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The Many Careers of History PhDs: New Report Documents Diverse Employment Outcomes

Julia Brookins and Allen Mikaelian, December 2013

What are the career paths of history PhDs? Although historians are well aware of the difficulties the newly minted PhD faces on the academic job market, we have been at a loss when it comes to accounting for what actually happens to PhDs as they settle into careers. An important new study by Robert B. Townsend and L. Maren Wood, commissioned by the American Historical Association and now available at historians.org, examines the professional trajectories of 2,500 historians who earned PhDs from US institutions between 1998 and 2009, and finally allows us to start answering the question.

The Many Careers of History PhDs offers a mix of surprises, confirmations of conventional wisdom, concerns, and hope. The headlining piece of data, that 50.3 percent of the sample was found in tenure-­track positions at four-­year colleges and universities, is a perfect half-­empty, half-­full finding. In sharing this discovery informally with historians and graduate students, we’ve found that people tend to take it as evidence of their already-­formed attitude—­be that optimistic or pessimistic.

But while the report may not change many minds regarding the overall state of the tenure-­track job market, the report does point to a wide range of careers for history PhDs. “PhDs in the sample turned up in a wide array of positions—­ranging from government offices and libraries, to publishing houses and law firms,” Townsend and Wood write. We are encouraged by the range of careers; it means that there is demand for employees with the skills of the history PhD in a variety of settings.

Likewise, we are encouraged by the fact that Townsend and Wood could find only two history PhDs out of 2,500 who appeared to be unemployed. Even if we assume that all of the 70 PhDs who could not be found are missing because they don’t have jobs, that’s an unemployment rate of about 3 percent.

Our gratification over this finding is tempered, however, by the fact that the research found 17.8 percent of history PhDs’ primary employment was in part-­time, temporary, or contingent faculty positions, even though all of those in the sample were at least three years beyond the PhD. This raises a concern that could not be addressed by this research: how many of these historians are underemployed? A 2010 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce noted that a quarter of the history faculty off the tenure track were also holding down other jobs. The fact that 17.8 percent of our highly trained colleagues are employed in unstable positions without evidence of other primary employment should be a significant concern for the discipline as a whole.

Contrary to the widespread assumption that a degree from an elite institution implies a clear path to an academic job, Townsend and Wood found that history PhDs from these programs were just as likely to work beyond the professoriate as their colleagues from nonelite institutions. PhDs from the highest-­ranked institutions were, however, less likely to be among the 17.8 percent in nontenure-­track faculty positions.

This raises a number of questions for us, as does Townsend and Wood’s finding that Americanists and world history specialists are found working beyond the professoriate significantly more often than specialists in other fields. Perhaps they face fewer opportunities to find stable faculty work. Or perhaps they enter programs with more diverse aspirations, or develop a broader career horizon somewhere along the way. In any event, it seems we should not assume that every graduate student at any university is headed for an academic job.

The history PhD appears to open many doors. While it does present a challenging path—­with the distinct possibility of an unstable adjunct position looming large—­it also appears to offer rewarding options in an impressive array of fields. We hope readers will download the full report and send us their feedback. We’ve opened a section on AHA Communities for discussion of this report and related issues, and a place for readers to share their own impressions and experiences.

Readers can download The Many Careers of History PhDs .

—Julia Brookins is the AHA’s special projects coordinator.

—Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.

View figures from the report.