History Jobs Take a Tumble, but the Number of PhDs also Falls

Robert B. Townsend, December 2003

The past year proved quite grim in the job market for historians, as the number of new jobs listed in Perspectives fell over 13 percent (Figure 1), led by sharp declines in the number of senior faculty and public history jobs.

Figure 1

The number of jobs open to junior faculty (lecturer or assistant professor) in the United States fell 6.1 percent from the previous year and 12.9 percent from the peak reached two years ago. A sharp increase in the number of junior faculty jobs at schools outside United States buoyed the overall numbers a bit, so the total number of junior faculty jobs fell by 4 percent—from 757 openings listed in the 2001–02 academic year to 727 last year. This is off 9.1 percent from the peak of 800 openings listed two years ago.

When we examine the regional fields of specialization being requested, only positions offered for specialists in the Middle East demonstrated significant growth over the previous year. The gains for Middle East history were dramatic, if not surprising (Figure 2).

Figure 2

The 39 positions offered last year were more than double the highest point in the 10 years for which we have collected data. The field of African history also saw a resurgence, as the number of jobs advertised in the field rose 48 percent over the previous year. But this follows a dramatic drop the year before, so the 31 jobs listed last year were still down 14 percent from the peak two years ago.

Available positions in the other broad geographic fields all dipped for the second year in a row. Openings in Asian and Latin American history dropped by a quarter, while positions in European history dropped by 2 percent and openings for North American history dropped just over 9 percent. Compared to the peak two years ago, every field except Latin American and Middle Eastern history was down between 10 and 16 percent.

Similarly, looking at where the job losses are occurring highlights the breadth of the problems in the field (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Over the past year, the largest drops were in the western United States, as positions in the West and Southwest declined by more than 17 percent. However, viewed over the past two years, schools in the East have fared little better. Positions in the Northeast are down almost 18 percent in two years (from 264 to 217 openings), while job listings from the Southeast have slipped almost 28 percent (from 145 to 105 positions).

While it is small comfort to new history PhDs, the number of positions advertised exclusively for senior faculty (at the associate or full professor level) took a much larger fall. Job listings for senior faculty were almost cut in half, from 103 listings in 2001–02 to 54 last year.

Additional Worries: Tenure, Universities, Fellowships, and Public History

There are three additional sources of concern: last year's job ads indicate sharp declines in tenure-track jobs, openings in research universities, and the number of available fellowships and nonacademic positions.

Even as the overall number of jobs was slipping, the number of positions without the possibility of tenure rose sharply. Nontenure-track openings for junior faculty rose by 18 percent from the year before, growing from 163 to 193 of the jobs available. This boosted the proportion of nontenure-track jobs from 21 to 26.5 percent of the total.

Among the openings targeted at senior faculty, the shift was even more pronounced. The proportion of positions without the possibility of tenure—generally one-or two-year visiting appointments, rose from 28 percent of the total to 53 percent of the jobs listed last year.

Meanwhile, when we look at the institutional location of the advertised jobs, we find that the declines are in two significant areas—doctoral/research universities and public history positions.

When analyzed by the Carnegie classification of the institutions doing the hiring, we find that most of the declines in junior faculty positions took place at doctoral/research institutions. The openings at these institutions fell by 15 percent—from 371 openings to 315. In comparison, jobs at master's colleges and universities rose 2 percent (from 187 to 191), and baccalaureate colleges fell by 1 percent (from 148 to 146). The drop at doctoral institutions is particularly troubling given that history PhDs are generally trained for jobs at doctoral and research universities (even though most of them will not find positions there).1

Perhaps more alarming is the decline in the number of positions listed outside the academy. Listings for those positions fell 43 percent, from 59 to 34 openings last year. Our most recent survey of placement for recent history PhDs indicates that around half will find jobs outside the academy, which makes this figure quite troubling. However, the exact meaning of that drop is less clear, because these positions are often advertised only at the local level.

Finally, there was a marked drop in the number of postdoctoral and research fellowships advertised. Offerings fell 25 percent from the year before, dipping from 72 to 54. Taken together with the declines in the number of jobs outside of academia, this suggests broad constriction in the opportunities for new history PhDs.

On the Supply Side: A Drop in New PhDs

Anxieties engendered by dismal figures on the demand side are allayed somewhat by a marked decline in the number of new history PhDs conferred this past year. The new PhDs reported in this year's Directory of History Departments fell 11 percent below the number reported last year, falling from 913 to 810 new PhDs.

These declines occurred at most program types, whether measured by size or ranking of the program. Only small programs created in the past 13 years showed any upward growth in the number of new PhDs conferred.

And this trend seems likely to continue in the short term, as the number of history dissertations reported to the AHA as "in progress" at U.S. programs fell 9.1 percent to 3,427—the fourth year of declines and the smallest number since the AHA began systematically collecting this information in 1997–98.

