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The Job Market for History PhDs ...


jdario909
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Hi, So, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to OSU's History program. It is not a top 10 program, but it is ranked 24 or something like that. However, the user borderlands posted an interesting article by the AHA about why name matters when trying to find a job. I was thinking about it more and more, and I did some research, and I was so shocked to find all of these articles online about jobless PhDs in the humanities. Why is this? Is this the general job market? Or is it because of name?

Here is one article I read from the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/07/arts/07grad.html

Then I read an even more depressing articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

I love studying History. I really do. I didn't go into a PhD to escape the job market. I really want to be in academia, but these articles, quite frankly, scared me, and I wish I had done more research. Quite honestly, I feel like just quitting grad school and going to a trade school. I often ask myself if I would be happier being a nurse, an electrician, an IT person, or even a high school teacher. I have no idea, at times, why I even went into academia.

What do you all think? Does the job market for History PhDs (and the humanities in general) scare you? Do you ever ask yourself whether or not you have done the right thing? I guess the one thing that comforts me is the fact that my PhD is fully funded. Even then, though, I don't want to end up realizing that I will be wasting the next 6 -7 years of my life studying stuff that no one really cares about and that is not marketable ...

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Yes, it is a rough world out there for history PhDs, especially for the vast majority who don't have degrees from the most elite schools (though OSU's program is pretty well-respected I think.)

Here at my program, we have PhDs coming down the pipeline who aren't getting tenure track offers and who made no contingency plans. Sadly I'm not sure what they're going to do beyond adjunct for all eternity.

No one has a guarantee of a TT job after graduate school, and it's good that you have a realistic understanding of this before you begin.

Perhaps you can strengthen your non-academic credentials while you're in your program, just to be on the safe side. For example, you could intern over the summers at museums or archives, or you could work in documentary editing. Here's a page with some resources and ideas: http://www.historians.org/pubs/careers/index.htm

If you build up your public history skills, your history training is less likely to go to waste even if you don't land on the TT.

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It's incredibly important that everyone embarking on a PhD in History understand the state of the job market. It's not just History, but the Humanities in general. However, History is worse off than most, and Americanists have it even worse.

Unfortunately, where you get your PhD still does carry a fair bit of weight. However, there are numerous other factors that will affect your career trajectory. When it comes your turn to hit the market, your advisor should be willing to go to bat for you and do everything they can to help you secure a job. One of my undergraduate mentors at a large public university also taught at the graduate school and gets almost all of her students jobs.

Another factor is the work you produce. Someone who goes to Yale or Harvard and doesn't produce much in the way of articles will not compare favorably to someone from a so-called lesser school with an article in a major journal already and an important dissertation. Similarly, those who go to institutions in which grad students actually teach rather than just TA classes will also have experience many top-program students will not.

So where you go is not the sole factor which will decide your career trajectory. If anything, those going to the top 5 programs may have a slight leg-up, all else being equal, but the name alone will not ensure them a tenure-track job.

I think that in this market, those going to the top 30 or so programs will be able to compete for jobs (not necessarily get them). But on top of the economic crisis, there are 100s of schools you've never heard of producing History PhDs every year. The flooding of the market with people who have no real chance of ever securing a full-time job let alone tenure-track creates a situation of desperation in which many of these graduates will take adjunct jobs for $1200/semester. And, of course, why hire someone full-time with benefits or on the tenure track when you can pay a PhD from Podunk State $1200/course and no benefits? And, to be honest, I can't see a sudden reversal of policy or thinking on the part of administration any time soon. The generation that comes after us won't even be able to dream of tenure.

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I see what you are saying, natsteel, and I appreciate the straight forward response. I guess I just want to know quite honestly if OSU is a respected history program. The scholar I will be working with certainly is, but I am not sure if that is enough. Also, do students ever drop out of their programs and apply to 'higher ranked' programs? I feel I sold myself short by not applying to Stanford, Princeton, and Chicago - all of which have great programs in my field but I was just too afraid that I would not get in.

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I see what you are saying, natsteel, and I appreciate the straight forward response. I guess I just want to know quite honestly if OSU is a respected history program. The scholar I will be working with certainly is, but I am not sure if that is enough. Also, do students ever drop out of their programs and apply to 'higher ranked' programs? I feel I sold myself short by not applying to Stanford, Princeton, and Chicago - all of which have great programs in my field but I was just too afraid that I would not get in.

