by AndrewMc | 1/06/2009 12:21:00 PM
So the annual "Great Migration" of historians to and from the American Historical Association annual meeting is now over. Some gave papers, while for others it was a chance to reconnect with old friends. A few hardy souls even went for the sole purpose of seeing the panels.

Then there's the job market--the Darwinian feedlot of history employment. Even if you don't really know where it is in the convention, you can always sense it when you pass through. There's a faint smell of desperation and fear in the air. That odor is tinged with slight undertones of hope, though that emotion gradually gets crushed out as the weekend passes.

There are alot of tired and depressed-looking men and women hanging around. Some camp near the Register itself, watching with hawk-like eyes every move of the people behind the counter. Should an AHA staffer move too close to the bin containing hir folder, the sie will swoop in. "Was that a note for me going into my file? Have I landed an unscheduled interview?" The tone is hopeful on the first day. A bit less so on the second. By the third day the question is routine, almost Pavlovian in its asking. Rejected, the hawk returns to its perch.

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If you go to the AHA often enough, you might begin to recognize some of the applicants. Some have been returning to the Job Register for four, six, even ten years. Talk to some and you can't believe they haven't gotten hired somewhere. They have a book out and reviewed in the AHR, and their second book is out to readers. Talk to others and you know they never will get hired. You have to wonder about the role of the graduate advisor in the whole process. Was that person responsible enough to say "What are your goals? Because that's an interesting topic, but you'll never get a job at a four-year institution."

I sat on seven hiring committees in my first six years as a tenure track professor, which meant that in all the different capacities that would bring me to the AHA [employee, job-seeker, search committee member] I missed only one year between 1995 and 2008. After sitting on the hiring side of the table, I came to the simultaneous realization that I couldn't believe that I ever got a job, and I couldn't believe I wasn't hired my first year out. The reasons that people would get excluded from consideration sometimes seemed random and bizarre. On the other side, some of the job interviewees lacked even the most basic social (let alone interpersonal) skills.

But back to the AHA.

The Job Register, and the job market in general, is something that most historians who have a tenure-track job would rather ignore. Sometimes it is more than a passive issue. Note where the AHA places the Job Register. It's usually somewhere out of the way where people won't have to see it. One year the layout of the conference hotel meant that the Job Register would be dead-center for the meeting. To get from one side of things to the other, everyone had to walk through the same space as all those unemployed or underemployed historians. There were quite a few complaints about that, with some essentially saying "I don't want to have to see that." Of course it's much easier to deal with a problem if you don't have to see it.

Many historians will tell you that the Job Register experience was so traumatic that they'll never attend another AHA, unless they have to. That's too bad, because there are many excellent papers presented each year. The best ones I have seen in my career were outside my field. Only the AHA can provide that.

Between the fees charged for the Job Register and those for the Book Exhibit the AHA is able to fund the vast majority of its activities for the year. A good hiring year is a good budget year for the AHA. Last year was a good year, and it seems to be getting better. Likewise the AHA needs to ensure that people will attend the conference and pass through the book exhibit, if they are to lure all those publishers into the conference. That's one reason why annual meetings are held in cold areas like Chicago and New York. Washington is the big moneymaker, of course--no flying out all the staff and equipment.

Lots of people argue that the AHA Job Register stinks. There's so much that's bad about it. And over the years people have put forward suggestions for how to change it. But nothing changes, largely because the job register is convenient for the people with power [departments, universities, the AHA] and the people without power [job-seekers] cannot speak speak up out of a very real fear that any waves they make before they get hired (and then get tenure) will kill their chances at a job.

A story: I few years ago I was down in the job register when a man came flying out of the "tables" area. He was yelling, nearly at the top of his lungs, about how the school he was interviewing with had violated his "constitutional rights" by asking him what his religion was. To anyone who would listen he spelled out how they had asked him, he refused to answer, they asked again, and he got angry and stormed out. This guy was pissed. The reaction around him? The assembled job seekers shrank back, as if a leper had come into their midst.

The AHA staff reacted quickly and professionally. They determined that he was interviewing with a private, religious school that had clearly stated in its ad that people had to follow the faith of the school. But the crowd didn't know that. I suspect that in any other setting that group of historians would have been outraged at someone being asked their religion in a job interview. But the powerless cannot act without risking serious consequences.

