Institute of Historical Research: Review: BGEAH and BrANCH Postgraduate and Early Career Conference 2018

BGEAH and BrANCH Postgraduate and Early Career Conference 2018, 23 March 2018

This one-day conference brought together two closely related (and often overlapping) groups of postgraduate and early-career researchers to share their work and gain career advice from leading academics. The event was generously supported by the British Association for American Studies, the US Embassy in London, and the UCL History Department.  Jointly organised by the British Group of Early American Historians and the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians, the day was structured to emphasise shared interests, and address shared concerns.

The morning sessions allowed participants to showcase the broad range of interests within both organisations. The day was kicked off with a keynote by Stephen Conway (UCL), whose address was based on his recent book, Britannia’s Auxiliaries: Continental Europeans and the British Empire, 1740-1800 (OUP, 2017). Conway highlighted the importance of transnational networks in shaping the character of the American colonies, pointing out that the British government relied on Continental European settlers and businesses to support their growing empire. Questioning whether the presence of large numbers of Continental Europeans in the American colonies made the British Empire less British, he argued it was ultimately British settlers and political thought that drove the revolution. Generally, Conway concluded, the colonies changed the migrants more than the migrants changed the colonies.

The workshop session, with four papers written by PGRs from both BrANCH and BGEAH and pre-circulated to all delegates, gave participants an opportunity to draw on the expertise of all present to improve their written work. The panel was a wonderful showcase for the diverse interests of both groups, including topics such as free women of colour in antebellum New Orleans, the pacification of Quebec, and transatlantic journalism. All participants received both practical feedback on their work and probing questions about their research, truly demonstrating the value of bringing the two organisations together.

The afternoon sessions were concerned with providing practical advice about CVs and the job market. Members of the first panel discussed issues such as trends within American history, finding postdoctoral funding, and getting published. Rachel Herrmann (Cardiff University) talked us through her application for the AHRC Networking Scheme, drawing special attention to problems that arise when visa issues are involved. Herrmann encouraged everyone to make use of the resources available to them, especially access to colleagues’ successful funding applications. Tim Lockley (University of Warwick), in his role as Associate Editor of Slavery and Abolition, talked about trends within the publishing market, encouraging attendees to read beyond their topic and discipline in order to try to engage with scholarship outside of their own ‘bubbles’. Richard Follett (University of Sussex) built on Lockley’s advice, stressing the need to use multidisciplinary tools to make the most of historical sources. Follett also emphasised the need for historians to remain relatable in order to continue to be involved in civic debates. Finally, Andrew Heath (University of Sheffield) warned delegates about the dangers of trying to keep research ‘on trend’; trends move faster than outputs can be written, he pointed out, and encouraged everyone to go with their interest rather than fads. Overall, the panel was reassuring, leaving delegates feeling positive about facing their next steps.

The final session, ‘I’m in academia! Get me out of here!’, offered advice about searching for careers outside of the academy. Natalie Zacek (University of Manchester) opened by pointing out that PhD students gain many transferrable skills throughout their studies, and need to do more to emphasise those skills. Philip Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, concurred, and encouraged delegates to make the most of training offered by their departments during their studies. Adam Smith (UCL) reminded us that it’s not all doom and gloom: often the rhetoric around the job market is worse than the reality. This final panel proved to be an uplifting close to the proceedings, and gave attendees much to discuss over drinks. Overall, the conference demonstrated the value of bringing together members of BGEAH and BrANCH. Concerns about postdoctoral funding and the job market were shared by all, and the range of research discussed highlighted the growing shift away from periodisation within the study of American History. The day provided an opportunity not only for PGRS and ECRs to meet members of another organisation with similar interests, but also to draw on their expertise to enhance their own research. The representatives from both organisations look forward to exploring more opportunities for collaboration in the future.

By Elizabeth Barnes

Elizabeth Barnes is one of the Postgraduate Representatives for the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians, and a PhD student at the University of Reading. Her research focuses on racialised sexual violence during the Reconstruction period, highlighting in particular the role of this violence in shaping race relations in the post-emancipation South.


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