Drayton went to school at Harrison College in Barbados, from which he left as a Barbados Scholar to Harvard University. He was a graduate student at Balliol College, Oxford as the Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholar, and at Yale University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Paul Kennedy. From 1992, he was a Research Fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, returning to Oxford in 1994 to be Darby Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Lincoln College, Oxford. After 1998, he was Associate Professor of British History at the University of Virginia. From 2001 to 2009, he was University Senior Lecturer in Imperial and extra-European History since 1500, and Director of Graduate Training of the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow, Tutor, and Director of Studies in History at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of History at Harvard University, in 2012 at the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and in 2013 he was Professeur Invité at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
Drayton is author of Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the "Improvement" of the World (Yale University Press, 2000), which received the Forkosch Prize of the American Historical Association in 2001 as the best book in British and British Imperial History (1999-2001). In 2002 he was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize for Modern History. As co-editor of the scholarly book series Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies, he has commissioned and published over forty titles since 2006. He sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History and of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences journal World History Studies.
In November 2010, he spoke on "Economic lies and cuts" at a student "occupation" at Cambridge University, suggesting that austerity policies were unnecessary in Britain where the percentage of GDP going to servicing the National Debt when Cameron and Osborne came to power in May 2010 was "at the lowest level it had been since Lord Salisbury was at the Treasury" a hundred years earlier, and predicting that cuts in public spending would reduce aggregate demand and growth, and thus ultimately would increase the burden of public debt.
- British Empire
- World History
- Paul Kennedy
- Christopher Bayly
- William Roger Louis
- Peter James Marshall
- Sharon K. Tune (2002), "116th Annual Meeting Awards and Honors", Perspectives on History, March 2002, American Historical Association.
- Philip Leverhulme Prizes 2002, p. 4, The Leverhulme Trust, www.leverhulme.ac.uk
- "Prof. Richard Drayton on 'Economic Lies & Cuts' (1/4)", Cambridge Defend Education; YouTube.
- History Workshop Journal.
- Professor Richard Drayton, Faculty web page, King's College London (retrieved 28 August 2011).
- Works by or about Richard Drayton, WorldCat.org