by Andrew Mackley ¦

I love history, and despite the problems and anxieties which came with being a postgraduate researcher, I loved researching and writing my History PhD thesis.  But I never had a great ambition to carve out a life-long career in academia.  Sure, I entertained the thought when I started the thesis – I had just been awarded funding to conduct my dream project at a prestigious university under the supervision of a brilliant historian.  But after a while, when I began to encounter problems in my project, and after hearing for the umpteenth time about how dreadful the academic job market was – as it still is – I came swiftly to the conclusion that, once the thesis was submitted, I would endeavor to leave the academy.

I realise this may not be what many readers of this blog want to hear (or read).  Many of you spend a huge amount of time and energy as postgraduate researchers with one eye on the post-doctoral academic career which you hope will be yours after that glorious day of submission.  That is a noble ambition, and my very best wishes to you in your endeavours.  But this blog post is directed at those who have decided, or are at least inclined, to call it a day after the thesis is complete, and suggests what they might to do instead.

An historian who wants to leave academia

Firstly, making an early decision to leave academia once you have finished your thesis is a huge weight off your shoulders while you are still completing it.  You don’t need to clear all the hurdles that PhD students who want to make it in academia feel they have to in order to ‘pad-out’ their CVs, such as attending and/or presenting at multiple unnecessary, expensive, and time-consuming conferences.  By all means go to those which you know will be of use to you in order to encourage the percolation of ideas for your thesis, or if you wish to test lines of argument on a wider academic audience outside your normal university environment.  But you need not worry about presenting rushed papers based on half-formed ideas and only a partial acquaintance with the archival evidence, and you certainly don’t need to be concerned about publishing for the sake of it.  Try to resist all but the most relevant CfPs and focus simply on making your thesis as good as it can possibly be as soon as you can possibly manage.  That, after all, will be the most impressive item on your CV for whatever career path you choose ultimately to take.

Secondly, you may wish to think about which alternative career to academia you wish to pursue.  This is not something you need to worry about, or a decision you need to take, until you are relatively close to sending that PDF file to the binders.  If I may, however, I would like to submit a specific suggestion which I hope more historians may take.  That is, consider a career in public policy research and analysis.

Public policy as an alternative career for the post-doctoral historian

For me this was a relatively easy decision.  My thesis examined Scottish and British political history, owing to my fascination with politics and policy, and I would procrastinate when writing my thesis by following obsessively daily political events – however inconsequential – and keeping up-to-date with the latest policy research, particularly that relating to constitutional affairs.  Following the submission of my thesis, I secured employment as a researcher in health and social policy, and it is a job from which I derive much satisfaction and, I hope, the beginning of a long and happy career.  It is also, crucially, a job for which I feel very well-equipped because of my background in historical research at a doctoral level.  Importantly, I do not feel as though I have stopped being an historian simply because I have left academia.  I have produced a thesis of which I am very proud, and I have plans to publish some of its findings and arguments, and have ideas about how to take my research forward whilst remaining a full-time policy researcher.

The importance of historians to public policy

But why a career in policy research and analysis?  Why not politics itself, or even journalism?  Well, I am increasingly of the opinion that policy research, analysis and development, whether in government or in think tanks, ought to draw far more heavily upon the skills and knowledge offered by historians, particularly those who have conducted doctoral research.  Within the world of public policy, a high premium is placed upon scientists, mathematicians, political scientists, economists, statisticians, and lawyers – understandably given the vital expertise they have to offer – and there is therefore an abundance of them in the policy-making process.  But there is, seemingly, no great drive to recruit historians, despite the crucial and potentially unique contributions they might make.

This may, partly, be a consequence of historians’ caution to avoid allowing modern events to skew their views of the past.  Equally, it may be that historians are viewed by those outside academia as quaint scholars with niche interests in the past which aren’t of much relevance to the ‘real world’.  On rare occasions when historical expertise has been deemed requisite as part of policy-making, it has been contracted out temporarily to established university-based academics anxious to demonstrate ‘impact’, in place of any attempt to bring in historians to play a long-term role in the process.  While there are organisations, such as the estimable History & Policy project, which seek to promote ‘better public policy through a greater understanding of history’, more should be done a) by public policy institutions to recruit historians to play a full-time role and b) by historians to view the public policy avenue as a viable, and even desirable, alternative career-path, and to demonstrate that they have various important contributions to make.

This should be done, I would argue, for two broad reasons:

  • Historians, particularly those who have a background in serious original scholarship, have a broad and well-developed set of skills which are easily transferable and should be harnessed and exploited to enhance the policy-making process. They can carry out extensive research, both primary and secondary, and are past-masters at finding the needle in the archival haystack.  They can consult and assimilate voluminous literature and source materials in a short order and can extract key findings from them.  Moreover, historians worth their salt do not simply ‘report’ on their research, but use it to produce high quality empirically-informed analysis and considered arguments following a great deal of sophisticated thought and deliberation, and do so (or should do so) with tenacious independence, free of agenda, political or otherwise.  They do so usually through first-class written work which is clear, fluid, elegant, and precise; or they present orally at the various seminars and conferences which are a staple of academic life, and which encourage historians to be articulate, agile, and (preferably, although not always, politely) robust.  They are therefore a potentially vital, and largely untapped, resource for policy-makers who require impartial and authoritative research and analysis.
  • Academic historians have unrivalled knowledge and expertise about the past and can provide historical perspective which is often lacking in the policy-making process. They are inherently curious about how the modern world came to exist and are keenly aware of long-term social, economic, cultural and political trends and contexts in which policy decisions are made.  That is not to say necessarily that historians can prevent policy errors by identifying them as ‘history repeating itself’.  They view previous political events and decision-makers in their, often very different, historical contexts and do not read history backwards which is all too prevalent among some policy-makers who claim to have an awareness of the past.  Nevertheless, the saying – often attributed to Mark Twain – that ‘history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme’ has some currency, particularly in testing and changing times which some might claim erroneously are new and without parallel.

Your country needs you!

As a result of these considerations, it is a wonder that a generation of historians with PhDs who are struggling to survive in a much-saturated academic job market are not being dragooned in large numbers into the policy-making process.  But as they are not, it is incumbent upon those historians who might consider a career in this field to emphasise their potential importance to it.  It is true that the vast number of policy jobs in the UK, such as in the civil service, think tanks, or in Parliament, are very competitive and London-based, which might repel some as much as it might appeal to others.  But it is also true that, as devolution and government decentralisation extends and intensifies, both in the devolved legislatures and administrations around the UK, as well as a result of the renewed importance of local government in parts of urban England in combined authorities and with metro mayors, policy researchers are in demand increasingly in different parts of the country.  There is arguably no better time for historians to get involved.  One might even say that their country needs them…


Andrew Mackley is a former AHRC-funded DPhil candidate in History at Linacre College, University of Oxford, who produced a thesis entitled: ‘The Interest of ‘North Britain’: Scottish Lobbying, the Westminster Parliament, and the British Union-State, c.1760-c.1830’.  He now works as a researcher in Health and Social Policy.  He is on Twitter as AndrewMackley88.

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