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Part III. The Humanities Workforce

Section C. Career Paths of Humanities Ph.D.’s

NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators, http://HumanitiesIndicators.org".
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Indicator III-6 Job Status of Humanities Ph.D.’s at Time of Graduation
Indicator III-7 Occupations of Humanities Ph.D.’s
Indicator III-8 Career Paths for Specific Disciplines

Indicators II-15, Time Spent in Graduate School, and II-16, Paying for Graduate School, reveal that humanities graduate students make significant investments of time and money in their education. The data presented in this section show that this high level of investment goes hand in hand with some of the highest postgraduation employment rates in the academic world, although growing numbers of new humanities Ph.D.’s are pursuing postdoctoral study in lieu of formal employment. At present, this is all that can be reliably said about the career trajectories of humanities doctoral graduates. In contrast to the sciences and engineering, the humanities have no data collection program that follows Ph.D.’s through their working lives. Such data as do exist must be drawn from discontinued sources, such as the Survey of Humanities Doctorates, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) from 1977 to 1995, or from sources that are not specifically concerned with humanities Ph.D.’s, such as the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and five other federal government agencies, including the NEH.

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Indicator III-6 Job Status of Humanities Ph.D.’s at Time of Graduation
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Updated 6/13/2013 with data for 2011.

Data on the fate of humanities Ph.D.’s in the working world are quite limited, because the one field-wide source of information (the SED) can tell us only about the immediate plans of Ph.D. holders at the time of graduation. Nevertheless, the annual SED (which gathers its information from research doctorate recipients as they complete their degrees from U.S. educational institutions), highlights two important trends—a declining proportion of humanities Ph.D.’s are completing their studies with a job already in hand, and a growing segment are taking postdoctoral positions.

The 2006–2011 period saw a substantial decrease in the proportion of humanities Ph.D.’s leaving the university with a firm job commitment (in academe or another sector). In 2011, 47 out of every 100 new humanities Ph.D.’s reported such commitments, a share 21% smaller than in 2006 (Figure III-6a). Over the same time period, the science and engineering (STEM) fields also experienced declines in the share of new Ph.D.’s with job commitments, with decreases ranging from 17% for the social sciences to 25% for the life sciences.1 Setting the humanities apart from STEM fields is the fact that the decline in the share of new Ph.D.’s with employment commitments in science and engineering began earlier. While 2001–2006 was marked by a decrease in the proportion of new STEM Ph.D. recipients with firm employment commitments (particularly pronounced among engineering graduates), this period saw a slight uptick in the share of those earning humanities doctorates who had secured employment.

Figure III-6a, Full Size
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Although humanities Ph.D.’s have been likelier than Ph.D.’s in STEM fields to leave their programs with employment commitments, the share of new Ph.D.’s with a definite commitment of a paid position of any kind has tended to be higher in the sciences and engineering because a far larger proportion of these graduates obtain commitments for postdoctoral study. Whereas less than 10% of new humanities Ph.D. recipients in 2011 reported postdoctoral study commitments, 26% or more of their counterparts in STEM fields did so. As a result, while 57% of new humanities Ph.D. recipients reported some form of definite commitment, the rates for the science and engineering fields ranged from 63% to 70%. When all fields are considered together, 66% of new Ph.D.’s had a definite employment or study commitment in 2011.

Although a relatively small proportion, 9.9%, of humanities Ph.D. recipients reported commitments for postdoctoral study in 2011, this still represents a substantial increase over previous cohorts. Two decades earlier, only 4.5% of humanities Ph.D.’s reported that they would go on to postdoctoral study.

Among those new Ph.D.’s who reported definite commitments for employment in the United States in 2011, humanities Ph.D.’s were much more likely to have a commitment for academic employment than their counterparts in the STEM fields (Figure III-6b). Approximately 84% of humanities doctoral degree recipients with employment commitments indicated they would be taking jobs in the academic sector (including full- and part-time faculty and administrative appointments), a share similar to that observed over the previous 20 years. By comparison, in the social sciences, the STEM field with the highest share of new Ph.D.’s with employment commitments in academe, the share was 61%. For new engineering Ph.D.’s the share was 14%. In the STEM fields, the shares of new doctorate recipients with job commitments in government or business/industry were considerably larger than those observed among new humanities Ph.D.’s.

