In advance of the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in San Diego this year, the AHA newsletter published some distressing statistic for the academic job market last year and this year. For those of us who are on the market, the numbers merely confirmed anecdotal accounts from friends and colleagues of cancelled searches, increases in applicants for both tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships, as well as intangible feelings of fear and desperation among those looking for viable options after graduation. The AHA annual job report also comes on the heels of several articles in New York Times, which described cuts at universities of entire humanities departments, and more or less described the full-time professor as going the way of the dodo bird. A number of advanced graduate students I encountered in the past year have mentioned that they could no longer recommend to prospective students going into Ph.D. programs at this point.
It was with all of the gloomy news in mind and more than a few nights of sleepless introspection that I arrived in San Diego last week. The economic downturn has brought about hard times for many schools, particularly public universities dependant on state funding. The UC schools appear particularly under siege. This year still proved a banner year for colonial Americanists, and a couple of other specialized fields were relatively stable, but in general undoubtedly the job market will prove challenging for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps it was the sunshine and warm breeze; maybe it was the feeling of reunion at the conference and running into many old friends; or maybe it was simply the relief of having interviews run smoothly, but in San Diego I was reminded of why I had wanted a career in academia in the first place. I had wanted to spend my career surrounded by intellectually engaged and interesting people and to continually learn new things. Graduate school can bring out intellectual insecurities even in the most confident among us. Many times in conversations with other graduate students, people discount their own research as esoteric or even irrelevant to contemporary events. The bad job market has not helped the situation. As graduate students we strive to join academia because we love what we do; as historians we should all recognize the cyclical nature of good times and bad times. As I gazed out at the blue waters of San Diego Bay from the Embarkadero, I felt the most at peace since the start of my job search last year. Whatever happens, I had learned a great deal in graduate school. Things will be OK.