What is to be done? Mending academic history

Brodie Waddell

The study of history in Britain is not in crisis. The numbers set out in my post last week show that the last few decades have been a period of massive expansion for the field. There are more people ‘doing history’ at all levels of higher education, from new undergraduates to doctoral students and teaching staff. What’s more, I’d argue that public interest in history has been growing as well, a point brought home to me by the extraordinary response to the ‘History from Below’ and ‘Voices of the People’ online workshops that we’ve hosted.

It would, however, be irresponsible for historians like myself – who enjoy secure academic positions – to overlook the very real problems that confront the history profession today. In my recent posts I’ve highlighted two specific issues: the rapid growth in the number of doctoral students who are unlikely to obtain a permanent university post and, relatedly, the substantial number of early career historians trapped in precarious ‘casual’ employment. One might also add the under-representation of women in the academic upper ranks, the collapse in part-time studies, and the rising debt burden imposed on our students, among other things.

My previous posts provoked a flurry of valuable responses including one from Peter Mandler and another from Adam Smith, respectively President and Honorary Secretary of the Royal Historical Society. I’m very grateful to both of them for their feedback, which not only augmented and corrected some of my own conclusions, but also invited me to think about what practical measures the RHS (or other bodies such as the IHR) could take in the future. What sort of data should they be collecting and how? What kind of advice or information should they be providing? Is there anything else they can be doing to help to counter-act these problems?

i3rzjg8ciyls3ruxcheaThis presents an obvious chance for me to pretend to know everything there is to know about the historical profession in Britain and make some sagacious pronouncements about ‘what is to be done’. However, in the interests of continuing the conversation, rather than closing it off, I’m going to restrain myself, at least momentarily. Instead, I’d like you, whatever your position or career stage, to offer your thoughts in the comments below (or on twitter, tagging me, which I’ll post here). I will add my own ideas in the comments in the next day or so, some of which I hinted at in the conclusions of the previous post. But in the meantime, let’s find out what the rest of the historical community thinks.

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19 thoughts on “What is to be done? Mending academic history

  1. Similarly to what Adam has said above, have to be more open and clear about what doing a PhD means and what it does not. Just as an undergraduate degree is not seen simply as a prelude to a masters, and a masters isn’t seen as inevitably leading to PhD study, we should embrace alternative futures for PhD students. This means taking career advice about the non-academic world seriously, not as a consolation prize. In particular this honesty is important for self-funding students, as they are investing their own funds into what may be a dream they never achieve. I don’t say this to discourage self-funders, but I think they will feel these things more acutely. I should also say that many academics are already aware of and open about these issues, but that that good practice needs to be spread.

    To your list of problems facing the discipline, I might add the extreme lack of racial diversity, and the challenges faced by disabled scholars. I don’t have solutions to these but feel they should be raised more often.

    • On the racial diversity point — it would be really good to see (more?) engagement with the work done by Hakim Adi & others on this (e.g. the History Matters conference this year) by white academics. I’m wary that the lack of jobs might make people less inclined to tackle issues of classism, ableism, race etc in academia: I’ve come across the idea that as only a select few will succeed, inclusivity is impossible/irrelevant.

  2. A couple of points to get the ball rolling…

    1) The most important thing is to be able to give those undertaking a PhD as clear a picture as possible as to where it might lead. I expect many of us had conversations with potential supervisors in which we were told that academia is a highly competitive field, and that we needed to be aware that there was no guarantee of a permanent academic job at the end of it (if that was what we were looking for, of course). But for many people coming to a PhD through the most common (but certainly not the only) route of school, undergraduate study and then an MA, they are used to a culture of competing with their peers in terms of grades, and if they have got to the PhD level they have probably been quite successful at it (coming in the top 5-10%). So, when told it is a ‘competitive’ market they will fancy their chances that if they work hard they will end up on top of the pile, again. Of course, in reality they are now competing almost exclusively against other academic ‘high fliers’, and even if you fulfill all the requirements for getting an academic job you still may not get one, such is the level of the competition and the basic fact – as you have shown – of a crowded labour market.

    I think having detailed data – and others will have clearer suggestions about exactly what we should count – will make it possible to get the message across more clearly to those considering a PhD as a route to an academic career that there really are no guarantees however hard you work: in principal there is no limit on the number of A*’s that can be granted at A-Level, or the number of 1st class degrees awarded. The academic job market is not structured in the same way.

    2) As a related point, then, I think more could be done to encourage PhD students in History to think about other career routes that are available (and thanks to people for already providing some useful resources here in comments on the previous post). Personally, I felt like I got myself in to the mindset that a permanent academic job was the only satisfactory outcome of undertaking a PhD, and that I would only entertain alternatives if I had to. I now think that was an unhelpful way for me to look at it, and I think institutions could help to bring about a cultural shift where that route is less normative, and more is done to encourage PhD students to think broadly about the options available to them. Even for those who would ultimately like an academic job, I think it would be helpful to more clearly highlight other fulfilling career pathways so that they don’t feel as though all of their eggs are in one highly competitive basket, if you’ll excuse the clumsy metaphor. Having a good Plan B would have made life as an ECR far less stressful for me I think – and of course if people feel like they have other options they may be less inclined to accept some of the most unreasonable casual contracts being offered. As it is, those who feel like it is permanent job or bust are an easy target for casualisation as they are desperate to stay in the game.

