May 19, 2003

A Market Solution to the History Job Market Problem?

I am a 33-year-old historian with three monographs (published by Cambridge University Press, Greenwood, and Rowman & Littlefield), a forthcoming six-volume edited series, and scores of book chapters, refereed articles, book reviews, paid speaking appearances, and the like to my credit. Moreover, with an M.A. in intellectual history and a Ph.D. in economic history, I have taught a variety of courses in history, economics, and evolutionary psychology at three research universities, a state college, and two private colleges.

Alas, I remain a member of the academic underclass.

-- Robert E. Wright, "A Market Solution to the Oversupply of Historians"

Here's an interesting proposal from an economic historian. He is the author of Origins of Commercial Banking in America, 1750–1800 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic (Greenwood, 2002), and The Wealth of Nations Rediscovered: Integration and Expansion in American Financial Markets, 1780-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and co-editor (with Richard Sylla) of the 6-volume The History of Corporate Finance: Development of Anglo-American Securities Markets, Financial Practices, Theories and Laws (Pickering and Chatto, 2003). Publish and perish? When this article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in April 2002) he was "a relatively well-paid freeway flyer." I really hope he has since found a tenure-track position, though it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he had not.

Wright seeks to explain the history job market with reference to "a few common-sense microeconomic concepts." I don't know much about economics, micro, macro or otherwise. Most historians don't. I wonder if this is why we find ourselves in such a mess? We speak of a job "market," but do we understand what is generally meant by this term?

Is there a job market for academic historians? Or is it a market of a particular type: a labor monopoly that has gone awry (or that has gone the way of all labor monopolies, I suppose some would argue)? Or should we rather speak of a job system?

I don't know.

I think I now have at least a rudimentary grasp on the supply and demand thing. There are too many history Ph.Ds chasing after too few tenure-track jobs. In other words, there is an oversupply. Some argue that there isn't really an oversupply of PhDs, but rather an undersupply of tenure-track jobs. They argue that there is sufficient demand for Ph.Ds to teach history courses, but that this demand is now being met by adjuncts and part-timers. Thus the problem is not not so much "economic" as "political": the profession or the professoriate does not have the will or the power to insist on tenure-track instead of adjunct and part-time appointments. There is probably something to this, but I still think it is related to something that should be called an oversupply: it is the production of a surplus, I suspect, that has weakened the bargaining power of faculty. We have cheapened the value of the history Ph.D. by producing too many history Ph.D.

Anyway, Wright -- who is committed to market analyses -- diagnoses the problem as follows:

While the average salary for new tenure-track assistant professors in history, around $40,000 per year, is modest given the demanding nature of the job and the many years of training it requires, the salary is, in fact, higher than necessary to attract qualified applicants. We know that is the case because it is quite common for an advertisement of a single tenure-track job opening to attract several hundred serious applicants. With rare exceptions, every tenure-track offer made in history is accepted.

And he recommends the following solution:

The solution is clear. The salaries for new assistant professors should be lowered until the number of qualified job applicants (not the number of new Ph.D.'s, which is just a subset of that group) and the number of job openings become more equal.

According to Wright, lowering the starting salary would give rise to the following advantages:

Departments could afford more tenure-track historians, which would reduce institutions' dependence on adjuncts; and search committees could no longer reject qualified applicants for frivolous reasons. New Ph.D.'s would have more freedom to speak their minds, because they would be more in demand -- thus increasing the profession's diversity. Finally, fewer new students would enter graduate programs in history if they knew their future earnings would be low, thus preventing an overabundance of history professors in the future.

I have to say I am sceptical of this solution (though I am with him 100 percent on the need to cut down on the number of new students entering history graduate programs).

I'm just not convinced that lowering the salaries (which are already relatively low) would have the desired effects. Could departments then afford to hire more tenure-track historians? Or would the money simply go elsewhere? That is, would university administration simply take the money saved on salaries and put it into faculty recruitment in other departments, new buildings, technology upgrades and the like?

