A Surging Job Market in History

January 05, 2001

A hiring boomlet that began four years ago in history is still going strong, as departments continue to seek out new faculty members to replace a wave of retiring professors.

Job openings in the field increased 15 percent in 1999-2000 over the previous academic year, according to a job-market report issued last month by the American Historical Association. The total number of job listings in Perspectives, the A.H.A.'s monthly newsletter, rose to 897 in 1999-2000, from 779. More than half of the departments listed in the association's directory reported hiring junior faculty members last year. Over all, job listings in the newsletter have jumped 35 percent in the past four years.

"This certainly is the first year that I haven't been able to point to at least some bad news," says Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research at the A.H.A., who wrote its job-market report in advance of the association's annual meeting this week in Boston. The only somber note in the report concerns the continuing growth in the use of part-time and adjunct faculty members.

In recent years, the surge in job openings has been tempered by an oversupply of history Ph.D.'s, as the number of doctorates awarded in the field reached record highs. However, "while departments are still producing enormous numbers of Ph.D.'s," Mr. Townsend projects that Ph.D. production will soon begin to fall. "The number of graduate students in Ph.D. programs in history is down by 8 percent and there's also a decline in the number of dissertations in progress," he says. "We can't be more than a year or two away from seeing the trend for Ph.D. production turn around. How far it will fall -- that, the numbers don't tell me."

Statistics on the job listings in history for this fall are not yet available, but so far this academic year, Mr. Townsend says, association revenue from job advertisements are "35 percent over what I'd estimated, and there's no sign of this abating." Revenue is rising in part, he says, because of a continuing increase in the number of job ads, but also because position announcements are getting wordier these days, and a longer ad means more money for the association.

What does it mean for the job market? "Departments seem to be going to greater lengths to get applicants to apply," Mr. Townsend says. "In the past, some ads would just say: 'Position in American history, send three letters of recommendation and a C.V. to this address.' Today a lot of ads are giving more detail about the university and the program. I think search committees are sensing a bit more competition on their side of the equation."

Indeed, a survey by the association last year found that the average number of applications submitted to search committees had declined, depending on the subfield, between 13 and 40 percent in the previous three years.

Historians seem to agree that faculty retirements are driving the hiring boom. The hundreds of professors who earned their Ph.D.'s from 1961 to 1973 and who were hired in the wake of the baby boom, are approaching retirement age now. And unlike in the early 1990's, when departments often were not granted the money to replace retirees, universities are now giving departments the go-ahead.

The category of "emeritus professor" is the fastest-growing segment of the history faculty, according to the A.H.A.'s latest job-market report. The total number of full professors in history has already declined 9 percent since 1997, the report says, and historians who earned their Ph.D.'s from 1961 to 1973 still make up almost a third of the full-time faculty members listed in the association's directory.

Retirements are certainly behind the hiring blitz at Vanderbilt University. Asked about the booming job market in his field, Marshall C. Eakin, department chairman at Vanderbilt, joked, "We're trying to take care of that, all on our own."

His department plans to hire five scholars this year and two more next year. What's unusual about this -- besides the fact that the department is replacing more than a quarter of its 26 faculty members all at once -- is that all seven positions are in the same field: U.S. history. That is a coincidence, he says, but one that has given the department "the opportunity of a generation. It gives us enormous flexibility in hiring and in reconfiguring the U.S. history program."

While departments are hiring, Mr. Eakin says, certain popular subfields, like U.S. history, are still glutted with Ph.D.'s. "We advertised all five of these positions together, field and rank open, and we mean that," Mr. Eakin says. "We got 600 applications, about 500 at the assistant-professor level." By comparison, he says, the market in his own field -- Latin American history -- is more stable; each year, 40 to 50 new Ph.D.'s are produced nationally, and about 35 new positions announced.

The University of Notre Dame is also doing its part to boost the history market, with five openings for three junior faculty members in southern European, African, and East Asian history, an endowed chair in American history, and a senior historian who will direct an institute for the study of American Catholicism. Christopher Hamlin, chairman of the history department at Notre Dame, expects to do almost as much hiring next year, too. "Some of it is retirements -- a kind of flurry of retirements," he says. "But most of it is growth coming from center and institute development. That's happening vigorously here on campus, and frequently we're the beneficiary because those are fund-raising magnets and those funds lead to positions."

Mr. Hamlin thinks his department's situation is part of a larger national trend. A number of departments have placed announcements in the A.H.A.'s Perspectives touting new colleagues that they've hired in the past year. But, he notes, it's not just one new face. It's three, four, or five new people.

Still, he sees reason for departments to be conservative in terms of admissions to graduate programs. "It's not clear how long the economy will be strong, and we're being cautious about what the job market will be like seven years hence," he says.

While hiring at private universities is important, the true test of a rebounding job market is whether state universities are hiring, and they are. The history department at the University of California at Berkeley is searching for three historians, in Jewish history, colonial American history, and Korean history. At the University of Texas at San Antonio, six new historians came on board last year, all at the assistant-professor level. Meanwhile, the University of Florida's history department made seven appointments last year and is taking a break this year and hiring only two associate professors. Next year it will probably have three or four openings.

"Without a doubt there's a sense of greater mobility at all ranks," says W. Fitzhugh Brundage, chairman of the history department at Florida. "But I haven't heard people talk optimistically about the conditions yet, because everyone suspects that all we need is a recession and the situation at public universities could change again."

At Berkeley, Martin Jay, the chairman of the history department, expects to conduct two or three searches a year for faculty openings over the decade. "We're expecting a sizable number of projected retirements, and also a larger student body coming into Berkeley," he says. "We have a green light from the university to hire -- for now."