History PhDs and Their Plans: An Unhappy Milestone in the SED Report

Update: I’ve added the 2014 survey data, released in December 2015, to the visualizations below. The post covering this data is here.

Is it bad luck to start a new blog with bad news? Looks like we will find out. As has been noted elsewhere, new data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates is not encouraging. For humanities PhDs,  it contains a grim milestone. A multiyear trend, which saw the proportion of humanities graduates who had definite employment falling and the proportion of job seekers rising, has come to this: In academic year 2012-13 there were more job seekers than those with definite employment.

Humanities being a broad category,  I wanted to see how well historians fared (I’m ABD in history but not headed toward an academic job). The chart below tells the story.

(Use filters on the side to compare humanities fields. More charts below or in the full post.)

Source: Survey of Earned Doctorates. Percentages based on total responses.

For historians, the gap between job havers and job seekers is more pronounced. The lines of many other humanities disciplines haven’t yet crossed, although it looks like they are heading in that direction. Only the really broad “other” category has passed that milestone.

Now, all this goes away if we combine postdoctoral study with employment. Readers who are so inclined can see how this looks by changing the “Combine plans?” menu. I’d tend to keep them separate, but I can see the arguments for saying that both are definite commitments and so should be lumped together.

Caveats! Yes, this is only a snapshot of a distinct moment in a graduate’s career. Probably many of those who said they didn’t have employment at the moment they filled out this survey got jobs not long after. And, on the other hand, many of those who said they had definite jobs were likely referring to short-term adjunct positions. One of my colleagues pointed out that she claimed definite postgraduate study, but her commitment was only for a few months. So if this section of the survey provides useful information, it’s because it shows trends and perhaps captures the general anxiety that’s out there. And it can be compared to the reports on academic job ads placed (here, here, and here).

Even with all these caveats in mind, I found it unsettling that women historians passed this milestone alone. Their male counterparts still have more job havers than job seekers in their cohort. But women came very close to that unhappy point of more job seekers than job havers in 2012, and passed it in 2013, when only 38 percent of women historians who responded to the question reported definite employment. For men it was 45 percent. This disparity can be found across the humanities disciplines, but for history it seems to be particularly acute. (More caveats: the percentages are good for comparisons, but these are small numbers. Again, I’d pay more attention to the trends.)

Percentages based on total responses.

The decline in definite commitments hasn’t deterred graduate students however. The number of history PhDs is up for the third year in a row (the number of humanities PhDs is up for the fifth year in a row). And the number of women completing a history PhD is up for the sixth year in a row (all this can be seen in the chart below), despite the fact that women historians are even less likely than men to report definite job commitments as they prepare to graduate.

I was also curious about what kinds of jobs the graduates were getting. The SED report is a bit spotty in this area because the numbers for those who got jobs in business or government often are so small that the report suppresses them to protect confidentiality. But the academic vs. nonacademic split is clear enough.

So, of those fortunate history graduates who claimed definite employment in 2012-13, 80 percent said they had academic employment. This line has been surprisingly flat over the years. In 2007, before the crash, it was 85 percent. For the last two years, it’s been slightly up. It’s still higher than it was in 2004. So, fewer definite commitments, but little change in where those commitments are. They’re in the academy.

Here again, gender makes a difference, but in the opposite direction. Eighty-six percent of women historians who claimed definite employment claimed academic employment. For men it was 76 percent.

I have no idea what this means and this data won’t tell us. Is it because nonacademic employers are more open to male PhDs? The proportion of women reporting postgrad study went up in this most recent year, while for men it went down. Could these temporary posts be pulling women away from nonacademic work more than men? Regardless, it’s a difference that’s persisted over time, and one that might help explain why women are less likely to claim definite employment as they finish their degrees.

There’s a lot more in this data release that I’m interested in exploring, and I’ll post what I find here. I still haven’t completely decided what this blog is about, other than a sideline to my current projects and an occasional preview of those projects. And it’s an excuse to play with Tableau Public (free if you want to try it). I’m open to suggestions and questions!

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