But we emphasize that these are only short-term trends. Even before jobs and PhDs have come into proximate alignment, PhD-granting history departments are now actively trying to increase graduate admissions. Last fall, PhD-granting history programs increased graduate admissions for the first time in over a decade. The number of new graduate students entering these programs rose from 2,388 to 2,591. This marks a significant reversal, as admissions fell steadily through the 1990s, when the difficulties in the academic job market became manifest (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Equally notable, this past year's admissions marked the first time since 1991–92 that the number of students actually entering the programs exceeded expectations. Each year we ask departments to estimate how many students they plan to admit in the coming year, and subsequently compare that number to the number reported as entering the program. Over the past 11 years, departments consistently overestimated how many new graduate students would enter the program by an average of about 3 percent. Last year departments exceeded their expectations by 1 percent, as they had estimated they would only admit 2,560 new students.

And first estimates for admissions this fall project a further increase of 3 percent, going up to 2,667. Almost a third of the programs reported that they plan to further increase admissions over this year's level. While the smaller and newer programs were again leading the way, only the very largest programs (in terms of student population) indicated that they do not plan to further increase admissions.

The number of graduate students in PhD-granting history departments ticked up just slightly last year, to 11,376 "actively enrolled" graduate students. Once again, this marked the reversal of an eight-year trend. Of that number, 9,250 were reported as working full time, and 2,126 were part time.

Other Indicators: Directory Faculty Listings

Despite the declining number of new job opportunities, faculty listings in the new 2003–04 Directory of History Departments suggest that the decline in job listings did not produce a commensurate decline in the number of full-time faculty in the departments. At the 633 departments listed both this year and last year, the number of full-time faculty actually increased a modest 0.5 percent (Figure 5).

Figure 5

For the second year in a row, the only full-time faculty rank to experience a real decline was at the full professor level, which declined another 2 percent (4 percent over the past two years). Just over 6 percent of the faculty at the senior level retired or switched institutions last year. As a result, the emeritus faculty category was the fastest growing category for the fifth year in a row (though these numbers were inflated by a number of departments that added listings for emeritus faculty who had not been listed on the staff last year).

The number of new lecturers and assistant professors hired was almost identical to the previous year's hires. And as in the prior year, almost 10 percent of the assistant professors were promoted to associate professor.

The disparity between declining job ads and rising numbers of faculty is explained by a modest reduction in the number of retirements, and net increases in teachers to accommodate increasing numbers of undergraduate students in the classroom. As we have noted in our reports tracking trends in the number of students, undergraduate enrollments are going up and are projected to go higher through the end of the decade.2 However, the declining proportion of tenure-track job listings and the rising number of part-time faculty in the Directory suggests that colleges and universities are using short-term solutions to address the problem.

So we have to view with caution the large number of history faculty who are now approaching retirement. By tabulating current faculty by the year they received their degrees, we can estimate that almost 23 percent of the full-time history faculty are in their late 50s and early 60s, and approaching the end of their teaching careers (Figure 6).3

The size of this cohort is particularly marked when compared to the history departments of a generation ago. In the first AHA Directory, published in 1975 (and called the Guide to Departments of History), only 5 percent of the history faculty were working more than 30 years after they received their degree. An unprecedented boom in hiring took place between 1964 and 1974, as a sharp increase in undergraduate enrollments from the baby boom generation created unprecedented opportunities for history teachers.4 As a result, in 1975, historians who had received their degrees in the previous 10 years accounted for almost half the faculty in the history departments at America's colleges and universities.

Figure 6 shows the movement of that cohort through subsequent stages in their careers. Based on recent evidence that most faculty are still retiring in their early 60s, and that most history PhDs received their PhDs in their early 30s, we project a 30-year career in the academy broken roughly into four decades after they received their degree.5 The recent wave of retirements we have been tracking represents the early edge of faculty from that cohort. With increasing life spans and the elimination of a mandatory retirement age, the proportion of the history faculty who continue teaching into their late 60s has increased steadily. Among emeritus faculty, the median year in which they received their degrees was 1964.

Figure 6

Of course, at this level of statistical abstraction it is impossible to really gauge the wide variety of career trajectories in the profession. But these numbers do highlight a profound generational shift taking place in the history departments. Faculty who are ABD or have received their degree within the past 10 years now account for a third of the full-time faculty.

Last year, a number of history department chairs remarked that this had significantly changed the complexion of their departments, bringing in new methodological approaches and teaching styles to the department. But a few also worried that this shift toward younger, junior faculty could diminish the power and prestige of the department in their colleges and universities.

—Robert B. Townsend is assistant director for research and publications at the American Historical Association.


1. For more on the imbalance between training and employment in the profession, we encourage you to read Thomas Bender, Philip Katz, and Colin Palmer, The Education of Historians for the 21st Century (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2004).

2. Robert B. Townsend, "The State of the History Department: Report on the 2000–01 Department Survey," Perspectives (February 2003), 5.

3. The median age for history PhDs when they received their degrees has risen gradually over the past 30 years, from near 30 in the 1970s to nearly 35 in 2001. Data on median ages of history PhDs from the Summary Report: Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities (published annually National Research Council until 1997, by the National Opinion Research Center 1998 to 2002).

4. However, we should also acknowledge that the sudden end to this wave of hiring in the early 1970s produced a job crisis for history PhDs that was actually worse than the recent difficulties. This is discussed in greater detail in Robert B. Townsend, "The Job Crisis of the 1970s," Perspectives (April 1997), 9.

5. Information on retirements described in Courtney Leatherman, "End of Mandatory Retirement Has Little Effect on College Faculties So Far, Economists Say," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 1998, A1.