But there's also alot that's good about it. It provides a central location and a way of screening both applicants and employers. It's a great place to network with your future cohort--I met alot of people in the job register who I still correspond with and see form time to time at . . . . annual meetings.

So, what is to be done? Frankly, I'm not sure. [After all, the title is "Ramblings," which gives me alot of wiggle room.]

Your thoughts?

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/06/2009 9:16 PM:

In a few years, most schools will be doing interviews by phone, by Skype, in Second Life, whatever. (I've been interviewed at the AHA plenty of times; I've never gotten a job that way. I've never been an interviewer at the AHA.) The conference will take longer to die, of course, but it will....


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/07/2009 7:58 AM:

I can see Skype becoming important, and of course people already do phone interviews. But I can't even count the number of times we had a great phone interview with someone only to bring them to campus and find out that that person is much worse in person. After all, you're not just hiring a historian, you're hiring a colleague who will likely be around for 30 years.

As for Second Life--I doubt it. I hold one discussion class per semester in SL for my upper-div courses. The amount of "my computer won't run it," and other technical problems that occur is amazing. How would you ensure that this would work right every time you wanted to interview someone? Also, I've tried to explain SL to some of my colleagues who are pretty tech savvy, and they don't see the point and will never use it for anything.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/07/2009 8:20 AM:

I was kidding about SL -- the kind of satire that horrifies by coming true -- and you may have a point about interviews (how anyone can tell more from a half-hour, jet-lagged, conference-suit interrogation than an hour-long conference call escapes me, but I've not done the in-person screening, as I said; most of the bad choices I've seen made via phone interviews had nothing whatsoever to do with the interview and wouldn't have come out in a face-to-face, either), but the cost factor is going to force all but the richest departments to take the cheap route.

As far as the "colleague" thing, you're right, but my experience is that there's more turnover than there used to be -- voluntary and involuntary -- and though you still hear a lot of departments say "we hire with the intention of giving tenure" it's not the department that has the final say, and they often don't really mean it anyway.

Sorry if this comes off as cynical or bitter, but I've seen the inside of the sausage, if you know what I mean.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/07/2009 10:48 AM:

I haven't been to the AHA, but after reading this post, I'm pretty sure I'd prefer the Second Life option...
Scared To Death


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/07/2009 11:00 AM:


The best advice I ever got was to go on the market a year earl. That way you can get some practice at doing the Job Market without the stress of having to have a job. And if you happen to land an offer--great.

But don't be scared. Just prepare well.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/07/2009 11:13 AM:

I certainly hope the conference doesn't die. I went for the second year, and really enjoyed the fact that I could walk up to just about any of the many perfect strangers standing around and start a conversation and know that (a) we would be able to find something to talk about, and (b) it would be interesting. Plus, the panels I went to were all good, and I got a bunch of books for $3 each in the book exhibit. I heard some people got FREE ones! But I missed out on that. Oh well: there's always next year!


Blogger Unknown on 1/07/2009 4:27 PM:

One thing I'd like to see the AHA tackle is creating tenure guidelines that emphasize the importance of public engagement -- blogging, op-eds, television appearances, trade publications, and the like. We complain as a profession that people are losing interest in history, and then we penalize historians who write about things and in ways that interest the public. Something's got to change on this front if we're to maintain ourselves as a profession.

I think bloggers are in a good position to do something about this, and I'd love to see the formation of an AHA Bloggers' Caucus to push these issues. But when I brought up these ideas at the PH and InsideHigherEd luncheons last year, there didn't seem to be a lot of interest from AHA-member bloggers. A couple in particular seemed content not to get any professional credit for their substantial contributions to the history blogosphere.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/07/2009 4:34 PM:

Sign me up, Jeremy!

Human: I agree, the conferences are fun; I'm a panel hound, and a book exhibit junkie. But they are also expensive, economically absurd affairs whose productive value is rather random, frankly.

GG -- I've never actually felt like the Job Register was all that bad an experience, except for the usual "I'm being interviewed" nervousness. There's at least some cameraderie, which you don't get wandering the sterile halls of hotels looking for suites, or sitting around in your bathrobe doing phone interviews. I agree that going out on the market early is excellent practice; also, a stoic fatalism helps immensely....