Generally, you do not transfer from one PhD program to another. Now, if you were in a terminal MA program that would be a different story, and is one of the reasons people pursue terminal MAs. The name of a school matters for maybe the top 15 or so (this is my opinion). After that, I think a lot comes down to your advisor. Is your advisor well-known and well-respected in the field? Is he/she still very much involved in the field and its associations? Is he/she willing to use all her contacts to secure his/her students jobs upon graduation? These factors I believe are far more important for students at reputable programs that are not in or around the top 15. Check your department's placement rates... ask your advisor about placement rates for their students specifically. This will give you a better idea.

Edited by natsteel
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I read the same articles that the OP did about a year ago, and I've since all but concluded that a PhD isn't for me. I nearly quoted a bunch of sad statistics at you... but I think you've gotten the point from earlier posters. The job situation for PhDs in the humanities is pretty dire, even for people at top schools.

That said!! There really are a lot of great resources out there for people with PhDs looking into alternative academic careers or non academic careers.

Here's a blog that lists 10 great websites on the subject:

http://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2011/01/09/10-essential-non-academic-blogs/

I'd especially check out Beyond Academe which is a resource specifically for historians (but is applicable to people in other disciplines as well). There was also a list of advice for new grad students in a Chronicle of Higher Ed blog that encouraged students to seek internships and work outside their fields while in school.

Good luck! (And I hope you're able to get more advice on your situation than I've given!)

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First of all, not all History programs are under the division of the humanities some schools consider it under the social sciences e.g. UC Berkeley, U of Chicago, as well as others. While the humanities, overall, seem to be in decline with budget cuts, I believe, history as field is in a better position than newer programs such as American Studies, Ethnic Studies, Gender & Women Studies as well as languages. This is not to put these programs down but rather what we are seeing being cut at major public universities (like UC Berkeley through "operation excellence" and others) as well as at some private institutions.

We cannot control the market for professorial jobs but we can take control over what we do. Publishing articles as well as presenting in conferences can make a huge difference in distinguishing scholars even if one does not come from a top ten program. Ultimately, one can underperform or outgrow at any graduate program. As well as going beyond one single subfield to mastering two fields and perhaps a comparative understanding as well. Promoting one's self as an international scholar presenting in conferences in Europe as well as Latin America and other places in multiple languages can take you and your scholarship beyond the United States.

We may not be able to get rid of elitism but if you see yourself as a historian and do it at all costs hopefully you'll succeed.

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there is some concern with coming from a top program. the article people keep citing notes that top 20 programs hire people from other top 20 programs. and? so? if your goal is to be TT at a top 20 program, then you definitely need to go to one. but if your goal is to be TT somewhere, maybe near a city you'd even want to live in, then you don't need to come from harvard/princeton/yale. and as natsteel rightly pointed out, the name alone does not carry you. if your work isn't top notch, then you can take your yale degree to a community college, if you're lucky.

at the same time, many top 20 programs are rather conservative with the methodology/historiography/argumentation that they teach. this is especially true of (some of) the ivies. conservative is fine, people still make important contributions to scholarship, and sometimes jumping on every theoretical trend can backfire if those new approaches go out of favour too quickly. but if you want to be doing cutting-edge research, odds are you'll be looking at programs that aren't in the top 10 or top 20. and other schools know this. programs that want to hire someone who is cutting edge will often pass over top 20 candidates in favour of someone from a well-known but not "well-ranked" school.

many of my colleagues have "always" wanted to be professors. i know a lot of people who have left programs over the years, and a lot of them end up teaching high school. one of my profs, who received her degree from michigan, knows a couple of her grad school colleagues who teach at a boarding school for really motivated high school students. they say it's more fulfilling than teaching for really unmotivated grad students. i can see the appeal in that. so if your fall back plan is to teach high school, then there's no reason not to pursue a PhD. it can come in handy, especially at elite or experimental high schools.

teaching has never really been my goal. all i've wanted to do is research and write. whether that ends up in books or journals versus newspapers versus NGO reports doesn't matter that much to me, as long as i get to write about things that are important to me as a global citizen. i've maintained some of my activist ties, i'm developing some others, i've made connections and done work with museums, and i've stayed in touch with my journalism contacts. if the academia job market is still horrendous in 4 years, i plan to have enough ties to other fields that i can take my researching skills elsewhere.

