Interested in doing a PhD in Economic History?


Update: see here for an ongoing UoM opportunity if you are interested in a PhD in History and here if you are intested in a PhD in Economics. Under both tracks you can then specialize in Economic History and possibly work under my supervision.

First, if you’re not sure about what economic history is, or if a PhD is what you want, read this post.

This blog’s most popular post of all time is my post from 2 years ago where I write about “Where can you study for a MA/MSc in Economic History?” Since writing then, students have asked me to do the same for PhDs, including a couple of people who commented on the previous post.

I will start by saying that if you are reading this in February 2019, then you are still in time to apply to the ESRC 4-years fully funded PhD position which is now open. This is specifically to work with me, Nuno Palma, and Prof. Akos Valentinyi) on an Economic History dissertation. In this case, it needs to be on a specific topic, as described in the ad, due to the nature of the funding.

But every year we also accept applications for our regular PhD program at the University of Manchester, where you can write a PhD dissertation focused on economic history, focusing on a topic of your own choice. See the program details and our placement record here. If accepted, usually I’ll be your supervisor since I’m the department of economics’ economic historian; but we have plenty of other economic historians in the History faculty as well, and you will also benefit from discussing with other economists in my department. We give up to 10 full scholarships per year, and some students come in with external funding. If you are interested, send me an email with a 1-page research proposal including: a) what is the question you want to answer? b) what kind of data are you planning to use? and c) what methods are you planning to use? Of course, you don’t have to know everything at this point, but it’s still a helpful exercise to try this out.

update: we’ve now hired another faculty member working on economic history in the Economics department; Guillaume Blanc.

In terms of alternative schools, I’ll focus especially on Europe in this post (and I’m sure there are great places that I am not thinking of at the moment!). In Europe, we have some of the best universities in the world for doing a PhD focused on Economic History. This is one of the few fields in economics where I think European institutions really are on par if not ahead of the best US universities. This is related to factors beyond the scope of this post, but one factor which helps is the wealth of archival material that we have in Europe.

In England, the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, the University of Warwick, and my own University of Manchester are all recommended. Oxford and the LSE have what is probably the biggest concentration of economic historians in the world. The research group of Oxford is exceptional, and the Department of Economic History of the LSE also has some of my favorite economic historians (though they seem to have very limited funding for Economic History PhD students, unfortunately; the situation is different in Economics). Cambridge doesn’t have as many people, but is also good, having the excellent Sheilagh Ogilvie in the economics department, and people such as Chris Briggs in the Faculty of History. The Cambridge Population group also has people working on related topics.

Update: Sheilagh Ogilvie has left Cambridge for Oxford, making the latter university even a stronger option for economic history that it already was.

Oxford offers a DPhil in Economic and Social History, and the LSE a PhD in Economic History; but if you have more technical training you may prefer to do a PhD economics (the LSE’s department of Economics does have an economic historian, and an excellent one: Jeremiah Dittmar). But even before he was hired, people such as Reka Juhasz were writing Economic History dissertations with other supervisors in the department of economics. I’d say that the LSE’s economics department has many open-minded faculty members which you could talk to. I myself work with Tim Besley (and other co-authors) on matters related to economic history. Tim is not an economic historian, but he is open-minded about economic history as a field. Also in the UK, but in Northern Ireland, Queen’s University Centre for Economic History in Belfast also has a good group and PhD program for studying economic history.

There are other places in Europe which have consistently produced good economic historians. In the Netherlands, the University of Utrech has the biggest concentration of economic historians, which include the world-class Jan Luiten van Zanden, among several other excellent faculty members. They always have lively seminars. The University of Groningen, where I worked two years, has economic historians in both the History and the Economics departments. They have the Maddison project there, and an annual Maddison lecture on topics generally related to economic history. There are also regular economic history (and growth/development) seminars. Either would be a very viable option to do a PhD specializing in Economic History. See also the Posthumus Institute , which offers a PhD program. Wageningen University also comes to mind as another place that is active in economic history.

