What We Owe Our Young: Honest Information about Placement

Anthony Grafton, February 2006

On March 23, 2004, a young historian announced that she would take down her blog, Invisible Adjunct. "Gentle Readers," she explained,

A few months ago, I made a vow to myself that this would be my last semester as an invisible adjunct. Since I've failed to secure a full-time position in my final attempt at the academic job market, what this means, of course, is that I made a vow to leave the academy. Six more weeks of teaching, and I head for the nearest exit.

Many readers greeted this decision with dismay. Invisible Adjunct had won a wide readership with entries couched in precise and elegant prose, discussions conducted with a high degree of civility, a sense of humor that no experience, however depressing, could quite extinguish—and a sharp eye for the foibles and vanities of established historians.

In her mirror, I felt, I saw myself and other senior scholars from a new angle—and one I didn't like very much. For Invisible Adjunct devoted much of her space to arguing that senior historians have played an academic con game with their best students. They—we—portray history to vulnerable undergraduates as an intense, engrossing discipline. They—we—encourage particularly bright and engaged students to study for doctorates. Then they—we—fail, as we knew we would, to find tenure-track jobs for most of them, leaving them to scramble for adjunct positions in which they became, as she explained, largely invisible to colleagues and staff, even when students depended on them. The doctoral degree in history, as Invisible Adjunct and some of her favorite fellow bloggers, like Erin O'Connor and Timothy Burke, portrayed it, seems less a form of higher education than an attractive nuisance, an intellectual Greenland.

These critics of the established order have sometimes overstated their case. But in one respect in particular, they had, and have, a strong point. Every year, thousands of undergraduates across the country apply to graduate programs in history. Many, perhaps most, of them have mentors actively engaged in the profession, who can tell them a great deal about programs and professors, stipends and teaching requirements at universities from Connecticut to California. But what can they—what can I—tell an undergraduate who wants to know her chances of finding work in the historical profession if she obtains a PhD at Great Public I or Ivy II? What can applicants themselves learn from publicly available information about the usual outcomes for those who enter a given program? Note that any reasonable applicant should have two practical questions in mind, along with the more appealing ones about departmental strengths, library resources, and intellectual community: how many of those who enter actually end up with a doctorate, and what sorts of job do they then find.

The natural place to seek evidence of this kind is on departmental web pages, in some cases supplemented by the graduate schools of the universities in question. What follows is a brief survey of the materials on offer at a varied group of traditionally strong graduate programs, public and private. The institutions are listed in the order in which they normally appear in the AHA's annual Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians. In the list, "History" refers to the department web site and "University" to the main university site.

University of Arizona:

History lists some dissertations by graduate alumni but offers no information on attrition or placement on its web page or in its handbook of graduate students.

Arizona State University:

History has a well-established track in public history and offers a brief list of tenure-track teaching jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, and public history and scholarly publishing positions obtained by recent graduates.

Brown University:

History lists PhDs from 2003–04 and their positions, but does not give percentage of entrants who reach completion or describe earlier and more recent outcomes.

University of California at Berkeley:

History apparently offers no information on student careers or the employment of recent PhDs.

University of California at Davis:

History graduate program page has a very prominent Placement link, which leads to a list of PhDs since 1992, with positions held.

University of California at Los Angeles:

University compiles searchable statistics for admissions, enrollment, and graduation data on a central site, but no placement data.
History lists recent PhDs with dissertation subjects but without placement information.

University of California at San Diego:

History does not offer systematic data but the department newsletter showcases recent PhDs who have obtained tenure-track positions.

University of California at Santa Barbara:

History has lists of dissertations in progress and recently completed, and for the latter information about positions is provided where available, with clear distinctions between tenure-track and long-term post.

University of Chicago:

History provides full information about the employment of recent PhDs, though it is somewhat hard to find.

Columbia University:

History does not give a complete statistical breakdown, but it does offer information on the percentage of grads now in teaching positions, and gives examples of the posts they have obtained. It also emphasizes that some PhDs decided not to pursue college and university positions.

Duke University:

University has a centralized web site. This compiles statistics for all departments, including admission, enrollment, median time to degree, job placement, and completion rates.

History lists recent PhDs and their subjects, but without placement information.

Emory University:

History gives percentages of graduates placed in positions of different kinds and examples of the institutions where they have found work.

University of Florida:

History has a newsletter, History Updates, under the News and Events link on its web page. The graduate coordinator's column briefly lists of graduates who have obtained teaching or public history positions.

Florida State University:

History has an alumni newsletter, The Past in the Present, on its web site. This offers information about current students and alumni. No systematic data seem to be given on placement.

Georgetown University:

History provides a list of recent dissertations and their authors, and a Placement link in the Graduate Program web site gives examples of successful placement both in teaching positions and in other areas.

