My analysis of official public data suggests that the number of PhDs in history in the UK is growing significantly almost every year, whereas the number of undergraduates and university-based historians is expanding only very slowly. However, these figures are only really useful for providing a sense of changes in the relative balance between undergrads, teachers and PhDs over time. They do not provide any concrete sense of the likely destinations of successful doctoral candidates.
In September, Rachel Stone, a medievalist at KCL, put together a very useful ‘cohort study’ of the 66 people who had completed PhDs in history at Cambridge in 2005. Her headline result was that 36 of them (55%) seemed to have academic posts a decade later. She also found that modernists and men were more likely to have academic jobs than medievalists and women, though she noted that it is difficult to know which factor is the most influential as women were more likely to be medievalists. Katrina Gulliver did a similar analysis of those granted Cambridge history PhDs in 2007-8 and found that ‘fewer than 50% have a permanent academic job’ after seven years.
I did my PhD at Warwick (completed 2009, awarded 2010), so I thought it might be useful to look at some cohorts there as a comparison. However, as the Warwick History Department is much smaller than Cambridge’s History Faculty, I decided to look at a longer period, namely 2001 to 2013.
The method I used was much the same as Rachel Stone’s. I collected a list of Warwick theses from the IHR’s History Online site for all twelve years. For three random years, I also double checked these against the theses listed as deposited in the Warwick University Library, which revealed an extra nine that hadn’t been listed by the IHR, so my overall total of 99 PhDs for the twelve years should probably be inflated by c.20, but that shouldn’t affect the results. I then simply scoured the web for any evidence of what these graduates where doing. Thankfully, today one can pretty much guarantee than anyone with an academic post (and many without) will have at least a trace of a web presence, so I was able to track down over two-thirds of them. I think we can safely assume that nearly all of the 31 individuals for whom I could find no recent information online are not in an academic post. Note that 17 of the untraceable individuals were women, and some may have changed their names, but 14 were men and it seems unlikely that more than a handful overall were untraceable due to name changes. The spreadsheet is available here: ‘Warwick PhD cohorts and jobs (anon)’.
The headline result was that 55 percent of these Warwick history PhDs are in academic posts in 2016, exactly the same proportion as Cambridge’s class of 2005. That is to say, just over half of the people who completed doctorates at Warwick (2001-13) and Cambridge (2005) are currently academic historians. Given the prestige of these institutions, I feel confident that this is likely to be roughly the highest proportion of academic employment among UK doctoral programmes, though as always it would be very valuable to see the results from other universities.
It is also possible to break these numbers down in order to get a sense of the academic employment rates among different sub-groups. Unlike in Rachel Stone’s cohort, there does not seem to be any notable gender imbalance: 53% of men and 56% of women had academic posts (fig. 2). There also does not seem to be a bias toward modernists. Warwick had only one medieval PhD in this period, but when we compare pre-1800 to post-1800 PhDs, we find that that 60% of pre-1800 and 49% of post-1800 PhDs had academic posts (fig. 3).
If anything, there seems to be a slight bias toward the early modernists, though the sample is too small to say this conclusively. To take an entirely hypothetical example, it would only take a couple of highly successful and energetic early modernist supervisors to skew the results in this direction.
The issue of change over time is obviously important and by including twelve years it is possible to estimate variation between different cohorts. I grouped the PhDs into three cohorts (2001-05, 2006-09, 2010-13) in order to see if my impression of a worsening academic job market was supported by the Warwick data. Surprisingly, it was not. Each of the three cohorts had almost precisely the same proportion in academic jobs: 55%, 55% and 54% (fig. 1).
We can also get a sense of the geographical destinations of the 99 PhDs. Of the 54 who are in academic jobs, 69% are in posts in the UK, 11% are elsewhere in the EU (Ireland x2, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway), and 20% are further afield (USA x4, Canada x2, Bermuda, Mexico, India, Korea). This is reminder that when we compare the ratio of British doctorates to British academic jobs, we are missing out on the ‘emigration’ of some UK PhDs abroad, as well as the ‘immigration’ of foreign PhDs into the UK academic job market. Perhaps this is one of the few instances when it would actually be useful to have a ‘net migration’ figure.
There is also one other crucial aspect of the academic job market that can be partly glimpsed in this data: the difference between permanent and temporary employment. Unfortunately, it is often impossible to know whether someone listed as, for example, a ‘Lecturer in Early Modern History’ is on a permanent contract. However, sometimes it is fairly obvious: a ‘Senior Lecturer’ or ‘Professor’ (in the UK) will be permanent whereas an ‘Adjunct Professor’, ‘Visiting Professor’, ‘Postdoctoral Fellow’ or ‘Research Associate’ will be temporary. Also, as I know some of these people personally, I was able to fill in a few more ‘unknowns’.
It appears that 27% of all these PhDs are definitely in permanent posts, 15% are definitely in temporary posts, and a further 12% are in academic posts of unknown contractual status. I would guess that most of the latter are temporary and, if so, that suggests that there is almost an even split between permanent and temporary posts (c.25-30% each, plus 45% non-academic). However, here is where the change over time is most notable (fig. 1). Almost 90% of the employed academics in the first cohort (2001-05) were definitely permanent, which dropped to 50% for the second (2006-09), and just under 20% for the third (2010-13). In one sense this is hardly surprising as even the most successful historians usually spend a few years in temporary posts after graduating. However, it does raise the possibility that an increasing proportion of the academic jobs available are insecure short-term posts.
None of the analysis above should be construed as measuring ‘success’ rates. Many people decide to do doctorates with no intention of seeking academic employment afterwards, including at least a handful in the Warwick sample. Moreover, there are also significant numbers who complete a PhD and then go on to very successful careers in related but non-academic fields. In the Warwick sample, I found people working in archives, heritage, translation, scholarly publishing, freelance writing and school teaching. They are ‘doing history’ in all sorts of brilliant ways, despite not being in a university history department.
What I hope this little study demonstrates is that perhaps only about half of history doctorates at a prestigious institution result in long-term academic posts, so we need to work harder to prepare current and future PhD candidates for the other paths that might be open to them.