Surveying the Job Market for Chinese History PhDs, 2018-2021

Out of curiosity and as a service to my own PhD students, I did a review of some recent university job searches in the field of East Asian history, and thought it might be worth sharing more broadly. It is skewed toward Chinese history rather than broader positions in East Asian studies or disciplines beyond history. If you have no time to read the full post, do at least be aware that Kings College London is advertising for a lecturer in modern Chinese history, the closing date for applications being 8 March 2021.

What follows is mainly focused on the US and UK/Irish market for Chinese history teaching positions, and does not tell us much about what might be expected in the coming years (2021-22, or 2022-23) on the academic/teaching job market in East Asian history. I have left out jobs in mainland China entirely, although these are relatively abundant, particularly in Shenzhen and Shanghai.

I’ll focus on modern Chinese history positions, although some are more flexible in their categorization. There are positions currently being advertised for premodern Chinese history as well as “Global History, 500-1500” at my own School of History at the University of Leeds where scholars working on topics like the Liao Dynasty would do well to apply.

Readers not already aware of the resource are encouraged to check the Asian history jobs wiki for the volume of past searches, although a good number of searches are never listed there, reading comments from applicants complaining about search committee unresponsiveness has the potential to provoke anxiety, and the site almost never mentions who has actually won the position.

The American Historical Association has a more broad report focused on North America, noting decline in PhDs but also jobs and a glut of history PhDs making it a difficult market even pre-pandemic, but again they do not focus on the niche of East Asian history where job growth has been stronger than in European or US history, nor is there much consideration of the UK or East Asian labour markets. Some of the links to the adverts may have expired, nor does this post include discussion of positions in Korean or Japanese or Tibetan history, for which I apologize.

However, for readers looking for a broader dataset (and possibly archived links if anything below is no longer current), this resource from Dr. Paula Curtis looks like a winner:

Now on to the notes on Chinese history positions — again this is pitched to current PhD students who are about a year or two away from graduation. There is a concluding caveat which may be of interest to some.

2020-21 searches

This extraordinary and essentially catastrophic year there has not been a total freeze on hiring. The University of Nottingham had a teaching fellow position in Chinese history, University of Liverpool-Xi’an Jiaotong was advertising a job in Suzhou, University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen seems a perennial advert. Rice University (in Houston, TX) was seeking candidates for a chair in ‘transnational Asian studies’ and open to an entry-level candidate with evidence of teaching effectiveness. Lingnan University in Hong Kong was looking for a transnational ‘Pacific history’ person (having been to Lingnan and met with their staff I think it’s a very good university, and the ad looked really wide open, although Hong Kong’s sharp turn toward mainlandization is worrying).

2019-20 searches

Washington University of St. Louis is a wealthy liberal arts college in the US midwest teaching undergraduate and PGRs, certainly a desirable place to teach. Uluğ Kuzuoğlu won the job, a historian of what I see as a very esoteric project on Chinese typefaces and language. He has a Columbia U. PhD without many publications, but had two years of postdoctoral work experience as manager of MA programme at Columbia.

Cambridge University had at least two searches. They hired Dror Weil for what I think is a permanent position (since he is moving from a permanent position at King’s); he is originally from Israel with excellent degrees (MA from Taiwan, PhD from Princeton) and some teaching experience. He seems to be focused on history of science, China and Islamic world connectivity. A four-year position for what I think is modern East Asia went to Daniel Knorr, a University of Chicago PhD with famous supervisors, some postdoc teaching experience [correction; his teaching was done as a PhD student] and a Fulbright award. He focuses on Qing elites in Jinan/Shandong but does some writing on Republican China; also unusual in that he is an active blogger. His CV circa 2018 is available online and it looks pretty good as a model – he does list some items ‘in progress’ on it but doesn’t overdo it.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hired another Columbia PhD historian of science in the Qing, with some connections to the Islamic world, Tristan Brown. His CV is pretty dense, includes funding success, from which I learn he was already at MIT as a visiting scholar when he got the job. Had previously been a postdoc at Cambridge.

University of Colorado, Denver hired Xiaofei Gao, a Gail Hershatter student from UC Santa Cruz with a year postdoc experience at Harvard and some teaching experience at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts.  She has what sounds like an interesting project on ‘labor mobility in coastal communities in Northeast China’ (by which I think she means Liaodong) but no publications that I can find.

