Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. His AHRC funded PhD was on the 1980/81 disturbances in England, examining the perception and role of public inquiries and local Defence Committees. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter. Simon tweets as @simpep.
In May 2017, History UK ran the second instalment of their ‘academic boot camp’, which provided valuable interview experience for PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs). A number of academics had kindly donated their Saturday so that around twenty of us, who had been shortlisted for an imaginary lectureship and subsequently travelled various distances to the Institute of Historical Research, could participate in and observe interviews and presentations, receiving detailed feedback and advice.
— History UK (@history_uk) April 6, 2017
Charlotte Faucher detailed the first event of this type last year, including the range of questions she was asked, and some advice given on how to respond. My experience of this aspect of the workshop wasn’t hugely different, other than facing questions regarding how I might contribute an impact case study – emphasising the importance of effectively demonstrating the public significance of research. So, rather than simply repeating her thoughts, I will focus more on the presentation aspect – both of participants, and Dr Sara Wolfson’s ‘10 tips for getting an academic job’.
Participants were asked to produce a short presentation on ‘How Does your Research inform your Teaching Practices’? This type of question is standard for job interviews, inviting introductions to research, what applicants can offer in terms of teaching, and what form such teaching might take. Unfortunately, due to suffering from a cold, my own presentation could have gone better…but learning to adapt to things outside your control is itself an important lesson! Academics and other participants provided written feedback for each presentation, with recurrent themes appearing to be regarding structure, relation to the question posed, and ensuring that historians of other periods/topics can appreciate what is significant about your work.
After the traditional academic coffee break, interviews and presentations were followed by Sara Wolfson’s tips for securing an academic job, which included targeting conferences to increase your profile, obtaining funding to organise conferences/workshops, and the benefits (and potential risks!) of an active twitter profile. Having provided advice articles for jobs.ac.uk, Sara was also awarded the Times Higher Education’s ‘Most Innovative Teacher of the Year’ 2016, and her presentation included the importance of maintaining high-quality teaching; refreshing for those of us uncomfortable with advice obtained elsewhere essentially suggesting ‘putting the least amount of effort possible into teaching and focus on building your CV’. Whilst implementation of the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has been at best controversial, universities should certainly consider teaching ability more so than they have in some previous cases.
Sara’s presentation was followed by discussions where other academics also provided suggestions and answered questions, and both sessions were extremely helpful. The main takeaway from these discussions was that there are many different pathways to obtaining jobs, both inside and outside of academia, and you must follow whichever you believe best. As Charlotte concluded about last year’s event, the knowledge that there are many different paths to success is indeed a reassuring reminder and key value of this workshop.
A subsequent pub trip and meal for those who could make it was only slightly ruined by my having to rush off mid-food to catch a train. This ‘networking’ (a word I personally hate) aspect was just as useful as the rest of the day in reminding that, whilst at times it may feel like you are the only one struggling with the difficulties of late/post-PhD life, this is most definitely not the case. Whilst we are conditioned to believe that ECRs are in constant competition for jobs, academia has been criticised for its tendency to ‘eat our young’ – and we shouldn’t be adding to that.
The value of this workshop has been echoed by those who attended it, variously described as ‘super useful’, ‘a great day’, and ‘very helpful’. It personally helped me to obtain a number of interviews this summer, as well as preparing me for what to expect when it came to actually arriving at various different university campuses on interview days!
The main training required by post-PhDs appears to be the ability to ‘hang on in there’. It is all too easy to be disheartened by a lack of success in job applications, particularly in the early days whilst often receiving the standard response that your application hasn’t been taken further and, ‘due to the high number of applications received’, no feedback will be provided. Ben Mechen recently explored the precarious nature of PGRs/ECRs, considering how such a position could affect the kinds of history we write. The lack of job security is one of the main reasons for more-than-qualified colleagues to move outside of academia, and will undoubtedly continue to be the case in a world where there are far too many excellent applicants for the jobs available.
For those determined to obtain an academic job; whilst it may appear to be a particularly bad time to be coming out of a PhD, it is important events such as this Boot Camp – and the confidence and relationships that can be obtained through attending – that, to continue the military theme, prepares PhDs/ECRs for the battles to come.