I am looking forward to speaking at the Researching our Futures, a student-led careers conference taking place at Newcastle University on 16th March 2017. The topic of my talk is “Digitising our futures: early career professionalization in the digital sphere“, and I’ll be talking about using online and social media as an early career researcher in relation to issues of professionalization, identity and career development.
I reviewed the exhibition “Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy” at Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London, for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. I very much enjoyed the exhibition and it runs for a few more days, so do catch it if you can.
A new year brings a new project focus, although this one – on sunburn and tanning in Victorian medicine and culture – isn’t exactly new; it has been developing over the last few years, and has already generated a couple of publications, a number of talks, and some funding applications. The research process to date has been very piecemeal however, fitting around multiple jobs, cross-country moves and other publication priorities; but now that I am settled in a job and have wrapped up some other projects, this can take centre-stage as the next big project that I’ll be working on in coming years. It therefore felt about time that I (finally) write about the project here.
The project’s genesis was a footnote in my PhD thesis, where I noted that the suntanned traveller is a common trope in the Victorian novel, and that he typically appears as a positive figure: the benevolent imperialist (Peter Jennings in Gaskell’s Cranford), the doctor-saviour (Woodcourt in Dickens’s Bleak House), the marriageable sailor (Captain Kirke in Collins’s No Name). While these are often fleeting, incidental references, there seemed to be something interesting going on in the way in which suntanning was being used with these characters; suntanning was clearly being used to signify something, although it wasn’t immediately apparent exactly what. My attempts at interpretation were somewhat slippery, moving across and between different possible meanings; and these suntanned figures, almost all of them white British gentlemen travellers, seemed to push at the borders of so many expectations and concerns around Victorian bodily norms – race, masculinity, class, health.
I wrote this up into an article and then a section of my book on global journeys, and as I researched the subject I began to collect (and then, amass) a wealth of references to sunburn and tanning across the literary and cultural sphere. Suntanned figures are everywhere in Victorian writing, from dashing bronzed gentlemen travellers to lightly browned ladies in the Lakes, reddened jolly sailors to ruddy, hale farmers. Not only are they everywhere, but these references generate many, often conflicting, meanings, not just about suntanning but also more broadly about health, identity, status, and nationhood.
This project started then from trying to situate the suntanned traveller’s body and understand what he (and sometimes she) might mean. It has grown into a broader enquiry into understanding sunburn and tanning across the medical and cultural sphere, centring around the question: what did the Victorians think about when they thought about sunburn and tanning? What did suntanning mean to them, and why?
The commonly held assumption is that the Victorians thought about sunburn and tanning either negatively, or not at all; that sunburn was a marker of the labouring body – in the fields, at sea, or at war – and that it was only in the early twentieth century, with the advancement of scientific understanding about suntanning and health, that the tan became aesthetically appealing. My work moves existing research back by a period of 70 years or so to reveal a more nuanced picture about the history of suntanning in the Victorian period, one which has much to tell us about the Victorians’ attitudes to bodies and health, and about the ongoing cultural fascination with tanning today.
Looking at the period from around 1820 to 1890, I’m focusing on three areas of enquiry:
How was sunburn and tanning understood in Victorian science and medicine? Where did it fit in Victorian scientific enquiry – who was studying it, how and why?
How were sunburnt and tanned bodies ‘read’ in Victorian culture; what might this tell us both about what suntanning was coming to signify, and more broadly about Victorian ideas of the body?
How did knowledge move across the scientific and cultural spheres: how did advances in medical knowledge inform cultural perspectives on sunburn and tanning, and how was scientific enquiry into tanning shaped by cultural attitudes?
The range of literature the project encompasses is broad, to say the least. In science and medicine I am looking at literature in biomedicine and photomedicine which reveals early advances in understanding the constitution of the skin and the composition of UV light, and the field of tropical medicine which examines the impact of climate on health. My literary and cultural research includes the appearance of suntanned figures in fictional and non-fictional writing, from novels, poems and plays to rural and travel literature, examining these in relation to discourses of race, gender, class and health.
