The over-production of medieval historians

One more post on the academic job market, from a slightly broader perspective. I was going to follow up my post on the careers of Cambridge medievalists with something similar for those who got PhDs in medieval history from any UK university in a recent year, but when I went to the obvious starting point, the IHR’s List of theses completed, I realised that wasn’t feasible. There are just too many people who’ve done PhDs in medieval history in any year to be able to trace easily. That immediately got me thinking about the possible over-production of medievalists. If there are eighty odd students getting PhDs every year in medieval history, then clearly there won’t be enough jobs for the majority of them. The obvious question then arises: ‘how long has this been going on for?’ (Obvious for a historian, that is: an economist would immediately consider how to reduce the supply of medieval historians, a lawyer would first contemplate whether the owner of a useless PhD in medieval history can sue someone).

While I was thinking about this, I stumbled on another bit of the IHR’s site: Making History, which discusses the ‘changing face of the profession in Britain’ and helpfully has various data-sets on the number of theses produced in Britain in the last century, as well as statistics on the numbers of history teachers in higher education.

What I have therefore done is a bit of crude data crunching on these two sets, to get some sense of trends. (Those who use statistics professionally should probably look away now). I started by working out the mean numbers of theses per year for various periods from 1901 onwards (a lot of the early data provided by the IHR is clumped together). I did this for Medieval Europe, Medieval British Isles and all history theses. To compare the trends better I then indexed them all to 1971-1980 (because I always find it hard to estimate relative changes in charts where every dataset is going up). Finally, I added in an index of the number of history teachers at the end of each period, to give an idea of comparative changes in these figures. And the result is:

phd graph 1

Surprisingly, the overall supply of history PhDs doesn’t look to be out of balance with the number of teaching jobs (or at least no more out of balance than it has been for the last 30 odd years). On the other hand, the last 10 years has seen a definite surge of medieval doctorates, and in particular the chart suggests that medieval European historians (like me) are now being produced at a rate far greater than the teaching system is able to absorb them. What the IHR figures don’t show (and would probably depress us all even further if they did) is how the growth in the number of teachers breaks down by specialism. I suspect the growth has been in non-medieval periods, and so the relative chances for medievalists have actually got worse. It’s of course, entirely possible that there will be another slump in interest in medieval history (as there was in the 1980s) which might restore the balance, but that isn’t necessarily going to happen soon, not when we’re all doing our best to make medieval history seem really interesting.

[UPDATE: I mucked up one statistics (for numbers of teachers in 1980), so have replaced this and redone the graph.]


11 thoughts on “The over-production of medieval historians

  1. There’s an assumption here that people study something in order to get a job that is related to it, I feel. Whatever happened to the idea of studying something because it interests one?

    I know somebody with degrees in Philosophy and Theology, who is a very successful computer project manager…


    • I doubt whether anyone decides to do a PhD in medieval history primarily in order to get a job (at least not if they’ve had decent careers advice). There are much easier ways to make a living. It’s extremely hard to complete a history PhD unless history really fascinates you, and it therefore seems worth reading a book in German about early medieval regulations on usury or 500 formulaic Latin chaters, rather than giving up and going and watching the TV, like any normal person.

      I (and my medievalist friends) love studying history and we’d like to have jobs doing that. I don’t think that’s any stranger than a would-be novelist wanting to get published or a keen actor hoping for a professional. career.

      Why shouldn’t we be happy just being amateur historians? Some of us will have to be content with that. But at the level some of us are working at (doing original research), it’s difficult if you’re not in an academic institution. You need access to specialist books and databases: my local library doesn’t stock ‘Francia’ or even ‘Early medieval Europe’. You need to attend conferences, perhaps travel abroad to use archives. Above all, you need time to read, to think about your research, to write and rewrite drafts. It’s possible to fit that round a full-time career in another field, but it’s very difficult. I know a very promising researcher on early medieval sermons who’s gone to work in the Foreign Office. He’ll probably end up being better paid than most medievalists ever will, but I still wouldn’t trade that for having to give up the chance for research, as he.


      • I’m lazy, so I do research into my area of interest, Rebetiko music, without the formality of a PhD at the end of it, if there was even likely to be an end… I have learned a fair bit of Greek on the way, but as you might guess, 1930s Greek drug slang has little current application.


  2. This has been a conversation in the US for some time now, for most of the Humanities. One of the results of the overproduction of PhDs is that places that traditionally only required a Master’s degree for employment are now often ignoring the MAs, and hiring people with PhDs. As the MA becomes more useless (too much for entry-level work in the public schools, but not necessarily a bad thing for elite private schools, which are also feeding on the glut of extra PhDs), fewer people are willing ot take the terminal Master’s, and go straight to the PhD.

    We’re now at a point where community colleges — which offer a two-year degree and are geared towards three things: vocational training; providing a cost-effective way of getting first- and second-year coursework out of the way without paying full Uni fees; and giving another chance to those people who did badly in secondary school, but have decided they now want to pursue a Uni degree — are requiring faculty who regularly teach 15 lecture hours a week to produce articles in major journals (and some are requiring monographs!) for tenure.

