Compiled by Darcy Kern, 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 was sent to forty-three universities and/or departments.  Twenty-six were American studies programs of which twenty-two replied.  Nine were American ethnic studies programs of which one replied. Eight were women’s studies programs of which four replied.  The following programs had no completed dissertations to report: University of Maryland (Women’s Studies). 

A total of ninety-seven dissertations were reported.  Of these, eighty-four were in American studies, six were in ethnic studies, six were in women’s studies, and one was independently submitted.

The individual surveys returned by PhD recipients demonstrate that demographic statistics remained consistent with past years’ surveys. Gender breakdown was not as close as last year, with 41% of respondents being men and 59% women.  Last year the numbers were 44% men to 56% women.  In terms of ethnicity, the majority of respondents were white (67%), a slight increase from last year’s results in which 62% were white. African Americans made up the next largest group at 13% (down from 18% last year), with Asian Americans third at 10%, the same percentage as in the previous year.

The 2005-2006 survey generally yielded better news about employment trends in American studies then last year’s survey, although the overall picture has not fundamentally improved. First, PhD production in American studies dropped this year by 32%. There were 100 American studies dissertations reported last year (123 including ethnic studies and women’s studies), but there were only 84 American studies dissertations reported for 2005-2006 (97 overall). This decline in American studies PhD production coincides with a general decline in PhD production at American research universities that has been consistent for the past five years. Last year the number of PhDs granted declined by 1.4% (4.5% since 1998). Science and engineering fields saw the sharpest decline.

Statistics on employment have declined alongside the number of PhD recipients. Of those surveyed by the ASA, only 12% were able to find tenure-track positions, a staggering decline from 33% the year before. Yet, 61% indicated they were seeking a tenure track position, so demand still outpaced the number of available positions by 5:1. The number of people seeking tenure track positions has declined steadily over the last eight years from 85% in 1999-2000, to 73% in 2000-2001, to 66% in 2001-2004, and to 61% this year. The number of respondents obtaining tenure track positions has fallen as well, peaking at 39% in 1999-2000, dropping to a low of 26% in 2000-2001, coming back up to 33% in 2001-2002, and dropping dramatically this year. PhD candidates seem to be getting the message that they need to prepare for various non-traditional alternatives to avoid unemployment.

Those not finding tenure track positions found work in a several other fields, but most (24%) took part-time teaching appointments. Other areas, such as secondary schools, non-profit organizations, and museums/public history are represented in very small numbers. Twelve percent of respondents were still actively seeking employment, whereas 11% of respondents remained unemployed at the time of last year’s survey. The above numbers, however, include all fields. Among those hired for teaching positions, there was an even distribution between fields.  PhD recipients found employment in American studies, history, English, and other academic fields in exactly the same numbers.

The overall employment picture in academia is thus very discouraging. Fewer new PhDs has not meant, at least in the short term, more tenure track jobs in American studies. Perhaps the good news is that American studies and American ethnic studies PhDs, whose degrees are flexible by their very nature, are able to cross a number of different disciplinary fields to find tenure-track positions in other fields such as history and English. It is not very encouraging to see the number of newly minted PhDs decline and yet see unemployment rise at the same time. It may suggest, as has been the case in other fields, that departments may be contracting or replacing tenure-track positions with adjuncts rather than expanding or replacing lost faculty. Ultimately, though some statistics look better and some worse than in previous years, the job market has not radically changed. The supply of new American studies PhDs continues to surpass demand by a high margin. Job seekers have to be prepared to look at other academic disciplines, accept part-time positions for the time being, or pursue non-teaching career paths.

Financial aid statistics, though offering some positive news, seem to indicate the expense of obtaining a PhD is on the rise. Unlike last year, when 46% of respondents were between the ages of 31-35, this year’s PhD recipients were evenly divided in five age categories (31-35, 36-40, 41-45, 46-50, 51 and over) with only 7% being between the ages of 25-30 (up slightly from last year). For most (64%), the average time to degree was still 5-10 years, unchanged from last year. The change in average age at graduation, however, may suggest it is taking closer to 10 than 5 years to complete the Ph.D., thus adding to the overall cost of the degree.

Forty percent of respondents reported they were able to leave their programs with no school-related debt, down from 45 % last year. Fifty-one percent reported that university related aid was their primary means of support.

Only 9% indicated student loans as a primary means of support, down from 11% the year before. While the number of loans students take are down, student indebtedness has risen quite sharply from last year, but university support remains strong and still nearly half of respondents were able to manage a debt-free PhD.