A prosopography of Cambridge medievalists

My title, of course, like that of most historical pieces, promises far too much. But I think my data is interesting: it’s an attempt to track the fortunes of the other medievalists who took their MPhil in medieval history at Cambridge in the same year as me: 1998-99. There were twenty two of us who started the course: here is what has happened in the last ten years:

Dr Gemma Bristow – technical writer for software company

Sophie Brown – not known (MPhil on late medieval English peasantry)

J Cranfill – not known (Examination in Historical Studies)

Alex Day – not known (MPhil on C14 crusading)

NLA Doimi de Frankopan – not known (MPhil on Venice)

Katy Hawks – not known (MPhil on C15 gentry)

Michael Heath – not known (MPhil on medieval science)

Dr Jon Jarrett

Dr Ewan Johnson – lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, 2007

Lauren Langer – not known (MPhil on Crusades)

William Lee – not known (MPhil on Edward II and Richard II)

Dr Erin McGibbon – academic administration, Edinburgh

Dr Emily Mitchell – Cambridge University Library

Dr Maria Osowiecki – secondary school teaching?

Fionn Pilbrow – barrister

Dr Christina Pössel – lecturer, Birmingham (permanent)

Luke Potter – running historical travel company

Dr Caroline Smith – working in New York (book ‘Crusading in the age of Joinville’, 2006, Penguin translation of ‘Chronicle of the Crusades, 2008)

Dr Kaele Stokes – not known (PhD on Welsh kingship)

Dr Myra Struckmeyer – not known, formerly U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (PhD on female Hospitallers)

Rebecca Tait – not known (MPhil on Yorkist Wiltshire)

NOTE: All the post 1999 information on people is taken from publicly available sources (Google, International Medieval Bibliography, the IHR’s ‘Theses completed’ etc); I’ve included names so that if anyone knows more they can let me update this. But if anyone mentioned would like their details removed, I will do so. (I can be contacted at magistraAThotmailDOTcoDOTuk.)

Of the 22 of us who started the MPhil course 21 passed, while one got a lower qualification. Of the 21, 11 (including myself) went on to get a PhD. Of those, as far as I know, 1 (Christina Pössel) has a permanent lecturing post, although there are several other people working as temporary lecturers, in other academic related jobs or still researching.

Is this sample typical of postgraduate students of medieval history? It’s obviously hard to be sure, but the people on this course were (in theory) more likely than those on most other UK medieval masters to end up as academic historians. First, unlike most other masters courses, the Cambridge course is purely for historians. It was also a full-time course and unusually expensive: the students either had to be able to get funding for the course or have other support available. Finally, the course was particularly research orientated: students were required to propose a research topic for their dissertation at the time of their application, unlike in many other masters courses. The very high completion rate for the course confirms both the commitment of the students and their favourable personal circumstances.

The commitment of the students to academic careers is also suggested by the number who completed their PhDs. I don’t have comparative figures, but I suspect that almost half going on to get PhDs is higher than average for such cohorts.

What is surprising (and pretty depressing when I came to look at it en masse like this) is the progression rate after that: just how few of those with PhDs go on to get academic jobs. I had presumed that most medievalists who got their doctorate and who still wanted to carry on would be able to get something (I appreciate that there are a fair percentage of people who have had enough of academic life after 3 or 4 years research and are only too willing to bail out). And the AHRC career statistics seem to support this view: their survey found 38% of those funded for arts and humanities PhDs between 1997 and 2000 now had permanent academic jobs. (Of course, the response may have been biased towards those who were successful, but I filled in the survey as well). But the statistics from Cambridge suggest a more gloomy view: either our year was unusually unlucky, Cambridge is doing something wrong or medievalists are really not that employable. Maybe I was wrong in my previous post on my lack of success: maybe it wasn’t all about me after all.


