[UPDATE 08/09/15: Please read the updated and expanded version of this post here.]
On August 24th, Matthew Lyons published a piece in History Today on ‘the plight of early career researchers’. Reading the comments there, on twitter and on other blogs, it is clear that he hit a raw nerve.
As commentators pointed out, some of his assertions were unfounded (e.g. ‘many if not most academics disdain teaching’, ‘[ECRs] are offered no career development or pastoral support’). Nonetheless, his claim that newly-minted historians tend to struggle rings true. Between us, the four heads of the many-headed monster have had plenty of experience with job insecurity, poorly-paid positions, forced transience, bad working conditions and other early career problems.
However, a post from William Whyte – a historian of universities – made a very good point: there is nothing new about claims of a ‘crisis’ in academic employment. We need to be careful not to slip into nostalgia for a lost ‘golden age’ when there were jobs aplenty. As historians, we should be particularly critical of ‘fundamentally presentist, ahistorical – indeed anti-historical – peddling of myths’.
In the interests of bringing a bit more ‘history’ to this discussion, I tried to dig up some ‘historical’ data on PhDs, students, and jobs. Before going further, I should point out we should not simply assume that academic jobs for new PhDs are a ‘Good Thing’. We should not neglect the contributions of people with historical training to non-academic fields (e.g. Alt-Ac jobs) and the value of doctoral study to people from all walks of life, irrespective of their career goals. Moreover, just looking at the raw numbers ignores the ‘quality’ of the jobs, including working conditions and casualisation. Still, I wrote a post awhile ago giving advice to those thinking about doing a PhD in history, and thought some data might be a useful addition to this and a contribution to the wider debate about ECRs.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has data from 1994/95 to 2013/14 on completed PhDs, undergrad student numbers and much else. (Thanks to Sharon Howard for the link to HESA data.) Unfortunately, they do not have earlier data and their figures for staff numbers are very messy. In addition, even their basic figures on PhDs and undergrads is not entirely consistent thanks to changes in definitions and measurements (notably in 2002/03 and 2007/08), so what follows should be taken with a large grain of salt. Finally, the data is not recorded in single simple file – instead it is spread across about forty different spreadsheets and PDFs, each of which I had to manually check. I may well have made some mistakes: let me know if you spot any.
So, how many PhDs in History are granted each year? I don’t know. Unfortunately HESA’s changing definitions mean that it is not possible to get consistent numbers on this. Instead, I found ‘historyish’ doctorates, which means ‘Historical and Philosophical Studies’ (history, archaeology, philosophy, theology, heritage studies, other historical and philosophical) for 2003-2014 and ‘Humanities’ (history, economic and social history, history of art, history and philosophy of science, archaeology, philosophy, theology, other humanities, combinations) for 1995-2002. By this measure, there were 1,235 doctorates granted in 2013/14, over three-times the 389 granted in 1994/95. The largest increases were c.1995-2001 and c.2008-2011.
How many jobs were there for History PhDs? I don’t know that either. The American Historical Association has tracked job ads since the 1970s, but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for the UK. If the Royal Historical Association, the IHR or perhaps jobs.ac.uk have any numbers, I’d love to hear about them. However, HESA does have numbers for students taking ‘Historyish’ degrees. I focused on new full-time undergraduates, as I thought that would provide a very rough approximation of ‘demand’ for new PhDs. Of course this ignores the fact that universities do not simply hire in response to student numbers: sometimes they hire for research (especially near REF), they sometimes increase enrolments without increasing staff, and they sometimes hire based on other sources of funding. Still, the student numbers are all I’ve got for now. There were 10,832 first-year historyish students in 1995/96 and there were 21,160 in 2013/14, a two-fold increase. Here the biggest increases date to 2002/03 and 2007/08, but this was also when HESA’s definitions change, so this may spurious. (For earlier total student numbers, see ‘Education: Historical Statistics’ 2012 parliamentary report and the 1997 Dearing Report)
For comparison, above is the figure for PhDs in History in the United States and the number of job adverts each year, taken from the AHA’s 2012 Jobs Report. The more recent Jobs Reports I found (2013 Report and 2014 Report) don’t include such clear numbers, though they’re still useful in showing the lack of recovery from the major decline at the start of the recession in 2008/09. There is also a more recent analysis from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences of job ads in a range of arts and humanities disciplines for 2001-2014 that confirms the collapse in opportunities. (I couldn’t find any figures for Canada, but I did learn that only 30 percent of Canadian humanities PhDs end up in academic positions.)
In the UK, the ratio between new undergrads and completed PhDs may provide a very, very rough proxy for the state of the job market for historians. A high number indicates more BA students per PhD (and thus perhaps stronger demand) whereas a low number probably indicates lower demand. The ratio of new undergrads to completed PhDs declined from about 28:1 in 1994/95 to 17:1 in 2013/14, a fall of almost 40%. My suspicion is that this actually underestimates the decline as the large increase in 2002/03 is probably due to HESA’s changing definitions. If we look at each statistically consistent period individually, we see a 54% decline from 1994/95 to 2001/02, a 7% decline from 2002/03 to 2006/07, and a 20% decline from 2008/09.
If my suggested relationship is correct, the job market has become significantly worse since 2009/10 and much worse since 1994/95.
I’ve put the raw numbers used for the charts above (and some other data) in a spreadsheet: Historyish doctorates and UGs, 1995-2014. Feel free to take a look and alert me to any mistakes or suggest additions.
Recent pieces on early career historians
(Let me know if there are any I’ve missed or any new additions)