Where They Are Now

Brian Taylor

February 10, 2014

A simple question underlies the complicated debate over graduate-education reform: Can a department place its Ph.D.’s in good career tracks, either academic or nonacademic?

We’ve sought to answer that question about our own doctoral programs in the College of the Liberal Arts at Pennsylvania State University. We have tracked Ph.D. placements across 16 graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences since 1996 and now have records on nearly 1,600 of our Ph.D.’s. We began collecting the data in a quest to measure one important indicator of the success of a Ph.D. program. Over the years, these data, among others, have informed our financial decisions about graduate education and whether to decrease or increase the size of specific programs.

With the growing interest in academe about Ph.D. placement, and with the Council of Graduate Schools conducting a study on the feasibility of tracking career outcomes, we thought it would be helpful to share our data and methods with readers, along with some of the patterns we have noticed.

First, a word about methodology. We record the employment paths of every student who earns a Ph.D. from Penn State in the humanities and social sciences. In the data, we show six types of career paths: tenure-track research-university appointments, other tenure-track jobs, postdocs, fixed-term academic posts (on non-tenure-track contracts), nonacademic (defined as professional positions only), and unknown/unemployed. We track both a student’s initial placement and subsequent moves, and update the data annually. If there are Ph.D.’s flipping burgers or driving taxis, they are likely to be found in the "unknown" category.

Our data represent what is probably one of the largest and most comprehensive sets of longitudinal Ph.D.-placement studies in higher education. Still, our collection process remains imperfect. We lose contact with some of our graduates after a while, and it is not always easy to track all of their career changes over time. Of course, mortality has claimed a few of our students. Others, obtaining their degrees late in life, retired quickly. And still others dropped out of the labor market entirely to focus on raising families or other priorities.

One of our key interests was to evaluate how the recession of 2008 affected Ph.D. placement in the years following graduation, and specifically to see if the humanities and social-sciences markets reacted differently.

To measure the effect of the recession, we divided the data into two five-year cohorts, 2002-7 and 2008-13, and separated graduates of the humanities programs from those of the social sciences. Of the 16 departments included in the data, seven are in the humanities (comparative literature, English, French, German, history, philosophy, and women’s studies) and seven in the social sciences (anthropology, applied linguistics, crime law and justice, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology). In our two hybrid departments, communications and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese (which houses a linguistics program), we maintained the separation between humanities and social-science placements to ensure consistency across the college.

In the social sciences, the recession hardly changed the placement picture for our 616 Ph.D.’s. In a comparison of the two cohorts, a few more graduates in the 2008-13 group found jobs in research universities and as postdocs and fixed-term faculty members than did so in the first set, a few fewer went directly to nonacademic jobs, and about the same number were unemployed or dropped out of sight.

The story of our 485 humanities Ph.D.’s is more complicated and considerably less encouraging. In the 2002-7 cohort, 52 percent found tenure-track positions right out of graduate school, either at a research university (17 percent) or elsewhere (35 percent). By contrast, only 27 percent of the 2008-13 group landed tenure-track jobs immediately after graduation, at a research university (6 percent) or other types of institutions (21 percent).

Graduates in the post-recession cohort were more likely to take fixed-term academic placements upon graduation (52 percent, compared with 39 percent in the first group), and there was a distressing increase in graduates who were unemployed or whose whereabouts were unknown (from 3 percent in the pre-recession group to 10 percent of the 2008-13 cohort).

That increase in the unemployed-or-dropped-out-of-sight rate happened even though we had already moved to reduce the number of Ph.D.’s we granted in the humanities, in reaction to the difficult job market in those fields in the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, the number of Ph.D.’s we awarded declined from 251 in the first cohort to 234 in 2008-13.

But those numbers tell only the story of graduates’ initial job placements in the humanities, right out of graduate school. Where are members of these cohorts now, since many of them left Penn State several years ago?

In the 2002-7 group of humanities Ph.D.’s, we found that 71 percent are now in tenure-track jobs, at research universities (22 percent) or elsewhere (49 percent), while 15 percent are in fixed-term appointments, 4 percent are in nonacademic careers, and 10 percent are either unemployed or can’t be accounted for. In the post-recession cohort, only 43 percent of the Ph.D.’s are in tenure-track jobs, at research universities (12 percent) or elsewhere (31 percent), 4 percent are in postdocs, 38 percent are in fixed-term appointments, 6 percent are in nonacademic careers, and 9 percent are unemployed or their career paths are unknown.

The fact that 43 percent of the members of the post-recession cohort have now found tenure-track jobs, compared with 27 percent who found such positions initially, suggests that it can take our humanities graduates a bit longer to find tenure-track posts. But that 43-percent figure is still considerably less than the 71 percent of the earlier cohort who are tenured or on the tenure track. Even if we take into account the fact that the more-recent graduates in the post-recession cohort have not had much time to advance their careers, we remain significantly behind our pre-recession tenure-track placement rates.

Even years after graduation, very few of our humanities Ph.D.’s in either cohort enter the nonacademic job market. And we still have 9 percent of our humanities Ph.D.’s either unemployed or unaccounted for in the post-recession cohort. Even the earlier cohort now has a higher proportion of people who are either unemployed or whose career path is unknown (10 percent, up from 3 percent).

The data suggest that the impact of the 2008 recession was far more severe on our humanities Ph.D.’s than it was on their counterparts in the social sciences. Of course, the recession did not affect all of the humanities fields in the same way. For example, in one of our largest humanities departments, 63 percent of pre-recession graduates found tenure-track positions as their first jobs, compared with only 19 percent who did so in the 2008-13 cohort. In another humanities department, the drop-off was less drastic—from 51 percent to 40 percent. And in still another program, the proportion of Ph.D.’s who found tenure-track jobs upon graduation remained the same in both cohorts: 27 percent.

Most worrisome, in almost all of our humanities departments, there has been a surge in the proportion of Ph.D.’s working in non-tenure-track appointments on annual or multiyear contracts.

These placement data, while time-consuming to collect, have enabled us to track how well our Ph.D.’s are faring, and have proved a valuable assessment tool. The information has also allowed us to track the job market through this economic slump and has prompted us to think more strategically about ways we might help students succeed during this difficult period.

Even so, the data do not adequately measure the value of a Ph.D. in the humanities, which lies not so much in market forces as in the thoughtful critique and creative insights that well-trained graduates bring to bear on the human experience. That said, it would be better for our new Ph.D.’s, their faculty advisers, and our institutions if their careful preparation and thoughtful insights could be put to use in meaningful academic or nonacademic employment.

Correction (2/10/2014, 11 a.m.): The chart showing initial social-sciences placements originally included incorrect numbers of graduates, and those numbers were mistakenly omitted on the other two charts. (The percentages were correct.) The charts have been updated with correct numbers of graduates.

Susan Welch is dean of the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. Christopher P. Long is the college’s associate dean for graduate and undergraduate education and a professor 
of philosophy and classics. He blogs at, and his Twitter handle is @cplong.