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UC Berkeley history department adapts to nationwide decline in higher education jobs

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UC Berkeley's history department defies nationwide decline of higher education jobs through department changes.


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MARCH 14, 2023

Amid a nationwide decline in jobs in the history education field, UC Berkeley’s Department of History has managed to partly defy the trend

According to department chair and professor Cathryn Carson, the campus history program prepares its students for jobs in diverse fields and provides broad-based course teachings. She added that the campus data did not reflect as dramatic a decrease in jobs as compared to the national data.

“One of the things that really struck us when we looked at [the data] is there’s not a lot of change,” Carson said. “What we found is that our graduates end up with jobs, dominantly in college and university teaching.”

The California government’s disinvestment in higher education starting in the 1990s has caused a sharp shift in job security in these fields, according to Carson. She noted that humanistic disciplines across the nation, like history, have generally not been protected from the effects of disinvestment.

Carson added that many history students who aim to work in higher education desire tenure track positions, which come with higher salaries, more benefits and greater job security. However, government budget cuts have led to lower availability of these kinds of jobs.

Andrew Hardy, a PhD student in the campus history department, noted that the defunding of teaching positions has caused the humanities to suffer greatly.

“One thing I would emphasize about this process: it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that is not an inevitable outcome in response to economic forces,” Hardy said in an email. “It is as much about the priorities of people in power as it is about how people perceive their educational needs.”

According to Hardy, data from the campus history department has shown that, within five years, around 30% of graduates from the program have tenure track jobs and another 30% have insecure academic positions such as lectureships or postdoctoral scholars, while the rest are in non-academic positions.

Carson said that the campus history department has made changes since 2015 to accommodate the changing job market in higher education by gradually decreasing the number of students in its program.

The campus history department has also seen a recent diversification in job prospects and has been working to prepare students for jobs outside of higher education, such as non-profit work and K-12 teaching, according to Carson.

“History PhDs are good in a whole bunch of different work settings,” said Carson. “They can bring a historical perspective, analytical skills and the ability to write very fast and concisely.”

According to Carson, history departments at other colleges and universities have seen a decline in undergraduate enrollment as students nationwide have trended away from the history major and into fields like business or STEM; this can lead to further university disinvestment, Carson added.

However, campus’ department of history has managed to keep enrollments stable by offering broad-based course teachings that appeal to many different majors, such as courses like “Science and Society” and “Soccer: A Global History”.

“History is fundamentally important to all kinds of student learning and career paths,” Carson said. “We’re excited to be in a setting where we’re defying the national trends.”

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MARCH 14, 2023