So, You Want to be a History Professor?

tags: graduate students, academic labor

David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University.

A historian friend once told me that when he went on the job market, he put in three applications and received five job offers. That was in the early 1960s, during the heady years of post-war economic expansion and university expansion. Ten years later, both expansions abruptly ceased, and the academic job market crashed. It recovered somewhat after the mid-1980s, although with frequent downturns. In the past few years, it has crashed again to new lows.

Jon K. Lauck, a historian and editor in chief of the academic journal Middle West Reviewrecently surveyed the sorry state of the field. Of the 1,799 new historians who received Ph.D.s in 2019 or 2020, only 175 had landed full-time faculty jobs in history as of last fall — and it is not clear how many of those are tenure track. The number of undergraduate majors in history has plummeted. Lauck traces departments that are being hollowed out: The University of Kansas history faculty is down from 35 members in 2017 to 24; the Ohio State University system’s history faculty has fallen from 79 members to 62 since 2008; Iowa State University’s history department has been told by administrators that its faculty must shrink from 20 members to 8. All of this has consequences, as Lauck details:

These days, some of the conferences I used to attend and greatly enjoyed have been canceled entirely. History-journal editors also whisper about what they are seeing. Article submissions used to stream in at steady clip. Now the pipeline is but a trickle. Prominent history professors, who once anchored departments and enlivened the public sphere in and around college towns, now retire with little fanfare and nary a replacement. Their “line,” if it survives at all, is moved across campus, to computer science or physical therapy.


In my area, French history, the numbers tell the same story in miniature. Since 2010 I have been tracking the number of North American tenure-track jobs my advisees can reasonably apply for each year — searching the postings for everything from “history” to “Europe” and tracking down specialized jobs in modern and early-modern France. In 2010-11, there were 43 available tenure-track positions, and after a dip throughout much of the 2010s, it returned to 42 positions in 2017-18. But the next year it crashed to 18 positions, and during the pandemic year of 2020-21, it fell further, to just 8. This year, so far, there are 9 available positions (this figure only counts full-time tenure-track jobs at U.S. and Canadian four-year colleges).

The pattern also tracks with my experience as an adviser. Of my 10 Ph.D. students who defended their dissertations before 2016, all but one got a tenure-track job (and the one who didn’t limited the job search to a single metropolitan area for personal reasons). Of the eight who have defended since then, only one has so far gotten a tenure-track job. Five of these eight have landed very competitive postdocs, so the problem is clearly not with the students. But will jobs be there when the fellowships end? Will jobs come back to their former level? We can hope, but I don’t know anyone who would bet on it at present. I know the situation in history the best, but similar, and perhaps worse, trends are playing out in most of the other humanities and soft social sciences.

It is now graduate-admissions season, and given these woeful numbers, the question is more pressing than ever: Is it practical — or ethical — to admit new advisees? Despite the bleak numbers, there is an argument to be made — and several of my colleagues make it quite forcefully — that it does make sense, at least at Princeton University, where I teach, and places like it. Princeton is wealthy, and it provides graduate students with a reasonable income: close to $50,000 a year, plus some subsidized housing and extra funds for research and conference travel and language study. Princeton graduate students don’t even have to work as teaching assistants to receive this stipend, which lasts for five years with the possibility of further extensions. During this period, they can read and study to their hearts’ content, learn languages, travel, receive guidance from brilliant colleagues of mine like Anthony Grafton and Linda Colley, and produce advanced scholarship of their own. There is a serious argument to be made that this is a valuable and fulfilling way to spend several years of one’s life, even if it doesn’t lead to a job in the professoriate. Every year when I speak to prospective graduate students, I emphasize the state of the job market and tell them that these intellectual satisfactions may be the principal thing they gain from graduate school. They often say this is a deal they are ready to accept.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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