History students rejoice, the American Historical Association has just issued a report that gives the most solidly researched analysis of the professional history field. If you’re wondering what to do with your history degree, but you’re tired of the generic and unhelpful sites cluttering the Internet, this could be a great tool for really focusing your mind on what you should study and how.
Entitled “The Many Careers of History PhDs: A Study of Job Outcomes, Spring 2013” and written by L. Maren Wood and Robert B. Townsend, the study takes a statistical look at the types of jobs (including specializations!) held by history PhDs. The downside is that it focuses entirely on doctoral students and graduates. Like most of the AHA’s services, it overlooks people who have Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees in history. In fact, those with an M.A. in History (like myself) seem to be the red-headed stepchild. No college or organization wants to help us, and no employers want to pay us. Yet getting a Ph.D. is a phenomenally risky business if you’re hoping to find work.
If you search online for help or advice, you will be inundated with misconceptions, biased comments from bitter (or lucky) historians, and other outdated or inaccurate information. Reading this study really helped me see the whole field of history for the first time. This is the first such study the AHA has done since 1995, and I found this one to be extremely helpful (if too late for me to use).
First, the big bad fact that hovers over everything in the report: There are still no jobs for history Ph.Ds. They find that roughly 70% of students graduating with a Ph.D went on to find work as professors. Not as astronomically bad as we’ve been led to believe, but only 53% are full-time, full professors. That means you have a coin-flip of a chance to land a full-time gig.
And those part-time gigs are really brutal considering they can drop you at any time and don’t even begin to pay back your large student loan debt. Surprisingly, the 1995 study found that roughly the same amount of people found work. But, the AHA noted, the 1995 study did not differentiate between the different kinds of professors and went on to note that many of the non-full time professors are also working second jobs. Presumably, those jobs are not history related. Among the non-professor gigs the top ranked option was “Academic Administration.” That was a little over 3% of Ph.Ds, and before you consider that as a career path, let me point out that most likely those working administration jobs were previously professors who had been promoted or moved on. It’s sort of like listing “President of the United States” as a career option for students.
Let me speed this up and hit a few of the interesting points:
If you go for a Ph.D, do it at a top ranked school, or at the very least a second tier school. It seems that Asian historians do best when they come from top-tier schools. American historians were less likely to find tenure-track positions, but more likely to find public history jobs in the United States. So if you study American history, that might be something to consider, though the job market isn’t great for public history, either. Most museums seem to hire only management (Directors) or non-history positions like IT or marketing. About 10% of American historians hold these jobs.
More bad news: The ones who hold jobs earned their Ph.Ds before 2005 for the most part. Which means the market is still flooded with recent grads and all of these stats might be useless for you currently in a program or considering one.
On top of this, the market is especially harsh on American historians. Only 43% held full-time tenure-track professorships, compared to 65% for specialists in the rest of the world. But remember, if you study Asian, African or Latin American history, do it at a top school, because they are more likely to find work than specialists from lesser schools according to this study. This is sad especially considering that just over half of all Ph.Ds are in American History. European specialists fare better, but still not as good as the other regions.
So I guess we can extrapolate that if you study American history, take some museum and public history courses to make yourself a better job candidate. You’re far less likely to land a tenure-track professorship. If you study Asian, African or Latin American history, you’ll be better off at a top level school and may find work as a tenure-track professor. And, let’s not forget that mobility is key. The study found–not surprsingly–that those who can relocate outside of their region fare best. This is also something world history specialists do better than Americanists.
As an Americanist, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had studied another specialization. I love American history and can relate to it, but it seems Asian, African and Latin American history specialists are in more demand.
But keep it all in context: 70% job placement is not great compared to other industries. And then, only around 50% are in actual full-time jobs. The odds are the same as a coin flip, but if you read the American Historical Assocation’s new job report maybe you’ll get some ideas on how to better position yourself for a real job.