Graduate School in History: The Job Market

The conclusion in our extended interview about grad school with three alumni who are seeking (or have already earned) a PhD in History. Thanks again to Katie Thostenson ’05Ben Wright ’05, and Noel Stringham ’07 for taking the time to answer our questions! Click to go back to parts one, two, or three.

Students considering such programs often plan to teach history in a college or university. Just how tight is the job market for faculty positions? (Does it vary significantly by field or other factors?) 

KT: Frankly, the job outlook for history faculty positions is abysmal — particularly for full-time, tenure-track positions. In the US, many universities rely heavily on adjuncts, and in the UK, many of the openings are for 1-2 year fellowships, but even these are extremely competitive. One friend of mine applying for fellowships said that most which she applied to had anywhere from 200-500 applicants for one position. Of course, the prestige of the program/university you graduate from as well as your particular area of specialty can affect your chances, but the reality is that there are many more people with doctorates than there are faculty positions.

BW: Competitiveness for faculty positions varies wildly by field. I work on late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries America. Most jobs to which I applied received 150-200 applications (a few received as many as 400). For my colleagues in twentieth century American history, these numbers can be even higher. My friends who do African history, however, face far better odds.  The AHA produces data on this every year. If your interests are flexible, it is very wise to consider these factors.

NS: The job market varies by field and from year to year. Ask people who are currently graduating or recently graduated with the exact degree you’re planning to get.

KT: There is a bit of a time limit on finding a position — many universities want their faculty to have strong publishing records and present regularly at academic conferences. After you graduate with your PhD and are no longer officially connected to a university, both of these things are harder to do — and having a two or more year gap between graduating and holding some kind of academic post can further hinder your chances at a full-time position.

Are there other career paths open to students with a master’s or doctorate in history?

BW: There are absolutely other careers open, but you will need to be strategic where you apply. Some programs are better at this than others. In fact, at some programs, students who aspire to non-faculty positions can be ostracized, denied funding, etc. Ask tough questions of graduate directors and current graduate students to make sure that a department supports students who aspire to non-faculty positions.

NS: The obvious alternative career in private high schools and some of the boarding schools for East Coast bluebloods pay considerably more than non-R1 [research-1] universities. Folks who bail out after the masters often go to these private schools but PhD’s generally get the highest paying of these posts. Some UVA history PhD’s take government jobs in DC, some get work with academic journals or archives.

KT: For those with master’s degrees, I think there are many other options besides academia out there, though these may or may not utilize your specialized knowledge. For doctorates, I think the field narrows quite a bit, if only because employers are often hesitant to hire (and pay accordingly) for someone with such an advanced degree and little experience. Also, those jobs outside of academia that require a doctorate are often just as competitive and require specialized training that you may (or may not) obtain during your graduate study. For instance, both museum and publishing positions are extremely competitive.

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