In Spain, Carlos III has a PhD program in Economic History, and a regular seminar. The University of Barcelona and others have departments of economic history with good faculty.

In Germany, Joerg Baten has had many successful students at Tuebingen.

In Italy, the EUI (which is not really just Italian) has traditionally produced economic historians coming out of their History and Civilization department. In Rome, Sapienza has a good scholar, Mauro Rota.

Update: Sapienza has now hired Jacob Weisdorf, a top economic historian.

In Sweden, there are several departments of Economic History, but the University of Lund comes to mind as the best, measured by the quality and quantity of their faculty members and students. They offer a PhD programme in Economic History.

In Denmark, both the University of Copenhagen and especially the University of Southern Denmark have an excellent concentration of scholars and offer PhD programs where you can write economic history dissertations.

In Switzerland, the University of Zurich has Joachim Voth, who is very good and has had many exceptionally successful students over the years.

In the USA, economic history is typically done in departments of economics, which usually only have one or two economic historians (or, very often, zero). Several good economics departments such as Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Berkeley,  Stanford, UCLA and UC-Davis, among others, have produced stellar economic historians over the years. It should be noted that you need a very solid mathematical background to enter these programs. My sense is that in some cases, you are also likely to have less freedom in choice of research topic than you would have had in Europe. Some individuals might might like the spoon-feeding, others not. US History departments are generally not recommended, at least if you want to the quantitative, comparative sort of economic history which gets published in the best economic history journals. There may be some exceptions to this rule, but not many.

The website has an old list of places that offer PhD programs (generally in economics) where you can specialize in Economic History, with a special focus on the US. It should be noted, however, that this list is very out of date – some of these places don’t have an economic history faculty member anymore, and some of the people listed as part of a particular university have since moved (for example, as noted above, Joachim Voth is no longer at Pompeu Fabra).

This actually illustrates that fact that this post which you are now reading will also become outdated with time. Faculty members do sometimes change universities (or retire, or simply stop producing research; you should aim to have a supervisor who is still active in research). So, if you are particularly interested in working with someone in particular, be sure to check where they are when you read this post, and what their current research interests are. In any case you should not decide on an institution solely based on the presence of just one given faculty member. Choose a department which is good overall, even if the presence of someone whose research you like can be a factor you take into consideration. Beyond research, not all supervisors are the same in this role either: if you can, speak with their former students, ask around how they behave.

If I was you, I’d have a look at all the programs which I mentioned above and apply to all of those that you feel would be a good fit for you. If you are an undergraduate student, you need to realize that admission to PhD programs (especially with full funding) is very competitive these days (you probably already know that!). So, it may make sense to do a MSc first – you can read my previous post about that here.

If you come from a background in History and want to write an Economic History dissertation in a History department, you could consider this ongoing UoM opportunity.

Remember the endline: two of the most important things about a department are: a) do they offer funding? b) will you have the freedom to work in what you like? and c) how does their placement record look like? you do need a job after you PhD! so, getting in touch with faculty and especially current PhD students may be the best way of finding out these things.

Good luck!

addendum: Eric Monnet points out in Twitter that in France, the Paris School of Economics is also a good option. And that in turn reminded me that Touloluse, which is a very good economics department, has one of my favorite young economic historians, Mohamed Saleh.

This has also reminded me that other parts of the world could also make sense, especially if you plan to write about certain country-specific topics. For instance, Stellenbosch University has several scholars, including for instance Johan Fourie, who specialize in African economic history – arguably one of areas of the field with more growth potential.

There are surely many other good options. As I mentioned, I never had the intention of being systematic or writing an exaustive list. Do not assume that if I haven’t mentioned a particular department it is because it must not be good. While not all departments are viable for economic history (usually because no economic historian exists there!), the point of the list above is simply to help you get started in looking at some viable options.

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