Compiled by Aaron J. Palmer, ASA Publications Coordinator

Each year the American Studies Association surveys universities with PhD-granting programs in American Studies to compile a bibliographic record of doctoral dissertations. Individual recipients are then surveyed so that we might gauge demographic and employment trends. Results from the 2000-2001 survey generally conform to the previous year’s trends as well as trends in the humanities in general. Unfortunately, the overall picture is somewhat dark: There continues to be an overproduction of PhDs in comparison to decreasing tenure-track position availability. Part-time adjunct appointments continue to proliferate as unappealing alternatives to tenure track positions. There are, however, some positive footnotes to the bleak employment picture of which all graduate students must by now be aware. Unemployment is not at this time a major problem, as PhD recipients are finding good jobs in other fields such as History and English (owing to the flexibility of the American Studies degree no doubt) and non-teaching areas such as administration, government, or public history. The overall message continues to be that graduate students need to be prepared to pursue career options other than tenure-track positions in American Studies.

In 2000-2001, the American Studies Association surveyed forty universities with American Studies and American Ethnic Studies doctoral programs. Twenty-eight were American Studies programs of which all twenty-eight replied. Seven were American Ethnic Studies programs of which three replied. Five were Women’s Studies programs of which two replied. Washington State University, Florida State University, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Illinois replied but had no completed dissertations to report. Several independently submitted dissertations are included from the following institutions (one U.S., two international): Columbia University (Department of Comparative Literature); Gauhati University; Szeged University. A total of 154 dissertations were reported. The total number of dissertations completed is up 30% from the 1999-2000 survey, which registered 118 completed dissertations. Nationally, production of humanities PhDs has increased by 11.5 percent, making the increase in American Studies significantly above average. Overproduction thus continues to be an issue, and, as more people tend to enter graduate programs in times of economic slow-down, the situation is not likely to soon improve. Graduate Programs in American Studies continue to report high numbers of students currently entering and progressing through their graduate programs.

Results from the survey of individual doctoral recipients also reflect the continuation and intensification of a number of negative trends, but offer more hope than the departmental survey. The ASA received a total of 65 responses to its survey of individuals having completed dissertations in 2000-2001. Demographic trends were comparable to past surveys: Female respondents again outnumbered male (44 to 20), and the vast majority of respondents were white (74%) followed by Asian and African Americans at 9% each. American Studies differs from other humanities fields in general having a majority of women completing new PhDs, but does fit the national trend of increasing percentages of women completing humanities doctorates. In another national trend, Asian Americans represented the largest growing ethnic group receiving humanities Ph.D.‘s. This trend is also represented in the ASA’s survey, as the percentage of Asian Americans completing American Studies degrees increased from 5% in 1999-2000 to 9% in 2000-2001. The majority of respondents were between the ages of 25-35 (55%), with the average time to degree being between five to ten years (62%). In past years, respondents have tended to be slightly older (majority between 30 and 45), but time to degree remains the same.

The financial and employment statistics for 2000-2001 are mixed. On the positive side, 45% of respondents reported having finished their degree with no school related debt. 38% reported that university related aid was their primary means of support, while 30% reported it as secondary. This is encouraging in that, even as time to degree remains the same, debt load has not seemed to increase for the majority of doctoral recipients, which seems to indicate that programs are able to maintain relatively good levels of support for graduate students.

The employment statistics bring us to the negative side. 73% of respondents reported that they desired to obtain a tenure-track position at a college or university, but only 26% (18 respondents) were able to do so immediately after receiving their doctorates. The figures are comparable to last year, when 85% of respondents reported a tenure track position as primary desired employment, but only 39% were able to find a position. Thus, a substantially smaller percentage were able to immediately find a tenure track position this year compared to last, but fewer expected to do so, which seems to indicate that graduate students are becoming increasingly receptive to other employment options. This is in line with national trends, which continue to see a contracting or static job market for Ph.D.‘s in the humanities. The American Historical Association, in its annual survey (, reports that while demand for positions continues to outpace supply, the gap in the historical field has been closing in recent years. As Robert Townsend writes, this trend may be deceptive: 

In 2001, the number of history jobs in academia reached its highest point in 30 years, as a continuing wave of senior faculty retirements opened new opportunities for junior historians and recent PhDs. However, even as job openings appear likely to increase over the short term, there are some caution signs. A survey of recent PhDs indicates that despite the recent growth in job openings less than half of all history PhDs will find employment in the academy. Despite these poor placement rates, PhD-granting history departments are focusing on the increasing job ads and appear poised to increase graduate admissions. 1

While only about a quarter of recipients were able to obtain tenure-track positions, the next largest group (20%) reported accepting part-time appointments. An even lower number of 8 (12%) respondents reported finding a position in American Studies, while 22 (34%) indicated their desire to do so. On the positive side, respondents seem to be finding a variety of post-doctoral employment options including fellowships, administrative appointments, full-time renewable faculty positions, and in public history/museums. Only 4 respondents reported they were still actively seeking employment at the time of the survey.

American Studies doctoral recipients face the same fundamental problems plaguing other humanities fields. The number of new Ph.D’s simply continues to be much higher than the demand or number of positions available. Doctoral recipients in all fields are finding they have to adapt and find alternative sources of employment or accept part-time or renewable positions rather than tenure track-positions. Judging from this year’s survey results, many American Studies doctoral recipients have been successful in this regard, with the vast majority finding employment in a variety of fields and positions outside of traditional academia. 

Source for national statistics: Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2001.