Harvard University:

History offers information on career planning and an informative database of candidates preparing to enter the job market, but no data on placement.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

History lists PhDs awarded from 1997–98 to 2003–04, with dissertation topics, and all placements, temporary or long term, for the academic years 2000–01, 2001–02, and 2002–03.

Johns Hopkins University:

History offers no information on student careers or placement of graduates.

Louisiana State University:

History graduate page notes that "The history department has a good record of placing its graduates after leaving LSU; many find teaching positions at colleges and universities across the nation." But though the word "graduates" appears to have a hyperlink (to http://www.artsci.lsu.edu/hist/gradjobs.htm), the link was dead as of January 1, 2006, and no systematic data could be found.

University of Maryland:

History offers no systematic information on attrition or placement.

University of Massachusetts (at Amherst):

History has a list of students and topics, and a list of PhDs with incomplete information on their positions.

University of Michigan:

History lists recent PhDs and current candidates, with placement information where available.

University of Minnesota:

History lists recent PhDs without placement information.

University of New Mexico:

History lists recent PhDs, their thesis topics and positions, distinguishing between short-term and tenure-track posts.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

History includes placement on its FAQ list, giving statistics and linking to a full list of recently-placed graduates.

Northwestern University:

History lists recent graduates' positions in full.

University of Pennsylvania:

History lists all placements from 1990 to 2004.

Princeton University:

History provides no placement information. History of Science, a separate program within the department, lists all known graduates and their current positions.

Rutgers University:

History lists all PhDs since 1990 and all PhDs from 2002 with placement information where available and clear indications of the nature of positions obtained.

University of Southern California:

History has a particularly rich and informative Graduate handbook but seemingly no systematic information on attrition or placement.

Stanford University:

History lists placements for 2005.

University of Texas at Austin:

History offers a full list of more than 600 PhDs from 1926 to 2005, with thesis topics and information on current (and past) positions where available.

University of Virginia:

History does not offer systematic data on attrition or placement.

University of Washington:

History web site notes that "Since 1995 over 80 percent of our PhD graduates have secured employment in positions derived from their graduate training; about half of them as tenure-track faculty." Then it lists tenure-track college and university positions and permanent public history posts attained by departmental graduates in the last four years.

Washington University in St. Louis:

History lists recent appointments.

University of Wisconsin:

University surveys the general situation, with information for the years 1995–98.

History gives information on recent placements, specifying whether positions are post-doctoral, short term or tenure track.

Yale University:

University provides a rich database, searchable for nearly all departments, though unfortunately not linked to department web sites. This includes degree information such as median years to PhD, career data at time of dissertation submission and five years afterwards.

History offers information on individual students and their placements.

The first conclusion that emerges from this list of local practices is paradoxical. As far as entrants' chances within a given program are concerned, practices are uniform, from region to region and from public research universities to their ivy covered private counterparts: departments provide no information. On information about employment, by contrast, no common standard exists. Chicago, Michigan, Northwestern, Texas, and Yale offer potential applicants full information about the placement of recent graduates. Others, such as Stanford and Massachusetts, list only those who have succeeded in obtaining posts. Still others list exemplary successes, with or without the percentage of graduates who have obtained tenure-track positions. Sometimes, the data are present but hard to find, since they appear in lists of dissertation topics or departmental alumni newsletters. In many cases, the data provided would not yield a plausible conjecture about entrants' chances of employment—especially when they do not include information about completion rates, an essential complement to data about positions obtained.

Even some of the more informative web sites have their flaws. Emory, for example, addresses placement questions frankly and directly, and unlike some others states clearly that successful careers need not mean teaching positions in four-year and research institutions:

Our PhDs have an excellent placement record, despite the tightness of the job market. Emory history PhDs in senior ranks hold posts in many major universities. They have also developed successful careers in law, business, government and secondary school education. Competition for jobs at the college and university level is intense. We believe that history is an important discipline that needs talented recruits. We also believe that you should not enter the profession unless you have a strong commitment and are aware that you may have to withstand disappointments when seeking employment. It is likely that you will have to submit many applications and possibly apply for several years before finding a permanent post.

Our recent graduates have done very well. Unfortunately our information is incomplete at present. What we do know is the following: of the 58 PhDs who received their degrees between 1994 and 2004, thirty-six, or 62 percent are in regular teaching positions at colleges and universities. Many of these are tenure track or tenured but we don't know how many. Eight more, or 14 percent, are filling temporary positions. Six, or 10 percent, hold good professional jobs other than teaching. The last eight are unknown. Thus 76 percent currently hold teaching positions. Of course the graduates who have been out the longest have had more time to establish themselves than those who recently graduated.

