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?
This 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.
Over the last two decades, the number of new PhDs in history has grown much faster than the number of new undergraduate students or the number of academic staff in the UK. That’s my main finding from far-too-many hours spent rooting through old spreadsheets.
Last week, I published a post with some rough and very rudimentary analysis of the number of PhDs compared to the number of undergrads in ‘historyish’ fields. My conclusion was that the ‘supply’ of PhDs was rising faster than the ‘demand’. Since then, thanks to feedback from a wide range of commenters on the blog and on twitter, and thanks especially to Rachel Stone for alerting me to some additional data from the Institute for Historical Research, I’ve been able to refine and extend my conclusions. Although the depressing headline is roughly the same, I thought it would be helpful to set out what I’ve found.
The picture since 1995
The most solid and consistent figures begin in 1995/96, when we have numbers for first-year full-time undergraduates studying history (6,123), doctorates obtained in history (239), and teachers of history in higher education (2,665). We then have figures right through to 2013/14, when there were 12,615 of the same undergrads, 625 PhDs, and 3,366 teachers. When we index all these numbers to 100 in 1995/96, this suggests the number of undergrads has risen by 106%, PhDs by 162%, and teachers by only 26%.
[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. Continue reading
Over the past few months, I’ve been getting some enquires from people thinking about doing a PhD in history. I’ve found myself repeating the same thing in many cases, so I thought I’d set it out here in case it’s helpful for current MA students thinking about the possibility. In most cases, there are important personal factors to consider, but I think there are a few pieces of advice that apply more generally.
Note, however, that as an ‘early career’ academic, there is still plenty that I’m learning about the whole process, despite having finished my own PhD over five years ago. Your own thoughts would be very welcome.
Don’t do it!
When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library…
Obviously I don’t believe that or I wouldn’t be writing this post, but I think there are lots of good reasons to not do a PhD right now, the most important being the terrible job market for new humanities PhDs. As innumerable blog posts and articles have said before: even if you are extremely smart, original, hard-working and self-sacrificing, there is a decent chance that you won’t be able to find a permanent academic job. If you are aware of that, and want to do a PhD anyway – perhaps because you’re not doing it to get an academic job, or perhaps because you are young, carefree and willing to roll the dice – then please read on… Continue reading