“Be broad, be bold and be aware”: Review of the 2014 HOTCUS Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Workshop

BannerHOTCUS held its inaugural Postgraduate & Early Career Workshop at the University of Sheffield’s Jessop West Exhibition Space on Saturday 21 June 2014.

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Providing a first hand synopsis of the 2014 HOTCUS Postgraduate and Early Career Workshop, Tom Bishop shares the invaluable advice from senior historians on several uncertain areas for postgraduates: they address, amongst other things, applying for jobs in the U.S. and U.K,  the advantages of publishing with smaller presses, and how to engage the public with history through digital spaces and museums. Other panels include: surviving the interview process, grant capture and life outside the academy. 

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For most postgraduates the period after handing in the thesis is a time of anxiety. The job market out there is a worrying place filled with jargon, invisible loopholes and the endless prospect of rejection. A bit like life in general but with with the dreary task of perpetually writing covering letters. The defining mood is one of instability and uncertainty and has promoted most of us to ask ourselves what exactly we need to do in order make it in academia.

How many publications do I need? What journals should I aim to publish in? How can I turn my PhD thesis into a monograph? How much teaching experience is necessary? What is an interview panel like? Should I aim for a postdoc or a junior lectureship? Should I stay in the UK or move abroad?  How do Early Career Fellowships work? Ultimately the questions, whilst varying in the degree of urgency in which they are asked, revolve around the same central concern. Namely, how can I secure an academic job?

HOTCUS POSTERThe HOTCUS (Historians of Twentieth Century America) Postgraduate and Early Career Symposium went a substantial way towards answered these questions.  Hosted in Sheffield on the 21st of June this one day event consisted of 6 panels ranging from advice on publishing in American history to perspectives from an interview panels, onto to jobs inside and outside of academia. The aim of the event was to give American historians, both students and academics a chance to get together and discuss issues that rarely get spoken about in an open group session, namely the practicality of getting a job.

Organized by Thom Keep, a current PhD candidate at Sheffield University, the one day workshop was undoubtedly one of the smoothest and most cohesive symposiums I have attended.  The panels worked well together, the speakers were insightful and the audience asked lively questions that promoted a sustained dialogue throughout the day. Thom’s work was well evident and it’s a credit to both him and HOTCUS that the day was such a rousing success. In keeping with the theme of professional development the panels were chaired current postgraduates. The roundtable format to each panel gave the participants the chance to interact with experienced speakers all of whom had been through the very same process as the audience and have ended up in permanent positions. As Professor Jonathan Bell (University of Reading, soon to be UCL Institute of Americas) said, just attending the event was an important first step towards getting that first position. 

Panel 1: Researching in the digital age – Digital Humanities and Public Engagement.   

The day opened with a discussion of how to engage the public through the use of digital platforms and ongoing collaborations with museums and other public institutions. Dr Nicholas Grant (UEA) kickstarted the panel by drawing on his own project, conducted in collaboration with Dr Vincent Hiribarren (King’s College London). Using an interactive map in conjunction with oral history the project analyses a specific event in the history of Apartheid, tracing the story of ANC activist Alfred Hutchinson, as he traversed Africa in 1958 in an attempt to reach newly independent Ghana. 

Dr Grant reflected upon the issue of training and digital literacy. For most of us the biggest hurdle is having the practical skills and resources to put together these extensive projects. Digital humanities is increasingly part of the academic landscape, changing the ways we interact with our audiences and offering exciting new mediums through which we can present our findings. WordPress has long offered a great gateway for new academics to set up their own research sites but in order to conduct these large scale ‘grant capturing’ projects some form of digital literacy is needed. Until institutional bodies catch up this new training need, the skills required will for the most part be a self taught experience. But that does not mean that training is not out there. The British Library and Oxford University offer training courses and those with a keen eye can check resources like the U.S. Studies Online calendar to see what training sessions are coming up.

Dr Catherine Armstrong (University of Loughborough) took the discussion towards public engagement within museums, art galleries and schools.  Framing the talk around her own experience working with the American Museum in Britain, Dr Armstrong noted that new researchers often assume that someone more qualified and more experienced is working with the public body that they have picked out, however, this is often not an accurate assumption. It is all too easy to think that your idea on how to present and reimagine pre-existing collections has already been snapped up by someone quicker off the mark than you. Dr. Armstrong’s advice was that if you have an idea approach the organization through email in clear and concise language, devoid of academic jargon, explaining exactly why the organizers will benefit from your knowledge. The museum sector is still a business, and if you can show that your lecture series, guided tour or one-off workshop might potentially bring in new audiences, offer a new perspective and provide new activities for pre-existing members you’re in with a good chance of at least starting that all important first dialogue.  Public institutions benefit from your experience, so the advice to ‘not sell yourself’ short is well founded.

Did you know…?

Museums and galleries are not the only sector postgraduates and ECR’s can actively engage with the public. For example, in recent years:

  • The exam board OCR have been actively looking for academics to provide external training for secondary school teacher.
  • The Public Policy centre at Cambridge offers another platform for PhD and ECR’s who feel there research might potentially have a direct impact on either local or national policy. Through open lecture, seminars and workshops with policy experts, work placement programs and student bursaries, the Public Policy Centre is rarely discussed amongst PhD candidates, but once you are a member you can begin to advertise your own specific areas of research to organisations who are actively seeking engage and active scholars. 
  • Oxford hosts a summer school in July for those interested in the digital humanities.

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Panel 2: Working in America – Job applications and the American Education System.

The second panel of the day ‘Working in America’ provided the audience with a realistic depiction of the American academic job market.  The University of Sheffield’s American History Department was in full force as Dr Andrew Heath, Dr Brian Kennedy and Dr Simon Middleton walked the audience through the pitfalls, trials, tribulations and differences between the UK and US job market and interview process.

