April 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 4

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Latest Data on Social Science Jobs for New PhDs

Roberta Spalter-Roth and Janene Scelza, Department of Research & Development

A recent examination of the jobs advertised in disciplinary job banks and targeting new PhDs suggests that there is some reason for optimism. Many of the social science disciplines appear to be emerging from the abyss caused by the recent recession. The number of positions advertised in several disciplinary job banks fell for at least one or two of the years since the recession of 2008 causing increased anxiety on the part of graduate students, graduate advisors, dissertation chairs, and department chairs.

figure1: changes in percentage of total jobs advertised by discipline

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By 2010-11 or 2011 (depending on the time frame for data collection), there was a rise in the number of jobs available for historians, political scientists, and sociologists. The American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, and the American Sociological Association reported 10 percent, 12 percent, and 28 percent increases in job advertisements, respectively. In contrast, the American Economic Association reported that the number of jobs advertised remained flat, although there was a 21 percent increase over 2009 (see Figure). Moreover, these advertisements do not account for all job openings in the disciplines. For example, some small schools hire locally and do not advertise in national job banks and some non-academic employers have alternative means of disseminating job notices.

In 2010 (the last year for which data is available for the number of new doctorates), there were 638 new PhDs in sociology, 728 in political science, 1,009 in history, and 1,038 in economics, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. How does the number of new PhDs compare to the number of full-time, tenure-track positions available to them? Although social science disciplines are emerging from the recession, all of the disciplines discussed, with the exception of economics, appear to have more new PhDs than vacant assistant professor positions in the most recent calendar or academic year.

This academic oversupply decreased however compared to previous years . In the latest year of data the ratio of new PhDs to available tenure-track jobs is 1.1 new PhDs per job. In sociology it’s 1.3 new PhDs per job and in history its 2.1 per job. New PhDs in economics appear in the best position for obtaining jobs as assistant professors with .7 new PhDs for each job (an oversupply of academic jobs).

Readers should be aware that calculating the ratio of new PhDs to jobs for assistant professors is an oversimplification of the relationship. The ratio does not take into account the unplaced or under-placed scholars from previous PhD cohorts who are likely continue to make the academic job market challenging for newly minted PhDs for several years to come. Another important qualifier is the relationship between the number of jobs available in particular disciplinary subfields and the number of new PhDs prepared to teach and do research in those subfields. 

While social science disciplines have typically pushed their students toward academic careers, that is beginning to change. For example, officers of the American Historical Association and the American (AHA) Political Science Association have begun in public statements to counsel graduate students to be flexible and to prepare for positions outside of the academy. And, in September 2011, the AHA President and the Executive Director called on history departments to stop referring to non-academic jobs as “alternative” and to view them as equal options.  It should come as no surprise that addressing the gap between available tenure-track jobs and new PhDs is the impetus for the more positive attitude social science disciplines have begun to take toward non-academic careers for PhDs in political science and history.  Sociology has seen an increased awareness of “public sociology” positions, and economics has always had close to half of its PhDs finding jobs outside of the academy (see the Vantage Point column on “Sociological Careers – Can Graduate Training Meet the Challenge?” in the November 2010 Footnotes.) 

For more information see the full research brief with the same title at www.asanet.org/images/research/docs/pdf/Jobs_for_Social_Science_PhDs_Feb_2012.pdf.

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