Inside Higher Ed: Job freefall, job recovery

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

January 4, 2011

There has never been a single academic job market: variation among disciplines, institutions and regions has always mattered.

The reality of radically differing job markets may be especially clear as 2011 begins with disciplinary associations gathering for job interviews at annual meetings and releasing data on the number of available positions. During the 2009-10 academic year, the number of positions listed with the American Historical Association dropped by 29.4 per cent, according to a study the group released on 3 January. That follows a 23.8 per cent drop the year before. Last year, the association announced that the number of listings it received – 806 – was the smallest in a decade; this year’s total of 569 marks the smallest number in 25 years.

But in data also being released this week, the American Economic Association is announcing that its job listings in 2010 recovered from a 21 per cent decline in 2008. Furthermore, the number of academic jobs exceeded the number in 2008. (Economics job listings include positions in the finance and consulting industries, in addition to academic slots.)

Association job listings do not have every open position, and many jobs at community colleges or adjunct positions are not included. But the association listings tend to be a reliable barometer of the job markets in the respective disciplines – especially for the tenure-track or other full-time positions most sought by new PhD graduates.

A bleak outlook in history

The report on the history job outlook – prepared by Robert B. Townsend, assistant director of research and publications at the AHA – not only provides the bad news about job openings, but offers context that suggests that the situation is even more dire.

In 2009, the number of new history doctorates awarded rose to its highest level in nine years – 989, up from 969 the year before. Given that many of those who earned doctorates in the past few years have failed to find the tenure-track positions they want, and those going on the market for the first time are increasing in number, that means the competition for the openings that exist is likely to be even tougher. Budget cuts have eliminated positions, according to department chairs interviewed for a related study that is also being released today. Departments are eliminating some courses, increasing class size in others, and turning to part-timers to teach – rather than hiring people into full-time positions.

Further exacerbating the situation, the report says, is that “the number of faculty [in history] approaching retirement age in the next 10 years is reaching the lowest level in 30 years”. Currently, the proportion of full-time faculty in history departments who earned their doctoral degrees at least 20 years ago – the demographic group that is considered even to be approaching retirement – totals only 40 per cent. “[E]ven if there were no hiring freezes to factor into the equation, it is clear that over the next 10 to 15 years the discipline will not be generating as many jobs from retiring faculty as it has in the recent past,” the report says.

Across history specialisations, the largest percentage decreases in available positions were in fields in which there have historically been relatively few positions to start with. African history job openings fell 62 per cent this year, the largest drop among fields, from 42 openings to 16. Latin American history also took a large fall – down by 43 per cent. The largest fields – as has been the case for years – were European and US history, which fell by 34 and 28 per cent, respectively.

Even the field of Middle Eastern history, which has seen strong gains in recent years amid growing student interest, saw the number of openings drop to 30 from 38. One consolation is that this field and world history were the only two specialties to have more listings this year than they had a decade ago.

In the AHA survey of department chairs, public institutions generally fared much worse than did private colleges on a range of issues, including hiring – and not just of faculty members, but also of support staff members on whom many departments depend.

The report on the job market was frank in suggesting that departments need to rethink their policies on the size of their graduate programmes. “Most history doctoral students are being trained for an academic job market that is now beset by crises,” the report says. “Departments should begin to carefully reflect on the type of training they are providing their students and the number of students they are admitting to their programs.”

In an interview, Townsend said that he was not sure what advice he could offer to a new PhD graduate struggling in the job market right now. He said that such people need to think about “how long it is reasonable to linger on in part-time and postdoc positions”.

There is no doubt, Townsend said, that many talented new PhD graduates are still hunting for long-term positions, but he said that there is very real-time pressure involved. “Typically, our advice is that after about three years, your odds of getting on to the tenure track go down significantly,” he said. What remains to be seen, he said, is whether attitudes about such historians will change in light of the exceptionally poor job market faced by those going on the market now.

Economic recovery

For economists, last year’s 21 per cent drop in positions was a sign of just how bad the academic job market had become. While humanities disciplines were expecting a bad job market last year, some thought social science fields like economics wouldn’t see a large dip. Economics is a popular and growing major on many campuses; economics PhDs can be hired by a range of departments, including business schools; and economics has a long history of sending many of its new PhDs to positions outside academe. But the numbers last year were bad for all kinds of economics positions.

This year, the jobs bounced back. The total number of listings with the AEA rose to 2,842 in 2010, up from 2,285 in 2009, and only 43 jobs shy of the 2008 total. Because many of the 2008 openings that were listed were for searches that were subsequently called off, the AEA report – prepared by John J. Siegfried, secretary-treasurer of the association – says that it believes job openings are now above 2008 levels.

New academic jobs increased to 1,884 in 2010, up from 1,512 in 2009, and now exceed 2008 totals by 24. The vast majority of the academic jobs are at universities with graduate programmes.

The top area of specialisation in job listings, by far, was mathematical and quantitative methods, followed by microeconomics, macroeconomics and financial economics, international economics, and macroeconomics and monetary economics.

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