Humanities’ share of US postgraduate degrees slumps to new low

Population declines and employment shifts key factors, but universities also seen ignoring non-teaching career pathways

April 29, 2022
Chicago, IL  USA - May 24,2020 A young man in cap and gown walks under a sign downtown at the Chicago Theater, saying Congrats Class of 2020.
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US production of new postgraduate degrees in the humanities has declined to its lowest share ever recorded, reflecting what scholars see as a failure of universities to promote non-academic career options.

The humanities accounted for just 3 per cent of US master’s and professional degrees completed in 2020, and 7 per cent of the doctoral degrees, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences said in a data analysis.

The losses among humanities degrees are part of a wider phenomenon rooted in overall population declines and employment shifts, according to the academy, but it warned that US universities appeared slow to react to the situation, too often focused on preparing humanities students for post-secondary teaching careers while those opportunities keep declining.

In selected institutions and sectors of the humanities – primarily history and languages – universities can be found guiding their students towards alternative career paths, said Robert Townsend, director of humanities, arts and culture programmes at the academy.

“But I still sense there’s a lot of resistance within departments to the idea of preparing PhD students for any careers outside of academia,” Dr Townsend said.

The academy last year issued a study of overall humanities degree production at the undergraduate level, finding a worldwide contraction. Between 2015 and 2018, it said, the humanities slipped from 5.7 per cent to 5.4 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with just eight of the 35 countries reporting a gain in that share.

The new report – the first by the academy on postgraduate education – was driven in part by a sense that the humanities remained robust for graduate schools despite the slippage at the bachelor’s level, Dr Townsend said. And the newly compiled data do affirm a long-term rise in the number of postgraduate-level degrees in the humanities, running from the late 1980s into the early 2010s, he said.

But the number of US master’s graduates in the humanities peaked in 2012, at more than 32,500, and the number of doctoral degrees peaked three years later, at 6,010. By 2020, the number of master’s degrees had fallen by 18.5 per cent from that peak and doctoral degrees dropped nearly 9 per cent, the academy found.

The growing reliance of universities on adjuncts is a factor in humanities employment rates in academia, though adjuncts are also likely to lose their jobs during cutbacks, and they don’t appear to be the big-picture reason for faculty job reductions, Dr Townsend said.

Instead, he said, universities may be contributing to an overall cycle of downward demand in the humanities by broadly failing to recognise – as most other disciplines have now done – the importance of giving their students skills that are useful in non-academic career contexts.

“Other disciplines long ago stopped sending the majority of their students into academic employment, and so the humanities are kind of outliers,” Dr Townsend said.

There are exceptions – such as Duke University, George Mason University and the University of Chicago – that have been aggressively exposing their humanities students to internships and other kinds of real-world job environments, he said.

Schools also need to help their students understand that they’ve mastered not just the details of their particular discipline within the humanities, but have gained a broad ability to read and understand and synthesise and convey information, Dr Townsend said.

Dr Townsend said he just got a taste of that first-hand when the academy advertised a postdoctoral job opportunity, received more than 130 applications, and found the candidates well educated but unclear about their value outside the classroom.

“I’m often struck,” he said, “at how much time I have to spend deprogramming them to stop thinking about the specific content of the things they’ve written about, and to think more broadly about the skills that they have.”

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