March 13, 2003

Reshaping the Job Market?

In a recent letter to Perspectives (the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association), Alexandra M. Lord of the United States Public Health Service says some important things that need to be said. I wonder if anyone is listening?

As Lord points out, "Year after year, Perspectives seems to be publishing the same articles on the current academic job market and the poor prospects which confront most new PhDs. Judging by the trends of the last few years, it seems highly unlikely that the academic job market will improve this year or anytime in the future." Lord is irritated by this narrow focus, and so am I.

I am especially irritated by Perspective's tendency to trumpet an infinitesimally small increase in the number of job openings as a sign that the job market is improving. See, for example, "Job Market Report 2002: History Posts Gains Despite Economy;" "Job Market Report 2001: Openings Booming...but for How Long?;" and "Odds for Applicants Improving, According to Survey of Job Advertisers." Note the titles of these reports, and then read the reports carefully with a close eye on the numbers: it doesn't take an advanced degree in statistics to spot the discrepancies between the optimism of the titles and the pessimism of the figures cited. I would also recommend Russell L. Johnson's very useful 1998 Job Market: A Realistic Appraisal), which Perspectives declined to publish.

Alexandra M. Lord wants Perspectives to take another, "more aggressive and more varied" approach to the job problem: Instead of "discussing minute differences in the number of jobs each year," she writes, "Perspectives needs to initiate and publish studies and information on historians who work outside of the university. Although rarely discussed within academia, there are incredible opportunities for historians in policy positions, business organizations, and a variety of other fields—but this information as well as the pleasure nonacademic historians have found in their jobs is never openly or seriously discussed in Perspectives." I think Lord is exactly right about this. The "job market" for academic history is bad, has been worsening for almost a decade, and will probably get even worse before it gets better (if it ever does get better, and it won't improve until those who are in a position to do something about it actually start doing something). Many history PhDs are simply not going to find full-time employment in the academy and will have to look elsewhere. Why not take an active role, Lord asks, in "[placing] historians in business, government, and other professions"?

Lord's proposal is not another version of "a Ph.D. in the humanities can serve as preparation for a wide variety of careers outside the academy," which I discussed a couple of weeks ago. That is, she does not say something like, 'Let's continue to train people very narrowly for academic careers that many of them will never have, and then at the end of the day tell them, Your training has somehow or other served as preparation for a variety of unspecified pursuits about which we can tell you nothing.' Instead, she makes the connection between academic and non-academic job markets and points out that the development of non-academic job markets for historians would help not only those historians who must look outside the academy for employment but also those historians who remain within:

"Moreover, if we educate historians about job opportunities outside of the academy, we can reshape the job market. Scientists can and do command higher salaries and lighter teaching loads because university administrators recognize that scientists have job opportunities outside of the university. If historians can introduce a similar form of competitiveness into the history job market, opportunities, salaries and teaching loads may shift."

This is very different from the current laissez-faire "You've got your Ph.D., now go find your own parachute" approach. And for me, it helps to clarify what I now see as a crucial point about the academic history job market: namely, that the academic history job market is not a "market" at all but is rather a failed labor monopoly. Indeed, I think the academic history job system now combines the worst of both worlds: it uses the language of the market to describe what is effectively an increasingly ineffective and unsuccessful guild system, and then tells those who are shut out of the guild to compete openly in a non-existent external market. And the only way that this job system could become a "market" in any meaningful sense, I believe, would be through the development of a real, identifiable alternative market for historians outside the academy. Legal academics have such a market, as do some scientists working in some fields. And of course, historians will never command the salaries and benefits that law professors can command, because there will never be the equivalent of the Manhattan law firm as an alternative career path that the historian foregoes in order to work in the academy. Nevertheless, there could and should be another, albeit somewhat more modest, market for historians, and I think Lord is absolutely correct to suggest that the AHA should be doing much more to develop and promote such an alternative.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 13, 2003 12:39 PM