Anomaly at Harvard?

This year, graduate students in the humanities at Harvard have done well finding jobs in academia. But are they immune from the bleak national job market?

In the most competitive year for humanities graduate students entering the field of academia since the Modern Language Association began tracking academic job trends 35 years ago, some administrators maintain that students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are an anomaly to the grim national picture.

On the national scale, the number of available positions in the field of English, for instance, has dropped 35 percent from last year. Similarly, those in foreign languages have dropped 39 percent, according to the MLA.

The American Historical Association and Economic Association have both reported substantial drops in their respective disciplines, with the number of available history jobs the lowest in a decade.

“For this year, yes, there are many, many fewer jobs,” says W. James Simpson, the English Department’s director of graduate studies. “But our students got them.”

Of the 10 English students Simpson says were “seriously” on the job market, seven received tenure-track positions at “really prestigious institutions,” and one received a fellowship at the Harvard Humanities Center. But two individuals were unsuccessful in their job searches.


History Department Chair Lizabeth Cohen says that graduate students in her department, too, did “incredibly well” this year, despite the tough job market. Many students were able to procure tenure-track jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, and short-term visiting lectureships, according to Cohen.

Simpson speculates that the success of so many English graduate students this year was likely due to the department’s structure as a “vocational program” that produces not only “technically competent scholars” but also employable candidates with desirable characteristics.


In a bleak fiscal climate, various graduate humanities programs at Harvard provide students career-counseling services while they also bolster their students’ academic interests.

Simpson says that the English department’s job placement seminar—which affords students the chance to participate in mock interviews—“maximizes” the possibility of them finding a job.

And although 10 history Ph.D. students were offered tenure-track positions at various universities, Cohen says that the history department has used what “limited budget we got from University Hall” to hire its own students, “to help them survive in these difficult times.”

Cohen also credited the University’s new College Fellow Program—instituted this past year—with providing several students with a means of support for the coming year.

The program, which recruited 21 Ph.D.s for a one-year teaching and research fellowship, was initially conceived as a cost-cutting mechanism. Since the hiring slowdown limited the number of new lecturers FAS could hire last year, the new program provided a much cheaper alternative.

Some administrators, however, consider the College Fellow Program to be more than a mere economic solution to the hiring slowdown. For some, the initiative also provides former graduate students the rare opportunity to spend a year developing their teaching skills, thereby making them more competitive in the job market.

“I love solutions that solve multiple problems at the same time,” says FAS Dean Michael D. Smith.