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History-related careers begin to bounce back

The history department located inside the Social Behavioral Sciences building at Stony Brook University. Since 2008, the number of students looking to pursue careers in history has decreased. BRIANNE LEDDA/THE STATESMAN

Job stability in the history field is beginning to normalize after “steep declines” for the past couple of years, according to an article published by Inside Higher Ed on Feb. 13.

The normalization is pushed by fewer students trying to earn Ph.D.s in history, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Since the recession of 2008, the number of students looking to pursue careers in the humanities, specifically history, has decreased. According to occupational employment statistics by the U.S. Department of Labor, 3,700 people were employed as historians in 2008. That number dropped to 3,040 in 2018, a nearly 18% decrease.

The American Historical Association (AHA) reported in its newsmagazine that “the timing of the trend strongly suggests that students have changed their expectations of college majors in the aftermath of the economic shifts of 2008.” The continued decline in history majors since 2008 indicates that it’s not just a response to a tighter job market, but rather “a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students,” AHA wrote.

The decline could also be linked to the fact that many universities have redesigned their curriculums to cater to a large number of students looking for jobs in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) related field.

At Stony Brook University, former president Samuel L. Stanley slashed funding for humanities departments after revealing a $35 million budget deficit in 2018. Many saw downsizings — such as the Writing and Rhetoric department — or were merged or suspended. Some of these cutbacks included a “[three] percent decrease in academic personnel, a [six] percent decrease in administrators and a 10 percent spending cut across other areas.”

Other universities — such as the University of Wisconsin, which cut several humanities majors — have also decreased funding for the humanities.

These cutbacks mixed with the fact that history-related jobs do not prove to be that lucrative, with salaries ranging from about $40,000 to $60,000 a year, motivates many students to look for degrees in other fields.

Paul Zimansky, an archaeology and history professor at Stony Brook University, said he believes that the decline in history-related jobs over the past couple of years is a national trend that not only affects history, but other humanity related fields, such as the social sciences or English.

“Part of the issue is that undergraduate degrees in history do not translate directly into jobs, and many students are too burdened by the debt to have the luxury of pursuing intellectual adventures that are not particularly remunerative,” he said.

Brooke Franks, a postdoctoral student and teaching assistant for history classes at Stony Brook, thinks that having a history degree is valuable.

“That being said, the continuous supply of history Ph.d.s without the job market to support them often leaves graduates disappointed and often in considerable debt,” she said.

Eric Beverley, an associate history professor at Stony Brook, said that the decline in the number of students going for their Ph.D.s in history has to do with “bad choices made by university administrations on a national level to promote STEM discipline at the cost of maintaining investment in the humanities.”

Beverley also said he believes that universities, including Stony Brook, are putting renewed emphasis on the “importance of a well-rounded liberal-arts education.” Valerie Strauss wrote in an analysis published by The Washington Post that “[a] liberal education is a cohesive collection of experiences, each providing its own unique contribution to the enlightenment of its practitioners.”

Both Zimansky and Beverley said that students looking to pursue a career in history should be aware of the challenges that they will eventually have to face. They said that they believe that in order for a student to succeed in the history field, they have to figure out what they are passionate about studying, then select a graduate school that best reflects their interests and budget.

“Consider it on one hand as a career choice but also a lifestyle choice,” Beverley said.

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