Figure III-6b, Full Size
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Notes

1 Please see Supplementary Table III-6 for additional information regarding certain of the employment sectors and fields of study to which Figures III-6a and III-6b refer.

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Indicator III-7 Occupations of Humanities Ph.D.’s
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Since 1975, the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), sponsored by the NSF in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health, has yielded rich data on the occupational paths of Ph.D. recipients. Fielded every two to three years, the survey is longitudinal in nature, following recipients of doctorates from U.S. institutions until age 76. Until the mid-1990s, the SDR included a survey of humanities doctorate recipients, known as the Survey of Humanities Doctorates (SHD) and funded by the NEH. In 1996, however, the NEH discontinued its support for the SDR, which has since tracked only science and engineering Ph.D.’s.

Figure III-7 presents data from the final administration of the SHD, which provides the most current national data that permit a detailed analysis of the occupational trajectories of humanities Ph.D.’s. In 1995, regardless of the number of years since receipt of the doctorate, a majority of employed humanities Ph.D.’s were teaching at the postsecondary level as their principal job. For all cohorts of Ph.D. recipients, with the exception of those who had received their degrees five or fewer years earlier, a substantial minority also made their way into management or administrative positions. Approximately 5% of each cohort had jobs as artists, writers, or mass media specialists.

Figure III-7, Full Size
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The data reveal differences among cohorts though. Whereas just over 73% of those who had received their doctorates within the previous five years held faculty jobs in postsecondary institutions, this percentage was lower for each of the next two cohort groups and amounted to approximately 61% for those who had held Ph.D.’s for 6–15 years and 54% for those who had held doctorates for 16–25 years. This finding raises the question of whether the observed differential is attributable to generational differences in the desire or ability of Ph.D.’s to obtain faculty positions or to a tendency for humanities Ph.D.’s to leave academic employment as they age.

In the absence of longitudinal data that could be used to chart the subsequent career paths of these cohorts of humanities doctorate recipients, answering this and other questions is not possible; that is, cohort effects, which involve generational differences, cannot be distinguished from age effects, which have to do with what occurs over the life course of all cohorts (see Indicator V-3, Book Reading, which explains in greater detail the differences between these two types of effects and demonstrates how longitudinal data allow for distinctions between the two types).

The NSF-sponsored National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG) supplies cross-sectional data that can shed some light on these important issues, however. Because the NSF’s interest is in the career paths of those with undergraduate degrees in science and engineering, humanities Ph.D.’s are not the primary focus of the NSCG. But as a means of identifying people with science and engineering degrees, the NSF gathers detailed educational and occupational information from a sample of individuals drawn from the larger pool of all those who indicate on their decennial census (up through Census 2000) or their American Community Survey forms that they have completed at least an undergraduate degree. This process—conducted approximately once a decade—generates a wealth of data on holders of nonscience degrees, both undergraduate and advanced. Although the NSF does not analyze these data itself, the foundation does make them available to researchers and the general public via its online data analysis tool, SESTAT. Those HI users who are interested in exploring the NSCG are encouraged to visit the SESTAT “Help & Tutuorials” page for an introduction to the SESTAT system and tips for its effective use.

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Indicator III-8 Career Paths for Specific Disciplines
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Drawing on the SHD (for more information on this discontinued data collection program, see Indicator III-7, Occupations of Humanities Ph.D.’s), the figures in this indicator depict the fields of employment of Ph.D.’s in selected humanities disciplines (see Figure III-8a for Music, Figure III-8b for Philosophy, Figure III-8c for Classics, Figure III-8d for English, Figure III-8e for Modern Languages and Literatures, Figure III-8f for History, and Figure III-8g for Art History). The distributions are presented in separate figures to allow for the fact that in certain disciplines, substantial numbers of Ph.D.’s are employed in professions that are uniquely associated with those disciplines; in the case of art history, for example, 14.5% of Ph.D.’s were employed as curators. Apart from such distinctions, each discipline for which data are presented had a majority of doctoral recipients who were employed as postsecondary faculty in 1995. This majority was largest for philosophy and foreign languages (approximately 64% in both cases) and smallest for history and art history (58% and 56%).

Figure III-8a, Full Size
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Figure III-8b, Full Size
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Figure III-8c, Full Size
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Figure III-8d, Full Size
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Figure III-8e, Full Size
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Figure III-8f, Full Size
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Figure III-8g, Full Size
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