Is There a Job Crisis? A Reality Check

Irvin D.S. Winsboro, May 2004

For more than a decade I have been reading in Perspectives about the anemic job market for history PhDs. In many articles, Robert B. Townsend and others have documented a crisis in the job market for entry-level historians, with periodic fluctuations in numbers of hires but no long-term gains in new positions.1 I held high expectations, therefore, for a large applicant pool for a recently advertised position in history at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). In the end, however, our pool proved disappointingly small. As a result of this apparent inconsistency with the "job crisis" reports of the last decade, I have formulated a number of theories about the market today and about the mentality and expectations of those entering that market. Even if controversial, these speculations should prove useful, both to hiring institutions and to their incoming pool of applicants.

The University and Its Attractions

Florida Gulf Coast University, created by the state legislature in the early 1990s to be a teaching-centered, master’s-level institution, opened for students in 1997. FGCU ushered in about 2,600 students its first year; student enrollment now stands at 6,400, and is expected to grow to 15,000 within the next six years. With the exception of 18 faculty members who have tenure (having transferred to FGCU from another Florida state institution), the majority of faculty at the university are on a system of "continuing multiyear appointments" (MYA). In essence, career longevity at FGCU is linked to performance, as in other academic settings.

FGCU has a vibrant and attractive campus and serves a booming community in southwest Florida that includes two of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. Given such enticements (not to mention good weather and sunny beaches), it was reasonable to expect a larger than normal pool of applicants for any position at FGCU. The expectations could only be reinforced by another reasonable assumption—that the "job crisis" in history and the fact that we were seeking a person in U.S. history, a field that outstripped all other areas of PhD production according to recurrent data in Perspectives, would generate more applications. Moreover, our advertisement stipulated pay for junior faculty near the recently documented $39,940 average entry pay of state schools like FGCU.2 To borrow from a current hackneyed phrase, all these factors led to my "irrational exuberance."

The Applicant Pool

Over the past years, faculty positions in North America have averaged between 83 and 109 applicants for each opening.3 FGCU received but 40 applications for the advertised line in U.S. history. How could this be? Did the allure of our position and local amenities not compare favorably to other hiring institutions? We had advertised widely (though not in Perspectives), had offered a competitive salary and working conditions package, and we were trying to recruit in the most over-supplied field of concentration.

The applicant pool did reflect an acceptable level of diversity, not to mention an intriguing depth. Applicants were from superlative national schools and top regional universities, as well as from readily identifiable diploma mills. They ranged from the inevitable few who believe anyone can teach history in the academy to a promising number of academic stars. But why did the pool not approximate even the average number of applicants expected for an entry-level position in U.S. history? Midway in our review of dossiers, committee members wondered if something had gone awry with our plans—not affecting the diversity and depth of the pool, but rather the breadth of it.

Process and Results

The unanticipated low turnout of applicants forced us to rethink our screening strategy. Although we did not lower our expectations and standards, we did focus more closely on applicants with readily discernible strengths. We decided in the first meeting not to focus on candidates from "glamorous" programs but rather to concentrate on the candidates with the following qualities:

  1. strong teaching credentials and mentoring records under recognized teacher/scholars; 
  2. the capability to bring added strengths to the history program; 
  3. the ability to produce meaningful scholarship, including works on pedagogy; and
  4. the ability to move quickly and collegially into the work environment.

That is to say, the committee desired a good fit for the major, not a prestigious degree for the catalogue.
After a months-long process of scrutinizing the applications, we concluded the search by unanimously agreeing on a candidate who admirably "fitted" our needs and expectations. The successful candidate not only suited our needs in terms of his training and teaching experience, but quite fortuitously also brought a new strength to our history program—a master’s in library science in addition to a PhD in U.S. history. Despite the small number of applicants, the committee had succeeded in recruiting a most promising faculty member. Following a rigorous interview and a campus visit, the committee enthusiastically recommended a candidate to the dean, who approved the decision.

Afterword

The above scenario suggests several multitiered lessons for candidates and institutions involved in today’s history job market. First, it is reasonable to assume—on the basis of the unusually low number of applicants for the position at FGCU—that most freshly minted PhD s are targeting tenure-track positions at research schools for employment. My theory is that many aspiring historians in the job market avoided FGCU, an otherwise desirable place to live and work in, because the advertised position listed an MYA rather than a tenure-track line. A number of candidates who applied for the position seemed reluctant to accept an MYA line during our telephone interviews, and an equal number communicated to me in private discussions and in e-mail exchanges that they would only consider an appointment for a "temporary" job at FGCU as a last resort. Of course, I responded that FGCU was not offering a temporary position but rather a continuing MYA position and reasonable job security. Even so, my distinct feeling is that candidates were not inclined to process (nor even to hear) the message I conveyed.

