What Doors Does a Ph.D. in History Open?

Brian Taylor

October 30, 2012

I recently went to dinner with six friends to talk careers. We all have Ph.D.'s in the humanities, but only one of us is working as a tenured professor.

Of the remaining five: One of us started in a tenure-track job but left to find more satisfying work and better pay as an international insurance consultant. Two others left academe upon graduation—one teaches courses in writing and computers at a law firm and the other is a gender specialist at a nonprofit agency. Having spent three years in pursuit of the illusive tenure-track job, I suspended my own search to work as a research consultant.

We gathered at a Washington, D.C., restaurant to chat with our out-of town friend, the only one with a tenured position. She spoke of her disillusionment with academe: long hours, little support from administration, disrespectful students, low wages, and the inability to live where she could have a balanced life. Unsure of where to turn, she asked us to meet with her to discuss our experiences leaving academe.

The problem we faced—how to leverage a humanities Ph.D. into a meaningful nonacademic career—is a fate shared by thousands of Ph.D.'s. For years, universities have been producing Ph.D.'s far in excess of tenure-track openings. As undergraduate enrollments have grown, universities have hired more and more faculty members in part-time, temporary, low-paying jobs rather than create permanent tenure-track positions to meet the demand. According to the American Association of University Professors, 70 percent of teaching jobs at U.S. institutions are now non-tenure-track posts, and nearly 50 percent are part-time.

I completed my Ph.D. in American history in 2009. After initially limiting my job search to academic positions, I came to realize that it was necessary to think broadly about my career options. The job market for historians has been dismal for years. In 2010-11, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the American Historical Association reported a total of 627 jobs advertised, of which 69 percent were permanent full-time posts (or 432). During that same academic year, history departments produced 912 new Ph.D.'s.

The math is depressing enough if one assumes that only new Ph.D.'s are applying for those jobs, but of course that is not the case. A backlog of doctoral recipients are underemployed, unemployed, in temporary positions, or unhappy in their current jobs, and compete for any newly advertised tenure-track openings.

All of which is why many Ph.D.'s abandon the academic market. But those leaving behind careers as teachers and researchers in higher education face a daunting transition: What can we do, other than teach, with a Ph.D. in literature, gender and sexuality studies, or American history? After that dinner, I decided to answer that question for my field. My mission: figure out where history Ph.D.'s end up when they exit the academy.

Most history departments, it turns out, do not track the career outcomes of their alumni. The most that departments do is collect job-placement information from students in their graduating year, relying on self-reporting. Because academic job placements are a factor in determining a department's national ranking, the information collected tends to be skewed at best and misleading at worst. I recently learned of a department that in tallying up the number of its Ph.D.'s who found faculty jobs counted high-school teaching as "tenure track equivalent." Many programs count adjunct and temporary jobs in the same category as tenure-track posts, lumping them all as "academic jobs" to boost their rankings.

Few departments bother to track their Ph.D.'s who have exited the academy for nonfaculty careers. Those alumni get labeled as "other" or "nonacademic"—code for "liability" because they bring down the department's academic ranking.

The lack of accurate career-outcome data is problematic because it leads too many professors to believe that their Ph.D.'s end up in tenure-track positions far more often than they actually do. Meanwhile, among students, the lack of available information about job placement creates a sense of shame, embarrassment, and frustration when they do not land the golden ticket.

Most attempts at tracking career outcomes for humanities Ph.D.'s, or promoting nonacademic careers, come from outside graduate schools and departments. For example, the most popular source for alternative careers is a privately run Web site called the Versatile Ph.D., which allows students exiting academe to communicate anonymously with those who have already forged successful careers in a wide range of fields.

Many departments might well fear a study of the career outcomes of their Ph.D.'s., not wanting to publicly acknowledge that a large majority of their Ph.D.'s never find tenure-track work. But that does not excuse departments from having a better understanding of how, and where, their students actually do find employment. In the digital age, it is possible to find career-outcome data quickly, accurately, and effectively.

I studied 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. I found career-outcome data—gathered via public Web sites and databases—for 96 percent of my total sample of 487 history Ph.D.'s. I generated lists of alumni through Proquest Digital Database, department Web sites, and alumni-services databases. I found current information on career outcomes from university and company Web sites, online directories, publications, conference papers, blogs, Linked In (although it proved to be of only limited use), and other sources. (An advance copy of this article was provided to the chairs of the four departments.)

I entered all of that into spreadsheets listing each Ph.D. by name, year of graduation, job title, institution, and industry category. Among my results: 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.

