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 asked—and one for which I do not have a good answer: Tell Me
How this Ends?