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.
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.
I’m very pleased to be co-convening this new research seminar on Transport and Mobility History at the Institute of Historical Research, along with David Turner (York), Tamara Thornhill (Transport for London), Christopher Phillips (Leeds), Oliver Betts (National Railway Museum), and Mike Esbester (University of Portsmouth).
The seminar starts next term with the schedule as follows:
19/01/2017: Dr. David Turner (University of York) – Paddling with partners: British railways, resort authorities and the promotion leisure travel, 1909-1914
16/02/2017: Dr. Rudi Newman (Independent) – From Stephenson to Suburbia: the Socio-Economic Impacts of the Coming of the Railways to the Chilterns.
16/03/2017: Dr. Chris Philips (Leeds Trinity) – “Privileged Greatly to Serve his Nation in Days of Mortal Danger”: Sir Eric Geddes and transport management on the Western Front.
All events are at 5.30pm on Thursdays in the Pollard Room N301, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House. We can be contacted at IHRtransportseminar@gmail.com and details are also posted here.
On Wednesday I spent an excellent day at the York Transport Historians workshop “Making the Connections: Transport and its Place in History“. It was a very fruitful day of interesting papers and discussion on everything from canals to Concorde, and every mode of transport in between. I was pleased to get the opportunity to present on some research that I’ve been carrying out on a transport history of the Great Exhibition.
This work emerged from an older paper on Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. The paper is on the mobility of material culture, something that Mayhew’s novel quite wonderfully depicts in a succession of comic (often absurdly so) instances. I was writing a footnote, when I found myself needing to cite a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition – something that told me the what, when and where of exactly how 6 million people and 100,000 objects moved across Britain and the world to the doors of the Crystal Palace. As I researched it, I realised that the work I needed to cite was one that needed to be written, and so this paper was born.
It would, of course, be remiss to state that no work on Exhibition transport exists. The symbiotic relationship between the Great Exhibition and the transport revolution has long been acknowledged: to Victorian commentators the Exhibition was the “natural result” of steam technology, a spontaneous outburst of the age of steam:
“The German journals are quite captivated by the idea of the great exhibition […] They regard it as a great step in the progress of different countries towards cosmopolitanism, and treat it as a natural resultof the development of railways, steam communication, the electric telegraph…”
(The Times, 31st October 1849, p. 6)
This has become something of a critical commonplace; but little dedicated attention has been given to detailing a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition. Of course the notable exception is railway passenger travel, studies of which have abounded and become a familiar part of the broader narrative of railway history. But the railways have been studied largely in isolation from the many other modes of transport that were fundamental to passenger travel – steamboats, sail ships, carriages, omnibuses, cabs and pedestrianism. Consideration of the movement of objects to the Crystal Palace has also been a theme in discussions of the emergence of commodity culture, global commodity flows, and the international politics of the Exhibition. Less has been studied, though, of the practical logistics of how things actually travelled from, say, a mine in upstate New Jersey to the doors of the Crystal Palace.
This work started, then, as an enquiry that seeks to create an account that is detailed and nuanced in its understanding of Exhibition mobilities, while working towards an expansive grasp of the range of these journeys. In doing so, I want to both account for the (often fascinating) practicalities of Exhibition transport, and better understand the relationship between the Great Exhibition and the mobile culture of mid-Victorian Britain. By the end of the Exhibition, The Times posed a retrospective question:
“one of the most wonderful facts of the Exhibition is the mode in which its visitors came to it. How did they all get there?”
(The Times, 20th October 1851, p. 4)
It is this question that I seek to answer, as well as to reflect upon the interests, motivations, and cultural contexts that lay behind it.
In the paper I presented yesterday, I traced a brief overview of this work: from the planning and preparation discussions in which transport was a crucial factor in decisions about the location and scope of the Exhibition, through to reflections on the Exhibition’s outcomes in which bold statements about a new mobile culture could be made – “a new phase in the history of the world”, as one piece in The Times put it (Wednesday, June 11th, 1851, pg. 4). I followed the movements of objects as they travelled over land, sea, and across London to reach the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, and then explored the many and varied ways in which people journeyed to the Exhibition by ship, horse-drawn transport, and even on foot.
My sources thus far have been a variety of cultural documents: novels such as Henry Mayhew’s 1851, as well as poems, plays, diaries, and religious tracts. My focus in yesterday’s paper was the research that has occupied me recently, a survey of 1209 newspaper reports published in The Times from 1st January 1849 to 31st December 1851. The Times survey – while making no claims to comprehensive breadth – has provided a useful lens through which to construct a ground-narrative of Exhibition history as it unfolded across the period. In foregrounding chronology, it has allowed me to perceive the nuanced ebbs and flows in attitudes towards different forms of mobility across the period: to realise, for example, that attention to (and celebration of) the railways comes relatively late in the Exhibition period, and that attention to shipping forms a vast and, to my knowledge, largely unexplored history of the period.