The fluidity across medical and cultural spheres takes shape in the (loosely termed) field of public health literature, from advice books and guides aimed at travellers and colonial settlers, to pamphlets and advertisements for new products to treat sunburnt skin – products like Rowland’s Kalydor, advertisements for which appear frequently in the pages of literary periodicals (this one is found in the adverts accompanying Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, for example):
As things currently stand I’ve done a lot of work in identifying sources for further research and in mapping out the conceptual framework of the project; the next stage is to undertake further archival research on the primary literature to build up a more detailed and nuanced understanding of these bigger questions. Thanks to a pump-priming funding award from Surrey’s Faculty of Arts I’m able to start on some library trips this month, in preparation for further grant applications this year. Once this is underway I’ll also start to work on the next publication outputs, revisit the monograph plans, and begin presenting on the research again – something which has generated a lot of useful feedback so far – as well as working on the opportunities for public engagement generated by this research, which speaks to some contemporary issues around cultural attitudes towards tanning today. Suggestions for further reading are very much welcome and I’d be grateful for any other leads that readers that might have.
In this series of posts I am writing up some of my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition, on which I recently presented at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about and gave an overview of the shape of the research as it currently stands. In this piece, I start by exploring the planning stages of the Exhibition.
II. Planning the Exhibition
Transport networks were crucial from the early planning stages of the Exhibition in the late 1840s. A network of committee members travelled around the country to garner support for the Exhibition, making use of the railways to do so, and Joseph Paxton noted that his first meeting with Robert Stephenson about the design of the Crystal Palace was a chance encounter on the railway.
As the international remit of the Exhibition became certain a global network of representatives came into effect, operating mostly via postal correspondence – the speed of which was facilitated by quickening times of steamers. In fact Henry Cole, in his lecture “On the International Results of the Exhibition of 1851”, anticipated that one of the first legacies of the Exhibition would be the formation of a global Postal Association which would create a standardised, uniform system of postal rates, much like that effected by Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform, across the world.
Back in London the first planning decisions centred upon where the Exhibition would be located. Hyde Park was one of just several possible options, with sites at King’s Cross, the Isle of Dogs, and Battersea fields among others proposed:
Transport was central to discussions about the site: access was vital not only for the large number of visitors anticipated, but more importantly for the delivery of objects. Proximity to railway termini was one factor: as can be seen from the map, despite the growing national scale of the railway network the number of termini in the city was still relatively limited in 1851. King’s Cross offered an ideal site given that the railway station connected with the north and west of England, from where the majority of UK displays would be arriving.¹
Access to water was equally, if not, more important though: a far greater number of goods would be arriving from overseas. Transporting a large number of items overland from the docks by waggon, on the scale required, would be costly, time-consuming, and potentially disruptive to the city’s road network. Battersea fields and the Isle of Dogs had the advantage of proximity to the river, removing the need for overland journeys – ships would be able to sail straight up-river, or send on smaller loads by boat.
Hyde Park had neither the advantage of rail nor water access:
“There are no means of access, either by water or by railway, to Hyde-Park. This is so serious an objection that were there none other forthcoming it should be decisive upon the subject. The cost of transporting the materials and of removing them, the expense of conveying the bulkier objects that are to be exhibited to the repository, must of necessity be vastly increased in amount in consequence of the selection of Hyde-park as the site of the intended Exhibition.”
(The Times, 2nd July 1850, p. 5)
It is almost surprising that Hyde Park was the final choice, given how much surrounding discussion focused on the significance of transport networks. What Hyde Park did offer, however, was the benefit of centrality for visitors, removing the need for lengthy cross-city journeys for those who would already have travelled into London. But its river and rail connections did continue to be a feature throughout the ensuing preparations, a theme I’ll come back to in a later post.
Transport preparations were also coming into effect around the country: repairs to railway lines were pushed forward, and a new locomotive series built. This wasn’t limited to Britain: plans were underfoot to ensure the smooth passage of Austria’s contribution:
“A committee has been formed, under the auspices of Government, for taking into consideration the best means of worthily representing Austria at the great exhibition of manufacturers &c., in London. 10,000l. has been granted by the Minister of Commerce for the construction of roads in Croatia and Sclavonia, and it is proposed to construct a railroad between the Banat and the sea coast.”
(The Times, 25th March 1850, p. 3)
While Spain and America announced early on that there would be free passage for exhibitors:
“Spain had offered large rewards and free passages for the articles of exhibition. The Governor of New York would represent the American people, and free passage would be given for objects intended for the exhibition.”
(The Times, 3rd May 1850, p. 3)
The precursor to the Exhibition, then, was a climate of discussion about transport, both nationally and internationally. There is a sense, in these early months, that Britain begins to realise the capabilities of the networks it has created, and to recognise the Exhibition as the moment in which they will come to fruition. As one poem of 1851 reflects,
“The Prince conceiv’d his giant scheme,
Invok’d he then the aid of steam,
And all the energies of man,
To realise his glorious plan.”
