Historians, PhDs, and Jobs in 2023

Brodie Waddell

Amid yet another year of university strikes in the UK, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has released the latest data on staff and degrees granted. A couple of years ago, I used this data to try to get a sense of the job market for historians, so it seems like a good time to use the new figures to provide an update.

First, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the USA, where they are able to provide a more rigorous view of the job market because the American Historical Association tracks job advertisements and provides an annual report. In previous years, the AHA reports had been published with a Chart of Doom which showed the catastrophic collapse of job openings relative to degrees granted:

Advertised job openings and new history PhDs awarded

Advertised job openings and new history PhDs awarded: AHA Jobs Report 2021.

In their most recent report, from August 2022, they decided not to publish the Chart of Doom and instead have presented the information about job openings over a more short-term timescale, with more details about the types of jobs advertised. This is very useful information, though it does elide the massive drop in jobs that happened just before the chart starts in 2016-17. In the most recent year, 2021-22, they show ‘academic job listings did indeed rebound to levels above those seen immediately before the pandemic. This increase is not, however, a sign of renewed vitality but a partial return to the steady but dismal state of faculty job availability in the late 2010s.’

 Job listings on the AHA Career Center by type and year from 2016–17 to 2021–22

Job listings on the AHA Career Center by type and year from 2016–17 to 2021–22: AHA Jobs Report 2022.

Meanwhile, in the UK, no institution systematically collects information about academic job adverts. With some help from Andy Burn, I attempted to collect this data from jobs.ac.uk for a couple years and published the results for 2015-16, but I don’t have time to do that with more recent data. Instead, I’ve made use of the HESA data to simply track the number of staff employed in History departments in UK universities and compared this to the number of PhDs granted in History. This provides a rough sense of levels of employment (demand) in relation to the likely number of qualified candidates available (supply). In the most recent data, released in February 2023, HESA provides numbers for the 2021-22 academic year.

The headline is that the number of staff employed to teach history in universities has declined yet again, though less dramatically than in 2019-20 or 2020-21. Staffing fell by 1 percent last year, whereas it fell by an average of 8 percent in the previous two years. This is obviously not ‘good’ for historians from any conceivable angle, but it is ‘less bad’ which might be the best we can hope for in the current hostile environment.

HE Staff in History 2023 chart

Historians in UK universities, 1995/96 to 2021/22

The other headline is that the number of PhDs granted increased substantially in 2021-22. After several years of declines from 2017-18 onwards, this trend reversed last year, with 5 percent more PhDs in History awarded. This is obviously wonderful in the sense that there are now more people with extraordinary knowledge of the past and the skills to share it with the world. However, from the practical perspective of the job market, a higher supply of historian labour is not good for those seeking jobs.

2023 PhDs in History

PhDs in History awarded by UK universities, 1995/96 to 2021/22

This brings us to the ratio of current staff to PhDs awarded. This doesn’t measure quite the same thing as the AHA Chart of Doom, as we don’t have data for UK job adverts. Instead it is a snapshot of the total number of historians employed by universities, divided by the number of new PhD holders each year. So, at the moment, there are about five staff employed for every PhD granted per year. The specific number probably isn’t that meaningful, but its rise or fall should be a decent proxy for the rise or fall in the job prospects for doctoral candidates. If the number of staff shrinks, as it did in 2021-22, that means universities are not doing much hiring. If the number of PhDs grows at the same time, that means there is a growing number of candidates for a smaller number of jobs.

This ratio has been fairly stable over the last decade or so, after dramatically worsening between the mid-1990s and early 2010s. In 2019-20 and 2020-21 it actually improved very slightly. However in the last academic year it has worsened yet again, meaning that there are now fewer employed university historians per PhD than in the previous couple years.

Ratio of historians in UK universities to PhDs awarded, 1995/96 to 2021/22

I’ll leave it to others offer their opinions on what this all means for the discipline of history in the UK. I’ve already published my thoughts on ‘what is to be done’. Although the Royal Historical Society and History UK are not doing everything I’d like them to, I know that they have limited resources and they are now addressing these issues in a more substantial way than they used to. I’d recommend their work on ‘Trends in History Provision in UK Higher Education’ (June 2022) and ‘Supporting History teaching and research in UK universities: a toolkit’ (updated January 2023).

For now, I’ll simply say: join the union and look out for each other, because the government and our employers aren’t going to.

Jobbing Historians: Tales from the Blarchive

Brodie Waddell

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.

Continue reading

Why do a PhD in History? A look at the data

Brodie Waddell

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.

PhDs granted in History, 1995-96 to 2017-18

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.

So, what are the results for History? Continue reading

Historians, PhDs and jobs, 1995/96 to 2017/18

Brodie Waddell

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.

Fig 5

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

The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England: The Long Road to a New Project

Brodie Waddell

[Update, April 2019: ‘The Power of Petitioning’ project website is now online.]

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

Job listings for historians on jobs.ac.uk, 2013-16

Brodie Waddell

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

History doctorates and the academic job market: 99 Warwick PhDs, 2001-2013

Brodie Waddell

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

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. Continue reading

Green Paper Blues: A Shiny New Bureaucracy for University Teaching

Earlier this month the UK government published its Higher Education Green Paper which sets out its plans for universities. Here John Arnold, Professor of Medieval History at Birkbeck and friend of the Monster, offers his reaction to the new policies and their justifications. This will not be of interest to everyone, but all UK academics and those of you thinking about doctoral studies, who may have read our earlier posts on the state of the field, need to be aware of what is going on. For the uninitiated, ‘TEF’ is Teaching Excellence Framework, ‘REF’ is Research Excellence Framework, and ‘HEFCE’ is the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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

What is to be done? Seven practical steps for historians

Brodie Waddell

MI0000444321I’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