The Parlous Paths of the Profession

Anthony Grafton and Robert B. Townsend, October 2008

Editor’s Note: The following essay is an expanded version of an article (“Historians’ Rocky Job Market”) that was published in the Chronicle Review section of the Chronicle of Higher Education of July 11, 2008. We thank the authors and the Chronicle of Higher Education for allowing us to publish the revised version of the essay.

The beginning of wisdom about the academic job market for historians is to realize that it has no default state. However, understanding how and where employment in the profession changed can provide a necessary framework for understanding the conditions of the present. Too often our profession looks back to a brief “golden age” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a generation born in the demographic trench of the Depression entered the market just as the baby-boom swelled college enrollments. But the path from study in one elite research university to teaching was rarely easy, even for promising young men who rejoiced in elite educations and three names.

In the early decades of the profession, John Franklin Jameson, the first person to earn a PhD in history at Johns Hopkins University, spent three uneasy years as an instructor at his alma mater before he obtained his first professorship at Brown University. Almost 30 years later, the young Samuel Flagg Bemis wrote a worried letter to his Harvard College adviser, describing a similarly precarious position: “I want to stay in the college teaching profession and continue on with writing and research, but I am alarmed lest I be forced out of it by sheer lack of being able to make both ends meet on my present salary.” The college also refused to support Bemis’s professional work, either by paying travel expenses to conferences or delivery fees for inter-library loan books. Bemis feared that these conditions would drive him and other gifted young scholars out of the profession. “At this rate,” Bemis reflected, “and with all husbanding of our resources, it is impossible to raise a family or to live in self-respecting circumstances. To buy a pair of shoes is a serious possibility to be closely figured over and is the subject of a family conference of no mean importance.”1

These difficulties were encountered even by those with all the advantages of birth and education. As the profession diversified in the next generation—and opened up for Jews like Frank Manuel and Jack Hexter and the pioneering African American historian John Hope Franklin—more serious obstacles arose. For women, a brief and narrow window of opportunity for female PhDs that opened up early in the century quickly closed during the Depression.2

So the job market of the late 1950s and early 1960s was more aberration than norm, however fondly remembered. As Princeton University’s James McPherson recently recalled, for that brief moment access to opportunity presented few problems—at least for young white men at elite universities: “My own path to Ivy League employment... was ridiculously easy. One day in 1962 the chairman of the history department at Princeton phoned my Hopkins adviser, C. Vann Woodward, and asked him if he had a ‘young man’ to recommend for an instructorship (then the first rung on the tenure-track ladder). Woodward recommended me—I don’t know if he even had to put it in writing—and Princeton offered me the job, without a real interview and without having seen any dissertation chapters.3

But that moment was fleeting. By the late 1960s baby boomers emerged from PhD programs to a very different job market. New York Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas watched with horror as thousands of young scholars competed bitterly for fewer than 200 jobs at the American Historical Association’s 1972 meeting, while senior historians hired in better times blithely called for decorum and floated draconian proposals for cutting the number of graduate students and programs. The job market swung back into alignment at a lower level in the 1980s, but then careened into disorder again in the 1990s. Like the New Yorker’s vision of America, the widespread belief that the job market in history became troubled and difficult only in recent years foreshortens reality.

The present and future are just as complex. Structural shifts have transformed the market and career trajectories of recent graduates. No one can predict as yet what the market will do next year, or over the next 10 years. Gradually, however, it has become clear that certain long-term changes have taken place in the market—changes that affect the experience of many, though not all, doctoral candidates who want to teach history at colleges and universities. Some of these are well known—so well known, indeed, that they seem eternal. But the path from PhD to life on the tenure track has been transformed within the memory of today’s senior faculty. The changes mark a number of common elements—a disconnect between job preparation and job outcomes, low salaries, and the exclusion of scholars for reasons other than the quality of their intellects and scholarship.

The “Supply Side”: Sources of New PhDs

Analysis of the academic job market begins at the point of supply, with the students who actually enter the profession. Viewed across a range of demographic measures, the discipline has become more open over the past 50 years, but only modestly so.

