Shortly after we concluded our slack chat on the Thursday before Thanksgiving about funding in graduate school, the American Historical Association posted a short blog post about the state of the 2016-2017 academic job market for historians. The conclusions were dire. Using job postings from the AHA Career Center, the AHA revealed that job postings have declined for the fifth straight year (matching a similar decline in English and foreign languages announced by the Modern Language Association). Job postings are now at their lowest levels since the mid-1980s.

In total, the AHA Career Center listed a total 501 full-time positions. This figure of 501, however, obscures some of the realities of the job market. The vast majority of people applying for academic jobs in history are looking for tenure track positions. Of those 501 advertisements, only 289 or approximately 58% were for tenure track postings. The remaining job advertisements were for visiting professorships or permanent non-tenure positions (94 in total or 19% of all advertised jobs), post-docs (60 or 12%), with the rest consisting of non-academic appointments or administrative or staff positions.

Additionally, the AHA posted the following graph tracking the annual number of job postings compared to the annual number of PhDs awarded.


Credit: the AHA

The graph tells a frightful story. As universities award near record numbers of PhDs, the number of available tenure track jobs is nearing record lows.

The horrific story told by the line graph, however, actually undersells the difficulties of the job market for new PhDs. The AHA’s data does not distinguish between job listings for new assistant professor positions—the ones that new PhDs apply for—and advertisements for endowed chairs, full professorships, or department chairs—positions only available to older scholars. I reached out on Twitter to the AHA, asking if they had parsed out that data. They responded saying that their broader report, due out in March, would include such distinctions.

In what is becoming a habit of mine, let’s do a little back of the envelope math to get a sense of just how bad the job market is for new PhDs seeking permanent employment. Using the information provided on the chart, US universities awarded approximately, 1,150 PhDs between June 2015 and June 2016. Let’s start by assuming that all of the positions listed above (excluding the non-academic, staffing, and administrative positions) were designated for new PhDs. This is an unrealistic assumption, but this is a thought experiment. Then we’ll calculate the ratio of new PhDs to academic jobs. Then we’ll recalculate that ratio if only 75%, 50%, and 25% of new academic jobs are for new PhDs.

New PhDs and Academic Jobs


% of Academic Jobs for New Faculty Ratio of New PhDs/Academic Job % of New PhDs with Academic Employment
100% 2.6 38.5%
75% 3.46 28.8%
50% 5.2 19.2%
25% 10.36 9.65%

So if 100% of all these jobs go to newly minted PhDs, it still means that 61.5% of new PhDs won’t find permanent academic employment in their first year after graduating. These figures would represent an absolute best-case scenario.

Now let’s look at what happens if we limit our focus to just the tenure track positions.

New PhDs and Tenure Track Jobs


% of TT Jobs for New Faculty Ratio of New PhDs/TT Job % of New PhDs with TT Jobs
100% 3.979 25%
75% 5.3 19%
50% 8 12.5%
25% 16 6.26%

The best-case scenario here leaves three out of every four new history PhDs without permanent academic employment immediately after graduating.

This simple analysis does not take into account a number of factors that make it even more difficult for newly minted PhDs to land tenure track jobs. First, the 1,150 new PhDs are not the only ones applying for the new tenure track positions. There are also PhDs from previous years who took visiting assistant professor positions, post-docs, and adjuncting positions and still hope to win the tenure track lottery. That could easily double (a conservative estimate) the number of PhDs on the market.

Additionally, not every new PhD is suitable for every job on the market. People with PhDs in American history aren’t going to get jobs in European history and vice versa. Even within those broader fields, universities and colleges look for specialists that fit certain criteria.  For example, someone with a specialization in Colonial Virginia isn’t going to get a job teaching 20th century business history. Nor are the 1,150 new PhDs evenly distributed across fields of interest. So colleges  advertising for a position in 19th century history are going to have many, many more applicants than for one in Vietnamese history for instance.

At first glance, the AHA’s report on the job market looks bad. When you dig deeper, the reality is even worse than it seems.