the reality is a lot of PhDs won't get academic jobs. but if you're okay with that (i am) and you plan for it during grad school, you'll find work using the skills you've developed over 6-7 years. sadly, almost no PhD programs actually help prepare their students for this, but that doesn't mean you can't be thinking seriously about plan B while working diligently with great dedication towards plan A.

also... borderlands is absolutely right. network early in your graduate career. go to conferences. even if you have nothing to present, just go. odds are there will only be 6 people watching your panel anyway. sit in on other panels, introduce yourself to other scholars, chat about work. they'll start seeing you over and over (we travel all over the world to present our work to the same X number of people). you'll get asked to write book chapters, to contribute to special editions of journals, to present on panels. all good stuff. if you don't start this until your third or fourth year in a program, you'll be 3-4 years behind the other people that started this on day one. apply for every award and fellowship that is even remotely relevant for what you do. it takes a long time, but it pays off. you get money, you add lines to your CV, but mostly you communicate to people that you know how to put that money to good use, to make good research, and to convince many, many scholars that your research is worth paying for. i've seen people with perfect GPAs and LORs get turned down year after year for fellowships because the committee didn't think their project was worth the investment. the more people you can get to give you financial or institutional support for your work, the more you convince hiring committees that your work actually matters to your field.

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StrangeLight is spot on, here. This is excellent advice for all incoming graduate students whether you are at a top program or not. In the end, the perception of rank is something that is beyond our control. All we can do, no matter what school we're at, is network and make contacts, publish, and produce the best dissertation possible. If you do those three things well, you will give yourself the best possible chance for securing a job. If, after all that, you still don't get one, then it's down to the market, which is also beyond your control, and you will have much less in the way of regret if you do the absolute best you can and realize the rest is out of your hands.

This is a very tough time to try to forge a career in academia, especially in History, but, if you are intent on trying, know that it can be done without going to an elite school for all the reasons that StrangeLight mentioned. Look at the faculty at the top 10 programs, every one has faculty members who didn't get their degrees at Ivy League schools. In the end, it will come down to the vagaries of the market and your own individual effort and performance.

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Taking a glass half full approach, grad school is (hopefully) a cost-free chance to pursue research and one's intellectual passions for a few years with a small chance of getting a career in academia at the end. That small chance, however, is greater than the zero chance of getting into academia if you don't go to grad school at all. This is the reality these days, and it will create painful situations for people only if they don't cultivate alternative visions for themselves, and/or who expect their hard work will reward them as it always has before. So much of getting a stable academic job will have to do with luck.

I think keeping in mind that grad school is a privilege in itself is the best way to deal with the poor job market, even though there are people around now who remember when it was different. We, however, do not, and we should adjust our expectations of grad school to what it is rather than what it should be. I still think it is worth it to go, for myself, even if I end up doing something completely different.

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Thank you everyone for the replies. I guess, I have one final question, and that is how do you know what a tier 1, tier 2, etc. history program is? Where would a school like OSU fit? I look at the US News Rankings, but I don't know what they mean really. Thank you!

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Thank you everyone for the replies. I guess, I have one final question, and that is how do you know what a tier 1, tier 2, etc. history program is? Where would a school like OSU fit? I look at the US News Rankings, but I don't know what they mean really. Thank you!

My impression has always been that rankings are very sub-field specific, and the US News Rankings don't really take this into account. The National Research Council has rankings of different programs, as well, which would give you a better sense of what the academic community thinks of each program. If you play with the settings a bit you can see the NRC rankings at PhDs.org. That being said, I've always been told that the reputation of your advisor is a much more important consideration. Where have their advisees ended up? That may be a better indication of what academic career opportunities your PhD will offer you than the program's ranking.

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That's interesting. Wisconsin-Madison is rated in the rage 33 - 59 and UCLA 20 - 37. And Miami University (Oxford), which does not have a PhD program, is given the ranking 8 - 23? I find that hard to believe. But these are from 2006. In my subfield, though, my advisor is very well known and respected, so I guess that may count for more?

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j, it's not only about how well known or well respected your advisor is. It matters far more whether your advisor is willing to go to bat and man the phones to help get you a job when you're done. Of course, having an advisor that is both of those things is the ideal situation, but the effort is far more important than the name. If you have a well known advisor that doesn't try very hard to help you get a job, search committees will wonder why.

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In my subfield, though, my advisor is very well known and respected, so I guess that may count for more?