Would this really tend to raise the value of history PhDs, or would it rather tend toward a further devalution? Given the two-tier system, and the way the existence of a bottom tier is already devaluing the top tier (ie., through the elimination of tenure-track in favor of adjunct and part-time positions), would lowering the salaries at the top tier help to bring about the desired adjustment? Or would it rather have the effect of further widening the bottom tier and narrowing the top tier so that history faculty go the way of the adjuncts at the University of Phoenix -- i.e., all in one tier, and that tier one of low-wage contingent labor?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 19, 2003 12:12 PM

When Congress amended the original version of the ADA, to remove the clause that allowed manditory retirement for tenured jobs, they doomed tenured jobs. Now this may not make much difference in fields like law and medicine where professors make less than practitioners. But in Social Science and Humanities it is working out just about the way you would have expected. In another generation, tenure will be as obsolete as telephone operators.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 19, 2003 04:29 AM

Economics historians think the market is the solution for everything. However, the tensions between the professoriat "upper class" and the adjuncts/part time underclass can not be terribly conducive to the academic environment...

Posted by: Dr_Funk at May 19, 2003 05:31 AM

too many machines, too much education, all this would go away if we just all went back to a peasant lifstyle, grubbing in the earth and looking forward to the day when mr ford bunked history

i've no idea what to do

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at May 19, 2003 08:27 AM

I think Dr. Wright misunderstands one aspect of the market: there is almost no demand for economic historians.

Posted by: Michael at May 19, 2003 10:38 AM

It's not surprising that an economic historian would think in terms of economic categories. Is this a useful way of viewing the job market? I suspect it helps clarify some aspects of the problem, while obscuring other aspects. Wright makes the following comparison between history and economics:

Not all disciplines enjoy access to such a large reserve army of labor. For the last three years, I have had the privilege of teaching economics and of seeing the job market for economics professors firsthand. Some economics departments interview scores of candidates and make as many as a dozen offers before receiving one acceptance. Most job seekers in economics must choose among several serious offers. The history job market, on the other hand, is like a lottery.

If this is accurate, then it does give me pause before dismissing his analysis as overly economistic. Maybe the people in the economics department are onto something that people in history and English departments have failed to grasp?

Elimination of mandatory retirement definitely had at least a short-term effect, and perhaps a longer term impact as well. As some people have pointed out, there is a possible solution, if only there were the will to impose it: instead of a mandatory age of retirement (which you can't do because age discrimination is illegal), have a mandatory limit on years of employment with the insitution (say 30 or 35 years), quite apart from age.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 19, 2003 12:09 PM

Why not reduce academic salaries to zero? The lower the salary, the more virtue in serving the institution. Better yet, why not make humanities professors PAY for their positions? ("Hello, Exxon will pay your institution lavishly to let me teach their version of economic history." Who loses besides the students and democracy--if the bottom line is the only value, then who cares?)

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at May 19, 2003 12:28 PM

I think that humanities faculties in German universities have essentially 25 professors in the entire country. They teach enormous classes, and most of their students go teach in the Gymnasiums (Gymnasia?) or in the U.S. The whole idea of a "teaching college" is pretty foreign, and professor is no more a legitimate career choice than ballerina. Of course, in the U.S. the idea of teaching in a high school is so utterly foreign to most people with advanced degrees that they would rather make half as much for twice the work on the fringes of academe.

Posted by: Danny Aruca at May 19, 2003 12:29 PM

Wright overlooks the reason why starting t-track salaries are so 'high' (at many institutions, over $50,000 -- even in my field, philosophy). The reason is the administrative strategy called "compression": get the best people out of grad school that you can, even if you have to pay them a comparatively high salary, then give them the smallest raises that you can. Newly hired assistant professors thus often make more than some of their tenured colleagues.

The problem is not (to put it in neat numbers) that 1000 newly minted PhDs are all competing for 100 t-track jobs. The problem is that the hiring committees for these 100 departments all want to hire the same 10 candidates -- and would regard being stuck with any of the remaining 990 as a failed search.

Posted by: Ted H. at May 19, 2003 03:20 PM

*nod* I was just going to say that in my (necessarily limited and anecdotal) grad-school and faculty experience, there is a bizarre sort of inefficiency about academic job searches. There are hundreds of highly qualified people looking for jobs, yet a heck of a lot more job offers get turned down than I would've expected just from reading the Chronicle. Some people get multiple offers; others get none at all.

