Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No, You Still Cannot be a Professor

The one post I still get comments and emails about is something I wrote three years ago: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. It is a dark and intentionally strident post, meant to dispel any illusions that impressionable young people might have about joining a vanishing profession:

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen .... you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

The post went viral by the modest standards of this blog, with links from Reddit and MetaFilter and the Atlantic Monthly and eventually racked up over 100,000 page views. It still gets about 1200 views a month, and at least once a month I get an email from some plaintive undergrad, still trying to hold onto some thread of the dream, asking if my advice still stands.

Alas, it does, and this report from the American Historical Association confirms it. The number of academic history jobs has dropped again this year, for the second year in a row. "This decline is especially disconcerting when we consider that the overall economy has been improving and the US jobless rate declining. It raises the possibility that this downturn in academic positions for historians is not entirely attributable to the recession, but may be with us for some time." Here is the data in a chart:

Positions Advertised with the AHA
The thing to remember about this chart is that even the peaks represent a terrible job market, with hundreds of applicants for many jobs. There are far more new PhDs every year than there are jobs, and such has been the case for years, and so there are perhaps thousands of recent PhDs who have not landed a permanent academic position but have not stopped trying either. A friend of mine said "I used to tell students that earning a PhD and landing a tenure-track job was like running a marathon. Now I tell them it is like winning a marathon."

So no, my hopeful correspondents, you are still not going to be a professor. The good news is that there are jobs for people with historical training. You need to play all of your cards exactly right, and you need to be geographically flexible, but it can be done. Check out this great guest post by my recent MA student Lee Nilsson, on how he parlayed an MA in history into jobs at the Library of Congress and now the Department of State. There is life outside the classroom.


Pablo Rinehart said...


Larry Cebula said...

Pablo, yeah, that is a great one.

Clayton Hanson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clayton Hanson said...

A to-remain-anonymous person off-handedly remarked to me that many - if not the majority of - newly-minted PhDs are essentially unemployable at instruction-focused institutions. He did not have a theory for why but I sketched out the following on the back of a napkin.

The demography of new PhDs has changed while the type of demand is not much different than it has always been. Cohort size is slightly or significantly down at most middling R1s (even if they did not consider themselves middling...) that have traditionally emphasized instruction in addition to research. Meanwhile, it is stable or way up at elite institutions that primarily emphasize research. So, you have a glut of people with prestigious credentials on the market who have only taught HST498 - Special Topics: My Dissertation as a Class. Good luck with that applicants, search committees, and undergraduates.

In short: Boy, the food at this place is terrible and in such small portions.

Still shorter: the worst of all possible worlds.

P.S. Lee's essay is basically bullshit that could be rewritten nearly word-for-word to apply to "the academy." The federal hiring lottery is just that and he ultimately got as lucky as anyone who gets a tenure-track position. This is especially true following the slow-motion collapse of federal and state employment since 2010 (for example, see here:
http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/data-analysis-documentation/federal-employment-reports/historical-tables/total-government-employment-since-1962/). His moxie with SI was admirable but it was a gamble that depended on the unknown personality of the hiring official. It was the right gamble, but who knows what lurks in the heart of someone sifting through a hundred or more applicants for an internship?

ThatIsHughes said...


It did not go by unnoticed...


IE Hughes

green libertarian said...

Along similar lines:
"Take, for instance, this gem of a recommendation Fitger writes on behalf of a young colleague applying for a teaching position in "Comp/Rhetoric" at another college: "Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. ... You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education."