1998 Job Market Report: Retirements Create More Opportunities but Job Gap Remains

Robert B. Townsend, January 1999

Job prospects for new and recent history PhDs improved slightly last year, as a growing number of senior faculty retirements created more job opportunities. But given the large pool of potential applicants, this trend will have to continue for several more years to close the gap between candidates and openings.

The latest AHA surveys indicate that the disparity between the pool of applicants and the number of junior faculty jobs remains very wide. For the fifth year in a row, more than three history PhDs were conferred for every two junior jobs advertised, and there is no indication that PhD production will ease significantly in the near future. At the same time, the use of part-time faculty continues to grow, as part-time and adjunct faculty now comprise 11 percent of all nonemeritus faculty listed in the Directory of History Departments (with many departments listing only a small portion of the part-time and adjunct faculty actually employed).

Retirements Produce New Openings

For those who follow the job listings in Perspectives, it will come as no surprise that the supply of jobs improved markedly this past fall—listings in the September through December 1998 issues were up 13 percent from the year before and reached their highest level since the academic job market tumbled in the early 1990s. The recent increase in job offerings is largely predicated on the long-anticipated retirements of historians who entered the academy in the 1960s. As Table 1 indicates, the number of full and associate professors that left their departments or switched to emeritus status rose by almost 20 percent over the previous academic year (from 323 to 385). At first blush, this seems to generate bad news, as the number of full-time employed history faculty fell for the first time in five years.

However, as the increase in job listings indicates, this is more likely to be a statistical anomaly based on a number of late decisions to retire or accept appointment in another department. This conjecture is supported by a survey of department chairs conducted last fall, which reflects a significant increase in optimism about the ability to replace retiring faculty, as well as an expected increase in retirements.1 When asked to predict the number of faculty the department would lose over the next five years, chairs estimated they would lose an average of 2.66 faculty members per department, an increase of 23 percent over their estimates of the year before. The chairs' predictions might actually underestimate future retirements. A large number of departments made late deletions to their Directory listings this year, citing the unexpected loss of one or more faculty, and one-third of the departments that responded to the survey reached their five-year projection for lost faculty in the first year.

More important, the respondents expected significantly less attrition, anticipating they could replace an average of 2.52 faculty per department (up from 1.84 the year before). This takes the anticipated loss by attrition from 15 percent of job lines to only about 5 percent. Of those hiring replacement faculty, 73 percent said new faculty members would be hired at a lower rank than their predecessors, and 68 percent reported that their area of specialization would be the same.

A look at the years that emeritus faculty and full professors received their degrees (Figure 1) supports the notion that a significant number of faculty are within the range of potential retirees. This past year, 68 percent of full professors who left their departments or switched to emeritus status received their degrees between 1960 and 1972. The number of retirees who received their PhDs in the 1970s (almost 20 percent) is particularly notable, since they would only be in their late 50s and early 60s. This finding supports a recent study that finds the end of the mandatory retirement age has been counterbalanced by an increased number of early retirements encouraged by the recent growth in the stock market and other retirement funds.2

The survey of department chairs also reflects optimism about creating new openings. The average number of new job lines the department chairs hope to create crept up from 0.41 per department in the 1996 survey, to 0.58 per department.

Slight Change in Job Listings for 1997–98

Even though job listings were up markedly this past fall, advertisements in the previous academic year changed only slightly, as the overall number of jobs listed (including fellowships and senior and administrative appointments) dipped slightly, from 709 in 1996–97 to 704 last year. However, the number of listings open to new junior faculty actually increased, from 562 to 567, reaching the highest level since 1991. Another 33 offerings were postdoctoral fellowship positions offering stipends, but obviously no long-term job prospects. Another positive sign was the further increase in tenure-track jobs, which rose to 82 percent of the junior faculty jobs—up from 80 percent in 1996–97 and 67 percent in 1991–92.

At the same time, an assessment of where the jobs are being created also points to a significant regional shift in job openings. Job production rebounded in every region except the West and Southwest, where job production is off 26 percent from 1991–92. Given that a quarter of all history PhDs are conferred in those regions, the constriction in the job market will be felt particularly acutely there.

Changing Trends in Field Specializations

The Association has been categorizing job listings since openings began to drop off in 1991–92.3 A comparison to the results from that year is quite useful for indicating the dramatic improvement in the number of jobs offered. As Table 2 indicates, offerings for junior faculty are now very near where they were in 1991–92. Most notably, openings for U.S., Latin American, and world history have rebounded strongly, and now surpass where they were in 1991. However, the number of openings for Africa and Europe are lagging.

However, comparing jobs listed in the 1990s tells only part of the story in this area. As Figure 1 illustrates, a dramatic generational shift is now taking place in history departments, as those who received their PhDs in the 1990s now account for more than a quarter of all full-time faculty. The change in generations has been accompanied by slightly different priorities in the types of specializations that are being sought. A crosstabulation of faculty listed in the Directory by field specialization and rank (Figure 2) reveals that the proportion of junior faculty employed to teach European history is clearly smaller than that of their senior colleagues, while the proportion of junior faculty teaching in fields outside Europe and the United States is noticeably larger. The same changes appear when the crosstabulation is made between employed faculty that received their doctorates before 1990 and those who received the PhD in this decade.4

Similarly, the AHA's annual survey of history departments found a 7 percent decline in the number of faculty employed to teach European history between 1989 and 1997, while faculty employed to teach U.S. history remained essentially unchanged, and faculty teaching about all other areas of the world rose over 10 percent.5

Nevertheless, the proportion of faculty being employed to teach European history is still well above the segment of history PhDs produced in fields of European history. In a 1996 survey, the AHA found 27 percent of new history PhDs were in the field of European history, well below the 34 percent of recent history PhDs (those who received the degree since 1995) that were employed full-time in the academy. Viewed in terms of the supply of history PhDs, the balance is least advantageous for those who studied U.S. history—54 percent of history PhDs in the 1996 survey specialized in some area of U.S. history, but they comprised only 39 percent of full-time faculty with recent PhDs.6

No PhD Shortage

The most recent estimate of the number of history PhDs by the National Research Council was 857 in 1996, down from 889 in 1995. As noted in the October Perspectives, that dip downward seems to be a short-term aberration, as PhDs listed in the Directory of History Departments rose 15 percent in 1997 after a similar small drop between 1995 and 1996. A comparable shift in the NRC numbers for 1997 would take the "official" count of history PhDs over 1,000. The number of PhDs listed in the 1998 Directory fell back a slight 2 percent.

As Figure 3 indicates, the number of graduate students in PhD-granting history programs remains very near the levels that produced this large number of new doctorates, even though new graduate-student admissions to PhD programs are down 27 percent since the peak in 1991. However, since it takes an average of over eight years from admission to completion of the history PhD, this drop in new admissions has not yet made a significant dent in the total number of graduate students. The decline in new admissions has been distributed fairly evenly across regions and at both private and public institutions.

PhD-granting history departments last year reported 12,762 "actively enrolled" graduate students in their programs, down 5 percent from the peak of 13,429 in 1995–96. That total is composed of 10,206 full-time and 2,556 part-time enrolled graduate students. At the same time, the Directory now lists 3,967 dissertations actively in progress, which slightly understates the total figure because a handful of programs do not provide any listings.

The decline in graduate students is not confined to history programs. The number of graduate students has dropped in most fields of study over the past two years. According to a recent estimates by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), graduate student enrollment dropped slightly in every field except business in both 1995–96 and 1996–97.7

In most respects, the increase in retirements, the generational shift, and the increase in job openings are precisely the demographic patterns predicted in the late 1980s, when graduate advisers, fearing a "PhD shortage," began to encourage promising history students to press on for doctorates. Projections of a PhD shortage were based on fears that without a 45 percent increase in PhD production percent by 1997, the humanities and social sciences would be unable to offset retirements and rising student enrollments.8 The history profession met and surpassed these expectations by raising PhD production by almost 50 percent (Figure 3).

Unfortunately, college and university administrations did not uphold their part of the bargain, choosing to address a sharp rise in undergraduate history enrollments by hiring more part-time faculty or simply allowing larger class sizes. There was a solid increase in the number of history majors in the late 1980s and early 1990s (61 percent between 1985 and 1991) and a significant increase in the number of students enrolled in history courses at U.S. departments (over 16 percent since 1989). However, the number of full-time faculty employed to teach them has grown only slightly in that time.9

Further Increases in Part-Time Faculty

The clearest proof of this broken promise lies in the continued growth in the number of part-time history faculty. Among department listings in the Directory, the growth in this category has been second only to the growing number of emeritus faculty. In departments listed in the Directory since 1986, there was a 17 percent increase in the number of part-time faculty.

More troubling still, a comparison between Directory listings and responses to the AHA departmental survey suggests that the listings increasingly understate the number of part-time faculty employed. A comparison of listings in the Directory and responses to the AHA departmental survey found 62 percent of the part-time faculty were not listed (and hence not counted). Comparable data for 1991 indicates that the gap has widened from just 32 percent over the past five years.