TheCrystalHive; or, the first of May, 1851, Charlotte Theresa Wheler (London, 1852)
This paved the way for the transport of exhibits, the subject of my next post.
¹ The King’s Cross Station building that stands today wasn’t completed until 1852, but a temporary passenger station at the end of the Great Northern Railway line was open from 1850.
Two book reviews published this month: my review of Jude Piesse’s British Settler Emigration in Print, 1832–1877 is now available in Literature & History 25.2, and my piece on The Brontë Sisters In Other Wor(l)ds by Shouhua Qi and Jacqueline Padgett is in the latest issue of Victorian Studies (58.4).
On 5th December I spoke to PGRs in Surrey’s School of English and Languages about getting the first job post-PhD. I talked through my career path, from the messy immediacy of the post-PhD stage through to the permanent job I started 4 months ago, and drew out some (potentially) useful things I learned along the way. Below are my notes and slides from the talk
What jobs are available post-PhD
I focused on the academic route post-PhD, while my colleague Joanna Gough gave further insights into industry in her half of the talk. Going the academic route, I assumed that the end goal is a permanent lectureship combining teaching, research, and admin.
To get there, though, may take several years via the following:
My experience has covered most of these at some point – a brief summary of my career path is as follows:
PhD, University of Warwick 2007-2010 (viva 2011)
1.5 years of hourly-paid teaching, marking, invigilation, academic writing and 1-1 tuition, A-level tuition, short term research fellowship, research assistant on project bid, work on University projects supporting ECRs, freelance proofreading, etc… (Jan 2011 – Oct 2012)
1 year as 0.6 FTE research project fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick; plus hourly-paid teaching (Oct 2012 – Sept 2013)
2 years further in this position FT with research time (Sept 2013 – Sept 2015)
In what followed I talked through this in more detail, drawing out a few things I learned along the way about how to make the most of what has been a highly unpredictable, precarious, and varied career path.
The first 1-2 years
This, for me, was the hardest in terms of managing multiple jobs. Like many others I found myself in the double bind of the post-PhD landscape: teaching is what pays, but research publications are (typically) the key experience needed for permanent job. Unless you are very lucky to secure a research post straight away – and some are, of course – you will likely find yourself with a heavy and unpredictable teaching load while trying to write publications. At this point my key aim was finding a way to stay in the game by any means possible. The key things I learned in this period were:
Be flexible: take any job that builds up experience; look for the benefits of these positions e.g. skills development, building networks and connections
Stay affiliated: a library card and institutional affiliation are key, and various University positions should keep you in with these. At Warwick an Associate Fellow status was created which granted 3 years affiliation post-PhD.
Support is everything: work with, not against, your peers for advice, moral support, and help each other with applications and interviews – talk to people who have been to interviews, ask what questions they had and what their experiences were like, build up knowledge of the sector. Your supervisor(s) will hopefully remain a valuable source of support at this point, but you may also seek out others who can mentor you – advice from a range of people across career stages is especially valuable, from early career colleagues who are a few years down the line to more senior professors who have been on interview panels. (Not sure how to find a mentor? This ECRchat has some good advice).
Plan: have a 1, 2, and 5-year plan. This is far from easy when you are living month to month, but keeping in mind long-term goals and objectives is crucial to making the most of the time you do have and, importantly, keeping your morale and long-term focus going in difficult times. Be strategic and prioritise publications, as well as identifying CV gaps to fill; and be realistic, recognize that plans will change and you need to review, revise, readjust periodically.
I have also spoken more about the challenges of navigating the post-PhD years in this talk (slides only) “Money and a Room of One’s Own” from a professionalisation event at York University last year. This also includes more detail on applying to research fellowships.
3-5 years: finding (some) stability
After 2 years of precarity I took up a 0.6 position at Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. I was nominally a Research Fellow but employed to work on public engagement strategy, launching Warwick’s first Book Festival. There were some less than ideal features about the post, not least that I had to make up the remaining time from hourly-paid teaching, and while in theory I had 1 day a week (unpaid) for research, in practice I was working every spare hour on teaching, marking, and applying for jobs.
