Increasing number of humanities Ph.D.s face shrinking job market

Data shows the number of students pursuing humanities doctorates is on the rise, but job openings for those students are stagnant.

Allison Cramer

Like most students leaving a doctoral program, Joe Nelson is ready to enter the job market next year. Nelson hopes to find a position teaching at a university.

But a study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows a decline in open positions for those with humanities doctorates.

Data released in August by the Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, show the number of students receiving humanities degrees is steadily rising as the number of job opportunities fall.

This steady increase in humanities doctorates started in the early 2000s, and job openings haven’t improved since a sharp drop in 2008 after the recession.

Robert Townsend, co-director of the Humanities Indicators, said the project works to track the health of the humanities fields, and they do this partly by tracking the number of job postings for humanities graduates.

“The jobs that we’re seeing reduced are almost entirely academic jobs. So many of our Ph.D.s are trained for academic jobs,” Townsend said. “Humanities Ph.D.s are … uniquely focused on academia as the place where they need to get their jobs, so that’s why those numbers and the decline recently are such a concern.”

Joe Nelson, a former opera singer and fourth-year musicology student, has worked in music for more than a decade and is no stranger to job uncertainty.

“I think most of us who go into a Ph.D. program in the humanities are very aware of how scarce the jobs are,” he said. “They’ve always been scarce.”

Nelson said he thinks adjunct professors are being used to teach core classes rather than tenured professors, reducing the number of open positions for students with a doctorate seeking a tenured position.

He said another contributing factor to decreasing job openings is the focus on science and technology over the humanities.

“We can’t forget how essential the humanities are for developing critical thinking skills,” Nelson said. “The humanities are necessary to explain things and to theorize and develop nuanced answers to problems — data in itself can’t do that.”

Townsend said the decline likely has to do with both the economy and that fewer members of academia are currently approaching retirement age.

He said a timing disconnect factors into the rise in humanities degrees, since doctorate students are in school for eight years on average. 

“The job market was really good eight years ago and it’s partially just a function of the recession,” Townsend said.

Nelson said while job opportunities may be harder to find, he doesn’t believe the current situation to be a lasting one.

“Those numbers fluctuate. While we are in a downward trend right now, that’s not necessarily a permanent state of affairs,” Nelson said. “I think that at the moment there has been an increasing awareness in the public of the importance of the humanities. The humanities aren’t obsolete.”