Thinking Out Loud About the History Ph.D. and the Future of Higher Ed

History PhD Reporting Employment 2012

Regular readers of Exploring the Past know that I occasionally muse on the state of higher education in the United States and what the academy might hold for someone like me in the future. I wish I had the ability to look into a crystal ball and envision this future, but I instead find myself in a paradox when it comes to whether or not I should pursue my history Ph.D. On the one hand, I’ve worked extremely hard to position myself for a full-time, permanent status placement with the National Park Service, an agency whose mission and values I care deeply about. Now that I’ve earned that position (for which I’m extremely grateful), it seems that getting “experience in the field” and not pursuing a Ph.D. at present makes the most sense for my career development, and I’ve been told as much by some of my teachers. On the other hand, I received a lot of support from other teachers during graduate school who encouraged me to strongly consider the Ph.D. path and pursue it as soon as possible. By pursuing the Ph.D. now, I could also position myself for potential employment within higher education in addition to possibly furthering my public history career.

I love teaching history in both formal and informal learning settings, and I hope to do more of both in my career. But it can be mentally overwhelming thinking about the unknown contingencies that will shape where I go and what I do through the course of my career. It’s important not to discount any avenue of opportunity at this point, and I’ve been doing my best to get a feel for what I might expect if I were to pursue my Ph.D. Unfortunately, the research I’ve done so far indicates that my prospects don’t look good if I pursue this path.

Overeducated, Unemployed: There are too many Ph.D. candidates in all fields of study. Hope College English professor William Pannapacker suggests that this glut of Ph.Ds (especially in the humanities) stems from schools’ reliance on cheap teaching labor. “It’s my view that higher education in the humanities exists mainly to provide cheap, inexperienced teachers for undergraduates so that shrinking percentage of tenured faculty members can meet an ever-escalating demand for specialized research.” These schools, according to Pannapacker, don’t really care about the employment status of their students once they graduate.

Because there is a glut of Ph.Ds on the academic job market, schools set the terms of employment to their favor. Amid severe funding cuts for public colleges and universities and rising costs for non-academic ventures (more on that in a moment) since the 2008 Great Recession, a race to the bottom has ensued within academia. More than 50 percent of all faculty in today’s schools are part-time. Some faculty voluntarily choose to be part-time because they either have full-time employment outside academia, are retired from the workplace and choose to teach occasionally, or simply prefer this sort of schedule. But the vast majority of these faculty members do not work outside the academy and are placed in a position where they frantically run around from school to school looking for classes to teach. Adjunct faculty members have no job security, no health benefits, and make an average of $2,700 per course (which means that a person teaching four classes per semester would be making $21,600 annually, before taxes). There are professors on food stamps.

Efforts to find new Ph.Ds employment opportunities outside the academy (“alt-ac”) are still in their infancy, but the transferability of academic skills and training to alternative careers remains an open question. The Boston Globe recently published an essay about a “quiet crisis” in the science community, where recent Ph.Ds have been increasingly forced to work in low-paying postdoctoral apprenticeships thanks to cuts in higher education employment and federal funding. (And, while I’m at it, I should point out that STEM graduates of any level are struggling to find employment, contrary to popular belief that the U.S. lacks a sufficient number of young, competent science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals).

And then there are those who simply can’t find employment. The graph above, taken from a recent study by the American Historical Association, found that less than 50 percent of new history Ph.Ds reported finding “definite employment” following the completion of their degree and about 40 percent saying that they were still “seeking employment.” (Here’s a collection of data studies from the AHA on history programs, employment, and students).

What is the cost of pursuing a Ph.D?: Many–if not most–Ph.D. students live on a monthly or yearly stipend that ostensibly covers the cost of living. Schools pay their students to work as Teaching Assistants, researchers, or a range of other jobs for roughly twenty hours a week. These stipends end up totaling around $10,000-$12,000 per year, which is low enough that some students have been forced to take public assistance to help pay the bills while in school. A select few are lucky enough to get their tuition fully covered in addition to their yearly stipend, but most students are forced to take out loans to cover their rising tuition costs and usage fees while in school. The average debt burden for graduate students today is $60,000. Moreover, this debt doesn’t account for the years of lost income that accompany any full-time investment in the pursuit of a Ph.D., which can take between five and ten years to complete. University of Iowa Sally Mason recently attributed at least half of this student debt to so-called “‘lifestyle debts’ caused by students buying things like iPhones, iPads, and laptops” (see link above), reflective of her clear ignorance of these serious problems.

