Dr Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter, and tweets as @simpep.
In this blog post, Simon sets out his views on how he sees this role and his plans for the coming year.
As another teaching term begins, I return to my busy calendar having actually been able to have some ‘downtime’ over the Christmas break, away from the usual teaching/marking/research pressures – albeit this being enforced downtime, due to developing a particularly nasty cold. Debate has raged (on Twitter, as it often does) over the hours that academics work, and whether you are ‘failing’ at academia if you either work on evenings/weekends or maintain a strict 9–5 working week. However, the point I wish to make here is simply that the ability to take some time off, safe in the knowledge that a job (and salary!) awaits our return, is for many of us not something we are able to enjoy during the summer months.
Having completed my History PhD at the University of Exeter in 2015, I have since remained here on short-term teaching contracts. While I have been, in many ways, fortunate that such opportunities were available, the pressures (both financial and psychological) of fractional temporary contracts and the inability to plan further than the short-term is something with which I have battled. An increasing amount of my time has been spent on job applications, chasing potential funding opportunities, and being unsure what the next academic year will look like until just weeks (or even days) before it begins.
Prior to commencing my PhD, the one issue that I was repeatedly warned about was that it was a lonely existence; that the duration of my PhD years would be spent alone in empty libraries or dusty archives, only occasionally seeing others when we periodically emerged blinking into the light for a monthly research seminar or supervision meeting. Fortunately for me personally, the PhD experience was far from that, being a generally enjoyable period – with the usual intellectual/other challenges – and I consider many of those whom I met during those years to be among my closest friends.
However, I am aware that my positive PhD experience is not necessarily the case for others. I was reminded of my privileged position in this sense when reading Laura Sefton’s recent excellent comments on mental health and academic structures, demonstrating the often unacknowledged pressures of PhD study and the need for academia to become a more ‘accessible, inclusionary, and caring space’. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of the same pressures exist when transitioning into a more precarious ‘floating’ ECR position, when you might even have lost access to some of the support systems that previously existed.
The History UK plenary and AGM in November 2017 focused on collaboration, and that is very much the spirit in which I see this ECR representative role. As I have previously noted in discussion of the ‘Academic Boot Camp’ event, it is all too easy to see academia as a competition against peers in the race to obtain a permanent job, and to consider yourself a ‘failure’ if one is not forthcoming. However, it is of vital importance that PhDs/ECRs/academics of all levels support each other where possible, and it is often through bodies such as History UK that such support can really make a difference. Indeed, in the last year, History UK has organised another instalment of the Academic Boot Camp to help equip PhDs/ECRs for the job market, further New to Teaching events have provided invaluable advice and support for those beginning or developing a university teaching profile, and other events and activities have supported historians at all stages of their careers.
It is in this vein that I hope to use my role to provide helpful advice and support for history PhDs/ECRs in the coming year. This will involve writing blogs and encouraging friends and colleagues to contribute posts and advice on a range of topics, such as balancing teaching and research, finishing the PhD, creating and obtaining a position on postdoc projects, the benefits of engaging with the public through research, and the many options available outside of academia. This is, of course, in addition to acting as a voice for PhDs/ECRs in History UK meetings and discussions – and I please encourage anyone to get in contact with any thoughts or suggestions. Due to a variety of factors, the pressures on academics at all levels are arguably higher than ever before – but, as always, the best way to get through them is with the help of support networks that can be provided by bodies such as this one.