Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Interested in doing a PhD in Economic History?


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 (usually I’d 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). We give about 10 full scholarships per year, and more students come in with external funding.

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 in 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 the UK, the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, the University of Cambridge, 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. 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.

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 at that, 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.

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.

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 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 top economics departments such as Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Berkeley,  Stanford, and UCLA have produced stellar economic historians over the years. It should be noted that you need a very solid mathematical background to enter these programs. 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). So, if you are particularly interested in working with someone in particular who I mention here, be sure to check where they are when you read this post. 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.

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.

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


Paul Romer: the view from Economic History

In this post I write about the connections between Paul Romer’s work, which is essentially applied theory, and the empirical work on long-run economic growth done by economic historians. How was Romer influenced by the work of economic historians? has he influenced economic history? and have his theories been confirmed by the recent work of economic historians? (preview: I will argue that the answers are: yes; not much; and no).

Addendum shortly after publishing: my point above is not that Romer is wrong in general; in fact some of his ideas *about ideas* are fundamental for us to think about growth in the past. (Read on if this isn’t clear yet.)

Paul Romer’s was a well-deserved and long-anticipated prize. Many predicted he would eventually win, including myself in my very first academic article, written when I was a undergradute and published in 2008. (alternatively, click here for an ungated version). I now find it mildly amusing how assertive I was when I wrote: “Paul Romer is going to win the Nobel Prize in economics”. I continue to believe that this was a good choice.

Many have written about the nature of his main contributions, all of which, as I have said, have been on applied theory; see for instance, see the posts in Dietrich Vollrath’s blog, here and here, or in Paul Romer’s own blog.

Romer’s work had some influence on economic history, but not much. There is, for instance, a 1995 article by Nick Crafts which looks at the Industrial Revolution from a New Growth perspective, but it is fair to say that economic historians were perhaps not quick to pick up the New Growth theory train. Part of this was surely because its implications seemed to apply mostly to frontier economies and did not seem to apply to much of human history, a limitation which Unified Growth Theory would later attempt to overcome.

And yet, Romer himself has often spoken about economic history and relied on the data of economic historians. He now seems to have won mostly due to his 1990 article, but his earlier work on increasing returns (ungated version here) had a graph from Maddison, for instance (he discusses how Maddison influenced him here). And the process of growth itself was documented by economic historians using graphs such as the following; as my friend Max Roser tweeted:

(as a side note: Max, the source for this is not the Bank of England; it is Broadberry, Campbell, Klein, Overton, and van Leeuwen; empirical work is very demanding, so citations need to be fair with the people who did the hard work in putting these figures together).

One of the most empirical papers Romer has written is “Why indeed in America?”,  which was the culmination of much of what he had done before. It was also one of the last papers he wrote before entering a writing hiatus. In this paper he explicitly argues for the complementarity of economic history and growth theory. He argues that the USA achieved economic supremacy after 1870 due to having the largest integrated market in the world. He writes:

“differences in saving and education do not explain why growth was so much faster in the United States than it was in Britain around the turn of this century. In 1870, per capita income in the United States was 75 percent of per capita income in Britain. By 1929, it had increased to 130 percent. In the intervening decades, years of education per worker increased by a factor of 2.2 in Britain and by a nearly identical factor of 2.3 in the United States. In 1929, this variable remained slightly lower in the United States. (Data are taken from Angus Maddison [1995].”

Notice that there are three empirical statements here. Romer’s story builds on these facts, so if the facts change, the story must too. Theory depends on facts.

The first fact (according to Romer) is that the US only converged to British per capita GDP levels after 1870. Second, that this was not due to matters such as education or savings. Third, the reason was market size. As economic historians, we have made much progress in measuring each of these matters since 1995. Let me consider each in turn.

Timing of convergence of the USA to Britain

The important thing to keep in mind here is that it is by no means certain that the USA had not catched up earlier. The methodological issues are complicated and in fact today’s other (and equally deserving) Nobel prize, Nordhaus, wrote a fascinating paper about the problems involved in these types of measurements. (A popular description of this work can be read here.) As far as USA vs Britain is concerned, though, Marianne Ward and John Devereux summarize the debate as follows:

“Prados De la Escosura (2000) and Ward and Devereux (2003, 2004, 2005) argue for an early US income lead using current price estimates. Broadberry (2003) and Broadberry and Irwin (2006) defend the Maddison projections while Woltjer (2015) hews to a middle ground. The literature has recently taken an unexpected turn as Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, Lindert and Williamson (2016), find a larger US lead before 1870 and one that stretches further back in time than claimed by either Prados De la Escosura (2000) or Ward and Devereux (2005).”

Comparative levels of education

Recent evidence suggests that the average years of post-primary education actually declined in Britain after about 1700. (ungated version here). This was not the case at all in the USA, where it is well-known that the state invested in high schools, so it seems unlikely that average human capital grew at similar levels in the latter part of the 19th century, as Maddison/Romer claimed.

