Historians' Rocky Job Market





The beginning of wisdom about the academic job market for historians is to realize that it has no default state. By examining the market's development over time, we can gain new understanding of the problems that historians, and humanists in other fields, now face. When history Ph.D.'s first entered academe in the late 19th century, the market was fraught with problems even for promising young men who rejoiced in elite educations and three names. John Franklin Jameson, the first history Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University, spent three uneasy years as an instructor at his alma mater before he obtained his first professorship. A generation later, a young Samuel Flagg Bemis bemoaned his situation in a letter from his first job at Colorado College, lamenting the lack of institutional support for his research, and a salary that meant "to buy a pair of shoes … is the subject of a family conference of no mean importance." As the profession diversified in the next generation — and opened up for the pioneering African-American historian John Hope Franklin and for Jews like Frank Manuel and Jack Hexter — more serious obstacles arose.

Too often our profession looks back to a brief "golden age" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a generation born in the demographic trench of the Depression entered the market just as the first of the baby boomers began to swell college enrollments. As Princeton University's James M. McPherson reminisced in the American Historical Association's newsletter, Perspectives, that facilitated an "old-boy network" that worked all too smoothly. His appointment rested on little more than a call from the chairman at Princeton to his adviser at Hopkins, "without a real interview and without having seen any dissertation chapters."

But that moment was fleeting, and baby boomers emerged from Ph.D. programs to a very different job market. The New York Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas watched with horror as thousands of young scholars competed bitterly for fewer than 200 jobs at the American Historical Association's 1971 meeting, while senior historians hired in better times blithely called for decorum and floated draconian proposals for cutting the number of graduate students and programs. The job market swung back into alignment at a lower level in the 1980s, but then careened again into disorder in the 1990s. Like The New Yorker's vision of America, the widespread belief that the job market in history became troubled and difficult only in recent years foreshortens reality....

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