Students, PhDs, historians and jobs, 1994-95 to 2014-15

Brodie Waddell

In September, I posted some data on the state of the field in academic history. It wasn’t an especially rosy picture, but I followed that by trying to gather some suggestions on what could be done to improve the situation and also offered my own thoughts.

My initial post was provoked by my annoyance at how little historical data seemed to be easily available for the history profession, so I pulled figures from HESA and a variety of other sources to try to piece together a picture. A few weeks ago, the American Historical Association updated their job market statistics for US historians and HESA released their UK data for 2014-15, so it seemed only right to update my figures.

Let’s start with the American data as it is much more precisely focused on the academic job market than the UK numbers. According to the AHA:

The academic job market in history remains quite challenging for recent PhDs, and … these challenges are likely to persist. Among the signs of difficulty for academic-job candidates today and into the near future: (1) the number of positions advertised with the AHA over the past year fell for the third year in a row, (2) the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty lines fell slightly over the past five years, and (3) evidence indicates that a relatively small share of full-time faculty will be approaching retirement within the next decade.


fig1 - AHA job market (Feb 2016)

American Historical Association job market figures, February 2016

They have much more detail in the linked post, but suffice to say there is little room for optimism.

Here in the UK, we do not have such clear evidence because we don’t have figures for the number of job adverts. Or rather, we do but it would be a major task to piece it together. Almost every significant academic history job is advertised on, but not in a way that is easy to aggregate. Although I’ve been saving HTML copies of every advert posted since September, I don’t have time to manually go through the 482 files to extract the relevant information (many are multiple, overseas, or pre-doctoral), and I don’t have previous years to compare it to. If anyone wants to give it a try, let me know and I can send you the files.

So, instead of job adverts, I have used HESA’s latest figures for first-year full-time history undergraduates as a very rough proxy for the annual ‘demand’ for history PhDs, as well as the IHR’s numbers for ‘Teachers of History in Higher Education’ as a proxy for the total ‘stock’ of employed historians. Neither of these numbers are precise proxies as universities can take on more undergrads without hiring more lecturers and the IHR’s figures are approximate at best. As Jane Winters noted when I emailed her about the latter numbers, ‘there are all sorts of health warnings around the comprehensiveness of the data. We don’t hear back from all of the departments we contact, so some details will be out of date and there will be some people we miss completely. Equally, there are a number of people included who work in archaeology, art history and classics departments etc. who might not fall under a HESA definition of ‘History’. But the fact that the information is collected in the same way every year should at least mean that it is broadly comparable year on year.’ To avoid over-emphasising the ‘nominal’ figures, and to make it easier to track changes across time, I’ve indexed all three series to 100 in 1995-96 in the figure below.

Proxies for the job market in the UK

Student and PhDs (from HESA) and teachers (from IHR), indexed to 1995-96

The most recent figures from HESA show 680 PhDs in history were obtained in 2014-15, an increase of 8.8% from the 625 in 2013-14. The number of full-time first-year undergraduates in history also increased from 12,615 to 12,970, though this was only a 2.8% rise. The fact that PhDs increased more than undergrads means that the ratio of undergrads to PhDs tightened from 20.2 to 19.1, which seems to imply a worsening gap between ‘supply’ and ‘demand’.

Ratio of FYFTUGs to PhDs in history, 1995-2014 (Feb 2016)

A rough proxy for the UK academic job market for historians, Feb 2016

This means I can repeat what I said in my earlier post: 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.

There are many possible responses to this, but for the moment I’ll just reiterate a summary of my previous suggestions of what we should be doing:

  1. Publicise ‘official’ information about the academic job market for potential doctoral students.
  2. Annually collect and publicise ‘official’ data on the state of history in universities.
  3. Investigate and publish data on casualisation.
  4. Publicise information about alternatives to academia.
  5. Provide training, support and experience in alternatives to academia.
  6. Pressure departments to hire responsibly.
  7. Organise.


I’ve put the raw numbers used for the charts above (and some other data) in a spreadsheet: ‘Job market for historians V2’. Feel free to take a look and alert me to any mistakes or suggest additions. Thanks to Jane Winters for the helpful information about the IHR’s Teachers of History numbers and for volunteering to send me more data when available.

11 thoughts on “Students, PhDs, historians and jobs, 1994-95 to 2014-15

  1. Pingback: Students, PhDs, historians and jobs, 1994-95 to 2014-15 – The Scholemaster

  2. The quantitative data about PhD successes needs to take into account those who have no intention of entering the academic profession, but who have completed a PhD, for example, for personal achievement later in life. These successful people might be a significant contingent (based on my recollection of History@Leicester). That’s just, however, a minor refinement. The situation is likely to deteriorate: management policy is, IMHO, dire. An equally important aspect for me is the future character of the postgraduate cohort intent on academic careers. The removal of grants for those with parents with less than £25k income, the increase in fees (even before TEF-related increases), and the abolition of DSA, will have two consequences for those from poorer backgrounds. 1 They will need to work long hours in service industries whilst pursuing their undergraduate studies to mitigate accumulated debt, thus reducing their chances of top degrees. 2 Their accumulated debt will deter them from postgraduate study (even, perhaps at Masters level), despite Osborne’s proffer of further loans. Thus, like the increasing concentration of upper-middle-class domination of the other professions, academia is likely to become an occupation for the privileged. Sorry, but that is how the future looks. We already have the latest data on admissions to some ‘elite’ (recte elitist) universities in which access seems to be making no headway. This post is a bit tamgential, but seems to me, at least, to address another important aspect. Take care all.

    • Good points, Dave. The issue of people doing PhDs for reasons other than academic careers came up in a couple of my previous posts on this and it is certainly important. I should have acknowledged that here. As I said in a previous comment: 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. In fact, I hope that this post will push people to think harder about the problem with equating PhDs with academic careers.

      Your other point is also crucial. We shouldn’t pretend that the shifting fortunes of people doing academic history (from undergrads to profs) is somehow spontaneous or inexplicable. It is directly linked to government policies which create all sorts of perverse incentives and also due, to a lesser extent in my opinion, to a gradual ideological shift within universities towards a more ‘cost effective’ (i.e. exploitative) model. As a historian, I’d never claim there was a mono-causal explanation for all the current problems in higher ed, but it does seem that the inequities and imbalances apparent at UG, PGR and ECR levels are interrelated.

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