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/07/2009 11:28 PM:

Expensive perhaps, Ahistoricality, but I'm not seeing how you get to "economically absurd." (I do think it should not be held in New York. Any city whose hotels are so expensive you have to have a cash bar at the receptions should be out of the running.)

I'm not anywhere near to having to worry about the job stuff, so I'm sure that figures into the fact that I like the conference more than some folks. That said, I think there is great value in getting a lot of historians together in the same place so that they can all go out for beers or whatever after the day's business is done. I met a lot of people, learned some stuff, and made two new friends. For me it's like taking a vacation: there's obviously an opportunity cost in terms of both time and money spent, but it sure was fun.

And really, it should be fun to be a historian!


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/08/2009 10:11 AM:

While registration fees for individuals are pretty expensive, the biggest chunk of income for the national meeting comes from fees paid by interviewing colleges (who also have to register their interviewers) and book exhibitors. The growth in the conference over the last few years has been a side effect of lower travel costs: that's going away. Phone interviews are going to become a lot more popular in the economic downturn, which will cut deeply into both individual registrants and job register income. If the number of attendees flags, publishing companies (and university presses count) will realize that they can do better by buying the mailing list (which they already do anyway) and their ability to target people with catalogs (and emails) in their teaching and research specialities is going to just get better.

I love the conferences, but they are vulnerable institutions.


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/08/2009 10:39 AM:

I'm definitely not suggesting we abandon conferences. They serve a whole host of useful functions. I'd agree with the conclusions that come from what Ahistorically just posted--conferences are going to shrink for a few years as the economy tightens. It may be that the AHA bounces between Washington DC and somewhere on the West Coast for a few years in order to save costs. Maybe it will have to stay in DC.

The hotel costs are as low as they can get and still be in a hotel big enough to hold the crowd. The AHA secures those rates five years out, and the AHA does great negotiating.

But as the economy deteriorates it will become more difficult for departments to send hiring committees to the meetings, and more may choose to interview at regional meetings for regional positions [Go to the Southern Historical Assn. meeting to hire a US South person, for example].

My original question was as regards the Job Register and what to "do" about it. But in retrospect I don't think the two issues can be separated.


Blogger PhDinHistory on 1/09/2009 9:53 PM:

The AHA has been receiving less money from search committees over the last few years. The vast majority of them rent private hotel suites so that they don't have to work through the AHA Job Center or use its facilities. The AHA has also been losing money in the stock market. I think their portfolio took a 25% hit this past year.

I am thinking of becoming an advocate for job searchers at the next AHA convention I attend. I could see myself standing up to and confronting search committees that mistreat job seekers. I really don't care what the search committees do to me. The candidates deserve more respect.

Conference interviews are slowly fading away. I think I sold Townsend and the Job Center staff on my idea for uploading the cv's and portfolios of job seekers to the AHA web site for search committees to examine. This could eliminate a lot of unnecessary letters of recommendation and make the job search process more efficient and effective.

Here are the future AHA conferences:

2010—San Diego
2013—New Orleans
2014—Washington, D.C.

Do any of you think that there will be more discussion of Tim Lacy's proposal for a mega-conference that could reduce our travel costs? I think small historical associations will be hard pressed to financially survive during this recession. If they became affiliated societies of the AHA they would be guaranteed one or more panels on the AHA convention program.

Why do job seekers in history find it so hard to think outside of the box when it comes to finding employment? In my AHA paper I really tried to emphasize the need for us to think about careers outside of academia. I personally am using this recession as a chance to enroll in classes and become a computer programmer and web developer. My hope is to become a digital historian by the time our economy recovers.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/09/2009 11:04 PM:

First, I think the idea of a job center ombudsman would be great. IF job seekers would be willing to foreclose on their chances by complaining before they're sure they've not got the job.

Second, I think the extra training is a fantastic idea. I suspect you'll be a digital historian before the History economy recovers, but that just means that you'll be one of the employable ones.

San Diego I can take or leave. Boston would be fun. I haven't been back to Boston this millenium!


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/10/2009 8:35 AM:

There is an informal "ombudsman" of sorts in the "Jobs Wiki" that trades gossip about different jobs. But many people don't read that.