Yet even Emory, after posing the 64 dollar question, "Where are their jobs?" slides into a worrying optimism:

The list is constantly changing, but some of the more interesting destinations are Coe College, IA; Davidson College, NC; DePaul University, Chicago; Iowa State University; Kenyon College, OH; Maryville College, TN; Mercer University, GA; Rutgers University, NJ; Sewanee University, TN; Southampton College, NY; University of Georgia; University of Kentucky; University of Missouri, Kansas City; University of South Carolina; University of Texas, Texarkana; Virginia Commonwealth University; Wilfred Laurier University, Ontario.

The list is impressive, but the rhetoric that introduces it seems evasive. Where, one wonders, are the less interesting destinations? Why not list them as well? All in all, however, Emory's web page deserves high marks for candor. Many others are far less forthcoming.

What data should a history department provide in order to meet its professional responsibilities to potential students? A look outside the discipline of history does not yield a simple answer, since practices differ widely from profession to profession. Medical schools offer little or no information about outcomes, presumably because their graduates go into internships rather than into full-time employment. Law schools at the universities surveyed, however—except for Harvard and Yale—provide detailed information on graduation and placement, often in statistical form, as well as on bar examination results. Business schools list statistics for the employment of MBAs and often give case-by-case information about the placement of their PhDs. On the whole, it seems clear that most professional schools whose graduates enter the workplace on completion pretty consistently provide data on placement.

Within the arts and sciences, practices differ widely. Economics departments at the universities surveyed, for example, offer even less precise information than their counterparts in history. But doctorates in economics offer direct access to a wider range of employment opportunities than those in history. Economics faculty and graduate students also agree, to a considerable extent, in their estimates of the positions their programs occupy in a recognized hierarchy of departments, and of the likely employment chances of graduates at each level. Philosophy affords a stronger parallel, and an example to be emulated. Graduates of departments at the universities examined face an employment situation, as far as college and university teaching is concerned, even less favorable than graduates in history.1 But many philosophy departments nonetheless offer more precise information about placement than the history departments at the same universities. This is certainly true at my own university, and reflects a willingness to face facts that historians could and should emulate.

From this range of materials, I would argue, a basic professional standard does emerge. At a minimum, prospective students should be able to learn, on the web, what sorts of jobs the products of a particular program have obtained, and what percentage of graduates have obtained positions in recent years. But these data, while necessary to make an informed decision, are not sufficient. An applicant cannot make an informed guess about her own chances at entrance unless she can learn how students have normally fared, in recent years, from their entrance into the department in question to their exit from it. Useful information about completion and attrition could take a number of forms, from full tables to the history of a single recent cohort. Placement information should normally consist in a complete list of recent graduates, year by year, with clear indications of the sorts of jobs involved.

Merely compiling lists is not enough. More departments must emulate those, such as Arizona State, that have found ways to list graduates who have found positions other than teaching jobs in four-year or research institutions—for example, employment in government, as public historians, as junior college professors, or as schoolteachers—without implying that they have somehow failed. Ideally, information and percentages should be supplied for all types of jobs most commonly obtained by a program's graduates. Some departments may decide that privacy should be taken into consideration; but this can be done without rendering outcomes less transparent. Princeton's philosophy department lists all dissertation topics and placements, year by year, but does not give the names of the candidates—thus providing much of the information applicants need without naming names. Practices can and should continue to vary.

But they should vary within a range. History departments owe their applicants an accurate, non-selective accounting of both the proportion of entering students who actually reach the job market and of their experiences there. If we fail to provide these data—and I write as a member of a department that does not, though I hope to see our practices change in the near future—we lend substance to the stinging criticisms leveled against us by articulate victims of the system. We should give our brightest and most dedicated undergraduates as much and as precise information as we can when they are trying to decide if they really want to pursue history as a profession.

—Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is vice president of the AHA's Professional Division. He extends his warm thanks to his colleagues in the division and to Patrick Manning, vice president of the Teaching Division for comments and criticism; to Robert Townsend for providing information; and to Adam Flynn for his help in exploring the recesses of the Web.


1. According to Brian Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet Report, which has pressed philosophy departments to report placement results, for 1995–96, there were 341 PhDs awarded in the United States and Canada, as reported by the Review of Metaphysics. Of these 341, just 17 were offered tenure-track jobs (or the equivalent) in top 50 PhD programs or their foreign equivalents. Of these 17, six were graduates of Princeton, three of Pittsburgh, two of Michigan, and one each of Rutgers, Stanford, Iowa, Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Texas. Of these 341, a mere six were offered jobs at top fifteen programs. Of these six, two each went to Princeton and Michigan, and one each went to Pittsburgh and Rutgers."