At the 129th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held this year in Midtown Manhattan, there were two competing narratives about the academic job market.
One held that the market for history Ph.D.’s, already troubled, has only gotten worse. That line of thinking was most prevalent among stressed-out job seekers who have been trying to land postdoctoral fellowships or tenure-track positions for more than a year.
The other view: The academic job market is no worse than it was decades ago. In this narrative, more common among older faculty, there are plenty of jobs; history Ph.D.’s just have to expand their vision beyond teaching in academe.
“People are saying the market has gotten worse, but that is a myth,” said Rachel Fuchs, a professor of French and European history at Arizona State University. “There’s definitely terrible anxiety about the job market, but it is no different from previous years.”
Fuchs, who was the 2012-13 president of the Coordinating Council for Women in History, has participated in multiple AHA sessions on careers and professional development. She said it can be demoralizing for job candidates to show up to the conference year after year, land interviews, and still not secure a job.
“I hear people ask, ‘Why not me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not getting the job?’” she said. “There are jobs out there, though.”
“The reality is that most people don’t have ideal first jobs,” said Philippa Levine, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and vice president of the AHA’s professional division. But for many job seekers, the less-than-ideal jobs within the academy are losing appeal. As discontent with the pay and working conditions of adjuncts has grown, Fuchs and others said they’ve heard increasing numbers of new Ph.D.’s declare they are unwilling to spend more than a year or two in professorial positions off the tenure track.
Levine’s suggestion: “People need to be expansive about the types of jobs they can do.”
Thinking more expansively can be challenging. Scholarly associations like the AHA and the Modern Languages Association can’t control over the job market, but they have faced fierce criticism for not doing more to help Ph.D.’s hone job-seeking skills or explore nonacademic careers.
The AHA has been among the most aggressive associations in promoting career-development issues. That focus was apparent at this year’s meeting: A number of sessions, roundtables, and workshops aimed to training Ph.D.’s for careers in publishing, archives, museums, non-profits, and national parks.
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Academic and nonacademic job-seeking advice converged at a session called “Interviewing in the Job Market in the Twenty-First Century,” which was led by Levine. The session attracted close to 100 participants who gathered in a large ballroom set up with dozens of tables, as if for speed dating. Each table sported a sign: “community college,” “four-year liberal arts,” “four-year public university,” “public research-intensive university,” “non-profit museum,” “publishing,” and so on.
Participants were encouraged to move from table to table. At each station, scholars described how they landed their own jobs and offered advice on how to prepare for interviews. The discussions were guided by a list of difficult scenarios that job seekers might face during the interview process:
The job advertisement specified that the successful candidate should be prepared to work with a diverse student body. What are good responses to a question from a search committee about a candidate’s ability to work with a diverse student body?
A large employer (not an educational institution) is looking for someone who can oversee a major research project, but is skeptical that an historian can do it. What arguments could the historian use to sway and employer?
As I roved around the room, I heard all kinds of advice. From the community college table: Know the institution. “We want to know that you understand the mission of a community college,” said Amy French, a history professor at Delta College. “We’ve tossed applicants out in the first round for using words like “remedial” in their cover letter.”
At another table, Catherine Epstein, a dean at Amherst College, expounded on how to handle a 20-minute conference interview: Get to the point. “You should be able to describe your research in less than two minutes,” she said. “You need to say why your research is important. Don’t sound too packaged. Sound spontaneous. Let people ask you questions because it’s irritating to have a candidate talking on and on and on.”
“What should I bring to an interview?” one doctoral student asked. Epstein’s take: Pack light. Search-committee members have already pored over your application materials. They don’t like to be weighed down with CV’s, sample syllabi, or manuscripts, so don’t bring extra materials unless you are asked to.
It’s also important to look people in the eye, she said: “Don’t lose your interviewer. They want to see how you are going to present in the classroom and if you are able to connect to students. Don’t sit there and yawn or pick your fingers. And if there is tension between the interviewers, don’t play sides. Engage both because you don’t want to recreate the dysfunctional dynamic that may exist in the department.”
Fuchs advised a table of students on how to talk cogently about research and publication plans. Candidates, she said, should start descriptions of their current work with phrases like “My new project builds on ______” or “My project moves beyond ______.” Search-committee members also want to know what historical work has most influenced your own; that gives them a sense that you know your field.
“Don’t diss anyone or criticize other people’s work,” she said. “Show that you are thinking beyond your first book.”
Levine, the organizer, shared a lesson of her own: Don’t take rejection personally. “No matter how successful you are, all of us have been turned down for jobs,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with your work. You just were not a good fit for what that department needs.”
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The session on interviewing tips has been a staple of the AHA for over a decade, according to Levine, but it has grown in recent years. “Graduate departments at large universities give mock job interviews, but many places don’t give this kind of training in the classroom,” she said. “We have gotten positive feedback from people who say it opened their eyes.”
Many conferencegoers applauded the AHA for taking steps to address the job crisis. But some said that the brief advice sessions offered at the meeting are merely Band-Aids being applied to a systemic problem. Scholarly associations and graduate programs can encourage students to think about alternative careers, but many faculty who have spent their entire careers in academe don’t know how to train their students for nonacademic paths.
“I came out of grad school not knowing how to market my skills so that they could be translated to these other jobs,” said Sara Haviland, a history professor at St. Francis College.
There’s little if any information on how many nonacademic jobs are available, how many history Ph.D.’s have landed those types of jobs, or how Ph.D.’s fare in those positions. “We have no data on available jobs, Fuchs admitted, her shoulders sinking, “and that’s a problem.”
“It bothers me that we’re producing good people doing strong scholarship and they have to think about adjuncting or doing some other kind of job other than what they were trained to do,” she said. “I feel sad for the students, but I still remain hopeful.”