13 thoughts on “A prosopography of Cambridge medievalists

  1. I don’t mind you mentioning my job, it bears out your case after all.

    I didn’t know that’s what Gemma was doing, I still see her about sometimes. A friend of mine with a Ph.D. from ASNC went into the same line of work because he had technical experience too, and shortly after he did ASNC advertised for a Lecturer in Viking Studies which was pretty much his subject. They didn’t in fact interview him, but he said to me at the time, “If they offered it me, I’d have to think real hard about whether I wanted that ten grand pay cut.” And it’s not as if technical writers are important people in their companies… I may go the same way yet.

    Katie Hawks I believe joined the Civil Service. I saw her a few years back when she was taking the exams, if I remember correctly, and I can’t imagine she didn’t pass. I expect the wages are better there too.

    Ironically, the last time I saw Christina she was talking about leaving academia because she thought she was no good at it. If the single one that made it quits, it’ll be a fairly pretty little indictment of the degree or the system or both. It may just have been a dark moment of course.


  2. FWIW, I did my PhD at Berkeley. Of the 7 people who were in my cohort (started in my year, +/- 1 year), 2 of us have permanent academic positions, 4 left academia, and 1 (by choice) is teaching part-time.


  3. I’m ashamed to say I never met of my other contemporary Ph.D students at Birkbeck, so I’ve no idea how we compare to that. The Masters involved some whole-group teaching so we knew each other more obviously.


  4. Hmmmm. I can’t really speak to my cohort, since I was the only medievalist in my year at Grad U (a good, but not, e.g., Berkeley). But of the people I know who started a PhD in Medieval, with a second field in Ancient, beginning about 3 years before me and going about three years after me, I can count about 13. One left after a semester of the MA. One defended her PhD prospectus and dropped out to have babies, having decided she really didn’t want to be an academic. One was ABD, and changed tracks dramatically, got and EdD, and is a Dean of Campus life somewhere. Two never finished for serious health reasons.

    So of the other 8 I can think of, one is contingent faculty by choice, five of us have tenured or tenure-track jobs, one is still looking and has been in visiting positions for the last 5 years, and I don’t know about the other.

    If you add Cranky Professor, who worked with my advisor, that’s another person.

    And honestly, I don’t get it. Because, well, Cambridge. Rosamund friggin’ McKitterick. Other scary academics.

    But I think a lot of it has to do with the kinds of campuses we are at. None of us are at top research universities. Even if you add in the students who worked primarily with the Big Name Anglo-Norman legal guy, most of the students who had my advisor and him on their committees ended up at small liberal arts colleges where teaching is supposedly considered equal to research. And Grad U really gave us a lot of financial support and required us to do real teaching apprenticeships. And most of us teach courses outside our research fields — the PhD at Grad U required the thesis field, a secondary examination field, and two minor coursework fields (coursework is another difference).

    As you point out, there just aren’t the range of positions in the UK, or at least don’t seem to be. And I think you have a real point — it seems that Cambridge really only prepares you for one narrow set of positions. And it seems self-perpetuating, in that there seems to be the same sort of pressure, but worse, that you see over here in terms on only applying to certain types of positions. A friend of mine in American Lit is presently giving a paper at MLA on the option of teaching at selective private secondary schools. She went to a top PhD institution, got tenure at a decent liberal arts college, and for various reasons she now teaches at a private school where the students are actually better than her college students were, and the pay is just as good. And she’s still writing (although I admit that has to be easier for people who do modern lit than it is for medievalists).

    So I don’t know what all this rambling is in aid of, except that it really sucks, and I don’t know what to say because it just seems the system on both sides of the pond seems pretty random and sometimes just damned unfair.


  5. I didn’t join the civil service. Having run out of money and willpower, I gave up the PhD, and taught secondary-school history for five years. I have now, mercifully, given that up and am a student furniture restorer, which I recommend to anyone fed up with academe. Maria Osowiecki is now Head of History in a school in Suffolk. (PS your data are interesting – but they are plural, not singular, otherwise it’d be datum!)


