except for training college teachers. It is now long past time that historians discovered what members of the general public know, that trained historians have valuable talents. Such programs as those of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to extend horizons for humanists provide concrete evidence of this appreciation for our training.

It may be that in the end we can take a lesson from classical economics. Instead of working arbitrarily and futilely to restrict output, we could be out selling and marketing, creating new demand. Actually, the demand is already there. We need therefore to be supplying historians who understand that it is their intellectual product, not academic position, that is fundamentally wanted.

Those who talk "market" should understand that history is exciting and interesting thinking and learning, not academic people holding traditional and possibly outmoded "jobs."3 The world has changed from even the 1960s. In another day, one could have tenure in either AT&T or a university; it amounted to much the same thing. Young people know that today they have to face change and to be entrepreneurial. I suggest that all of us who teach encourage our students to make their own personal choices to pursue the fun that is doing history, and, if we feel apologetic for the world in which we now live, offer this statement: We do not guarantee you a job, much less an academic appointment. You will have to search out the many possibilities of history on your own. But we can give you both intellectual tools and intellectual excitement and challenges.

And then we won't have to apologize for historians' doing what we all can do well: in a disciplined way looking things up and having ideas and communicating to other members of our society.


1. In 1999, the state of Illinois appropriated $10,000,000 just for historical societies and museums alone. In Ohio, beyond government appropriations, private foundations were spending an additional $50,000,000 or more for history-related activities.

2. A recent study (reported in Science, 27 November 1998, among other places) shows that liberal arts PhD degrees, such as those in history, pay off very handsomely over a lifetime, another measure of "market."

3. Already some people have started to notice that as academia is changing in the information age, the position of adjunct or part-time faculty, however exploitative on the part of educational administrators, offers PhD historians openings so that they can in practice both teach and enjoy perks and salaries of other kinds of employment. Many people established in nonacademic positions have enjoyed offering an occasional class at a local educational institution. Glimpses that teaching may be reorganized in such ways are constantly appearing in various publications dealing with the future of tertiary educational endeavors.

John C. Burnham is professor of history at Ohio State University.

Tags: Viewpoints Job Markets


Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.