    It’s mad, I tell you.

    From what I can tell of the UK system, much of the overproduction seems tied into the weirdness that is the RAE. There seems to be an awful lot of potential for damage to students built into the rankings and funding system.


    • I think my argument would be that there isn’t actually any new over-production of history PhDs as a whole. In 1971-1980 there were on average 442 new history PhDs each year and in 1980 there were 1995 history teachers in HE. So each year, the equivalent of 22% of the workforce got PhDs. In 2001-2005, there were on average 564 new history PhDs each year and in 2008 there were 2961 history teachers. That means each year the equivalent of 19% of the workforce got PhDs.

      So while there is an general oversupply problem of history PhDs, it hasn’t changed substantially from the 1970s. I think the recent problem is more localised than that, and largely confined to medieval history. It’s those that are being over-produced, ironically, probably because of some really good medievalists who got into the field in the 1970s, when it was in the doldrums in the UK.


  3. Another related thing lurking under the surface (or maybe not “lurking” so much) is that training grad students brings prestige & $ to the institution, so you’re expected to do so, even if it’s not such a great idea.

    An anecdote: friend of mine was at a faculty meeting where they were talking about graduate programs at their school. They looked at my friend (a pre-tenure professor) and said, “Well, you’d like to turn out some Medieval PhD’s at some point, right?” He just weakly smiled and changed the subject. The thing my friend couldn’t say was, “Why the heck would I want to do that HERE?” I don’t think that question occurred to his colleagues…


  4. OMG, Matt — I’ve heard that at SLAC! two (of three) departmental colleagues would like to offer an MA, and there is community support. Fortunately, I can look at them as if they’re mad and point out that it’s not even on the horizon of the realm of distant possibility.

    But that is one of the points I was trying to make about the RAE.


  5. I am sorry to be late in contributing to this highly interesting and, indeed, important debate. I undertook my own doctoral studies in the mid-1960s when the great post-Robbins expansion of U.K. universities was under way. The growth in the number of posts in history departments meant that people who would not otherwise have found academic positions were appointed. I was just too late because the contraction in British universities began just as I was approaching the end of my studies and, despite having won national prizes, I could not find a job. So I found work as a researcher in the House of Commons where I stayed for over a quarter of a century. But I did not give up on academic history. I went on conducting my research and publishing articles in historical journals. Eventually, I got a part-time job working for the Open University as a Tutor and have since become a Research Fellow at another university. Fortunately for me, I had relatively easy access to major university libraries like the C.U.L,to the B.L. and to the IHR. History was the profession I had chosen when I was fifteen years’ old. I stuck to it even in the bleakest, most depressing years and, in the end, found a niche within it for myself. I had no choice. May I respectfully suggest that, if others are committed too, that they can go on working as historians and will find their place inside or outside formal university structures too.


    • Christopher,

      I’m impressed by your dedication, but I think it has become harder to do what you did, becasue of the changing nature of employment. To combine being a historian with full-time employment of another kind is much easier if you have a job which is reasonably paid, does not require excessive hours, is fairly secure and is near to major research libraries. Such kinds of jobs are increasingly difficult to find. There have been important historians who have been civil servants (like Alan Bray) or in adult education (like E.P Thompson), but in both these fields jobs have become less secure and relatively less well paid in the last 20-30 years. And school teaching and being a parish cleric (two other fields traditionally associated with amateur scholarship) are much more demanding roles than they used to be. If you are expected to put in 50 hour working weeks, if you have to spend several hours a day commuting because you cannot afford to live near your work, if you regularly face the stress of your job being ‘restructured’ or your contract ending, it’s harder to find the time and emotional energy to spend in researching, especially when there’s ever more secondary literature you need to read. (And do you want to spend half of your 4 weeks annual leave in an archive, rather than on the beach with your friends and family?)

      The friends I know who have done their PhDs and got non-academic jobs are unlikely to go on researching, not because they’re not serious about historical study, but because their jobs are too demanding in terms of time and effort to combine easily with substantial fresh research. History as vocation is a fine ideal (I’m in the lucky position where I may be able to aspire to that), but history as an ascetic vocation, where you must sacrifice social life, money and career progression is asking too much of many would-be scholars.


  6. Magistra,
    Many thanks for your response. I had not expected so full or immediate a reply. In my own case, I was lucky. I did have to commute for c.4-5 hours a day but only for three days a week. I also lived after 1985 within 15 minutes walk of a university library and within two hours’ drive of the C.U.L. So I had the time and the inclination to continue my research and writing and publishing. The techniques I had learnt as a postgraduate were, in any event, directly applicable to the paid work I was doing at Westminster and I was teaching undergraduates from 1987. No beach ever appealed to me at all and I always regarded a trip to the Manuscript Room of the B.L. or Duke Humphrey in Bodley as well worth the time, travel and costs. I did get to be a full-time academic historian in the end. The journey was well worth it, which is why I would encourage others to make it. Being a historian is the most satisfying vocation of all.


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