  6. Anecdatum [sic] from another continent – Australia – excerpted from a reply (by X’s mother) to our annual Christmas letter:

    [X], BA history and MA medieval history, is now Public Service Boy and works for the Department of Transport on plane crashes. He feels it is a logical progression and really likes his job. They think he is just great because unlike all the engineers, he can WRITE so he is the press wrangler, annual report writer, queries handler….man of words.


  7. My PhD actually wasn’t on a medieval subject; it was an English (lit) one that I came to after a few years out of university. Whether that makes my employment prospects more or less bleak I don’t know 🙂

    I have good memories of the M.Phil. year; it’s interesting to find this list.


  8. I’m still employed, and would hope that in ‘normal’ circumstances I would continue to be. I’ve been very lucky, have moved around a lot and been out of employment, but never longer than 4 months without a confirmed post coming my way. I also think gloom about medievalists might be misplaced-there are now medieval posts across the sector (MMU recruited actively). But it is much more competitive-countless times I have been to appointments presentations in other fields and told how much weaker they were to medieval ones. There is a vast pool of talent, and a much smaller pool of posts, than for other subdisciplines. But the field flourishes, despite the personal costs.

    But there are also deep, deep structural problems. Anyone finishing a Cambridge PhD can either leave or head down a JRF route. Both assume a freedom to move, to be impoverished, and a consequent lack of other responsibilities. The burden of initial ‘impact’ falls precisely when most of us have other commitments as well (especially children), and there aren’t really a variety of posts to accommodate these-it’s either long hours lectureship or nothing. That’s where the US system differs-there are no permanent ‘teaching’ posts of the sort offered by liberal arts colleges yet.

    I would also hint that Cambridge itself doesn’t help. Professionalism in Cambridge means having an aggressive alpha brain mentality and hoping that will be rewarded. it produces academic excellence, but does not equip anyone for a job interview with non-specialists, for the burdens of teaching and preparing courses, or for the admin and collegiality of the broader academic world. To me, who quite frankly loathed the bear pit of the department and its politics, life away was a revelation. But it is difficult to get to experience it, to get that first foothold post, when you are up against someone who has taught 20-person seminars, designed courses, been nurtured as an academic in the fullest sense, and the employer needs someone who can definitely step up and teach for one or two years. For all my luck, I too went through huge initial disappointments with feedback along these lines-would get permanent post, but not this one.

    Too much talent is wasted because this isn’t really acknowledged by supervisors who simply adore Cambridge (in many ways rightly). I’m sorry you were one such talent, and hope my earlier e-mail didn’t offend.


    • it produces academic excellence, but does not equip anyone for a job interview with non-specialists, for the burdens of teaching and preparing courses, or for the admin and collegiality of the broader academic world. To me, who quite frankly loathed the bear pit of the department and its politics, life away was a revelation.

      I experienced something very similar to this after starting my doctorate at London. I think that really, Cambridge is designed to produce and profiles itself around the researcher who can do great things by themselves, rather than the teamworker, at least in the humanities. There are of course other models of success and they may be more employable in the world outside.


  9. I think if you’re going to argue that the real problem is Cambridge, then you’d need to do the same kind of analysis I’m providing here with a similar MPhil class from, say, UCL or York or Glasgow. And I suspect that Cambridge might actually turn out relatively well in terms of employability.

    As for collegiality and teamworking, and admin skills, frankly I remain to be convinced that that is what most universities are actually interested in (maybe MMU is an exception). At least, I had a background in administration and team work on projects that was probably more substantial than most candidates for lectureships (from my time as a librarian), and I couldn’t get myself shortlisted. And there have been a number of cases where people have got posts even though they’re not specialists in the field originally advertised, because their face happened to fit.

    In some ways this is the most frustrating thing. If I knew I needed X, Y or Z to get a lecturing job, I could at least have tried to get those skills/experiences. But if it depends on more subjective criteria, you’re just left floundering.


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