Where does the money go?: The sad thing about this rising debt is that so much of the increasing tuition rates in U.S. schools are reflective of the rising costs of things completely detached from the academic classroom. Contrary to popular assumptions and beliefs, colleges and universities are not increasing tuition rates because of rising faculty costs. That money is actually going towards the building of fancy campus centers, sports stadiums, dorms, and 9,000 Square Feet President’s Residences. And we can’t forget the huge growth of higher education administrators who take an increasing amount of the budgetary pie in academia. From 1987 to 2012 the number of administrators in colleges and universities more than doubled, with 517,636 administrators and professional employees added to the payrolls during that period.

I’m not one for big freak-outs and alarmist rhetoric, but the above information definitely sobers my perspective whenever I start thinking about furthering my education, and I have a bad feeling that things will either stay the same or get worse in the future.



4 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud About the History Ph.D. and the Future of Higher Ed

  1. I stumbled onto your blog through your graduate school tag — thanks for your thoughtful consideration of some of the challenges facing History PhD students. I’m in art history, but I can attest that the very same fears about job placement hold extremely true, especially the closer I get to finishing the dissertation. I’ve enjoyed a lot about pursuing my degree, but there are some real costs that make the uncertainty of the job market a bit disconcerting. It is certainly a lot to think about, but better to consider these things before you take the plunge!

    If you do decide to look further into this path, my best advice would be to contact graduate students at different stages in their career who are in the programs to which you are applying. I’ve noticed that early-stage Ph.D. students and late stage A.B.D. students have totally different outlooks about their programs and how well their program has prepared them for the professional world. They can also be more frank about the financial viability of the program.

    Best of luck!

    1. Hi Christina,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and useful advice. I have a lot to think about, but I’m hopeful that there will be opportunities to move up in the history world, regardless of whether or not I decide to pursue the history Ph.D.

  2. I fall into this morass somewhere. I finished my MA with the goal of teaching online or at a community college or both. I was not going to go for a Ph.D in history because of the glut and circumstances which really do not allow me to do so. Instead, I went for an Ed.D in College Teaching and Learning. It fit my needs and goals via my career path. I will graduate in early 2016 and from what I’ve seen so far I may be an extreme rarity in my field. I will have a MA in History and an educational doctorate focusing on how to teach history at the college level, not researching history.

    My doctoral work is in the development and advocation of a specific pedagogical model which is being implemented more and more by individuals who often have a good deal of experience and move to the model through trial and error. The reason I bring this up is that in my experience so far most Ph.D holders fresh out of school have little pedagogical training because their programs have next to none in it. In fact, the TA idea is a failure in itself because it is unrealistic for actual teaching.

    I agree with you on this issue because it is pretty plainly evident. Adjuncts are cheap and get no benefits. When it was the path to a full time job the role of the adjunct was that of an apprentice. They gained teaching experience and it served as a testing board to sort out those that wanted to teach and those that did not. Now it just has become a way of life for many.

    I see the lack of government hiring to be a major problem for the doctorates. That has always been a place where highly educated people worked. Their knowledge was beneficial to all, but the current hiring dearth is having a negative effect on the overall unemployment out there. These people are going elsewhere and displacing others who then go to another rung and displace even more people. It is a big ripple effect. You see it in the NPS system now. Getting a FT job in it seems to be a giant crap shoot any more.

    I have read Bob’s posts on the hiring process and his experiences over on Yesterday…and Today. I immediately dropped NPS from my goal path as a result. Besides, I love to teach and enjoy it more than any job I’ve had. We had a FT job come open in the Spring semester for 14-15 at our school. They had 102 apps in when they began the interview process and still had apps arriving when they made their selection two and a half months after the first announcement. The guy who got the job had six years of adjunct experience and his Ph.D in hand. This was for a community college at a satellite campus.

    Basically, the handwriting is on the wall. A terminal degree and experience are important in the hiring process. Yet, neither one is a guarantee to get hired. The experience is actually more important in many people’s eyes, but that terminal degree carries a weight too. But the doctorate without any teaching experience is no ticket to a FT job. Anyone who wants to teach college history and earn a Ph.D had better prepare themselves for five years minimum of part time work as an adjunct.

    1. Hi Jimmy,

      This is a wonderful comment with a lot to digest and think about. I especially appreciate your point about the importance of taking some education courses and getting a thorough background in pedagogy and learning theory. I have my teaching degree for grades 5-12 and spent a good chunk of time learning about pedagogy while studying public history at IUPUI, and I wholeheartedly agree that content knowledge alone doesn’t ensure productive learning experiences in your classroom.

      Bob is a good friend and colleague of mine at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. His essays on his path towards an NPS career are very helpful and instructive of just how difficult it is to get into the NPS these days.

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