The Study of History: Graduate Students

We have all chosen the study of history for a variety of reasons – some reasons that we share with other historians, and some that relate to our own passions and interests. Graduate programs in history have been designed to prepare students to become tenure-track faculty, largely because our own academic mentors are faculty and it’s what they know best.

This remains a worthy and feasible goal, particularly for those who excel in their research on a topic in demand in the academic job market at a specific moment. Yet universities have enlarged their graduate programs over the decades. This has opened up new opportunities for those who wish to study history, but at the same time it has made the job market far more competitive. In addition, fewer tenure-track positions are made available as universities find it more financially expedient to hire lecturers on contract.

The constant theme over the past decade has been that supply far outweighs demand in academe. Few resources are better than the American Historical Association (AHA) in measuring the state of the jo b market for historians. According to statistical surveys, until 2005 in the United States, there generally have been nearly as many PhD recipients in history as there have been job opportunities, but these jobs not only include coveted tenure-track positions but also positions in public history and one-year fellowships. While the number of PhD recipients has more or less remained cons istent (growing slowly over the decades), the job market itself fluctuates along with the larger economy. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of job postings declined dramatically, on average dropping between 15 and 30 percent in varying fields within history. While it does not suggest PhD recipients won’t find jobs as professors, it does show that the market is very competitive.