Compiled by Lawrence W. McMahon, 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, 2011, and June 30, 2012.

The survey was sent to 45 departments and a total of 124 dissertations were reported.  This number represents a growing figure, as 107 completed dissertations were reported last year, and the average sat at 68 per year between 2008 and 2010.  The individual surveys returned by PhD recipients indicate that demographic patterns have remained, on the whole, relatively consistent, although the percentage of those listing their ethnicity as White was above average this year.  This finding, however, does not necessarily represent a trend.  Female respondents for 2011-2012 continued to outnumber males, this time at a 64% to 36% ratio.  These numbers are nearly identical with those for 2008 and 2009, and similar to those for last year in which females constituted 71%.  This year 81% of respondents listed their ethnicity as White, which is again higher than the average for the last three years of 62%, yet lower than the figure for 2007, which was 89%.  Respondents listing themselves as Asian came to approximately 9%, which is lower than last year’s figure of 17%.  Those reporting themselves as African American and Hispanic constituted each approximately 5%.  This is lower than average for African Americans, who came to around 12% the last few years.  For the Hispanic category, it is higher than last year’s anomalous finding of zero respondents, but lower than the number for 2009, which was 12%.  No respondents this year listed themselves as Native American, whereas the average for the past few years rested between 5% and 10%.

Statistics on employment appear markedly more optimistic this year than last year’s somber report.  For the year following graduation, this year’s survey indicates that 37% had found tenure-track positions, a notable recovery from the low figures for 2010 and 2009, which were 12% and 24% respectively.  The number has not been this high since 2008 when it sat at 38%.  This year only 5% found themselves still seeking employment, a drastic improvement from last year’s figure of 28%.  Another 36% of respondents had found other academic employment, of which, however, only 14% were in full-time, renewable positions.  The remainder was more or less evenly split between those in full-time, but non-renewable, positions and those in part-time positions.  These figures are all lower than those for last year, reflecting the greater percentage of graduates in tenure-track jobs.  Academic appointments ranged widely, with more respondents than usual this year going to departments such as Media Studies and Theatre rather than the more familiar American Studies and English departments.  An additional 18% of total respondents had secured non-academic employment.  This figure contrasts, though, with the full 95% of respondents who said that academic employment was their first choice.  Finally, approximately 5% had taken postdoctoral fellowships, down from 13% last year.

Financial aid statistics also indicate slightly better news than last year, though the results are mixed.  This year, 41% of respondents reported completing their doctorates without any student debt, a notable improvement from last year’s figure of 23% and one more in line with the average for 2007 through 2009, which sat at 45%.  However, the amount of student debt still continues to be high, and for those who did have at least some debt, the modal category was the highest one that our survey records: over $50,000.  Student debt, therefore, is still concentrated at the extreme ends of the spectrum, and the percentage of those with a debt over $50,000 continues to be high even though it has fallen slightly from last year’s remarkably high figure.  This year 18% reported a debt over $50,000, a figure which is down from last year’s 23% and yet still notably higher than the average for 2007 through 2009, which sat at about 13%.  Another 10% reported a debt between $40,000 and $50,000.  Approximately 27% percent reported a debt under $20,000, up from approximately 17% last year.  In the middle ranges of debt, we find that only about 5% reported some figure between $20,000 and $40,000.  In sum, the number of those graduating with no debt has returned to a more stable and optimistic figure, yet the amount of debt on the whole continues nevertheless to be high, and it is concentrated toward high amounts.  Finally, it is worth nothing that those with no debt were more likely to have at least partially funded their doctorates with either their own resources or that of their families.

Statistics on the average age at which American studies scholars finish their doctorates do not demonstrate any notable changes this year.  As in years past, most common age upon graduation falls between 30 and 35, with this year about 55% falling into this range.  The figure has averaged about 64% for the prior three years, but it tends to fluctuate from year to year, so 55% does not denote any diverging pattern.  About 15% of respondents were able to complete their doctorates before the age of 30.  For the last two years, this figure rested around 12%.  The average length of time to complete the PhD was around 7.5 years, which is no notable difference from previous findings.  However, the most common (modal) time to completion this year was 6 years, whereas previously it has tended to be 7 or 8 years.  This year’s figure for those who completed their degrees within 5 years came to around 9%, a not abnormal finding.  However, last year saw an increase in those completing within 5 years and this year has seen an increase in those completing within 6, so shorter completion times may be an emerging trend, although it will take more years’ data in order to arrive at a definitive conclusion.

Overall, the economic environment appears to be continuing to make its mark on recent graduates of doctoral programs in American Studies and related fields.  However, this year’s results on the whole appear more favorable than the particularly grim findings in employment and debt from last year.  An improvement has undoubtedly occurred this year, primarily in the probability of graduates finding tenure-track academic positions.  General demographic trends saw no notable divergences this year, and figures on debt continued their overall trends, albeit with positive findings on the number who were able to complete their doctorates without student loans.  Probably the most notable finding for this year is the larger number of American studies scholars completing their doctorates within five or six years.  Again, this may indicate a trend, though it is too early to tell at this point.