Are you sure you want an academic job in History?

Are you sure you want an academic job in History?

So, you decided that your ideal job would be that of a University lecturer/ reader/ professor. So, was mine until I found out that the job was not exactly as I dreamed it to be. Actually, it turned out rather grim, stressful and not fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong! I do not want to discourage you from entering the Ivory Tower. However, you should enter with your eyes open and with significantly lower expectations. The requirements to get an academic job are much more demanding.

1. Publish or perish is the motto. Funding, career, promotions, fame, everything is about good quality per reviewed publications. Quantity is also very important. In the UK every five to seven years your publication record will be evaluated. The outcome will determine your position in the department, the security of your job, the funding you will receive, the possibility on getting research leave (or not) etc. In the US publications are crucial in the tenure process. In every other country your publications will be read, assessed and accordingly you will be accepted or not in the innermost circles of the academic community. Surprisingly, Wikipedia is actually a good source of information on the REF

2. It is expected that the future professor would acquire teaching experience in university classes already as a PhD student. Usually PhD students are employed at an hourly rate to deliver seminars or the occasional lecture. More rarely, they co-teach entire modules. The money certainly does not justify the hours put into the preparation of the classes or the correction of scripts. Even so, most PhD students are grateful when they are chosen to help in class because they may be able to get stellar references about their teaching abilities.

3. Conference and seminar organising is another must. Once you manage to put together your first conference, you will be able to gather enough papers for the publication of an edited volume. Moneywise, it is a waste of time. You will spend many hours preparing applications for funding the meals and the accommodation of the participants. It is commonly held that you should not charge the people who attend the conference (although in some of the largest professional conferences it has become common practice). Even if there are no monetary benefits, the networking benefits and the public appeal will pay you back for all your hard work.

4. Raising funding is the main money making activity of the past, present and future academic. There are several national and international bodies that provide grants for the completion of projects. The specifications, eligibility, and regulations differ from one funding body to the other and one grant from the other. The money will cover your expenses in terms of traveling, organising workshops, hiring assistants, publishing a manuscript, buying equipment, or relieving you from the day-to-day work at the ‘mill’. In fact, getting off teaching and administrative duties in order to concentrate on research is the ultimate aim of most professors. Bear in mind that most universities also offer a full year of sabbatical every 6 years of service, which is great when you have a book to finish. During that year it would be advisable to move in a different country and isolate yourself from the rest of the world in order to finish the long-hoped-for book. Since you will be fully paid, you will not be allowed to find alternative employment. The above may change in the near future. Competition between researchers for the meager governmental funding is turning into a prolonged uphill struggle. It is anticipated that such grants will contract even further in the future because of the current economic conditions.

5. The main asset you will acquire as a University teacher will be extensive experience in administration. Many academics abhor the idea of filling forms but this is probably the most useful skill they will ever learn and the only chance to become more street smart. As the education sector contracts and Higher Education is experiencing extensive economic and technological disruption, current staff will need some administrative skills to survive in the real world, if they lose their jobs. Falling back to the accursed administrative experience they acquired over the years may become their salvation. In addition, pursuing a managerial career within the university can be highly rewarding in monetary terms. Salaries can equal those of the most renowned professors, while managers get the chance to lead the large institutions and redefine the working lives of thousands of people.


You probably started wondering which of the above factors is most important in getting and keeping a job in academia. Is it research, teaching, administration? All of the above would be the expected answer of the hiring committees. The truth is, though, that excelling in all academic aspects will certainly not help you. Committees in the UK and I suspect also in some US Universities are looking for a good ‘fit’. They are looking for the collegial person who is a pleasant man/ woman, bails you out when you are sick, picks up the pieces when you have a nervous break down, and cracks all kind of decent (or not) jokes. Bottom line, if they like you, they will hire you! If they don’t like you, you will see your publication record expanding beyond recognition but you will still not be able to put food on the table.

For women the situation is even worse and I don’t think it will change any time soon. Sexual discrimination remains widespread and its impact should not be underestimated. It is not a coincidence that most women in academia remain unmarried and childless, while men rely on their wives to provide some normality to their lives. So, do not anticipate any work/ life balance, no matter what the university leaflets say.

If you manage to get this post in the UK or tenure in the US and get rid of the ‘Adjunct’ title, you will find out that the salary is slightly above the national average. Famous professors in some of the largest research universities may even get the chance to negotiate their remuneration packages! The problem is that only a tiny percentage reaches that level. When I was completing my PhD in UCL (more than 10 years ago) only 1 out of 20 PhDs got a permanent post at a University in my field. In 2004 the American Historical Association announced that since 1994 only 32 % of History PhDs held a post in a department. I suspect, though, that in this percentage they included the adjuncts. Today, the percentage is minimal because most universities simply stopped hiring. And given the fact that the number of ‘Doctors’ multiplied the past decade in order to cover for University costs, you can imagine what the competition is like. Every time a university announces the opening of a new lectureship, they anticipate around 100 or more applications to arrive on their desk. I can assure you that all of these people are highly qualified and desperate for a job.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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