Due to this post, I often get students from all over the world writing me for advice. Today, I got an email from a student. He writes a long email which includes the following, which I copy here with his permission, having edited it lightly:
“I have a strong interest in economic-historical disciplines, especially in quantitative economic history. I would like to ask some sort of philosophical question (that is really important to me) about research in quantitative economic history, and about career perspectives in the field.
I really like the field of quantitative economic history. In my opinion, it represents a really beautiful unity of economics, history and mathematics […] It is always interesting to get to know new insights about how it all worked in the past and what was the precise quantitative effect of A on B. With no doubt, quantitative economic history helps us to expand our understanding of historical development.
But it has started to bother me that it is all just about the past. Yes, quantitative economic history can help us to shed new light on some aspects of historical events and processes, but how can it reflect on the contemporary world? How can we use the knowledge in our modern reality? I mean, all that researches are fascinating indeed, but the fact that even the most brilliant results of them can’t change the world and give humans something valuable (except the renewed and more comprehensive understanding of investigated historical processes, of course). Probably, it sounds a little bit dramatic, but now I am really concerned with the question: how (quantitative) economic history can be useful for society? I would appreciate much if you share with me what do you think about this all.
Also, tell me, please, what fields you think are the most perspective areas of research in (quantitative) economic history nowadays and near future? And what career opportunities do exist for a person who is interested in the area (for example, what to do after a PhD).“
There are quite a few different questions here, but they are common ones, so allow me to break this down into two parts.
First, does economic history have any lessons for the present, and indeed the future? I suspect that the feeling that it perhaps does not is also present in the minds of some journalists, politicians, and members of the public. That perception is mistaken, yet it is curious that it doesn’t happen as often about economics. Part of the reason is that not many understand that economics itself needs economic history; just like “the past has useful economics” (a separate discussion, really). I recommend you read O’Rourke’s essay which explains these issues better than I can do here in a short blog post. Although he focuses more on pedagogical aspects that on economic policy, the link should become more evident. Think for a moment: to understand the world we live in today, we need to understand how we got here. So, context matters, and history matters, especially given that so many development outcomes we are about are path-dependent.
Second, about career opportunities. What follows is my viewpoint and others may give you different advice, of course. In my personal opinion, no one should pursue a PhD in Economics or Economic History unless they are sure that they want an academic career. You can change your mind later, of course, and that’s fine. But if you already know that it’s not what you want, then it’s almost surely not for you, and your effort will reveal itself most likely a waste of everyone’s time. It is true that some international policy-type instituons such as the IMF or the World Bank may also require a PhD for certain jobs, and you may be interested in such opportunities too. But whatever you do, the key advice is this: don’t start a PhD just because you want to delay getting a “real” job.
For those who do want to pursue such a PhD in these fields, getting an academic or policy job afterwards is relatively easy compared with other areas of knowledge. There is almost no unemployment, though as in the rest of the labor market for high human capital, the best jobs are getting increasingly harder to get. The quality of the job you will ultimately get will depend of course on the quality of the work you did, and on the quality of the program you enrolled and how well it fit your profile, among other factors. It’s always a good idea to ask any given program which you are considering for their placement history: how well have recent graduates done? And before deciding, make sure to speak with a few current students there, too.
My main advice is: you should do it only if you really like what academic research is all about; financially, there are better opportunities out there, and potentially requiring less hard work too. So, you are now better informed but in the end of the day only you can answer your own question. My hope is that my advice can usefully contribute to your reflection!