Should I do a PhD in history? Which country should I do it in?

Between finishing my PhD last spring and teaching master’s students this term, I have had more conversations than ever before about whether to do a PhD in history and whether to do it in North America or the UK. (Many of the people I have spoken to this year are, like I was, Canadian or American students pursuing master’s degrees in the UK and weighing whether to stay or not.) Finding myself saying the same things repeatedly, I thought I would distill here some of my principles for thinking about these questions.

The usual caveats apply: I benefited from immense structural privilege throughout my higher education, am fortunate to have only a negligible amount of student debt, and do not have any dependents. Your mileage may vary depending on your economic and family situation. 

Principle 1: A PhD is an investment in you, not in a future employment outcome—though it might also be simply the right job for you right now.

Hopefully I am not the first person to tell you this, but there are no jobs. The number of people earning PhDs in history every year far, far outstrips the number of traditional full-time, long-term academic jobs available. This was true before the pandemic and is even more true now. The majority of people who earn a PhD in history statistically will not be able to work in academia long-term, no matter how much they might wish to, how elite the program from which they graduated, and how qualified they might be in other respects. 

Therefore, pursuing a career in academia should never rank top on the list of reasons why you want to do a PhD. Some compelling reasons to pursue a PhD might be because you feel intrinsically excited about the prospect of studying history at graduate level, because there is a particular long-term, book-size research project about which you feel extremely passionate and motivated, or because—regardless of what you wind up doing for a living after—a PhD is the right job for you right now. Graduate school might be the right job for you for all kinds of reasons. A term of at least five years (North America) or three years (UK) of guaranteed employment at a certain minimum standard of living might be more job security than you’ve had previously in your working life. It might be a vehicle for you to move to a certain city to follow your partner’s career or simply for the satisfaction of living there. You may have a clear sense of how you will balance developing a more precarious career (say, as a writer or artist) alongside your PhD work, which might provide an opportunity to pursue that creative work that you might not otherwise have had. (Though doing a PhD can be very all-consuming, and you might find that multitasking more difficult than you anticipated.) Few of us do the same job all of our working lives these days, and there are all kinds of reasons that starting graduate school might be a sensible, stable, and exciting choice for several years, provided that you are clear-eyed about the reality that it will not easily translate into a specific career outcome afterward, and that the work you will wind up doing after may well not be something for which the PhD has specifically qualified you.

For these reasons, I can think of very few circumstances in which one might reasonably want to pay for a PhD. Maybe if one is very wealthy to the point that money is absolutely no object; or if one is older (retired, say) and has a pot of money available specifically to put towards pursuing a passion project. But if you are thinking of starting a PhD in your twenties or thirties, and there is no reason to think of a PhD as an investment in a guaranteed future career outcome, it simply doesn’t make any sense to go into debt for it. You can’t look forward to a return on your investment in a way that you might, say, for American graduate professional degree programs like law school or medical school. I would recommend only pursuing a PhD if you are funded at a standard that is financially feasible for you to live on (taking into account other relevant circumstances like a partner’s income, etc.).

There are, of course, things that you can do both before and during grad school to make yourself the most competitive candidate that you can for academic jobs. Discussing these is somewhat outside the scope of this post, and would also be presumptuous coming from someone who hasn’t (yet?) secured a permanent job in academia. But when you’re just considering whether to apply, the important thing to remember is that there are no guarantees—and indeed, the odds are stacked against you—even if you do everything right.

Principle 2: There is no huge rush to start a PhD.

I often speak to prospective grad students who are anxious about the time commitment involved in a PhD and are eager to get started right away. I would advise against rushing simply for the sake of rushing. Again, there may well not be a long-term career in academia waiting for you on the other side of the PhD, so it is worth taking your time to consider a wide range of career trajectories and try out possible paths. Right after college is the time that it’s easiest to get a short-term fellowship or paid internship to try out a career in journalism or teach English in another country. You can be a paralegal or an editorial assistant for a year or two, then leave it behind if you don’t care for it. All of that is much harder when you’re in your 30s.

