The History Job Market and How to Fix It

On November 16, 2017, the American Historical Association posted “Another Tough Year for the Academic Job Market in History.” The post noted that job ads in the AHA Career Center had dropped for the fifth straight year and sit at their lowest levels since the mid-1980s. Between June 2016 and June 2017, the Career Center posted 501 jobs for full-time positions, a 12 percent decline from the year before.

These statistics are dismal. Still, they reflect only a narrow view of the job market for historians. The AHA Career Center is the clearing house for academic jobs. Most cultural institutions, corporations, and other organizations who seek to hire historians specifically do not post in the AHA Career Center, they post elsewhere, like on the National Council on Public History job board.

Historians need to stop thinking about the tenure track as the only way and as the only measure of success within the profession. As L.D. Burnett posted in her thoughtful response, “This Means You: Some Thoughts on the Job Market,” there is not a “surplus” of doctorate-holding historians. Education improves society and democracy and it propels innovation and progress. The more doctorate-holding members of society we have the better. However the profession still suffers from a lack of understanding about non-academic careers and how Ph.D.-holding historians can translate their skills to many would-be non-academic employers.

As someone who lived outside of the academy for more than 5 years and continues to socialize with many who live and work outside of it, I know that many outside of academia are amazed at historians’ ability to research, take in lots of information, distill it into its most important points, and communicate that information well. They also value our problem solving skills. When we can’t find what we’re looking for in one set of records, we’re trained to read against the grain and find information elsewhere. The problem is that most non-academic employers see historians only as academics. They have no idea that we possess such valuable skills and most historians don’t recognize the applicability of our skill set outside of an academic setting, so naturally they don’t know how to describe and highlight it when seeking non-academic employment.

The profession would instantly help improve the job market for historians by improving its ability to help students at all levels of historical training recognize and discuss their unique and valuable skill set outside of the academy. It also needs to stop treating employment within the tenure track as the only “true” job market for historians and as the only measure of success. 

How might it achieve this? 

I have some ideas.

Most programs need to reconsider how they train graduate students.  First and foremost, they need to stop treating tenure track jobs as the only measure of success and they need to demonstrate their changed viewpoint with actions.

History programs need to host workshops where they invite some of the many historians who work in non-academic jobs to talk about what they do and how they sought employment with their students. And they need to host these workshops without judgement. For example, in 2006 (when the market was “booming”) my program held a workshop with a historian who worked in the California State Archives and who was in the process of transitioning to a new job at the National Archives. Any interest we students might have shown in what was a really fascinating job was played down and tossed to the side when faculty made it clear that jobs such as the one this historian held were great “alternatives” if you couldn’t make it on the tenure track—i.e. this is a great job if you “fail” to become a "real" historian and capture the “ultimate prize.”

Workshops also need to go beyond “traditional alternative” employment for historians. Many historians work in corporate America, have started their own businesses, and thrive in other jobs that history programs should be highlighting. 

Programs also need to get practical. They need to continue to teach and hone the historian’s traditional skill set AND they need to include opportunities to apply these skills outside of academe. 

Why not satisfy the masters degree component with a non-academic internship, write-ups of a number of informational interviews with people who have interesting, non-academic jobs, or with projects that allow students to explore some of the needs and gaps we have in the profession and provide potential solutions? All of these projects would allow for networking outside of the profession, and outside of academe it often comes down to who you know.

Lastly, we all need to stop passing the buck. The dismal, academic job market and the adjunctification of our profession is a problem for everyone and it’s a problem that we all need to contribute to fixing. It is the responsibility of everyone to work as historians wherever we land and discuss and demonstrate our value to society; we need to make our skills and work transparent. 

In the course of my work as a historian, I interact with people who have a deep love of history, but who are not historians. They love history and value it and yet they often do not understand the work historians do to create the books, exhibits, and knowledge we have about the past. By not making our work transparent, by not openly discussing what we do with society and the electorate, we make our work look easy and like anyone can do it. When people really get a good view of what we do, they see that our work is hard and skilled and they view and appreciate it in a whole new light.

Demonstrating transparency is something ALL historians can do no matter where or how we work. When we stop passing the buck and work collectively to demonstrate the value of our work to our institutions, our students, our friends and family, and, most importantly, to society at large we will start to have a real impact and all aspects of the job market for historians will start to improve.