Fresh PhDs who pass on MYA positions are playing statistical Russian Roulette with the job market. Despite anecdotal evidence that the job market is improving, the number of entry-level positions in the U.S. advertised in Perspectives fell 6.1 percent last year and 12.9 percent from the prior year. Advertised positions in schools located in the Southeast dropped 28 percent during the last two hiring cycles (for a net loss of 40 lines).4 Besides, candidates in the present market are facing a sharp decline in all advertised tenure-track jobs regardless of region or specialty. For example, last year the number of advertised nontenure positions for junior faculty rose 18 percent, resulting in nontenure openings accounting for 26.5 percent of the total number of lines advertised. Most of the nontenure positions occurred, significantly, at doctoral/
research institutions (as defined by the Carnegie classification). Given the propensity of legislatures and new or reconstituted boards of trustees to embrace the "business" model of education, it is fair to assume that the nontenure cohort of history hires will rise demonstrably in future years. Therefore, individuals who focus their job searches entirely on tenured or tenure-track positions will find themselves competing for smaller slices of the job market pie. Job seekers need to more seriously consider continuing MYA openings in their searches for employment. Not only do MYAs receive fewer applications, as the FGCU example shows, making one’s chances of being hired better, but they can also be expected to become even more common as schools continue to shy away from new tenure-track appointments.

This situation is possibly compounded by the fact that many fresh PhDs aim for jobs at elite schools, emboldened by a faith in a soon-to-be expanding job market. Despite a historically challenging job market for history PhDs, reports by the National Research Council and the National Opinion Research Center demonstrate that graduate programs actually produced more PhDs at the dawn of the new millennium than they had 30 years ago in the more optimistic early 1970s. Of the more than 11,000 actively enrolled PhD students, perhaps only one-half of those who actually graduate will land coveted positions in the academy. Most of them will likely pursue careers in nondoctoral and nonresearch universities. As noted in a 2003 report by the AHA’s Committee on Graduate Education, "there is an oversupply of history PhDs seeking academic employment … with modern American history the most glutted area." The reason for this is that about 40 percent of graduate students are focusing on U.S. history, the most acute area of market saturation. Moreover, the market has not shown any capacity to absorb non-North American specialties. Why? The answer is complex, but it lies partly in the understanding that many schools are not filling retiring senior positions in times of widespread financial exigencies, and that many faculty over 55 do not plan on retiring at the traditional age of 65 (mandated retirement at age 65 for academe ended in 1986).5

Another possible lesson derived from the FGCU experience is that many colleges and universities may be moving away from focusing on applicants from the "icon institutions" to hiring candidates from any legitimate PhD school, as long as a candidate represents a good fit for the hiring campus. It does not seem unreasonable to assume that many institutions of similar size and mission to that of FGCU will move toward hiring new faculty based primarily on the goal of compatibility and experience rather than on the basis of degree-conferring institution. That is not to say that the products of the most prestigious graduate programs cannot also be the best job candidates, only that "hands-on" schools like FGCU will not be fixated on top-notch degree schools as many might have been during past eras marked by research rather than teaching priorities.

With a fuller understanding of the recent FGCU experience and the data driving the market, aspiring faculty should think long and carefully about possibly winnowing down their applications to the "major-large," tenure-track research university. Schools like FGCU, with recently created or revised teaching-centered missions, are becoming increasingly common across the educational landscape. The candidate who looks askance at MYA in favor of the venerable tenure line may be better served in the present market by casting a broader application net. Young PhD s and their graduate faculty would also do well to understand that many history committees today are seeking more keenly than ever candidates with demonstrable teaching and interpersonal skills. The current job market calls for aspiring junior faculty not only to understand but also to respond to these realities. While the recent hiring process at FGCU may not reflect universal truths for academe, it does suggest some changing, and possibly significant, trends in both the reality of the market and the priorities of hiring institutions.


—Irvin D.S. Winsboro is a tenured professor of history and African American Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University.
His latest publication is "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Race, Rhetoric, and Reality in Southern Populism"
in the just released winter 2003 edition of
The Historian.

Notes

1. See, for example, Paul Conkin, "Bleak Outlook for Academic History Jobs," Perspectives (April 1993); Susan M. Socolow, "Analyzing Trends in the History Job Market," Perspectives (May/June 1993), 3; Robert B. Townsend, "The Job Crisis of the 1970s," Perspectives (April 1997), 9; and Robert B. Townsend, "History Takes a Tumble in Degrees Conferred, New Data Shows Field Lagging Behind," Perspectives (October 2003), 19.

2. Robert B. Townsend, "Slight Drop in the Number of New History Ph.D.s in 2001 but Some Good News on Employment Diversity," Perspectives Online (January 2003); Robert B. Townsend, "The 2001–02 Salary Report: History Gains Some Ground, but Job Market Is Taking a Toll," Perspectives Online (October 2002) at .

3. Robert B. Townsend, "Odds for Applicant Improving, According to Survey of Job Advertisers," Perspectives Online (January 2001) .

4. Robert B. Townsend, "History Jobs Take a Tumble, but Number of New PhDs Also Falls" Perspectives (December 2003), 7–11.

5. NSF/NIH/NEH/USED/USDA, Survey of Earned Doctorates, Prepublication Tables for the Summary Report 1999: Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities, February 2001, available at www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/stats.htm; Townsend, "History Jobs"; "The Education of Historians for the 21st Century," Perspectives (October 2003) 19; Robert B. Townsend, "Job Market Report 2002: History Posts Gains Despite Economy," Perspectives Online (December 2002) ; Lynn Hunt, "Generational Conflict and the Coming Tenure Crisis," Perspectives (September 2002), 13–15.