Compiled by Thomas Apel, ASA Research Coordinator

Each year the American Studies Association surveys PhD-granting programs in American studies and American ethnic studies to compile a bibliography of doctoral dissertations. Individual recipients are also surveyed in order to gauge trends in demography and employment. 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, 2006 and June 30, 2007. 

A total of 48 dissertations were reported.  Of these, 44 were in American studies, and 4 were in ethnic studies.  These numbers represent an overall decline in American studies and American ethnic studies PhD production by about 50% from last year, when 97 graduates responded, and 61% from 2004-2005, when 123 responded.  

The individual surveys returned by PhD recipients demonstrate that demographic statistics remained consistent with past years’ surveys. The gender breakdown was nearly identical to last year, with 42% of respondents being men and 58% women.  Last year the numbers were 41% men to 59% women.  In terms of ethnicity, the majority of respondents were white (73%), a slight increase from last year’s results in which 67% were white. Asian Americans made up the next largest group at 15%, compared with 13% for last year. African Americans comprised 8% of the respondents (down from 10% last year), and Hispanics reported at about 4%.  

Statistics on employment have remained relatively consistent.  A total of 15 people found immediate employment with tenure-track jobs, as opposed to 12 for last year.  The percentage of people seeking tenure-track positions, however, has risen dramatically. Last year, 61% of the respondents claimed to be seeking tenure-track positions, while for this year the number has increased to 88%.  These results are particularly surprising when we consider that the number of people seeking tenure-track positions had been declining steadily over the last eight years from 85% in 1999-2000, to 73% in 2000-2001, to an average of 66% for 2001-2005, and to 61% last year.    

Those not finding tenure-track positions found work in a several other fields, but most (21%) took part-time teaching appointments. Other areas, such as secondary schools, non-profit organizations, and museums/public history are represented in very small numbers. Only 3 respondents were still actively seeking employment, and no one reported being unemployed. 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 almost 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. 

Unlike last year, when the PhD recipients were evenly divided amongst 5 age categories (31-35, 36-40, 41-45, 46-50, 51 and over), the majority (about 63%) of this year’s respondents were between the ages of 31-40, with slightly more than 10% being between the ages of 25-30. For most (56%), the average time to degree was still 5-10 years, unchanged from last year. 

Financial aid statistics, though offering some positive news, seem to indicate the expense of obtaining a PhD is on the rise.  46 percent of respondents reported they were able to leave their programs with no school-related debt, and 63% reported that university-related aid was their primary means of support.

Only two respondents indicated that student loans were their primary means of support—a number that is consistent with the results of the previous two years. Unfortunately, nearly a quarter of all respondents (about 23%) reported debt exceeding $50,000.  Thus, while students may not depend on loans as their primary means of assistance, they are nevertheless borrowing at alarming rates.