Most humanities PhD students in US without a job at graduation

Median age at degree completion shrinks, although share of field’s graduates with job commitment does too, American Academy of Arts and Sciences finds

September 26, 2022
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US doctoral students in the arts and humanities are getting faster at completing their degrees but having a harder time translating them into jobs, new survey data show.

Among new doctorate recipients, the median age of finishing a PhD declined by a year-and-a-half between 1994 and 2020, mostly due to quicker completion times, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences says in an analysis covering schools and departments nationwide.

Yet from 1990 to 2020, the share of new humanities and arts PhDs reporting a firm job commitment at graduation – academic or non-academic – decreased from 63 per cent to 47 per cent, the academy says.

The academy credits the improved pace of degree completion to efforts by departments across the US starting in the mid-2000s to boost funding for students to help them focus on their work and to streamline graduation requirements.

It is “a reflection of efforts by departments over the past 20 years, to actively try and lower the time to degree,” said Robert Townsend, director of humanities, arts, and culture programs at the academy, which serves as both an honorary society and a research centre.

The poorer employment prospects, meanwhile, are “a reflection of the terrible job market for academic jobs in the humanities”, with the situation likely worsened further by the pandemic, Dr Townsend said.

The analysis by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences identifies history scholars in particular as growing less likely from 2010 to 2020 – as compared with their counterparts in languages and literatures other than English – to have a firm job commitment in academia.

Those with history doctorates, however, were more likely than their peers in the other disciplines to have firm commitments for non-academic jobs. That is a hopeful sign of success, Dr Townsend said, for “No More Plan B,” the decade-old initiative pushed by the American Historical Association to end the long-held assumption that a doctorate in history prepares one only, or even primarily, to teach at a college or university.

Still, in a separate report earlier this year, the academy showed that the total US production of new postgraduate degrees in the humanities has declined to its lowest share ever recorded, accounting for just 3 per cent of US master’s and professional degrees completed in 2020, and 7 per cent of doctoral degrees.

And overall, the academy says in its report, the share of new PhDs with jobs in academia has also been declining in recent years.

Financial support for doctoral education in the arts and humanities also has shifted significantly, from primarily personal resources in 1998 to teaching assistantships and grants or fellowships as most common two decades later.

But racial divides remain large. About two-thirds of new arts and humanities PhDs in 2020 carried no or minimal graduate education debt. Over the period of 2015 to 2020, however, some 55 per cent of black and indigenous students earning a PhD in the arts and humanities finished with more than $30,000 in graduate education debt, the academy found.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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