Consider, for instance, the undergraduate origins of new history PhDs. In the middle part of the 20th century (between 1936 and 1956), Harvard University and Radcliffe College sent the largest number of undergraduate student on to history PhDs. Other private research universities—Yale, Chicago, Columbia, Princeton and Stanford—were also prominent among the top-ten programs on the list, but so were four public institutions: University of California at Berkeley, City College of New York, UCLA, and Wisconsin.4 In the period 1989–2002, by contrast, University of California at Berkeley passed Harvard University as the largest single producer of undergraduates who would earn history PhDs. But the top-ten producers now included seven private universities—Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Chicago, and Cornell—and only three public ones: Berkeley, UCLA, and Michigan.5 The disappearance of CCNY—a public institution that, unlike Berkeley, Michigan, and UCLA, had not become quasi-private in its financing or exclusive in its admissions—is striking. So is the fact that the Ivy League has a larger presence in this list than it had two generations ago—especially given the far greater increase in the size of student bodies at public institutions.

Among students receiving the PhD, however, the Ivy League plays a smaller role than in the past. According to the 1975 Guide to Departments of History, Ivy League graduate programs supplied 28 percent of the full-time faculty at all listed institutions, and 58 percent of Ivy League faculty. In the most recent Directory of History Departments, Ivy League institutions had conferred the degrees for barely 15 percent of the full-time faculty.

This is due in part to the growing number of programs conferring history PhDs, which increased from 18 to 159 in the past century. More remarkably, the number has more than doubled since 1970—a fact often cited by critics of the historical profession, who note that programs have multiplied even when jobs for their students were scarce. However, this steady growth simply reflects growth in the number of colleges and universities seeking the services of new history PhDs. In fact, the proportion of institutions with a PhD program in history peaked at 7 percent in 1970, and has declined slightly (to 6 percent) since then.

As the number of programs conferring PhDs has grown and top-tier programs have tightened their admissions policies, elite programs have come to confer a smaller proportion of the history PhDs each year (Figure 1). At present, historically large numbers of those who actually take PhDs and enter the job market come from programs below the top tier. In the abstract, this situation would seem to confirm the complaints of critics that less competitive universities are feeding a larger number of less competitive PhDs into an already saturated job market. But the available evidence suggests that different types of history PhD programs actually serve different types of employing institutions in the fast-growing system of higher education. On average, the newer programs confer a much smaller number of PhDs annually than their more established rivals, and confer a disproportionate number of their degrees in U.S. history. And while PhDs from those programs also tend to be less diverse in terms of race and gender, they also tend to be older and more tied to a specific locality.

Figure 1

PhDs from those programs seem much less likely to compete in the national job market, but appear to have relatively high levels of success finding employment in local markets. Data in the Directory yield a placement rate of 43 percent for history PhDs from top tier institutions, which is higher than that for programs at the bottom of the rankings (24 percent), but not so dramatically as one might expect. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students from the elite schools set their sights on a particular tier of institutions, and may move on to other jobs outside of academia if they fail in that segment of the job market. In contrast, many of the PhDs from the lower ranked institutions appear more willing to take teaching-oriented jobs at nearby local colleges, often on a part-time basis while earning a decent living outside of academia.

History PhDs from the top-tier programs (the top 24 programs in U.S. News rankings) have a clear advantage in finding jobs at all types of institutions, but gravitate to those with PhD programs (Figure 2). The top-tier programs draw almost 80 percent of their full-time faculty from the same set of programs, or import them from overseas. To that extent, the job market in history is relatively hierarchical, and the “social capital” that accrues to those who take their PhDs in programs that occupy high positions in the discipline’s networks plays a substantial part in explaining their success.6

Figure 2

Finally, a significant—though hard to track—number of PhDs from other disciplines and other countries also compete in “our” job market and take a considerable number of jobs. Almost one-third of the faculty and professional staff listed in the Directory did not receive their PhDs from U.S. history programs. Faculty members who earned their degrees in the United States in other disciplines tended to come from the same recognizable set of elite institutions. Similarly, many—though not all—of those who enter the American market successfully from abroad have also attended top-tier programs at Oxford, Cambridge, London, and elsewhere.

The Threshold: From Student to Teacher

Even though we tend to think of the job market in terms of the step from PhD to the tenure track, most historians today pass through an intermediate “threshold” stage—the period, which may last anywhere from one to several years, during which they move from being graduate students to holding full-time positions on the tenure track. The process of getting onto the tenure track has experienced its own transformations.

In the 1950s, many scholars spent two to four years as instructors while writing their dissertations, before they moved to tenure-track posts. By the early 1960s, that stage shrank almost to nonexistence. Competition drove many—probably most—institutions to hire new faculty members as assistant professors, even before students had completed their doctorates. But with the job crisis of the 1970s, institutions reintroduced an ever-widening threshold stage into the process, by offering postdoctoral fellowships, “visiting” appointments, and part-time/adjunct positions that might or might not lead to tenure.

