Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
You can hear a nervous buzz around my department’s graduate-student offices each fall when the academic job listings are about to be published. Openings are posted all year round now, but the largest number still appear in the fall, and that time is upon us.
Two of my Ph.D. students are trying the academic job market for the first time this year. Let’s call them "Amy" and "Tina." Each plans to graduate next spring. Amy is undertaking a national search. Tina wants to stay close to the house she bought a couple of years ago, so she’ll be applying only for jobs within driving distance.
Those two equally reasonable choices will lead to completely different job searches — and possibly, very different outcomes. It’s my role as adviser to support my doctoral students in the ways that they each need. I’ll be discussing professorial careers with them, of course, and going over their applications. But we’ll talk about a range of other possibilities as well.
Professors are used to making rhetorical distinctions between "successful placements" and "failed job searches." But the reality is much different.
Let’s consider the whole idea of placement. At the American Historical Association, or the AHA, a common refrain — and one I agree with — is that Ph.D.s aren’t "placed" in their careers by someone else. They get their own jobs, and they’re responsible for their own choices. In a column I wrote last year on academe’s job-market lexicon, I suggested that "outcomes" is a better word than "placements."
As advisers, we’ve all got stories to tell about the career outcomes of our students. But the numbers tell a story, too. Individual doctoral programs usually try to keep track of their graduates. Some departments try harder than others. Some publish their results while others sit on their numbers — a venal decision that helps no one (which is a topic for another day). But efforts to tabulate the career outcomes of Ph.D.s across universities are rare.
Every year, students who do a national job search — like my own student, Amy — apply for dozens of faculty jobs. Some Ph.D.s snag those openings, but the number who don’t is probably larger. I say "probably" because our statistics don’t make any distinction between Amy’s broad search and Tina’s narrowly targeted one.
Tina knows she’ll apply for only a handful of professorships — her degree will be in literature but she can do the job-market math. So along with her academic applications, she’s conducting a robust parallel search for job possibilities in various nonfaculty sectors.
My two students stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of academic job seekers. Wherever a Ph.D. falls along that range, there will be consequences for their search and their job prospects. But academics can’t actually discern all the details of that spectrum (for instance, how many job candidates are doing a national search versus a targeted one) because we don’t have all the information.
Imagine a department whose job seekers were all conducting narrow, geographically limited searches like Tina’s. If none of them found faculty jobs and they all wound up working outside academe, would that mean their department had done a poor job of advising them? Of course not. Such a negative judgment would be even more ridiculous if those Ph.D.s were happy with the nonacademic jobs they’d found (as is often the case).
Every year the Modern Language Association, or the MLA, compiles statistics listing the number of academic job openings and the larger number of newly minted Ph.D.s. The implication: All of those new Ph.D.’s will be competing for all of those jobs.
There are many problems with that assumption. First, it doesn’t take into account the backlog of job seekers from previous years. Nor do the numbers separate out those new Ph.D.s who aren’t looking for faculty jobs. And of course there is the Amy/Tina distinction: Not everyone looks for academic jobs in the same way.
The flaws in this assumption aren’t the MLA’s fault. Its researchers are skillful, but their data are limited, and don’t allow them to isolate the fine distinctions between job searchers. We need better ways of thinking about the employment outcomes of Ph.D.s. — and better numbers.
Which brings me to some good news in that area: This past summer, the AHA released Where Historians Work, an interactive, online database that allows users to track what happened to 10 years of history Ph.D.s.
An impressive amount of work went into this project. First of all, AHA researchers located nearly 95 percent of the 8,515 people who got a history Ph.D. at an American university between 2004 and 2013. The designers chose that 10-year period because it bridges the Great Recession of 2008, and so offers a picture of Ph.D. employment both before and after it.
Then they sorted their data to allow for comparison across years, subfields, geography, and other categories — including, of course, outcomes.
The result is an addictive compilation of graphs, charts, maps, and other interactive visual tools that I don’t know the names of. You can manipulate the data within these fields and — if my experience is any indication — you may find yourself doing so for quite a while.
Emily Swafford, director of academic and professional affairs at the AHA, and Dylan Ruediger, coordinator of its career-diversity program, offered some preliminary conclusionsin a recent article in Perspectives, the association’s newsletter.
In some cases, the data confirm long-held suspicions: For example, ever since the 2008 recession, fewer historians have gotten tenure-track positions and more of them work in nontenure-track, full-time teaching jobs than was the case pre-recession. The database also showcases some unexpected findings: The employment patterns of female Ph.D.s are virtually identical to those of males — meaning that there is no gender gap at the point of hire.
As to who’s getting hired where, Where Historians Work offers a detailed pie chart. Some basic facts:
- About 51 percent of the decade of Ph.D.s sampled are either tenured or tenure-track professors, with jobs at four-year colleges and universities accounting for nearly all of that total.
- About 16 percent teach full-time in nontenure-track positions
- So about two thirds of the total Ph.D.s surveyed teach full-time at the college level.
- About 7 percent work for nonprofit groups, and another 7 percent in the private sector.
- Almost 4 percent work in government, and almost 6 percent in higher-education staff or administration.
Because the user can work with these numbers (to look at specific three-year periods, for example), there are many more results than that.
Other findings fairly beg for further study. "Graduates of many programs remain clustered in the cities or regions where they earned their degree," Swafford and Ruediger observe, "while other programs’ graduates seem to scatter." Are some locations more likely to produce job searchers like Amy, and others more likely to create a Tina? I’d like to know the answer to that one.
"Our main aim in creating the database was to increase transparency around careers for history Ph.D.s.," said Swafford in an email. "In earlier forays into data gathering, we learned a lot, but people would often say, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to my students’ or ‘my field’ or ‘my university.’ So, we said, OK, we’ll gather data on all Ph.D.s from all departments."
Where Historians Work enables assessment backed by actual data. All of us who teach and advise graduate students need to reflect on our practices, from admissions to curriculum to all forms of student support. This new database suggests ways we can do a better job of that — even if our field isn’t history.
Swafford also hopes "that prospective graduate students will use it as they contemplate whether to pursue a Ph.D." She speculated that "the diversity of outcomes encouraged a more diverse pool of applicants. But mostly we hope that people will dig in to the data and explore what it shows about where historians work."
Academics across all fields should start collecting our own data on this front and digging into it, because there’s a lot more work to be done. For one thing, we need to understand more about attrition from doctoral programs (which is a staggering 50 percent) better than we do. It’s important to know what becomes of our graduates, but the noncompleters are likewise ours. We spend years training people who leave doctoral programs ABD. We need to find out where they go.
That’s critical work for tomorrow. For today, Where Historians Work is an important step forward — and a model for other fields to follow.