In January, the American Historical Association held its 124th annual meeting in San Diego, California. Although the theme of this year’s convention was Oceans, Islands, and Continents, the buzz from the conference in the blogosphere and in the news was the economy-and more specifically, the increasingly desperate state of the academic job market.
A report put out earlier this month by the AHA put jobs listed with the association down 24 percent. Positions for history PhD’s have never been in high demand, but this year’s drop is the worst in recent history. And with the state of the economy the way it is, debates are raging whether or not graduate programs should continue to accept students who are more likely to take a job doing anything other than teaching or researching history.
So what does this mean for prospective graduate students, those considering graduate school, and those finishing up their respective programs? The message is not as dire as it seems-for those who really want it, that is.
Responding to a survey on the state of the academic job market, and history jobs in particular, Drs. Kenneth Orosz and Andrew Nicholls gave their take on what students should expect if interested in a career in history.
The survey contained the following inquiries: 1. In light of the current economic recession, state of the academic job market, and the recent report on jobs in history put out by the AHA (down 24%), what advice would you give to students who may be interested in pursuing history in graduate school?; 2. For those students who are interested in pursuing a position in history, what advice would you provide?; and the third asked respondents to provide any general comments/advice on the current state of history education/jobs.Their responses are reproduced in whole below.
DR. ANDREW NICHOLLS:
Great questions, but I think I can help best by addressing them all at once.
I respond as someone who had a choice to make in 1990 as I finished my Masters: accept one of several acceptances, with scholarship money, into a doctoral program and hope to pursue an academic career, or take an offer from my father to join our successful family business, and assure myself a job for life. After very careful thought and consideration, I opted for the latter course. My reasoning was that: a.) the overall job market for academe was poor, and even worse for historians; b.) neither my field (British History), nor my focus, (Political History), were considered desirable from a professional perspective. The future, I was told, was with World History, Cultural Studies, Popular Culture, etc., and neither my interests, nor my methodology were likely to attract long-term interest; c.) there are limited career opportunities overall in Canada and I had no expectations of ever leaving; and d.) even though I wasn’t involved in a serious relationship, all of these factors led me to believe that I could not hope to marry and raise a family as a long-term itinerate student.
Well, you know how it all worked out. Much as I enjoyed being in the family business and working for my father, I soon found out how much I missed academic life, especially pursuing my research. I was not making myself happy, or helping the business long-term. So, as hard as it was, I told my father and grandfather that I was going back to school, even though none of the factors above had changed. However, it was a risk I was willing to take because the love of history itself-not job prospects-was what was driving.
I have never regretted that decision. I can add that my doctoral career was not without considerable ups and downs, and there were times when I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. However, mastering my topic, and proving myself in the profession as an academic were what drove. I did not look at job offers I wasn’t qualified for while I was a Ph.D. student. That was irrelevant to me until I finished.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. My advice to any prospective graduate student is ‘do it for the right reasons.’ If it’s a job you’re interested in, get your realtors license. The world seems to need an endless number of realtors. Running mobile phone kiosks in malls is another wide open field. But, like a athlete who just keeps training, even though there’s little prospect of money, jobs or anything else-if you are driven, things can work out. When they do, it’s a marvelous life!
Andrew Nicholls, PhD
DR. KENNETH OROSZ:
1. In light of the current economic recession, state of the academic job market, and the recent report on jobs in history put out by the AHA (down 24%), what advice would you give to students who may be interested in pursuing history in graduate school?
While the current job market for historians is bad, bear in mind that that the job statistics the AHA refers to are for teaching and research positions that almost always require the PhD. Most people with a bachelor’s degree take between 5-7 years to finish the PhD, by which time the current economic situation will likely have improved. Having said that, there is no guarantee that colleges and universities will be hiring many faculty in the near future. There has long been an oversupply of history PhDs and colleges are making increased use of adjuncts rather than hiring tenure track faculty. Moreover, existing faculty often opt to extend their careers; even when they do retire, they are not always replaced since colleges may need to reallocate resources. This shouldn’t, however, discourage people from pursuing graduate degrees in history. Instead, potential graduate students need to be smart about how they pursue their degrees. In particular, look closely at the breakdown of fields in the AHA statistics. The largest downturn was in traditional fields like US and European history, hence those might be areas to reconsider. Emerging fields, like world history, remain relatively marketable. At the same time, you should never pick a field of history to study simply because you think it might be marketable. The job market has unpredictable cycles and what is hot now, may not be as popular when you finish. Earning a graduate degree is also too long and difficult a process to undertake in a field you don’t enjoy, so definitely pursue fields you are passionate about no matter what they may be. The key is balance; many colleges are seeking to fill multiple gaps in their historical coverage with a single hire. Select minor fields that enable you to cover multiple geographic areas, time frames, or styles of history. At the same time, choose ones that complement each other or have some clear connection to one another. This will not only make your studies easier since you’ll often be referring to the same texts, it will reassure future employers that you can add coherent value to their programs. For example, fields in modern US, ancient Babylon and medieval Russia aren’t a natural fit whereas fields in colonial US, early modern Europe and Africa would. In the latter case, you would well positioned to apply for jobs in US, global, or Atlantic history.
2. For those students who are interested in pursuing a position in history, what advice would you provide?
Do your homework. You need to find out as much as you can about the state of the profession, possible fields of study, likely requirements, application timetables, and what being an academic truly entails. Generally speaking you need to begin gathering application materials in early fall of your senior year if you plan to enter graduate school the following fall. In order to help with that process, the department of History and SSE offers a workshop dedicated to precisely these issues every fall; in the sprig we follow up with another workshop on career options for historians. In the interim, make a point of speaking with faculty members to find out about what we do and how we got here. Look at salary figures (check with the AHA), ask workloads, publication expectations, impact on family and compare that with the perks and flexibility that the job provides to see if academia is really something you want to pursue. Know that not all graduate programs offer all fields; talk with your professors to get an idea for where you might need to go to pursue your particular interests.
3. Any general comments/advice on the current state of history education/jobs:
As dire as things may seem at the moment, these things are cyclical. When I began my grad studies in the early 1990s my cohort was assured that there would be lots of jobs due to retirements. While that didn’t materialize, many of us ultimately did find jobs even if it meant taking several one year positions that required moving around the country or teaching at community colleges as opposed to big research institutions. If this is something you truly want to pursue, knowing what to expect and flexibility about where you ultimately end up are key to success.
Kenneth Orosz, PhD