I've created a chart for each department here on the percentage of its Ph.D.'s who hold tenure-track jobs. The charts illustrate a trend that departments and graduate students already know: Tenure-track jobs are scarce for students who have graduated since 2008. Yet the long-term trend reveals many years, long before 2008, in which a majority of a department's graduates did not secure tenure-track jobs. So while the Great Recession has intensified the problem of too few tenure-track openings, it has been a long time in the making. Every department needs to know its placement data and offer support for the 45 percent (and up) of its Ph.D.'s who will end up in alternative careers.

So where do Ph.D.'s go when they leave academe?

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. If we remove those who are deceased (2 percent) and those for which there are no data available (3.75 percent), then 27 percent are working in a range of industries other than academic research and teaching. (The remaining proportion at the four institutions ended up in temporary part-time, non-tenure-track, or postdoctoral appointments.)

Some of the history Ph.D.'s can be found working in areas where we would expect to find them: higher-education administration, publishing and editing, high schools, museums, government agencies, and public-history sites. They are researchers, consultants, and editors. One Ph.D. from Ohio State University is a vice president and corporate manager of a heavy-metal-equipment manufacturing company. Some are active-duty military officers. Many have successful careers as independent historians and scholars. Others run small businesses that specialize in everything from editing to organic food. Several decided to pair their doctorates with additional degrees to become lawyers, politicians, and librarians.

It's possible that some of those who graduated in 2010 may still end up in tenure-track jobs, but many of them are entering their third and possibly fourth year on the academic job market. How many would choose an alternative career path if the option was readily apparent? How many will? Eventually a candidate too long on the academic market begins to be viewed with suspicion by search committees, who assume that the "good ones" got snatched up upon graduation.

The versatile range of career outcomes for history Ph.D.'s indicates that departments need to expand their job-placement training. Most departments provide extensive training for the academic job market—how to write cover letters, create CVs, and prepare for conference and campus interviews. But few set more than an hour or two aside (if that) to help students consider "Plan B" careers. Doctoral students need workshops on writing résumés, networking in the "real" world, and conducting informational interviews. Moreover, departments need to be honest with students about their limited chances of landing tenure-track jobs, and encourage them to prepare for nonacademic searches as well.

A nonacademic career path often suggested to history Ph.D.'s is public history (that is, working for museums and historical sites). But the data I gathered showed that history Ph.D.'s in those four university programs have not ended up working in public history in any significant number. Moreover, a quick browse of job openings at museums and other public-history sites showed that those organizations seem to be looking for fund raisers, business managers, curators, and people with specialized training in museum studies. It's not clear how many doctoral recipients in history would actually qualify for such jobs. So public-history careers may not be the panacea that some academics have suggested.

While many alternative career paths do not actually require you have a doctorate, Ph.D.'s are often hired because of the skills and knowledge gained through their graduate training. You don't need a doctorate to become an insurance consultant, for example, but the language skills, theoretical background, research and writing abilities, comfort with public speaking, success at grant writing, and ability to learn and master new subject matter that you gain from graduate school are assets. Humanities Ph.D.'s could make the transition to alternative careers faster if they had more support from their departments on how to translate their knowledge and skills into nonacademic careers.

John Martin, chair of the department of history at Duke, said, "The real challenge lies in articulating much more clearly than we have in the past that Ph.D.'s in the humanities and social sciences not only can serve but should serve society well beyond the traditional academic job market." That shift has already begun in the historical profession. But, as Martin added, "we have a lot of work to do on this front. We have to think seriously about what it means to train the next generation of historians. We want the next generation to be more adaptable than we have been. And we want them to be able not only to carry historical analysis into a broad range of careers but also to draw on their studies of the past to enrich public discourse more generally."

It's in the long-term interest of history and other humanities departments to revolutionize the career training they offer to doctoral students. More and more people are leaving academe, and more and more people are shouting that smart students should avoid Ph.D. programs in the humanities because there are "no jobs." To survive, departments must demonstrate their worth to trustees, deans, students, donors, and taxpayers, and show that graduate programs in the humanities are worth saving because students do end up in excellent careers.

And the data I collected showed that they do. History Ph.D.'s from the four universities I tracked are succeeding in multiple nonacademic career paths. Departments are simply not aware of that, though, and aren't telling those stories. Before you can encourage students toward nonacademic careers, you need to understand the alternative academic career paths that your alumni are already taking.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small educational-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., area.