Compiled Aaron J. Palmer, ASA Publications Coordinator

Each year the American Studies Association surveys universities with Ph.D. granting programs in American Studies and American Ethnic Studies to compile a bibliographic record of doctoral dissertations. Individual recipients are then surveyed so that we might gauge demographic and employment trends. The ASA also collects dissertation abstracts (available at 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 doctoral dissertations completed between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002. The survey was sent to forty universities. Twenty-seven were American Studies programs of which 24 replied. Eight were American Ethnic Studies programs of which 6 replied. Five were Women’s Studies programs of which 1 replied. The following programs had no completed dissertations to report: Indiana University; University of Southern California; Harvard University (African American Studies); Claremont Graduate School; University of Washington (Women’s Studies). A total of 123 completed dissertations were reported. (100 from American Studies Programs, 23 from American Ethnic Studies Programs). Individual surveys and dissertation abstract forms were then sent to Ph.D. recipients.

Demographic statistics remained consistent with past years’ surveys. Gender breakdown was fairly close to last year with 46% of respondents being men and 54% women. In terms of ethnicity, the majority of respondents were white (62%), though this is down significantly from last year’s 74%. African Americans made up the next largest group 18% (double last year’s survey), with Asian Americans coming up third at 10% (up from 9% last year). 

The 2001-2002 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, Ph.D. production in American Studies dropped this year by 32%. There were 148 American Studies dissertations reported last year (154 including Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies), but there were only 100 American Studies dissertations reported for 2001-2001 (123 overall). Overall, there was a 20% decline in the number of dissertations reported in American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s Studies. This decline in American Studies Ph.D. production coincides with a general decline in Ph.D. production at American research universities. Last year the number of Ph.D.‘s granted declined by 1.4% (4.5% since 1998). Science an engineering fields saw the sharpest decline. 

While Ph.D. production has slowed, statistics on employment have also improved slightly from last year. Of those surveyed by the ASA, 33% (up 7% from last year) were able to find tenure-track positions. Yet, 66% indicated (down 7% from last year; down 19% from two years ago) they were seeking a tenure track position, so demand still outpaced the number of available positions by 2:1. Thus, even though the market is still not able to supply enough desired positions, the gap between the number of tenure-track positions available and the number desired shrank significantly from last year. In fact, the number of people seeking tenure track positions has declined steadily in the last two years from 85% in 1999-2000, to 73% in 2000-2001, and to 66% in 2001-2002. The number of respondents obtaining tenure track positions has wavered, peaking at 39% in 1999-2000, dropping to a low of 26% in 2000-2001, and coming back up to 33% in 2001-2002. Ph.D. 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 (13%) took part time teaching appointments. Other areas, such as secondary schools, non-profit organizations, and museums/public history are represented in very small numbers. 11% of respondents were still actively seeking employment, whereas only 6% of respondents remained unemployed at the time of last year’s survey.

The above numbers, however, include all fields. When American Studies is separated, we found that 40% (up 6% from last year) of those surveyed indicated they desired a tenure tack position in the field, but only 15% (up 3% from last year) were able to obtain one. The demand for positions has then gone up, but it also seems the number of American Studies positions available has gone up, albeit not on the same pace. If Ph.D. production remains level or continues to decline, the gap may narrow in coming years. About an equal number of respondents indicated they found positions in other fields such as Ethnic Studies. Respondents who found positions indicated other fields that include: history (24%), English (21%), Other (predominantly Ethnic Studies) (39%). Moreover, the American Historical Association reports that of the 12% of newly hired tenure-track history faculty without history Ph.D.‘s, the best represented discipline was American Studies. 

The overall employment picture is thus very mixed. While more people are finding tenure-track employment in American Studies, there are also more people seeking it. Fewer new Ph.D.‘s 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 Ph.D.‘s, 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. Comparatively, American Studies seems to be doing better than other humanities fields. According to the MLA, for example, hirings in English were down 17% from this year to last, whereas our survey indicates a 3% increase. It is, however, not very encouraging to see the number of newly minted Ph.D.‘s 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 fundamentally changed. The supply of new American Studies Ph.D.‘s continues to surpass demand by a two to one margin. Job seekers have to be prepared to look at other academic disciplines, accept part-time positions for the time being, or to pursue other 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, the majority of respondents were between the ages of 31-35 (46%) with only 6% being between the ages of 25-30 (down 49% from last year). For most (64%), the average time to degree was still 5-10 years, compared to last year’s 62%. 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. 31% (down 14% from last year) of respondents reported they were able to leave their programs with no school-related debt, and 74% reported that university related aid was their primary means of support. 28% indicated student loans as a primary means of support. Student indebtedness has risen quite sharply from this year to last, but university support remains strong and still nearly a third of respondents were able to manage a debt free PhD.