I also wasn’t in a strictly academic post as my remit was public engagement. However, there are strong advantages in alternative paths such as this: I gained valuable skills and experience in public engagement which became a unique selling-point on my CV. I learned a lot about the higher education landscape and relationships between universities and the public sector, and was able to build up networks of contacts around the University and beyond which became useful in my academic work. It was also immensely enjoyable and refreshing, if challenging at times, to work on something completely different but related to my academic work.
I also tried to be as proactive as possible in making the most of the project I’d been given, and following the success of the pilot Festival in 2013, funding was secured for my job for a further two years. At this point I was extremely lucky: my post was extended to full-time and this included some research time, which was exactly what I needed to write my monograph which in turn, I hoped, would help me get an academic post. Although the job didn’t started as the ideal position, a combination of luck, hard work, and being proactive meant that it came to work to my advantage in the long-term.
By March 2015 it was 4 years since my viva and my monograph had been contracted, but getting long- and short-listed for jobs was still tough. At this point, I referred to the statistics published by Professor Andrew McRae, Head of the English Department at the University of Exeter, on the recruitment of a typical permanent lectureship and the number of applicants that had monographs at various stages of publication:
While these figures are a stark reminder of the realities of competition on the job market, I raised these not to prompt worry but rather as a reminder of the importance of both being realistic, and staying on top of this kind of information. Reading about the job market and the state of HE in general may not be the most cheering topic, but it’s much better to know what you, and universities, are up against. Going to professionalisation talks, reading HE news, and talking to others about this, is as important to your career development as what goes on your CV and will not only help you focus your goals but also speak to these better in interviews.
One particular challenge for ECRs has, and will continue to be, the Research Excellence Framework. My work on the REF 2014 is fast becoming outdated as the landscape changes ahead of the next REF, but this post on my talk at the Westminster HE forum in 2015 and my detailed post on the REF for the New Academic will give an idea of what last time involved, some of which will likely remain relevant.
Other places you might look to read up about the current state of HE and its impact on ECRs include the THE, Guardian HE Network, Taylor & Francis blog. If you’re on twitter then check out the #ecrchat and #phdchat threads and consider joining the fortnightly chats for more on particular topics.
The final stage of my career journey was relatively straightforward – not withstanding the small issue of moving 300 miles across the country at 2 weeks’ notice for a 10-month job. This position was one that I very (very!) nearly didn’t apply for: the logistics seemed entirely unfeasible for a short-term post, and the quick lead-in time from application close to job start date was such that I assumed there were ideal candidates already in mind. Many of us have been to an interview where another candidate looks sure to get the job – and yet for every experience like this, I have heard another story that ended in success, if not with that job then with future applications to the same department. Although it may not seem like it when you’re faced with a folder full of rejection letters, going for the job you don’t expect to get is always worthwhile: if nothing else, interview experience (and the opportunity to get feedback – something you should always ask for) is always valuable. The experience of going to an interview with a feeling of “nothing to lose” can also be highly liberating – gone is the stifling anxiety of expectation.
And so it was that a couple of weeks later I found myself commuting across the country, and balancing the trials of a new teaching load, panicked flat-hunting in a city I barely knew, and living out of a suitcase in budget hotels for a month (not only soul-destroyingly dull, but 3 fire alarms the night before your first seminars is not the most ideal start).
Even though this was a fixed-term position for 10 months, I had a feeling that this job would be the stepping-stone I needed to get to a permanent position and my instinct was right: I gained useful teaching experience in a new department, built up new networks of contacts, and had incredibly valuable research and career mentorship from senior colleagues, as well as support from fantastic peers. It was the final push I needed to be ready to apply for permanent positions in the spring, securing my current job in late May.
This weekend, I finally faced the horror that is my applications folder and did some sums. Over the course of 5 years, I had applied for a total of 35 jobs, plus 4 attempts at early career fellowship schemes.
I know people who have done many less, and people who have done many more, applications. It varies. There is no golden number, because just like the infuriating advice that something you’ve lost will be in the last place you look, you just never know until the final phone call which application will be the last.
In retrospect it is easy to make some observations about this pattern: I wish I had been more strategic early on and focused on getting published rather than the huge amount of time spent on those unsuccessful applications; I am also aware that I was extremely lucky that the one application I focused my time and energy on this year was successful (there were others advertised at the same time that I decided against going for, for reasons including the vague and not-entirely-advisable “gut instinct”). It is tricky to advise when to start going for jobs as everyone’s preparedness is different at every stage, but hopefully this post has given a few pointers to consider and I am always willing to answer questions in the comments or via email.