Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Blog CXXXVII (137): Tell Me How this Ends?

The biggest problem facing the history profession, without qualification, is the job market.  There is a huge surplus and demand is decreasing just as the number of people graduating with the Ph.D. degree is increasing.  Part of the reason I started this blog is to address this very issue.

To give you an idea of how bad the problem is, let me direct your attention to the twenty schools listed in Blog LXXIX: Hail to the Victor as having the best history departments in the United States.  We can dispute the merits and accuracy of such a listing, but let us put those legitimate reservations aside for a moment.  They are all basically good schools.  I did graduate work at two of these institutions and know them well.  I have heard all sorts of gossip about my alma matters and others on the list.  Graduate students at some of these others schools have contacted me privately via e-mail to discuss concerns they have about their programs, asking my advice.  I have also looked at their web sites and their own self-announced job placement figures.  All of them are having problems.  One school went 0 for 11 in job placements for their graduates.  Another school is placing only about a third of their students.  (You can tell by toggling back and forth between the page on their website listing completed dissertations and the other listing employment of their alumni, and even then some of the jobs are at community colleges.)  The “weaker” graduate students at one Ivy League school are discovering that their degrees are not enough to help them find employment.  Long story made short, it is bad even at the “good” schools. 

While I have been trying to show that there is a real problem, two incidents in 2012 had a huge impact on me.  First, during a session at the AHA conference Sarah Maza, the incoming vice president of the professional division, requested ideas from the audience on how to deal with the job crisis.  This got me to thinking about solutions and I said in Blog LXXII: Reflections on the AHA that I had some ideas I was developing.  This thinking accelerated when Christopher Thompson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Buckingham, criticized me in a posting to his own blog that he reproduced in the comments section to Blog LXXIII: The Disposable Academic, for not offering any solutions to the job crisis.

I am true to my word and I put together a series of reform proposals.  I circulated these to a number of friends, and asked for their honest feedback.  None of them liked my ideas and they let me know what they thought.  They knew I was trying to be constructive and responded in like manner.  The exchanges make for fascinating reading and may or may not end up on this blog in some manner.  I developed an article from all these exchanges and hope to have it published in the next few months.

What is more important is that they got me thinking about how this crisis ends and I came with four possible scenarios.  Some of these outcomes are already underway and they often overlap.  They are in descending order of probability:

1) “Outsiders” intervene.  In this scenario the “outsiders” are people like board of trustees, state legislatures and governors.  Academics tend to resent this type of input and for understandable reasons.  These outsiders rarely know the profession as well as those that work in it.  With that point made, there are some sound reasons for intervention.  These individuals are usually those that write the checks and it is their legitimate responsibility to make sure the money is being spent in appropriate manners.  The hard fact is that budgets are shrinking and it is easier for these officials to sell painful cuts by arguing that they are cutting fat and unproductive employees.  This process has already started in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and New Jersey.  Budget issues in states like California and Rhode Island indicates more is coming.   The problem with outside intervention is that it is often done in clumsy manner.  While fat is cut, so is muscle and tissue.  The result is these individuals often do real damage to their institutions.

2) Do nothing, and let Charles Darwin work things out.  In this scenario, departments continue to admit students to their graduate programs, knowing full well that they will never be employed as historians.  The best will find work—perhaps not great work, but work nonetheless—and the “weaker” students will end up doing something else professionally.  It is also very possible that several graduate programs will go the way of the Dodo bird.  Having a Ph.D. program is very expensive for an institution, because graduate classes count for a professor’s work-load, but they have far fewer students than undergrad classes, which is to say they produce less revenue.  It might be easier to shut down a program and have faculty members teach a class of 30 or 40 undergraduates instead of five or six graduate students, than fire or lay off faculty and staff.  This Darwinian outcome is, I think, the preference of most leaders of the profession, and that says something about their ethics when it comes to the fate of their students.