Addendum: minutes ago when I first posted, I initially wrote “post-secondary” where I meant to write “post-primary”

Market size

I used to believe this part of Romer’s story. That was until I read this brilliant paper by Leslie Hannah: “Logistics, Market Size, and Giant Plants in the Early Twentieth Century: A Global View”. (Ungated version here). Notice that Hannah does not refer to Romer’s argument or even cite him. What he does instead is he destroys the commonly held idea that USA’s market size was larger that Europe’s already before the Great War (aka World War I). It is true that the USA had more railroads, but it also had much longer distances. In Northwestern Europe, transportation by a mix of ships, trains and horses was cheaper, especially once we consider the much denser (and highly urbanized) population. It is important to remember that prior to WWI, Europe was living the “first age of globalization”, with high levels of integration and relatively low tariffs.

So, this part of Romer’s story cannot be right.


In conclusion, what does this all mean? will these new facts affect where growth theory will go? only time will tell, and growth theory itself is by no means moving much these days, as Paul Romer himself has addmited in recent interviews. What these facts suggest, though, is that other things must have mattered.

As I said in the beginning, I believe that Paul Romer’s applied theory work is important (as it is that of others that might have won, such as Aghion and Howitt). The natural complementaries between the work of economic historians and applied theorists suggest that we need to listen to each other in order for science to move forward. Hopefully, new generations of economists will do a bit of both, as have some people who now work on Unified Growth.

But in the future, it is fair that the Nobel committee gives more prizes to empirical work as well. Because theory can’t live without facts, but economics Nobels have been highly biased towards theorists (whether pure or applied).

Final addendum, about one hour later than the original post: Max Roser read this post and has now corrected the citation. This is not the first time I give him a slap on the wrist about this sort of thing, but I know that Max, who is a friend and a promoter extraordinaire of this sort of work, is well-intentioned. Yet it is crucial that we insist on this being done fairly everytime, because if even Max occasionally does this wrong, that shows that this is the sort of thing that easily happens. The root cause is indirect citations, i.e. citation of someone who cited the data instead of citing the original work. Doing this takes credit away from those who did the basic empirical work, even when that is unintentional. So we all need to be careful to cite those who produced the original data.





Where can you study for a Masters in Economic History?

If you are interested in why some countries became rich and others stayed poor, then a Masters in Economic History could be the degree you are looking for.

While development economics and development studies study poverty today, much (but by no means all) of economic history concerns why some countries managed to escape poverty (all countries started poor) and others didn’t. This too has important lessons for poor countries today.

There are other reasons to study economic history, and the field is about other things as well. But to stay focused let’s discuss this one. When undergraduate students tell me that they would like to study more economic history, this is the usual reason they point out. It was also what attracted me to the field from the start.

This post is written for all students who wish some guidance in this matter, and possibly for some teachers who may wish to direct them as well. There is an earlier list by but it is rather incomplete insofar as European schools are concerned, seems to be outdated, and does not distinguish MSc from PhD programs (that is, many of the schools it lists are US schools that do not offer a terminal MSc degree).

Employers tend place good value in masters in economic history, which they see as presenting a good balance between the quantitative skills of economics and the essay-writing craftsmanship of history.

Of course, a Masters in Economic History can be also a good entry point for a PhD in economic history itself, or one in economics, in history, or in related fields such as political science.

My review below will be centered on good schools in Europe. My choice of which schools are included was inevitably somewhat arbitrary and by no means are all good programs included. Most of the programs below are taught in English. (Though I should write here as a disclaimer that anything they announce is their responsibility!)

Note that in the USA students in economics-related fields go straight to PhD and there is no emphasis in independent masters in such areas. My list is based on schools and programs I have had some sort of direct or indirect contact with. The list below is in no particular order –any of these programs should give you a good education.


In the United Kingdom there is a lot on offer:

Several universities in Spain have departments of economic history and offer such masters. Here I list three:

In Sweden, there are also several departments of economic history.

Again, let me emphasize that I am not endorsing any of these programs; this list is just to get you started. Many things vary here, including cost. If your favorite school or program isn’t listed, that doesn’t mean that it’s not good. I welcome further suggestions to be added.

Bear in mind that if you want to do a PhD in Economics at a top school, a Masters in Economics is a better bet from a technical perspective, even if you later want to specialize in economic history (of the cliometric kind), despite the fact that an MSc in Economic History would expose you to a different set of ideas and methods. If your first degree is from a North American institution, then know that for PhDs in economics at top US schools, a background in maths or computer science may be more appropriate than even an economics first degree.

A Masters in Economic History may also not be the best entry point for a PhD in History itself either, since not many (“pure”) history departments are friendly towards the quantitatively-inclined methods of modern economic history, though there are exceptions (or better put, there are history departments where some faculty members will be exceptions).

Nonetheless, some economics departments do offer degrees where you can take a graduate course in economic history, and this may be the right balance you’re looking for. For instance, in my own department at the University of Groningen, many students do a research masters in economics while specializing in economic history, and they sit in a graduate course called “Economic Growth in History” (just like this blog).

Other European places have a concentration of economic historians, despite (to my knowledge) not offering MSc degrees in economic history; but you would certainly be taught by some of them if you take a masters in economics or history; examples include the Historical Economics and Development Group of the University of Southern Denmark, the Center for economic history of Queen’s university, Belfast, and, last but certainly not the least, Utrecht has an important cluster of people working on Economic and Social history.

Update: I have now moved to the University of Manchester. We don’t have a MSc in Economic History, but we have a MA in Economics or a MSc in Economics where you have the option of writing a disseration in Economic History.