Furthermore, starting a PhD in your late 20s or your 30s might be beneficial. You might have some emotional distance from college, and be more prepared to treat the PhD as a job and not as an all-consuming experience (which will help to guard against burnout). You might have had the opportunity to pursue higher-paid employment, or to live with family rent-free, and thus to put some money aside or pay down some debt. To be sure, there’s a balance to be struck here—by the time I finished my PhD at 30, I was very excited to be rid of the minor indignities of being a student and to make slightly more money (as I am extremely fortunate to do in my present position but is of course not guaranteed). And of course not everyone has other job opportunities, and grad school might be the best way to nail down an income right now, to secure a necessary immigration status, or other practical considerations.

If you’re able, though, taking a year or two out after undergrad or a standalone master’s will give you the time to make a considered decision about which programs to apply to and what broad area of research you would like to pursue. (If you are applying to UK PhDs, I would think you would definitely need that time to develop a sophisticated and thorough thesis proposal.) It will also allow you to draw on a completed undergraduate or master’s thesis in your application, showcasing the best evidence of your capacity to take on graduate-level original research. The programs will still be there next cycle, and a year is not very much time. If you don’t quite feel ready to give the applications your best shot, and you’re financially able, then wait.

Principle 3: A UK PhD and a North American PhD are not, actually, the same qualification.

As you probably know, the structure and norms of the PhD in the UK and in the US and Canada are very different. The PhD in North America includes two years of coursework, comprehensive exams, language training, and a fairly substantial teaching load that is at best extremely valuable professional experience and at worst exploitative grunt labor (sometimes it’s both at once). It typically takes 6–7 years, with a standard funding package guaranteeing funding for five of those years and the rest made up with full-time teaching or external fellowships. While at many UK universities grad students do increasingly assume (increasingly exploitative) teaching responsibilities, the degree is still primarily oriented around exclusively writing a thesis. There are no coursework or exams (the one-year standalone masters does not, in my view, approximate the extent of the work one does in the first two or three years of a North American PhD). The degree typically takes around four years, with three of those funded in a standard package. These are different and on some level incomparable experiences, from which one leaves with different skills and having been prepared for different job markets.

My experience of doing my PhD in the US was that the coursework, exams, and teaching experience were absolutely invaluable both in preparing me to write the best dissertation possible and in preparing me to work in academia, including in my current role at a UK university. Like most US PhDs, I did not write the dissertation I imagined that I would write when I applied to my program. The intervening years allowed me to develop a larger and more sophisticated project and to conduct the huge amount of archival research necessary to execute the project. It is difficult to imagine how I could have done as well as I did on the US tenure-track job market last year if I didn’t have the breadth of teaching experience and other professionalization opportunities that I gained through my US PhD; that experience has also served me well in being able to pursue teaching and other professional opportunities within my UK university. My sense, based primarily on my own experience, is that if it is important to you to be legible to and competitive within the academic job markets on both sides of the Atlantic, the North American PhD is the better bet—and well worth the added time commitment, not least because that’s three more years during which one has more secure paid employment than one might have otherwise, which is not something at which any of us can turn up our noses these days.

That said, optimizing your life around the tenure-track academic job market is, for the reasons discussed above, in some sense a fool’s errand, and there are several countervailing reasons one might wish to do a PhD in the UK. A particular supervisor(s), research group, or large research council-funded project who happen to be based at a UK institution might be exactly the right person/people for you to work with. You may actually know that you do not wish to pursue a career in academia after the PhD, and that what you need out of grad school is more of a residential fellowship to write a book, for which three years of income and access to a research library is actually more useful than all the trimmings of a North American PhD. There might be personal/family reasons for you to be living in the UK, and settling in the UK long-term (with an academic job or not) might be your desired outcome. It is always fine to prioritize personal considerations in terms of where to live for grad school! Though sometimes it involves taking into account tradeoffs of various kinds, and it’s important to be clear-eyed about what those tradeoffs are. The important thing to bear in mind is, I think, that if you start a UK PhD with the desire ultimately to seek academic employment in North America, you should be very aggressive from the start about maximizing opportunities such as transferable teaching experience, connecting with North American mentors and peers, etc. so as to counteract some of those transatlantic differences in the nature of the qualification and the academic culture.

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