This week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the shrinking number of students admitted to graduate programs in the arts and humanities. (You need a subscription to the Chronicle to read the full article.)

Overall, graduate admissions fell by 1.1% in 2009, the first such decline in seven years. But the drop-off was steeper in programs like history, literature, languages, philosophy, and art history, while doctoral programs in physical and health sciences and in business actually saw increasing enrollment.

The article cited several examples of declining graduate enrollment in history departments at research universities:

  • Emory University has cut more than half, from a high of 16 new grad students in 2008-2009 to six this year
  • Likewise, Wisconsin-Madison cut by nearly 50%, enrolling only 21 new grad students last fall (down from 40).
  • Penn State is in the middle of going from a total enrollment of nearly 70 to only 30 — by dropping entire subfields: it no longer admits students seeking to write dissertations on medieval, modern European, or 20th century American history

The decline in graduate admissions feeds into a continuing debate about the goals of history education. With the widespread perception that there are too many graduate students competing for too few full-time, tenure-track positions, there have been several calls for the discipline to innovate, and do more to prepare students for non-academic careers. Even those admitted to graduate study in history at Wisconsin saw the following sentence in their acceptance letter: “You should also know that a growing number of history Ph.D.’s will likely have to use their training to seek employment outside the academic world.”

Indeed, according to a study published in last December’s issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, one-third of those holding History PhDs do not work at a two- or four-year college or university. About 8% work at some level of government, and 6% each in non-profits, corporations, and other kinds of educational institutions, .

– Chris Gehrz

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