My graduate institution tops the rankings in my field and is extremely well-considered elsewhere; my current employer, though not quite as stellar, is a private research university located in a metropolitan airline hub -- not exactly the Lurking Horror of the job market. Nevertheless, I have seen many unsuccessful searches in humanities fields (including my own), and many more searches which went to second, third, or even fourth choices. (As a matter of fact, the fourth choice was in one of our History Department's searches this year; perhaps predictably, it was a field In Great Demand rather than, say, American economic history.)

I don't have a solution, either, but I am positive that the problem is a hell of a lot more complex than Dr. Wright seems to believe.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at May 19, 2003 07:16 PM

Ages ago, someone writing in the Chronicle of Higher Ed proposed that tenure be a 30-year proposition. Not that profs must retire after 30 years of teaching, but that the tenure line went back up for grabs and became available for new blood.

It's worth considering. I know that my first response upon reading MacPherson's essay about affirmative action (which you all discussed here, IIRC) was, "*you guys* benefited from the old boys' network, *you guys* bow out and make way for the new folks." He was just so rueful about his opportunities, but of course his admission carries no consequences for him, nor even implications of such: "I got here on a lark. Sucks to be you." Crocodile tears.

Posted by: Ruth at May 19, 2003 08:28 PM

Invisible Adjunct,

"Most job seekers in economics must choose among several serious offers. The history job market, on the other hand, is like a lottery.

If this is accurate, then it does give me pause before dismissing his analysis as overly economistic. Maybe the people in the economics department are onto something that people in history and English departments have failed to grasp?"

Nah, the only thing people in econ departments are "on to" is that there exists a very significant job market outside of academia for people with econ PhDs, whereas there isn't much non-academic demand for people with history and English PhDs. At least, there aren't many jobs that offer material rewards comparable to a tenure-track position.

You would, for example, have a lot more bargaining power if your alternative to looking for/taking a position as a junior prof. was becoming a $90,000/year weathergal for an investment firm.

Posted by: Eric at May 20, 2003 05:04 AM

Quite right about the existence of an alternative job market for economists outside the academy. This is what makes me think "job market" is not a very good term for academic historians, literary scholars and the like. It's more of a closed system: perhaps a labor monopoly system that has crashed.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 20, 2003 12:12 PM

I have been involved in hiring academic economists for over 12 years as a search committee member and a department chairman at a larger state university in the midwest. A couple of observations:

In most years we have hired, we've gotten our first or second choice. We've reached down to fourth or fifth offers twice in my memory.

Average starting wage for economists for institutions of our type is about $57k. Non-academic offers start in the mid-70s for someone with a Ph.D. My university budgets about $45k for slots in the social sciences (incl. history) largely for the reasons Eric mentions in his comment.

Posted by: kb at May 20, 2003 05:04 PM
Not all disciplines enjoy access to such a large reserve army of labor. For the last three years, I have had the privilege of teaching economics and of seeing the job market for economics professors firsthand. Some economics departments interview scores of candidates and make as many as a dozen offers before receiving one acceptance. Most job seekers in economics must choose among several serious offers. The history job market, on the other hand, is like a lottery.

I'm an economist and I was on the job market two years ago. This is an accurate description. Economics job candidates typically get several job offers on the job market. I myself got five serious offers before I accepted one. That's not atypical (I know of people who got more and better offers than I did). A friend of mine who dropped the ball and turned in all of his applications late got a last minute offer from a university in Alabama who had been turned down 6 times, rejected by everyone on their short list and some. They practically made him an offer on the phone before his flyout.

It's true that there is fairly strong demand for economists outside of academia (although Eric's characterization of 'weather gal at an investment firm' isn't quite accurate; most economics Ph.D.s that leave academia go into government (IMF, Federal Reserve, Department of Justice - Antitrust, FTC, etc.) or into research shops (Mathmatica, Urban Institute, etc.). But another force driving the economics job market is supply-driven: there has been hardly any increase in the output of economics Ph.D. since the 1960s.

Posted by: Matilde at July 24, 2003 11:50 AM