An Academic Career in History
Of the four disciplines on which the MWP Academic Careers Observatory focuses, History is the field in which it seems most difficult to pursue an academic career. First, the academic market in history is more tight and closed than the market in other disciplines. Second, the job market for historians is still highly segmented by country for both scientific and political reasons. National traditions persist regarding the sources historians use and the topics they study, and history continues to be an important factor in the creation of national identity. Partly as a result of this, recruitment procedures, job opportunities etc. differ strongly from one country to another. Ph.D. candidates in history wishing to pursue an academic career therefore would do wise, more than others, to preserve or build up as many contacts as possible within their country of choice.
History is a highly competitive field. It is frequently the case in Britain, Ireland, France and Germany that there are 300 applicants for one job. To obtain a university lectureship job in Britain and Ireland, a outstanding Ph.D. from a good university is required. It is usually necessary to have at least one book publication: a standard requirement for a lectureship is normally that the candidate has revised their Ph.D. dissertation and published it as a book with a reputable academic publisher. At least one journal article in a leading journal in the applicant’s field of specialization is also necessary. Some teaching experience in a university is also usually mandatory. A successful applicant will also require at least two personal references from leading historians in their field.
In France, the situation is even more competitive. Here candidates usually need to have a Ph.D. with the top mark awarded at the soutenance (viva voce) examination – which is a public examination. In France, unlike in Britain and Ireland, a mark is awarded for each Ph.D. dissertation. Job candidates applying for a job as a maître de conférence usually require several book publications, numerous articles in peer review journals and excellent references from leading historians.
Often in Britain, Germany, France and Ireland, only part-time or temporary history positions are available in universities. Increasingly history departments employ newly-qualified historians in a highly temporary capacity on 1-3 year contracts, often not particularly well paid, and on occasion, without any maternity, pension or other benefits.
This has led to a very transitory and precarious existence for those at the start of their career who often have to move university or even country three or four times before finally obtaining a permanent job. This process can last for many years.
In Germany, even though it is no longer officially required to obtain a job, many historians continue to do a Habilitation (a second Ph.D. dissertation which must be on a new topic) after they have finished their first Ph.D. in order to advance their careers. The German system remains highly competitive and finding a permanent job is very difficult with many German historians opting to teach in the UK and the USA.
History remains a subject taught in multiple languages. It is not the norm for departments across Europe to teach courses in English. Therefore historians who wish to work in a country must be absolutely fluent in both writing and speaking the language of that country as they will have to correct essays and write books in that language. This is one reason why historians cannot move job from country to country as easily as other academics. In addition, in Europe, most university departments focus first on teaching the history of their own country; most of the positions they offer will be in their own national history with only a few jobs for the history of other parts of the world.
In Britain and Ireland historians work in universities that combine teaching and research. They usually do both and both aspects are required. There are only a handful of research institutes such as the German Historical Institute, London, the Institute of Historical Research, London (part of the University of London) or the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin which focuses on early Celtic history.
The overwhelming norm remains for an historian to be employed by a university to carry out teaching and research at the same time. Skill in both is necessary for career advancement. Historians are under increasing pressure to take on administrative roles in their universities while still making time for sustained periods of archive research and writing and publishing books. The history monograph remains the key to career advancement and getting a job. Writing books matters much more in history than in other disciplines which are are more journal-oriented.
In France, unlike Britain and Ireland, one can to pursue an academic career solely in research, without teaching. This is because of the existence of state-funded research institutes such as the CRNS and the IHTP.
As historical research is usually not policy relevant, historians have more difficulties to obtain funding (also in the European Union Research Area, if one looks at the conditions of the Seventh Framework Programme) and fewer opportunities to pursue a research career outside academia.
In Britain and Ireland, post-doctoral positions are highly competitive. Again application figures are very high per post-doctoral position available. Oxford and Cambridge post-doctoral positions, known as Junior Research Fellowships, which last from one to three years with relatively poor salaries ranging from £14,000 to £25,000 often have 300-400 applicants for each position. Other post-doctoral opportunities include: the Government of Ireland post-doctoral scholarships (www.irchss.ie) which last up to 3 years at £30,000 per annum; the Arts and Humanities Research Council post-docs in the UK or the Institute of Historical Research London postdoctoral fellowships.
The German Historical Institutes in London, Paris and Washington offer post-doctoral fellowships for those working on German history (these are limited to certain applicant nationalities). For those working on French and German history, the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin offers competitive post-doctoral research fellowships, open to multiple nationalities.
Increasingly, in Germany and France new post-doctoral positions in history are being offered by universities that wish to build a research profile in a particular historical area. It remains by far the norm in Europe that those who hold a post-doctoral research position are full-time researchers, with no teaching, administrative or seminar requirements. The purpose of this is to allow early career historians that all-important chance to carry out archive and library research and to write their books. In Britain and Ireland, this is seen as the function of a post-doctoral year.
In the USA most leading universities have post-doctoral positions: for example, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Research offers highly prestigious post-doctoral positions to historians.
Historians often look to benevolent institutions for research funding throughout their careers; these include the Leverhulme Trust in the UK which provides research funding; the British Council and the Mellon Foundation. State Research Councils also increasingly support historians with funding to help them visit archives for long periods, often a costly exercise. These include: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (www.ahrb.ac.uk) or the Irish Research Council for the Humanties and Social Sciences (www.irchss.ie).
