Compiled by Ben Feldman, ASA Research Coordinator

Each year, the American Studies Association surveys PhD-granting programs in American studies and American ethnic studies in order to compile a bibliography of doctoral dissertations.  Individual recipients are also surveyed in order to gauge trends in demography and employment among graduates.  The ASA collects dissertation abstracts as part of the bibliographic record. The survey is based on requests to American Studies, American Ethnic Studies, and Women’s Studies programs for lists of dissertations completed between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013.

The survey was sent to 64 departments and a total of 98 dissertations were reported. While this number represents a slight drop from the previous year, when 124 were reported, it is suggestive of a positive trend, as an average of 78 dissertations were reported between 2008-2011. The individual surveys returned by PhD recipients indicate that demographic patterns have remained, on the whole, relatively consistent, with only a few minor variations. Between 2008- 2011, female respondents consistently outnumbered males. In 2011-2012 females outnumbered males at a 64% to 36% ratio, These numbers are nearly identical with those for 2008 and 2009. The 2012-2013 ratio is 50-50. This year 62% of respondents listed their ethnicity as White, almost exactly in line with the average for the years 2008-2011. 2011-2012 had been an outlier year, with 81% of respondents listing their ethnicity as White. Respondents listing themselves as Asian came to approximately 11%, slightly higher than last year’s figure of 9%, but lower than the previous year’s figure of 17%. Those reporting themselves as African American constituted 15% of respondents, an increase over 2011-2012’s 5%, and a slight increase over the average of 12% between 2008-2011. Those listing themselves as Hispanic made up 8% of all respondents, marginally more than 2011-2012’s 5%. One respondent this year listed Native American. There had been no Native American respondents in 2011-2012, whereas the average for the past few years rested between 5% and 10%.

2011-2012’s job report suggested promising trends, with 37% of respondents finding tenure-track positions in the year following graduation. 2012-2013’s numbers are less encouraging, with only 12% finding tenure-track positions, identical to the percentage from 2010, and lower than 2009’s 24%. This year 18% found themselves still seeking employment, a substantial increase from last year’s 5%, but still an improvement from 2010-2011’s figure of 28%. Another 30% of respondents had found other academic employment, of which, 40% were in full-time, renewable positions. All told, 41% of recent graduates have found academic employment, a significant drop from 73% last year, and from 72% in 2010-2011. The number of recent graduates finding post-doctoral fellowships has increased from to 21% from 5% in 2011-2012 and 13% in 2010-2011. All told, these numbers confirm that newly minted PhDs are facing a difficult job market, and responding in part by searching for positions outside of the academy.

Financial aid statistics are similar to those from last year, and a distinct improvement from 2010-2011, when only 23% of recent graduates reported being debt-free. This year, 44% of respondents reported completing their doctorates without any student debt. However, the amount of student debt still continues to be high, with 20% reporting a debt over $50,000, a figure slightly higher than last year’s 18%, and slightly lower than the previous year’s 23%, and yet still notably higher than the average for 2007 through 2009, which sat at about 13%. Approximately 18% percent reported a debt under $20,000, down from approximately 27% last year, and more in line with 2010-2011’s 17%. In the middle ranges of debt, we find 20% reported some figure between $20,000 and $40,000. In sum, the number of those graduating with no debt seems to have reached a more stable and optimistic figure, yet the amount of debt on the whole continues to be high.

Statistics on the average age at which American Studies scholars finish their doctorates demonstrate some notable changes this year. In years past, the most common age upon graduation has fallen between 30 and 35, with last year about 55% falling into this range. This year 29% fell into that range. The figure has averaged about 61% for the prior four years. About 19% of respondents were able to complete their doctorates before the age of 30, slightly higher than last year’s 15% and 2010-2011’s 12%. Interestingly 35 % of respondents this year were over 40 years old, a significantly higher number than in previous years. The average length of time to complete the PhD was slightly less than 7.5 years, which is not notably different from previous findings, with 55% completing their degrees in between 5 and 7 years. Similar length of time to completion, coupled with a greater percentage of graduates aged 40 and over, suggests that students are beginning to pursue graduate study later in life, rather than spending more time in school. It will take a few more years to determine whether this represents random variance, or a new trend.

Overall, the economic environment appears to be continuing to make its mark on recent graduates of doctoral programs in American Studies and related fields, with fewer recent graduates finding academic positions than in previous years. General demographic trends saw only limited divergences this year, with the notable exception of age, and figures on debt continued their overall trends.