  3. I’ll dive in with a suggestion:

    I think one thing that ECRs and graduate students can all do is organise. I’m very worried by the ways that the current problems tend to individualise people starting out their careers, or those trying to work out if a career in academic history or something related is for them. Organising could be formal (as in the recent growth in adjunct unions in North America and Canada), or less formal, as in just making sure people in/around your department/area get together and chat.

    Some of this of course already exists.

    We have History Lab and History Lab Plus, many departments have excellent postgraduate organisations. Many national organisations/learned societies encourage specific early career/graduate student events.

    It seems to me that these kinds of collective organisations prevent the excessive atomisation and downright loneliness that can lead to mental health problems among ECR/graduate students, as well as cynicism and an unhealthy spirit of competition among early researchers.

    Because however it might feel when applying for jobs, the system does not have to be zero sum.

    Organising is one way to pressure institutions into replacing fixed-term staff with permanent positions. Organising can also be a way to pressure institutions into creating more jobs. As the power of the NSS is felt more and more, undergraduate students are also (more than ever) our allies in this.

    • I think collective unionising for ECRs is a good idea, whether within UCU or separately; and I would suggest that a very specific initial thing to aim at would be abolishment of nine month contracts

  4. A selection of responses from twitter:

  5. I would also like to draw attention to the issues faced by more mature PhDs who arrived by a less conventional route. If you have achieved your doctorate part-time while working in an unrelated area and are already much older, it is tremendously difficult. I know of one PhD who did this and is in his second year of a full-time contract, albeit requiring weekday relocation, but also other passionate researchers who are determined but struggling in isolation. I wonder what the scale of this problem is.

  6. I’ve really enjoyed your contribution to this debate, and in fact wrote a post touching on the issue over the weekend, the relevant section of which I’ve cut and pasted below …

    ‘Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.’

    The blog was in response to Houellebecq’s gloomy portrayal of the future of French academia in ‘Soumission’.

  7. There seems to be a great deal of uncertainty about what a PhD actually is. Greater historicisation of our own profession might help, though this information is already available in places – e.g. Bentley’s ‘Modernizing England’s Past’ or Hutton’s prefatory material in ‘Debates in Stuart History’. Back in olden times, you could stay a ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ all the way until you became a Prof. (Herbert Butterfield was one such individual, there were plenty more). Then, around the 1950s and 1960s, the PhD became the accepted minimum qualification for an academic career – but it was never a ‘golden ticket’ (though the massive expansion of the UK higher-ed system at around the same time may give this impression). Still, it sits there on the ‘basic requirements’ part of any job application, but its just not enough in itself. Perhaps longer doctoral programs with the support/aim of achieving a first publication and teaching experience would be an idea? That’s what a lot of PhDs already do, of course, but perhaps if it was better systematised, then that would help to (a) manage expectations and (b) incorporate professional development right into the academic programme.

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  10. I have recently started an MA in Early-Modern History at Durham with a view to going on to do a PhD. After reading the article, i am a little dispirited. Is it really worth my while to sacrifice three to four years doing a PhD with such a crowded a labour market?

    • A very good question, Mike. Unfortunately, I think the answer is: don’t do a PhD if you doing it in order to get a traditional academic post. You might get one, but it would be as much luck as skill at this point. However, if you are planning to do a PhD because you love history and want to do more of it, go for it. Be sure to spend some time during the PhD preparing yourself for various possible career paths, one of which might be academia, but also scout out others (#altac) such as heritage, civil service, media, etc.

      • Thank you. Out of curiousity. Is this only specific to History, or are other subjects in the Humanities and Social Sciences experiencing the same phenomena?

      • I’m afraid that my impression is that most Humanities subjects are in a similar position. Indeed I think things may actually be worse in English and Philosophy, though I’m not certain. I know less about the Social Sciences. The job market for Economists is robust, but I don’t really know about others.

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  12. When I was thinking about doing a doctorate, 22 years ago, my tutor (who became Regius Professor a couple of years later) told me straight away: You mustn’t think it will lead to an academic job, because there are no academic jobs any more. The only reason for wanting to do a doctorate these days is to spend three years contributing to human knowledge before finding something else to do to make a living.

    This was 22 years ago. Did/do other people not get this advice? And if not, is that because academics are so excited at the prospect of the funding a PhD brings that they forget to mention that only the independently wealthy can afford to do it as a luxury, and for anybody else it is a lottery?

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