In countries where academics can negotiate their salaries, historians are often paid less than colleagues from other disciplines.
In Britain, history professors are often paid between £80,000–100,000 sterling; in Ireland, salaries are higher with senior professors paid £120,000+ in the NUI universities. The starting salary for a lecturer in Ireland is around £40,000; in the UK it ranges between £25,000–42,000. There is a major difference in salary between those who are appointed as lecturers (known by the title of Dr) and those who are appointed as Professors (known by the title of Professor).
In France, salaries are notably lower. Top level history professors often earn around €60,000. Often those at the start of their careers are badly paid on temporary contracts.
Salaries in the USA remain much higher than those available in Europe. In the US historians can negotiate their salary in many institutions. The system of promotion also differs with historians being appointed at Assistant Professor level prior to gaining tenure based upon a rigorous assessment after a number of years and becoming Associate Professors and later full Professors. It is important to note that in the US all history lectures hold the title of Professor from the assistant professor stage; in Britain and Ireland, the title is only awarded to those most senior historians and should not be used to address junior lecturers who are known as Dr.
Historians look for jobs in the UK and Ireland through the website: www.jobs.ac.uk or the Times Higher Education Supplement. These are the usual source of information about work opportunities in these countries. Historical jobs in Cambridge and Oxford are also advertised in the regular issues of the CambridgeUniversity Reporter. Historians network according to their area of specialization.
In Britain and Ireland, networking is a key part of an historian’s career and organizing and attending conferences is a major part of their workload. Most historians are on mailing lists that provide information about key upcoming conferences or events. Those working on German history are often on the H-Soz-Kult list or Clio-online – these also advertise job opportunities in Germany for historians.
In Britain, those working on France are often on the list of the Group for War and Culture Studies. Those working on First World War Studies are often part of the International Society for First World War Studies. In America, and often in Britain and Ireland as well, historians are usually on at least one of the H-Net sites such as H-War or H-France.
University Departmental Research Seminars in history, which are the norm in the main British, Irish and French universities, usually have their own mailing list to interested historians which keeps them updated about upcoming news or events (e.g. Trinity College Dublin’s mailing lists for its research seminars in modern Irish history and in modern European history). The German Historical Institutes in London, Paris and Washington also have such research seminar mailing lists as does the Institute of Historical Research, London. They also have excellent websites. Postgraduate students are advised to join such research seminars in as many universities as possible working in their area of specialization.
It is the norm for postgraduate history students in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and the USA to be members of mailing lists to keep them updated in their field. It is also the norm for postgraduate students who want an academic career to organize academic conferences during their Ph.D. and, increasingly, for postgraduate students to publish articles. Moreover, with the increase in Europe in comparative history, where Ph.D. students research the history of two or more countries, postgraduate students are increasingly mixing in international networks, facilitated by mailing lists and the internet. This has led to an increased need for postgraduate students to build networks not only in their home country but also in the countries whose history they are studying, as well as the need for them to master several languages.
Collaborative books of edited essays by a number of historians, which often emerge from conferences, have become an increasingly frequent form of publication for historians, although the individual monograph remains the absolute basic for career advancement. Increasingly, historians are making team applications for research funding and forming collaborative working groups that branch across several universities in order to liaise between specialists working on a similar historical theme: see for example the Historial de la Grande Guerre in France which unites 12 leading experts on the Great War, working in universities across Europe and the USA.
Such research networks often organize workshops or conferences that bring specialists in a particular historical area together to debate key issues in their field. Increasingly history departments in Britain and Ireland are founding Research Centres which allow the Department to specialize in a particular historical field, obtain government funding, and to bring experts, both historians and non-historians, from different departments together to study a particular theme. Examples of such research centre are the Cold War Studies Centre at the LSE, London; the Centre for War Studies, Trinity College Dublin and the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham.
There are also a number of very important honorary associations to which leading historians are elected as Fellows such as the Royal Historical Society in Britain or the Royal Irish Academy in Ireland. Membership of these associations is highly prestigious and awarded to established historians who have been outstandingly successful. These associations provide a further level of networking opportunities.
In Britain and Ireland, the Ph.D. in history has changed significantly over the past ten years. In an increasingly competitive environment where university state funding is directly linked to numbers of Ph.D. students and Ph.D. completion rates, universities now offer academic job training as part of the Ph.D. History students are regularly given opportunities to teach in their home university in the second or third year of their thesis. They are also often giving training in teaching, offered language courses and provided with seminars on how to prepare bibliographies, carry out archive and library research and how to network or do a job interview. This sort of training is not yet standard in universities on the continent.
The main problem at present remains the dramatic increase in those doing history Ph.D.s over the past twenty years. This has led to an oversupply of highly qualified candidates for very few academic positions. This situation can only be resolved by an increase in funding for history research and teaching at state and European level leading to the creation of more positions. At present, many of those with a Ph.D. in history in Britain, France and Ireland do not find a job in academia but move to other sectors such as journalism, teaching at secondary school level, or business and industry.
Special thanks to:
MWP, Academic Practice Group, History, 2007-08
Giovanni Federico, Professor, EUI, History Department
Page last updated on 17 August 2017