As the job market swiftly and painfully contracted in the 1970s, research universities created “Societies of Fellows,” and more recently, many other universities and colleges have followed their example, often with the financial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Currently several dozen postdoctoral positions are advertised each year, which offer extra time for research, and in some cases research support. They keep accomplished young historians from leaving the profession, give them second and third chances on the job market, and help them turn dissertations into books. To that extent they are a clear good.

But the 1970s also marked the rise of a new class of short-term and visiting appointments that cover undergraduate teaching needs for a fixed period (often from two to five years). Some deans and departments wanted to provide temporary positions for their own otherwise unemployed PhDs. Others hoped to fill gaps in teaching strength at times when their finances, as university authorities understood them, would not allow them to establish long-term positions. At many departments it became—and has remained—normal to organize the full-time faculty into two tiers, one composed of tenured and tenure-track professors, the other of lecturers. Usually such lecturers and visiting assistant professors know that they have no chance of promotion to a tenure-track position, and accept that limitation as the price of staying in the profession. At their best, such appointments provide time and teaching experience, which facilitate the transition to tenure-track positions. At their worst, though, they exploit junior historians to the benefit of their seniors, hampering their long-term career prospects.

Non-tenure-track full-time positions, however, do far less damage than the growing use of part-time or adjunct faculty members. The practical advantages of adjunct jobs for the employing institution are clear enough—they are less expensive, allow more flexibility, and often play a vital role in maintaining a history department’s teaching program at the introductory level. But hundreds of historians spend years—and some spend whole careers—barely earning a living by teaching at several colleges at once.

Viewed from the outside, postdoctoral positions look very different from short-term lectureships, and both seem very different from adjunct positions. Yet all share qualities. They offer greater advantages to the employing institution than the employee, since colleges have no obligation beyond the short term and spend far less than it would take to create enough tenure-track jobs for each new cohort of PhDs. In short, the new system maintains a reserve army of talented academic labor—and only prolongs the misery for many of those who enlist. Every senior historian has known bright young doctoral students who failed to find anything except a series of dead-end appointments, and finally left the profession in despair.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to underemploy historians in the academy these days, and most of them lie beyond the reach of available information sources. But if one looks at the threshold with a long view—as embracing new PhDs between degree and first job, adjuncts six years past the degree, and older PhDs who work a full-time job outside the academy, but still teach a class or two as an avocation—something like One in five of the history PhDs employed in four-year colleges and universities are at this stage in their passage through the market, and some will remain there.

At this point, it is hard to measure the disruptive effects of short-term hiring. It seems clear, though, that many new history professors will pass through a number of short-term appointments before they land on a tenure-track appointment. The constant motion and prolongation of apprenticeship exacts a number of penalties. Moving from job to job and place to place, young scholars have to abandon existing support systems and rebuild them, over and over again, learning to make their way through new bureaucratic labyrinths. Demands for institutional loyalty are hard to reconcile with those experiences. Meanwhile, standards for beginning jobs and promotion to tenure are rising as longer apprenticeships allow more chances for conference appearances and publications.

The “Entry Level”: Getting in on the Ground Floor

The recent disruptions of the job market also seem to be changing conditions for those who finally make it onto the tenure track. Many of those who make it into entry-level positions on the tenure track find the nature of their employment little different than the short-term positions they left behind, as heavy teaching loads and little time for research are the norm at a majority of institutions. To the extent that most graduate programs in history—even those below the top tier—still concentrate on training research historians, there seems to be a troubling disconnect between their priorities and the careers of many of their students.

Moreover, salary surveys over the past two decades suggest that the severe problems experienced by the job market a decade ago, and the commensurately lower salaries new assistant professors could command in the 1990s and early 2000s, have depressed the salary scale for the discipline as a whole. As the assistant professors of 10 years ago moved up the ladder of tenure and promotion, their low starting salaries seem to have translated, by a cascade effect, into lower incremental pay increases. Accordingly, salaries for history faculty have gradually fallen from modestly above the average for academia, to about $5,000 below the average for all disciplines (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Anecdotal evidence suggests, moreover, that even when demand for faculty members in certain areas of history enables them to negotiate for higher starting salaries, their chairs and deans find themselves confronted with a very difficult choice: they must either pay new individuals as much as colleagues who have been teaching for a decade or more, or refuse to compete. The problems of the past thus linger on into the future.