3) The economy gets better and schools end up with bigger budgets to hire more faculty.  At some point the economy will get better and schools will start hiring.  Of that, I have no doubt.  I just do not know when and to what degree.  I, however, doubt it will be enough to employ the scores and scores of history Ph.D.s that are currently unemployed.  Nor will it be enough to take care of those individuals who will sone be graduating and entering the work force.  (Current estimates suggest that the number of newly minted Ph.D.s will be something like 900 each year).  The profession was hiring people left and right in the 1960s.  Then, things fell apart in 1969 and the job market has never recovered.  The economy was booming then, but the rapid expansion was also pushed along by the baby boomers as they went to college.  That kind of demographic bubble is not in the offering, so while the economy will eventually recover, the odds of it expanding history department budgets is not high.

4) Reform the profession.  In many ways, this would be the best outcome, but it is also the least likely.  In 2011 Anthony T. Grafton, the then-President of the American Historical Association, and the executive director of the organization, Jim Grossman, published an article in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History that addressed this very issue. The article in question “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.”  Their intent was noble. “We’re trying to say, ‘Wake up. Times have changed. There are more opportunities and that’s a good thing,’” said Grossman said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “This is not about the negativity of wringing our hands and saying that there are no more jobs.” 

They were successful in generating a lot of discussion.  Their article, however, has some serious shortcomings.  The reforms they offered were fairly tepid and they also made it clear in their article that the AHA will not be taking the lead. They argue that solutions to the job crisis need to come from history departments that produce Ph.D.s.  To a degree that position makes sense.  The AHA has no control over departments and the production of new Ph.D.s is what departments do.  The problem is that no single department has enough status to lead the profession in a certain direction. Nor is it any department’s institutional interest to do so.

So, all this leads me to the original question I askedand one for which I do not have a good answer: Tell Me How this Ends?


  1. Hi Nick,
    Perhaps the most constructive approach is to slowly but surely work to change attitudes. I used to be apoplectic that departments were admitting large numbers of students... but as one of those students, I was uneasy with my unease. Now I think I know why: having a PhD in history (or similar) isn't a prelude to an academic career. It can be, but it usually isn't, and there's no reason it should be seen that way. I see this simple shift in attitude as having potentially profound implications. Doing a PhD would be recognized for what it is: a personally enriching experience, unique as it is frustrating, and one that is part of a fulfilling life, whatever else that life includes.
    What do you think?

  2. You're right about one thing - the change is not going to come of any academic association. It's the same thing here in Canada. We have a professional association - the CHA - who does absolutely nothing to self-regulate or improve the profession as a whole. The focus entirely reflects the status quo of tenured faculty, and even then it's only about research. The adjunctification of higher ed, the non-existent job market for grads, the non-utility of research outside the tenure track -- all of these things are never spoken of. Going to the annual conference is like taking a time machine back to the 1950s so antiquated is the thinking.

    I think the best thing that could happen is #1. Governments should stop subsidizing with public money programs that cannot justify their existence. Tough love needs to come from the outside because universities and depts have clearly demonstarted their inability to act as responsible stewards on their own.

  3. I am diffident about offering advice from the academic history world outside North America, but having also lived and worked in the US and knowing the scene there fairly well, I'll risk offending. I think one of the real problems with US graduate school is the length of time it take to get the PhD and the amount of money necessarily invested therein. The lock-step MAPhD process has been abandoned to a large extent eslewhere in the Anglosphere (especially here in Australia), which requires management issues of a different sort but at least means that if you want to take a doctorate in a field like history (and in an equally bad academic job market) for your own reasons (as one of my students says, 'I'm not doing this for the CV') then it isn't going to terminally affect the rest of your life with massive student debt, delayed family life etc etc. This is only a very small part of a very big problem, but perhaps, in the spirit of Nick's post, there rethink about the PhD needs to acquire a number of aspects beyond the 'job/no job' perpsective? In short, *why* do you have to undertake an MA in order to do a PhD when the MA is overwhelmmingly structured to develop you as a teacher in a tertiary environment that many/most will never actually inhabit?