More World, Less Europe: More on the New PhDs from the SED

Update: I’ve added data from the 2014 survey, released in December 2015, to the visualizations below. It looks like “Africa” did not make the cut as a category in this year, which makes this analysis difficult. Likely the number was small enough to be suppressed to maintain privacy. 

I’m reading Lynn Hunt’s Writing History in the Global Era, which frequently reflects on the geographical broadening of research interests among historians (documented by Robert Townsend here and here, for example). And I was impressed to learn (via HNN) that, in Ohio, Republican State Senator Frank LaRose shepherded a bill to require high school students to take a course in world history before graduation (according to the Plain Dealer, LaRose noted the United States’ mere 4 percent share of the world population and added, “The other 96 percent have a rich history the students need to understand”).

Along similar lines, the latest data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates suggests that more history students are writing their dissertations on parts of the world that are not the United States or Europe. But it also shows that this is a slowly developing trend, and that the allure of studying the history of one’s own country (one that’s been investigated here) isn’t going away.

Rather, it appears that more new PhDs specializing in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa means proportionally fewer students pursuing topics in European history.

  • In 1994, 39 percent of new history PhDs specialized in histories of the US or Canada. In 2013, after a little variation during the intervening 20 years, it was still 39 percent (see the purple bars below).
  • In 1994, 23 percent of new history PhDs specialized in European history. The proportion peaked in 1997 at 26 percent. In 2013, it hit a low of 16 percent (see the green bars below).

By filtering the charts below by gender, you can also see that the shift away from Europe has been more pronounced among women in recent years. In 2008, 24 percent of women who earned a history PhD specialized in European history. In 2013 it was 15 percent. On the other hand, the proportion of male PhDs studying European topics went slightly up during this time and then returned to 17 percent, where it had started (here and elsewhere, I’m rounding to the nearest whole number but leaving decimals in the charts to show small changes).

Hover over the bars below to show percentages for each field by year.

Geographic Specializations of History PhDs

These bulky geographic categories mask all sorts of broad perspectives. I know many PhD students who have a hard time picking just one of these broad regions, and many of  those who easily identify as specializing in one of these regions bring global perspectives to bear. World history isn’t an option on this survey. The SED paints with a broad brush.

But I still think it’s remarkable how little change we have seen in the proportion of PhD students who specialize close to home (I’m one of them, even if my topic might be considered international). And I also wonder if these numbers signal a changing perspective among history students about the relative importance of European history. The combined proportion of new PhDs in histories of the “wider world” has surpassed the proportion of new PhDs specializing in Europe (you can display this below with the “Combine Categories” menu). Will this trend continue? Are we watching the slow eclipse of European history by histories of the rest of the world?

Geographic Specializations: The Last Ten Years

Some notes on these charts

As you can see from the first chart, the SED reports have not been tracking most of these geographic categories for very long. Latin America and Africa started showing up in 2004, and the Middle East in 2007. From 2004-2006, we got gender breakdowns of those specializing in Africa, but these seem to have been suppressed from later reports, likely because the numbers are so small that it might violate confidentiality. Finally, I lumped into the “Other or no geography” category all the responses classified as other or aggregated, the “history, general” classification, and the science and technology classification. Another quirk in the reporting is that the subfield totals get an update in year-by-year breakdowns in the published summary, but the gender breakdown does not. So since I’m using the updated total, the sum of men plus women in a given subfield might be slightly different from the total. The messiness of all this can be seen in the graph below, and the messiness can easily be removed with the filters on the side.



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