Based on the advice I've been given by my advisors, yes. That seems to be the case. But again, you might check out where your advisor's past advisees have ended up. That may also give you some inkling of how willing they'd be "to go to bat" for you, as nasteel put it.

I'd also really do your research into alternative academic careers. A one-in-four shot at a TT position is a stretch even for students at top schools. Even if you land one, you may not have many options -- you may end up in an area that doesn't suit you geographically, at a work environment that's less than ideal. It never hurts to diversify a bit with some internships or other experiences that could land you a career doing something equally satisfying to -- and maybe even more flexible than! -- what academia has to offer.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Any other takes on this? I looked at the NRC rankings, but I guess I really don't know what they mean. Can someone here provide a straight forward answer about rankings? Every school says their program is ranked high. I guess feel I was fooled into thinking OSU is good. I don't know where all these fears are coming from. Maybe they are my own personal demons. Where are ticklemepink's optimistic posts :'( ...

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What I have gathered from talking to professors across rankings is all depended on their personal view of their own department and how it'll fare in the job market for its graduates. I'm going to talk about USNEWS rankings here for reference in terms of what schools people should look at.

People in the Top 10 seemed much more confident because, well, they're the Top 10 and it's basically guaranteed.

People in the 20s and 30s are likely to say that their department is excellent/growing because they are willing to acknowledge that they've struggled in the past but have identified issues and are working on them to make their graduates much more marketable. Like guaranteeing funding.

I would take StrangeLight's word for it, as my SLAC UG adviser confirmed her perspective a few months back, that if you go to a school ranked in the 20s and 30s, you may be in an excellent position down the road because the departments give its graduate students much more leeway on their dissertation topics. Both StrangeLight and UG adviser have gone through search committees recently and they've found people from these kind of schools to have much more "interesting" work. The goal is to be able to relate to undergraduates on many levels and be able to teach a broad range of courses, should you end up applying and interviewing for jobs at liberal arts colleges (LACs), where it is the norm for professors to teach beyond the departmental courses to core courses and first year seminars. My first year seminar was taught by a Japanese Lit professor who gave us an interdisciplinary approach to studying Kyoto's history and culture.

I've noticed this range of approaches to graduate students' education through personal conversations with professors at departments ranging from Top 10 to Top 90. I found myself leaning much more towards those in the 20s and 30s because their departments were still reputable and they seemed incredibly interested in my work because my work was exciting to begin with. I've seen professors at one Ivy League, a public Ivy, and another top 10 cringe when I described my ideal project and plans for my doctorate. They acknowledged how interesting it was but questioned my fit within the department. Two claimed that transnational history was awesome but the boundaries were still so rigid, in a way that graduate students have to decide which geographical area they want to "major" in prior to applying.

The key is, OP, you have to decide how you want to approach your graduate education. Be a conservative or a risk-taker. You won't know what the SCs (search committees) really want when you apply for jobs. They can surprise you. Maybe not. At the end, you need to be able to sell your work, your research interests, and teaching ability.

So, as Sheryl Sandberg said in her first piece of advice to Barnard graduates recently, "Think Big." Think big from day 1- think about what else can you do with your PhD, think about who you can network with, think about summer internships if you don't need to be doing research or language work after your first year, think of all the possibilities to create marketable skills for that Plan B.

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Recent article, "The Professor and the Pornographer," from the chronicle of higher education about tenure-track positions and alternatives, "My adviser, Alan Brink­ley, joked that I was proof that it was now easier to get a TV show than a tenure-track job." http://chronicle.com/article/The-Professorthe/127629/

Edited by borderlands
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the rankings for departments as a whole are worthless, as it's really all about your subfield. And those rankings don't mean a damn thing either, for example US News ranks Harvard pretty high in Latin American history, but they only have one tenured professor, and her focus seems more on the United States than anything else. I imagine having a LA history PhD from Harvard would be impressive for 5 seconds, until adcoms remembered that you basically studied with one historian the whole time (plus itinerants). In addition, I would consider the subfield itself, I have heard it is a bit easier to get hired if one's specialty is something rare, like African history. The odds are still bad, but better than trying to compete in a popular field like Early Modern British History.

