Tag Archives: Education

For students: What’s the point of economic history?

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!

The University of Manchester

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, focusing on a topic of your own choice. 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 about 10 full scholarships per year, and more students come in with external funding. If you are interested, drop 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.

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 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 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 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 eh.net 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