University College Cork hired Julia Schneider, a historian of Ming-Qing.

Probably because of the pandemic, a number of department webpages aren’t updated so as to show new hires; to my knowledge the searches were successful and won’t be run again, but these include University of Florida’s position in East Asian History (a massive research department that had no East Asian or South Asian historians!). University of Manitoba supposedly hired someone to take Tina Mai Chen’s position in Modern China, but I can’t find evidence they did so.

[Update: The Department of History at the University of Manitoba kindly sent me an e-mail indicating that Tina Mai Chen “completed a second term as Department Head in 2020, and her appointment changed in 2020 from Professor to Distinguished Professor” and continues to cover courses and supervision in modern Chinese history. The department further informs me that the 2019 search I was thinking of was in fact filled by a Korean history specialist, Jeong Min Kim, whose webpage indicates she has a PhD from NYU and is working on an ambitious book provisionally entitled “Parasite Capitalism: The Transpacific Black Market and Sexual Economies of the Korean War” which “is a study of the sexual black market that was formed across the US, Japan and South Korea during the Korean War.”]

He Yong (the guitarist and singer, recumbent) in Hong Kong, 1994. Image via Nathanel Amar.

2018-19 searches

University College Dublin hired Jenny Bond, who works on women and missionaries in early 20th century China, was at Durham for a year and some teaching postdoc experience at SOAS. Although UCD does not have a big infrastructure for Chinese studies and is probably overly dependent on a Confucius Insititute, this is a very good job in a desirable location.  

Trinity College, a liberal arts college, hired a Georgetown PhD fousing on Chinese environmental history.

Towson University hired Gilbert (Zhe) Chen, a historian of Buddhism in China with a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis. He published two peer-reviewed articles in good journals as a PhD student.

Southern Methodist University hired a Qing empire historian and Harvard PhD Macabe Keliher, who I think had some teaching experience at Indiana University.

Davidson College in North Carolina hired Dasa Mortensen, a historian of memory and identity of Tibetan communities in Yunnan with a PhD from UNC – Chapel Hill.  

One final note is that the Hansen Chair in Asian history, which was a 5-year funded position at University of Melbourne, had been filled by Matthew Galway in 2019-20, but he has now taken a job at Australia National University. Which made me think, will Melbourne be advertising for this position this year? According to media reports, probably not. The pandemic and the Australia-China spat is probably going to mean it stays that way, which is too bad, and the Australian job market is likely going to take a while to recover.


My little list above does not constitute a full study of the market, much less the moral and financial calculus of doing a PhD in Chinese history, nor does it veer off into discussions of other types of work, such as government positions or journalistic avenues, which a PhD can be useful for, nor does it get into more entrepreneurial modes of speculation around how the labour market itself might be reshaped by the pandemic; it leaves unexplored such questions as the pros and cons of producing online content (and visibly so) more or less constantly, work-life balance, visa or residency issues, interpersonal relationships, gender identity or sexual orientation, financial worries, how to do a job talk, project management and the process of researching and completing a dissertation to a sturdy deadline, why publishing anything prior to receiving the PhD is a good idea, what German think tanks are looking for, why there are no dedicated jobs for students of borderlands, or the long-term implications of Brexit and the Hong Kong National Security Law on the UK job market for non-citizens; it contains no reflections on privilege or why going on the market from 2003-2007 was so much easier, relatively speaking, than it is today. It doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts about those things but am going to limit myself today to a more narrow set of concerns which, perhaps falsely, might seem to imply that “everything is OK.” In short, I recognize that things are very messed up at the moment and may be (and may indeed already have been) messed up for a good long while, but that, in the final analysis, job ads are still being produced, as are PhDs in Chinese history, and that I have at least a residual responsibility among the falling, flaming girders of our present reality to point calmly to a few paths which might lead to greater calm, or at least another institutional e-mail address and the ability to set an exam question or two.

Recommended read

Finally, although the linked post isn’t specifically about university jobs, I am certain some readers will find it both interesting and useful, from a colleague in greater Leeds who teaches units on Mao’s China.

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