I think an Ombudsman's a great idea, and it would be a tough job sort the real complaints from the bitterness associated with not getting hired.

I'm having trouble imagining what would distinguish a mega-conference from what the AHA already is.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/10/2009 4:58 PM:

Jeremy, I like what you say about public engagement, an area which requires considerable skill and thought.

PhDinHistory wrote, "In my AHA paper I really tried to emphasize the need for us to think about careers outside of academia."

I would add that although there are few slots open in the civil and military departments and agencies during times of tight budgets, historians shouldn't rule out taking historian or archivist positions with the federal government. Work in such positions can be very satisfying. Moreover, public service can be very fulfilling. I have 35 years experience (and counting) as a federal employee. I wouldn't trade what I've seen, done and witnessed since 1973 for anything.

I've worked in two areas as an historian. I first worked starting in the 1970s as a federal archivist with Richard Nixon's unreleased tapes and files at NARA. I've been a federal historian at another federal since January 1990.

The federal Office of Personnel Management lists job openings on its website through USAJOBS and provides information on position descriptions and salaries. Historian salaries tend to range from GS-12 to GS-15. In the Washington, DC area, when you add in locality pay, for 2009 the low end of that range is $73,100. per year and the high end is $153,200. per year. See

Most of you probably already know this, but you can look at the current listings at Just type in historian under Search Jobs.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/10/2009 8:23 PM:

I should have made it clear that I did not immediately get a job in the field of history. The first 3 years of my 35-years of federal service were spent working at what then was the U.S. Customs Service in a job unrelated to my field of study.

If it will help tip the balance for anyone considering whether to enter the academic world or the federal government, no one will yell at you if you use LOL in a message to a colleague in an effort to lighten your touch. Joking aside, you'll have opportunities to work with some very smart and capable people trained in many different academic disciplines. And to gain some great insights into how government works. And you won't have to obsess constantly about status, hierarchies, who is one up, who is one down, how to save face, and all the other ego-related things that can get in the way of really enjoying a career in history. (Yes, I say that despite having spent decades as a "bureaucrat.") Much of what you accomplish will be behind the scenes but working for the common good or to serve the nation or the people (depending on the government organization for whom you work) can be just as satisfying as giving a lecture in front of a room full of students. My advice to young historians is, check out both the academy and the government. Think not just about your intellectual accomplishments and skills but also about your personality and temperament and whether you are an "I" or a "we" person. If you like people, are willing to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team, don't need a lot of ego stroking, and have a knack for outreach and are able to see how you fit in to the big picture, you may do very well as a government historian.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/10/2009 9:03 PM:

I don't want to wear out my welcome here by pointing job seekers to alternate sources when the original essay centered primarily on AHA. (Not that I think I will wear out my welcome. One reason I started posting comments here after lurking for some time is that Jeremy strikes me as someone who not only is a smart and a good historian but also appears to be a good, confident, and welcoming "virtual host." Little wonder, then, that he offers useful observations on issues such as public engagement. (I read some of his posts on that issue last year.)

I just want to add a link which provides a glimpse into how one unit within the government is looking at how to make more "forward use" of history. There are other organizations within the government that have been using history in decision making for decades.


Good luck to all current job seekers in the field of history!



Blogger AndrewMc on 1/11/2009 6:53 AM:

It is also worth noting that the archivist folks are the "engine" that allows us to do our work.

I spent some time working for the Papers of Thomas Jefferson [another great employment avenue--papers projects]. My job was to essentially scour the National Archives for TJ letters. Without the help of Dane Hartgrove, who was then at the NHPRC, there's no way I'd have gotten any work done.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/11/2009 9:33 AM:

Excellent point about employment with projects centering on document publications. Thanks, also, for your nod to archivists, which, as I mentioned, I once was. I was glad to see you mention Dana Hargrove, whom I remember from my time at NARA.

Thanks for writing an interesting post which, as you saw, got me thinking about the employment picture and how to help historians find jobs.


Blogger Unknown on 1/11/2009 11:18 AM:

Maarja, I have no idea why you'd wear out your welcome by providing helpful information and links. I know it's happened elsewhere, but as I say -- I have no idea why it would happen.