The world of UK universities has changed dramatically in the ten years since our first post appeared on the Many-Headed Monster, and it feels like the pace of change has recently accelerated.
So, while my co-bloggers are looking back at hangovers, Marxists, plebs and creative histories, I want to indulge in a bit of navel gazing. How has the role of the historian as a job been changing over the last decade? Much of my evidence comes from a sample size of one, but I think the sorts of things we’ve been talking about on the blog over the years give some sense of the wider climate.
I vividly remember my own circumstances in July 2012, when we started the blog, because it was a moment of personal chaos but also optimism. I was finishing up a postdoc and had recently been offered a three-year lectureship at Birkbeck, while at the same time trying to juggle the demands of a new baby. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good time to launch a new project, but I’m glad I did. Meanwhile, things were less chaotic but also less optimistic at the national level. The UK was in the midst of the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, and it was pretty clear that universities were generally going in the wrong direction, most obviously with annual tuition fees rising from £3,000 to £9,000 that very year.
What is intriguing, however, is that there is almost no evidence of this on the Many-Headed Monster. Posts from our first few years touched on lots of different historical topics, but very little on the job itself. That said, Laura’s reflections on conferences as ‘communitas’ and my complaints about boring exam questions are probably a fair reflection of the sort of day-to-day concerns of new lecturers, then and now, even if we somehow avoided mentioning the fact that we were then all currently or recently precariously employed. The closest we came to dealing with our jobs directly was ‘The Future of History from Below’ symposium in 2013, which included reflections on who we were writing for and why, an issue that we would now probably call ‘public history’, but which was barely discussed in academic circles just ten years ago. A couple years later, Laura set out her thinking on ‘What is history for?’ which again highlighted how we were increasingly questioning the purpose of our discipline in the wider world.
Hundreds of people complete a doctorate in History each year at UK universities, a process with huge implications for the strength and sustainably of academic history as a discipline. This figure has been rising gradually but fairly consistently over the past couple decades, from around 250 in the late 1990s, to around 550 in the late 2000s, to a peak of more than 750 in 2016.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed the job market for History PhDs using various measures including staff/PhD ratios, cohort studies and job listing data. None of the numbers present an especially rosy picture for newly completed PhDs searching for an academic post.
However, in response to each of these posts, readers have rightly asked about the motives of those pursuing doctorates. It is obvious that not all of those 700 or more new PhDs want to become lecturers, so the job market is thus presumably less disastrous than the headline figures imply. But the problem is that it is difficult to know whether this proportion is substantial or negligible.
Thankfully, Andy Burn not only brought it to my attention that there is a UK-wide survey of current PhD students about this, but also very generously turned the raw data into something useable for me. This is the ‘Postgraduate Research Experience Survey’ (PRES) and it asks all sorts of questions, including two about motivations. The highest recent response rate was in the 2017 survey and that’s what I’ve used here, though the proportions were similar in the 2018 survey.
This is the time of year when many people are applying for PhDs or academic jobs and discussions of the current job market inevitably arise. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts on job listings, doctoral cohorts and staff/student numbers, trying to provide some data to help inform these conversations, but I think it is time for an update. How have things changed since then?
The American Historical Association publishes its notorious chart of doom each year, showing the terrible ratio of new PhDs to advertised jobs, and its most recent version leaves little room for optimism.
AHA Jobs Report 2019
In the UK, we lack a consistent, accessible annual list of academic history jobs. Although nearly all such posts are advertised on jobs.ac.uk, there is no easy way to turn these adverts into an annual figure except by manually monitoring and recording. So, instead, I’ve taken to focusing on the only reliable data that is publicly available: staff and student numbers. Continue reading →
How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to create a petition or supplication. Even today, every year hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens sign e-petitions addressed to parliament which can lead directly to high-profile debates in the House of Commons.
In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and also offer a unique means to map the structures of authority that framed early modern society …
That was our pitch to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a grant of over £200,000. To my surprise and delight, they liked it.
So, from January 2019, I’ll be running a project looking at ‘the power of petitioning in seventeenth century England’. The co-investigator is Jason Peacey at UCL and we will hire a full-time postdoctoral research associate for twelve months as well. There will be much more information available once we have the project website up and running, but in the meantime I thought I’d announce it here and explain how it came to be. I hope it might be useful, or at least interesting, to other scholars thinking about their own projects. Continue reading →
Every year, universities across Britain and beyond place hundreds of advertisements on jobs.ac.uk seeking to appoint historians to academic posts. Although accessing this data is not easy and analysing is far from straightforward, recent listings do provide some potentially useful information about the state of the academic job market for historians.
In my previous posts on jobs, I have focused primarily on the ‘supply side’ of the equation – how many people are completing PhDs each year and how that is changing. It is much more difficult to get hard data on the ‘demand side’ – i.e. jobs available – though I’ve tried various proxies such as the numbers of historians with university posts or the number of incoming history undergraduates. The cohort studies of Warwick and Cambridge PhDs allowed me to link doctorates to academic posts more directly, but that was only a small and probably unrepresentative sample.
New data and methodology
The advertisements on jobs.ac.uk allow us to get a better sense of how many jobs are actually listed in a given year. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
Gosh, isn’t it exciting finally to see the Government’s Green Paper? Turns out some rumours were true – there will be a TEF, say bye-bye to HEFCE – and others not so much (REF will live on). There’s quite a lot of it to wade through, but – regarding TEF in particular – as one colleague said in a management meeting earlier this week, ‘it’s not actually as bad as all that’.
And of course that’s right. Who could object to ‘putting students at the heart of the system’, and who would not want us to value teaching as well as research? The starting point for TEF is a mild adjustment to something we already do, i.e. institutional audit for quality. So – nothing to worry about here, and perhaps some things to celebrate? Continue reading →
I’m very grateful to all of you who’ve already offered your thoughts on how we can improve the history profession. I agree with most of the comments on my previous posts on academic employment and practical responses – in fact some of the suggestions below are borrowed from those comments. However, I promised that I would offer my own tuppence so here I’ll try to set out some steps that we can take individually or collectively. Most of these are quite minor, but hopefully they are a good start. They aren’t in order of priority, but the first four are generally about gathering and publishing information and the rest are about more direct action. Continue reading →
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.
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.