Careers for Ph.D.s in History

Anthony Grafton published an article last year on the need for doctoral programs in History to prepare their Ph.D. candidates for the possibility of careers outside of academic positions. The article went viral, prompting an extended debate online over the academic job market in History and other career paths for professional historians. For a glimpse of this debate, see Grafton’s original pieceanother Grafton piece with Jim Grossman, articles in AHA Perspectives, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The latest article responding to this debate is a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “What Doors Does a Ph.D. in History Open?”

This article analyzes “the career outcomes of history Ph.D.’s who graduated between 1990 and 2010 (taking every other year) from four history departments: at Duke University, Ohio State University, and the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and California at Santa Barbara.”

The study is based on a “total sample of 487 history Ph.D.’s.” The article provides a series of charts to display the data, finding that “Only 50.7 percent of doctoral graduates from those four top-tier programs ended up in tenure-track jobs. For those who graduated in 2008 and 2010, the average was even lower: 38.5 percent.”

Of course, the 2008-2010 data is skewed both by the global economic crisis and by the growing number of postdoctoral fellowships in the humanities and social sciences. Many Ph.D. recipients now move into one- to three-year postdoctoral fellowships after completing their doctorates. So, tracking how many doctoral recipients end up in tenure-track positions requires examining data several years out from graduate dates.

Data on academic administrators is also unclear, since some of those positions are filled by faculty members.

The piece provides encouraging news about those Ph.D. recipients who moved into careers outside of university teaching. “Far from the stereotype of the Ph.D. baristas at Starbucks, career-outcome data (see charts for each of the four institutions here) shows that history Ph.D.’s are thriving in a versatile range of careers.” The article indicates that many of the history doctoral recipients now work in “higher-education administration, publishing and editing, high schools, museums, government agencies, and public-history sites.” Others have careers as “researchers, consultants, and editors.”

The author claims that “Most history departments, it turns out, do not track the career outcomes of their alumni.” This, I believe is an exaggeration. Most Ph.D. granting history departments I am familiar with do attempt to track their doctoral recipients’ careers. However, it is not always possible to compile effective data, especially on Ph.D.s who go on to careers outside of professorial and academic administrative positions.

 

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