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, 2010, and June 30, 2011.

The survey was sent to 43 departments and a total of 107 dissertations were reported.  This figure indicates a particularly high number of dissertations completed this year, as compared to the previous three years, for which the average number of dissertations reported was 68.  The individual surveys returned by PhD recipients indicate that demographic patterns have remained, on the whole, relatively consistent.  Female respondents for 2010-2011 continued to outnumber males, this time at a 71% to 29% ratio.  For the previous two years, females outnumbered males 65% to 35%.  In terms of ethnicity, this year’s figures also do not depart notably from the previous two years.  For 2010-2011, approximately 64% of respondents listed themselves as White.  For 2008-2009, the figure also came to about 64%, whereas it was 59% last year.  Respondents listing themselves as Asian represented a slightly higher than average figure at a little over 17%, whereas the figures for the African American and Native American categories remained nearly identical with last year, at approximately 12% and 6%, respectively.  Underrepresented this year were respondents who reported themselves as Hispanic, although this appears to be a statistical anomaly, and does not necessarily represent a trend.

Statistics on employment indicate a continued downward trend in those finding immediate employment with tenure-track jobs.  This year, only 12% reported tenure-track positions, down from 24% last year, and 38% for 2008-2009.  A full 28% of respondents were still actively seeking employment.  For the remainder, 23% found full-time, renewable (but not tenure-track) positions, and 24% took part-time teaching positions, whereas only about 13% took post-doctoral fellowships, another notable decrease from previous years.  Among those hired for teaching positions, most found themselves in American Studies departments or American Ethnic studies departments, although other disciplines, such as Architecture, continue to be represented, as well.  Overall, then, it appears that newly minted PhDs in American Studies and related fields are having a harder time finding employment upon completion of their programs.  Of those still actively seeking employment, the group was split more or less evenly between those still searching for academic employment, and those who were open to non-academic jobs.

Financial aid statistics indicate troubling news, as fewer PhD recipients are able to graduate with no debt, and the number of those finishing their programs with a great amount of debt continues to rise.  This year, only 23% of respondents said that they were able to leave their programs with no school-related debt, a notable decrease from the figures for the past three years, which averaged around 45%.  Last year, 18% reported debt between $5,000 and $30,000 upon graduation.  The figure is nearly identical this year, at a little over 17%, although there is some good news in the fact that the responses concentrated toward the lower end of this spectrum, with about two-thirds having less than $15,000 in debt.  An additional 12% of total respondents reported a final school-related debt below $5,000.  However, the number of those graduating with large amounts of debt has risen markedly.  A full 41% reported a debt greater than $45,000, and, of these, 57% had debt over $50,000.  This means that over 23% of total respondents had a final school-related debt larger than $50,000, a sharp increase from the average for the preceding three years, at approximately 13%.  Also, the growth in the group with debt in the range of $45,000 to $50,000 is significant.  Taken as a whole, these figures indicate a decreasing number of graduates in the middle debt ranges, between $15,000 and $30,000, but an unfortunate increase in those with large amounts of student debt.

As in years past, the greatest percentage of those graduating continues to fall into the 31-35 age group.  The figure this year was approximately 70%, whereas it was 71% for last year, and 53% for 2008-2009.  Only 12% of those surveyed were able to obtain their degrees before the age of 30, nearly identical to the figure for last year, although significantly lower than 2008-2009, when 38% finished before 30.  The average time to completion for the PhD for the respondents was 7.3 years, with the most common length of time being 8 years, and a higher than average number of respondents (nearly 25%) reporting that they had completed their program in 5 years.  In total, though, these figures do not represent any notable divergence from the findings for previous years.

Overall, the concerning economic environment appears to be continuing its impact upon graduating PhDs in American Studies and related fields.  The demographic indicators point primarily to the continuance of long trends.  The greatest changes, therefore, are to be seen in the figures for employment and debt.  Unfortunately, this year’s graduates found a much more difficult job market at the same time that the absolute ratio of those with student debt above $45,000 had grown noticeably.  Also, the total number of dissertations completed continues to grow, although this year’s remarkably high number should be seen in the context of a long, sustained period of growth for the field, rather than as a dramatic upswing.  Nevertheless, the high number of dissertations completed combined with the low percentage of those finding tenure-track jobs may well be related to one another in the immediate term.