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.
Job Status of Humanities Ph.D.’s at Time of Graduation
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.
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.
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
Occupations of Humanities Ph.D.’s
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.
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).
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.
Career Paths for Specific Disciplines
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%).