OSU is well regarded, I would've been overjoyed to have been accepted there, but instead I'm shipping off to a lesser known institution. I'm pretty happy about that actually, my advisor is very well regarded in his subfield, so much so that all two of his graduates have eventually found themselves tenure track jobs. (that's a 100% placement rate, never mind the small sample size...) You wouldn't have thought it possible if I told you the name of the institution. Aside from his name, he was also active in shaping their employability while they were still in the program, i.e., by encouraging them to clean up with fellowships and funding, regular conference attendance, helping form an interesting and viable dissertation topic, making sure they do a popular teaching field, etc. If your advisor is a competent historian AND cares about their students, you're in better shape than most. If in doubt, you should talk to your advisor about how their past advisees have fared in the job market, and what they did to prep them.

if you're still worried, think about what you'd be doing with these next few years if you didn't go into graduate school. I'd be either unemployed or working crappy retail/janitorial jobs. I guess I could try to apply to be a store executive (manager) at Target, since all you need is a BA, but I'd probably kill myself six months in. I can't go into professional school for law or teaching since the lawyer market is wretched and my state is constantly laying off school teachers. Since I'm fully funded, going to grad school is a smart idea for me, I'll still be barely making a living but at least I'm doing something I genuinely enjoy. If I don't get hired for a tenure job, those will be at least 5-8 years I where wasn't cleaning up vomit... If you have real career options, you should seriously consider them, but if you're in my boat, you might as well go through with it if it's free.

edit: I'm attending graduate school because I genuinely want to be a historian, not just to escape the shitty job market. I am aware that graduate school is grueling and that the attrition rate is massive.

Edited by vodka
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Prospects as a prospective History Ph.D. in the job market do scare me, and I do wonder whether or not spending the better part of the next decade getting this degree is going to be worth it. Ultimately, given that it is something I (and I assume, you) really enjoy doing, I can't imagine what the alternative would be. There's the option of a professional degree such as law or business, but if the options are diving into the job market now with a B.A. or later with a Ph.D., I'd rather wait. The pay-scale is often higher depending on your degree so even if you do wind up getting a job outside your field, you've benefitted from having been on that track and, who knows, if the prospects get better later on, you'll be more qualified than if you hadn't done it.

Although I do believe that the graduate school you come from makes a difference in terms of the quality of your academic job later on, I also do believe that if you produce academic and scholarly work and make yourself competitive within the field, you'll be fine. My dad used to teach at OSU and my mom got her Ph.D there... she seemed happy with it and it is a respectable place to build up from. I wouldn't worry too much about it, but I would definitely make the best of your time there.

Edited by Minerva
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  • 2 months later...

Year before last, I was having a coffee with a mentor. Out of nowhere, he looked at me and started to laugh. "You might have been able to get a job had you been born ten years earlier. Maybe." I understood his point (given my areas of specialization, my theory of history, and my belief that a history professor's primary responsibility is to teach), shared in the laugh, and we went on with our chat.

A way to hedge one's bets against the vagaries of the job market is to use the requirements for an outside field to develop a skill set that will make one a stronger candidate in the job market. So, if you're an aspiring cultural historian, rather than doing that outside field in the English department, do it in an area that will give you added value as a member of an academic department. Examples include administration, counseling, grant writing/reviewing, and marketing.

Alternatively, you might use that outside field to develop a skill set that can get you a job outside of the Ivory Tower. Examples include IT, computer science, marketing, statistics, project management, and finance. (The private sector is increasingly focused on crunching numbers.)

For those aspiring historians already in graduate school who worried about getting a tenure track job, consider the benefits of positioning yourself so that you can not only to attend job talks but observe the discussions among faculty members that follow. If you're up on your historiography, you'll see how the intellectual debate is intertwined with a political discussion. (That is, a department may not be seeking to hire the best available applicant in a field, but rather the applicant that best fits a specific vision of how that field should be studied and taught.)

For those considering applying to a graduate history program, I recommend that you apply a level of intensity to researching your options that equals (if not surpasses) the effort you exert trying to get in to a program. Don't just look at which historian works at what department, but also look at where that historian came from. Who were her peers when she was in graduate school? Where did they end up? Where do her graduate students end up (or not end up)? What kinds of biographical information can you find about established scholars that will provide you with a broader view of where the profession has been and where it may be going?

Remember, when professors decide who they want to attend as graduate students, they are also implicitly stating a preference as to what kinds of people they want as peers down the line. So, if you look at your classmates in your first week of graduate school, and realize they all want to be cultural historians and you want to be a social historian, you have something to think about.

HTH.

Edited by Sigaba
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