The entry level can also affect mobility at later career stages. Statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests the existence of a hierarchical system that permits mobility only to a fortunate few. Most job searches for historians senior in rank and at later stages in their careers are mounted by elite institutions. Some of them may regularly hire historians who have proven themselves at less-prestigious places. But other data suggest that faculty members tend to stay within particular institutional tiers throughout their careers, underscoring the career importance of entry-level appointments.

Mobility—or the possibility of it—matters even for those who have tenured positions. The last federal survey of postsecondary faculty members indicated that associate professors were the most disaffected group in the history profession. Almost 5 percent reported that they were “very dissatisfied” with their job—a higher proportion even than among part-timers in the field. Anecdotal evidence suggests that historians may be likelier than colleagues in other disciplines to see their careers bog down as they reach the middle ranks. In part, those breakdowns are rooted in entry-level issues about support for research and career advancement at different types of institutions. But as a number of recent studies about the “leaky pipeline” indicate, gender also plays a significant role in the flattening of career arcs. Responsibilities for child and elder care, which fall disproportionately on women, often become heaviest just as a career would otherwise be taking off.

What Every Young Historian Should—and Does—Know

Most students know little of this long-term history and larger context for their careers. But new information technologies can do a little bit to tilt the scales in their favor. The development of e-mail discussion lists and blogs—above all the Academic Careers wiki (http://scratchpad.wikia.com/wiki/AcademicJobSearch)—has enabled young historians to share information about the progress of searches on a national and even international basis. This new system—like the market itself—inspires both fear and hope. The fuller information that candidates can glean from the wiki may include the fact that a given department has fixed dates and times for interviews without inviting them, or made an offer to someone else. But departments must now bear in mind that their offers of interviews or jobs are likely to become public knowledge within moments after they are made—and thus that their failure to treat candidates with professional courtesy will also become public knowledge. Over time, transparency may enhance civility.

For many young historians, the job market functions admirably. But the larger patterns revealed by recent studies are disquieting. Most graduate programs in history concentrate on training research historians, and most graduate students plan to follow careers as teachers and scholars at community colleges, colleges, or universities. But most of those who complete doctorates in history do not in fact wind up in tenure-track teaching positions. In 2004, AHA staff found that almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the history PhDs reported to the Directory over the past 15 years had not found employment in a listing department or organization.7 Substantial numbers of those who did not wind up as professors became public historians or found other positions in history—sometimes at salaries and in working conditions that most professors can only envy.8 But a majority of those who actually completed their doctorates did not, so far as the AHA can tell, find jobs to which their training was strongly relevant.

No one can predict how many history openings will be advertised next year. But by focusing on the larger contours of the market, we can help our students and junior colleagues understand the conditions in which they are now looking for work. More important, we can begin to think about the direction in which employment in history and related fields is moving. This places an added responsibility on senior scholars. It is their duty to be stewards of their departments and their disciplines—to gather information about their fields, to assess the impact of recent changes in the academic life cycle on their junior colleagues, and to remind administrators that we cannot achieve economy and flexibility in the present at the cost of future academic generations.

Notes

1. Anthony Grafton, “The Precept System: Myth and Reality of a Princeton Institution,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 64, 3 (2003), 467–503.

2. See Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). For a strikingly different experience of Harvard and history between the wars see Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950 (New York: Mariner, 2002). On the changing status of women, see Jacqueline Goggin, “Challenging Sexual Discrimination in the Historical Profession: Women Historians and the American Historical Association, 1890–1940,” American Historical Review, 97:3 (June 1992), 769–802.

3. James McPherson, “Deconstructing Affirmative Action,” Perspectives, April 2003.

4. John Snell and Dexter Perkins, The Education of Historians in the United States (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 43.

5. Robert Townsend, “Privileging History: Trends in the Undergraduate Origins of History PhDs,” Perspectives, September 2005. Cf. also Thomas Bender et al., The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 37–42.

6. Val Burriss, “The Academic Caste System: Prestige Hierarchies in PhD Exchange Networks,” American Sociological Review 69 (2004), 239–264.

7. Robert Townsend, “Job Market Report, 2004,” Perspectives, January 2005.

8. See Alexandra Lord, “The View from Outside the Ivory Tower,” Perspectives, January 2005, and David Darlington, “Beyond Academe: The Internet Gateway to Nonacademic Careers,” Perspectives, January 2005.

—Anthony Grafton is professor of history at Princeton University. He served (2005–2008) as vice president of the AHA’s Professional Division. Robert B. Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications.