New Data Reveals a Homogenous but Changing History Profession

Robert B. Townsend, January 2002

Historians teaching in institutions of higher education are older and less diverse than almost any other field in academia, but they are also more likely to be employed full time and are more satisfied with their jobs, according to recently released data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The availability of more detailed data from the 1999 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty allows us to fill in some of the gaps in the data we have been reporting over the past few years, especially about the teaching of history at two-year colleges.1

The Department of Education estimates that 25,470 of the 1.1 million faculty members employed at U.S. colleges and universities in the fall of 1998 taught history. As reflected in Figure 1,the largest proportion—almost one-third—were teaching in two-year colleges. However, this is a simple headcount of instructional staff in each type of institution, and can be somewhat deceptive, since almost two-thirds of the history teachers employed at two-year colleges in 1998 were employed part time. In comparison, "only" 23 percent of history faculty members at public research universities were employed part time.

Figure 1

Overall, approximately 14,630 (57.6 percent) of the historians in the academy were employed full time, while 10,770 (42.4 percent) held part-time appointments. This places history right at the median for all fields, with fewer part-time faculty than other humanities fields like English and foreign languages, but a higher proportion than other social science fields such as political science (where only 32.7 percent of the faculty were employed part time).

Figure 2

As one might expect, the PhD is almost a prerequisite for full-time employment in the academy. Over 83 percent of those teaching full time held a doctorate, while almost 74 percent of the faculty teaching part time had not completed the PhD. These differences become even more pronounced depending on the type of institution, as over 95 percent of the full-time historians teaching in doctoral programs held the PhD, compared to 45 percent of those teaching in programs that confer an associate's degree.

One of the most striking pieces of information is the finding that the average age for historians is 51.8 years—the oldest of any of the fields in the survey and more than three years above the average for all fields. More than half of the faculty in history were over the age of 55. Almost 45 percent of the historians employed in the academy had been at their institution for 10 years or more.

Given these demographics, it probably comes as less of a surprise that the average age at which these historians expect to retire from the faculty is one of the highest in the academy at almost 66 years of age—effectively the same as the fields of philosophy and political science (the average for all fields was a bit below 64). At the time the survey was conducted, over 35 percent of the historians in the academy said they planned to retire within the next 10 years.

Data on the Status of Women and Minorities

As Figure 2 reflects, women currently account for less than one-third of the faculty members in history—though this represents a substantial increase over 10 years, as the proportion of women rose from 17.1 percent to 27.9 percent between 1988 and 1998. This is partially a generational difference—woman account for less than 20 percent of the historians on faculty over the age of 55. But even with an increase in the proportion of women history PhDs over the past two decades, women are still represented in numbers below their proportions in recent PhD cohorts, and not rising above 40 percent even among the most recent PhD recipients.

Nevertheless, the estimates on tenure suggest that women have been slightly more successful in securing tenure-track positions over the past decade. As indicated in Figure 3, men held 76 percent of the tenured positions in history, while women held 51 percent of the tenure-track positions in history, which is about 20 percent above their representation among recent history PhDs. However, women accounted for only 38 percent of the teachers from the 1990s cohort who had already advanced to tenure.

Figure 3

The proportion of minorities among history faculty is so small as to make similar cross-tabulations unreliable. Out of an estimated 25,470 history faculty members, 318 were identified as American Indian or Alaska Natives, 331 were identified as Asian American, 1,826 were identified as African American, and 1,052 were identified as Hispanic.

Opinions on Teaching and the Profession

The survey also provides useful information on some of the more subjective issues, such as whether faculty would choose an academic career. History educators were among the most positive about their choice of an academic career, as 52 percent said they "strongly agree" that they would choose the same occupation, and another 38 percent simply agreed. Just a bit over 3 percent felt strongly about wishing they hadn't chosen such a career.

However, historians' overall job satisfaction was slightly below average, with 82 percent reporting that they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" (the average for all fields was a bit over 84 percent).

The survey also inquired about why faculty would choose to work part time. The survey estimates that almost 25 percent of the historians teaching part time do so as an avocation—generally teaching one class in addition to a full-time job outside the academy. However, 33 percent said they did so because it was the only employment option available to them. And another 41 percent offered a mixed assessment—they wanted to teach full time but their options were limited. Based on a previous survey of part-time faculty, it seems reasonable to project that these are typically faculty who are limited geographically in their employment opportunities, often because a spouse or partner cannot leave their locale or place of work.2

—Robert B. Townsend is assistant director for publications, information systems, and research at the American Historical Association. (Additional graphs and tables can be found on the AHA's web site at http://www.theaha.org.)

Notes

1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Study of Postsecondary Faculty 1999 (NSOPF: 99). Data available for download online at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/nsopf/. Approximately 28,600 faculty and instructional staff at 960 degree-granting postsecondary institutions were surveyed, with a weighted response rate of 83 percent. This data was used as a sample to provide estimates on the larger faculty.

2. Robert B. Townsend, "Part-Time Teachers: The AHA Survey," Perspectives (April 2000): 3, available online at http://www.theaha.org/perspectives/issues/2000/0004/0004new1.cfm.