As this starts to make clear, the focus and tone of newspapers reportage also helps us to think about how the Victorians produced and consumed knowledge about transport technologies. What has become most apparent to me through this is the extent to which, I argue, the Exhibition represents the moment when modern mobility became acutely visible to the Victorians for the first time: while the networks that it relied upon had been growing for years, the Exhibition stimulated a rapidly emerging consciousness, accompanied by a great sense of excitement, at what it meant to be living in a newly mobile age. While this is easily equated with “Exhibition fever” as a whole, there is a particular narrative of mobility within this that was important in Britain’s thinking about itself as a nation on the move, and as interested in understanding and, crucially, in charting its own transport history as it was unfolding in the present moment.
In a series of blog posts to follow I will post some of the initial thoughts and findings from this research.
On Thursday 2nd June I attended Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day at King’s College London, hosted by the English Association and University English, looking ahead to the English Shared Futures conference in Newcastle next year. I was pleased to be invited to introduce a session on “Balancing Teaching and Research”, in which I focused on the challenges, strategies, and benefits of balancing teaching and research, with a few thoughts looking ahead to the next few years. I post these notes below and would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on these issues.
As I see it, the core issue that ECRs face in the current environment is that of building up a profile of publications that makes them competitive for permanent Research & Teaching lectureships, while working on teaching-only/teaching-heavy contracts (often balancing multiple jobs).
The challenges of these contracts are well-known: heavy teaching-loads; career mobility (time spent moving; start-up investment in teaching new courses and/or teaching across 2+ institutions); lack of research time, as well as access to funding for research and conferences, and mentoring; and the difficulties of long-term research planning while on fixed-term contracts. This can quite easily lead to a vicious cycle of getting stuck on T-only contracts because the research profile can’t be given the time and attention needed to break into the permanent posts.
Strategies: even small improvements can aid this. At institutional level there are small but significant steps that can vastly improve a T-only contract: speaking from my own experience this year at Newcastle University, having a research day, access to a research budget, participating in professional development and research progress reviews, and the guidance of a mentor, have all meant that in my 10-month post I’ve been able to advance my research profile in very beneficial ways.
At an individual level, ECRs can help themselves: creating a sound publication strategy and some degree of long-term planning, i.e. making sure that what is published is of the highest quality, will have maximum effect in REF cycles, and keeps a 5-year goal in sight in order to ensure that there is a clear trajectory to and rationale behind publications. I say “ECRs can help themselves”, but mentoring, be it formal or informal, is absolutely crucial here to advise and support ECRs on how best to focus and achieve these goals. For me, mentoring was especially beneficial in keeping the long-term view in sight (not easy when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of new modules) and made sure that I could really strategise my energies in the best possible way.
Benefits: it’s easy to focus on the negatives, but balancing teaching and research can be hugely beneficial; the best teaching is informed by being research-active and, I think, the opposite is also true. Having moved from a public engagement (admin-heavy) and research role to my current teaching and research role, I have found it much easier to switch between the two in the latter: teaching keeps my mind in the same intellectual zone, stimulates new thoughts about research, in a way that I didn’t find with my admin post, which required more of a mental switch between the two.
Challenges going forward: the situation isn’t getting any easier with increasing casualisation and my work on the impact of the REF 2014 on ECRs showed that the teaching-and-research balancing act became particularly acute for many around the time of the last REF. There have been recent proposals that all staff including T-only should be submitted to REF. I am in two minds about this. In some respects this is excellent: it prevents the two-tier structure that can keep ECRs trapped in the t-only cycle, it encourages beneficial links between T and R in ways that are beneficial for both staff and students, and if done well it would ensure that all ECRs are supported in being active researchers. At the same time I truly worry that for those on unsupported T-only contracts this will be yet another pressure in an already highly pressurized system, that it will create unrealistic standards and expectations for those already at breaking point. I think this is a real and pressing danger that needs to be well thought out before any such proposals are seen through.
Further thoughts reflecting on the day
In light of this, it was especially interesting to hear Professor Clare Lees address the issue of the REF, speaking from her experience as a panel member and how this differs to much of the perception of how the REF peer review process works. Hearing more about this is really reassuring and helpful for ECRs (and I imagine others in the system); as I mentioned today, the key issue my work on the REF raised was that of communication, or the lack thereof, about the REF to ECRs and how this creates much anxiety and misperception. Hopefully the issue of communicating to and with ECRs can be better addressed in the next cycle.
I also wanted to add a further point about the long-term plan noted above; there was a lot of agreement with the idea that this is impossible on fixed term contracts, while I had (briefly) suggested the opposite can be true. To qualify that: I agree that it is impossible to make a plan in terms of where or what type of job one will be on in several years time, and a largely pointless exercise to try and strategise in this way; much is luck and right place, right time.
I do, however, think that it is possible to forge a plan of where you want to be intellectually- your ambitions for where you see yourself positioned in the field, what kind of critical advances you want to be making – and to strategise about how you might get there through publications, funding grants, and so on. Of course this will change and evolve over time. But I think that doing so helps create a clear sense of direction and ensures best use of your time: making sure that you focus your energies on going to the right conferences, writing the best articles, and applying for the most relevant grants. Not only is this strategic but, I think, can be hugely important to your sense of identity as an ECR, helping to keep in view an idea of who you are and what you want to achieve as a researcher – something so easily lost within the flux of short-term contracts, but so integral to keeping focused on the end goal that will make the fixed-term years worth it.