The Association revised the departmental survey this year and is currently developing a survey of part-time faculty to develop a more complete picture of their situation.

Missing Information

Despite the Association's success in tracking the job market for most history PhDs, there are still large areas of employment about which the AHA has little or no information. According to the most recent data from the National Research Council, 64.4 percent of all history PhDs in 1995 were employed at four-year colleges and universities (down over 5 percent from 1985).10For the remaining third of all history PhDs, the information available to the AHA becomes increasingly sketchy.

The Association has very little data on history faculty employed at two-year colleges, where more than 6 percent of all history PhDs were employed in 1995. We know in general that faculty at two-year colleges are more likely to be employed part-time and receive lower average compensation, but do not know how this bears out in history faculties.11 However, these and other topics will be discussed more fully in Community College Historians in the United States: A Status Report from the Organization of American Historians' Committee on Community Colleges, edited by Nadine Ishitani Hata and available early this year from the OAH and AHA.

Unfortunately, the Association has even less information on the more than 24 percent of all historians with PhDs who are employed outside the academy. In the 1995 survey, 3.7 percent of all history PhDs were employed at for-profit companies, 3.1 percent were self-employed, 5.7 percent were employed at nonprofit companies, and 7.6 percent were employed by a state, local, or federal government. The survey does not distinguish salary information by area of employment, and unlike academic jobs, these jobs are typically advertised at the local level.

The Association is currently seeking new avenues of information to clarify what these statistics suggest. As the historical profession increasingly encompasses a diversity of professional circumstances, settings, and trajectories of career development, the AHA faces significant challenges in its work to serve the different needs of its various constituents.


1. The survey was sent to the 721 department chairs listed in the Directory of History Departments in the fall of 1996 and again in the fall of 1997. Because of the limited number of responses from Canadian departments, only responses from U.S. department chairs were tabulated. The AHA received responses from 54 percent of the departments in 1996, and heard from 36 percent of the departments in the 1997 survey. Previous responses tabulated in Robert B. Townsend, "AHA Surveys Indicate Bleak Outlook in History Job Market," Perspectives (April 1997): 7.

2. Courtney Leatherman, "End of Mandatory Retirement Has Little Effect on College Faculties So Far, Economists Say," Chronicle of Higher Education (May 20, 1998): A1.

3. See Susan Socolow, "Assessing Trends in the Job Market," Perspectives (May/June 1993) and Robert B. Townsend, "Academic Job Opportunities Better than Expected in 1997," Perspectives (October 1997): 9.

4. Faculty specializations are tabulated from a database of all faculty listed in the AHA's Directory of History Departments and Organizations, 1998–99. Faculty without specific geographic areas of specialization were excluded from the count.

5. Since 1989, the AHA has sent out surveys to the more than 600 history departments listed in the AHA's Directory of History Departments, inquiring about course offerings, enrollment, and faculty employment data. The data provided draws on information from the 1988–89, 1991–92, and the 1996–97 surveys, with between 33 and 45 percent of the departments responding to each survey. For 1989 N=235 departments, for 1992 N=274, and for 1997 N=218.

6. The survey of specializations for 1996 history PhDs can be found in Robert B. Townsend, "Academic Job Opportunities Better than Expected in 1997," Perspectives (October 1997): 9.

7. Peter D. Syverson, "Early Returns of 1997 CGS/GRE Survey Reveal Second Year of Graduate Enrollment Decreases," at http://www.cgsnet.org/vcr/Cctr811.html.

8. See William Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa, Prospects for Faculty in the Arts & Sciences (New York: Princeton University Press, 1989); Debra Blum, "Moderate Increase in Faculty Retirements Predicted in Study," Chronicle of Higher Education (April 4, 1990): A1; and John H. D'Arms, "Universities Must Lead Efforts to Avert Ph.D. Shortages," Chronicle of Higher Education (January 17, 1990): B1.

9. See Robert B. Townsend, "AHA Surveys Indicate Majors and BAs Drop While Enrollments Rise," Perspectives (December 1998): 3.

10. Linda Ingram and Prudence Brown, Humanities Doctorates in the United States: 1995 Profile (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997) and Betty D. Maxfield and Prudence Brown, Humanities Doctorates in the United States: 1985 Profile (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1986).

11. Salary data can be found in "Doing Better: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 1997–98," Academe (March–April 1998). Staffing information from National Center for Education Statistics, Fall Staff in Postsecondary Institutions, 1995.