The opening salvo of information centred on one key aspect— namely how a critically reading of the job applications in question is the key to success. In June 2014, USSO hosted a post by Dr Sue Currell (University of Sussex) detailing how to write a successful job application based on her extensive experience. In addition to the advice noted by Dr Currell, this panel highlighted how important it is to note the differences in language between the American and UK job market which will fundamentally impact your application. For example, a City College or a Liberal Arts College will require a different approach than a more established Research University. For most teaching positions you will expected to provide an extensive reading list, assign a core textbook for the course and provide a sample syllabus. Journal articles carry less weight than monographs, and the interview process once you are in the U.S. tends to take several days.

Where to look? 
  • Apart from the usual job alerts that can be set up through jobs.ac.uk and H-netthe Chronicle is a great resource for people looking for fellowships or lectureships in the U.S.
  • Remember, some Liberal Arts colleges only advertise in print media. For these positions look towards publications such as Times Higher Education (THE).
  • In America annual academic job fairs held around the country are another way to show you are looking for a job. If timed around a research trip or conference these job fairs can offer you some insight into what American Universities are looking for.

Panel 3: Publishing in American History.

Following a brief respite we were thrown headlong into the third panel led by Dr Simon Hall (University of Leeds) and Dr Alex Goodall (University of York) on the experience of journal publication and the all-important first monograph.

The overwhelming advice of the session was to take your time, don’t rush out publications, and make strategic decisions about where you want to send your work — expect the process to take a while. As has been established and reiterated last year in the 2013 PG BAAS/IAAS conference Homeward Bound‘s (University of Nottingham) session on publishing, for journal articles aim for the publications you use and respect. However, for monographs the advice was less straightforward. Details not ordinarily considered, such as the type, size and scale of the publishing house, may become unequivocally important to the publicity, labour and attention your monograph receives.

The notion that you might want to weigh up the advantages of a smaller press against a more established one is worth quick attention. Postgraduates usually write more focused studies so smaller presses, who can offer an author a closer relationship with the editorial team and publicity effort, has an immediate appeal especially when monolithic American University Presses may already have the big-hitting grand histories already in the pipeline. Would you rather have your book the front and centre of a more specialist press or attached to the more revered publishing house but in the sidelines?

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Panel 4: Perspectives from an Interview Panel.

After lunch we delved into the forth Panel headed by Dr Natalie Zacek (University of Manchester), Dr Joe Morton (Nottingham University) and Professor Jonathan Bell (Reading, but soon at UCL Institute of Americas). The audience benefitted from the experience of those who had been on either side of the interview process. According to the speakers those who tend to succeed in the process do two things exceptionally well:

1. The first is, they can think about their PhD on a broader spectrum, opening up their thesis to wider themes that might be of interest to others in the chosen institution whilst also demonstrating clear “intellectual ambition”.

Interview skills, like all other abilities, improve with practice. 
  • Outline the basic themes of your research in 30 seconds.
  • Present your research themes in front of people and ask for feedback.
  • Work towards clarity and precision with your ideas.
  • Ask advice from people who have recently been successful. What questions they were asked? How did they prepare for the teaching?

2. Secondly, candidates who have clearly researched the institution beforehand tend to do well. Identify how you can fit into preexisting departmental specialisms.

And remember…
  • Apart from two referable publications, and the required teaching experience for the role, be prepared for questions and make sure you have some of your own ready for the inevitable ‘do you have any questions for us’ moment.

Panel 5 and 6: Grant Capture and Life Outside the Academy.

After another quick ingestion of caffeine the day was brought to a close with two panels dedicated to the practicality of life as a researcher. ‘Grants and Research Funding,’  expertly run by Dr Nick Witham (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Dr Zoe Colley (University of Dundee) took us through the process and experience of applying for the funds that make our research possible. The audience-led discussion shifted away from practical advice of writing towards the philosophy behind applying for grants. Be broad, be bold and expect rejection when writing applications, but be aware of all the sources that are out there. From the specific research council funds such as AHRC, British Academic, Fulbright Commission Universitas 21 most professional bodies such as HOTCUS, BAAS and EAAS have allotted funds, as well as the specific archive you want to visits.  Breaking down all the sources is sometimes a bit daunting, however, ResearchResearch.com have provided a clear breakdown of the funding opportunities coming up.

The last panel of the day, ‘Inside and Outside the Academy: maintaing a work life balance’ brought us to the some of the most important issues of the day. Dr Emma Long  (UEA) and Dr Cara Rodway (Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library) did an honest and thorough job of talking about the stresses of academic life, and the shape of things beyond the walls of the university. During the final session questions were raised about issues such as mental health and sustaining yourself financially during the time you are looking for position.

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It testifies to the importance of these issues that the audience and academics spent a considerable amount of time addressing the harsh realities of life as an academic, and the problems faced by postgraduates. After the final  session had ended one could not but feel that a panel dedicated to mental health would have been a important addition to the day.  With the Guardian’s new “academics anonymous” section, Nadine Muller’s “New Academic” blog and other leading websites in the media talking about academia and mental health, it is important for associations like HOTCUS to stand up and weigh in on the psychological impact of work load, increasing expectations versus decreasing timeframes for completion, and the limits of institutional or departmental pastoral care for postgraduates. But that is a minor point when thinking back on an event that clearly offered its audience a huge amount.

What was surprising was the underwhelming turn out from postgraduates in relation to presenting academics, despite the low cost and central location of the event. However, it is a testament to Thom Keep, HOTCUS and the energy and willing of its senior members to contribute to a training symposium over a postgraduate conference because, for the few that attended, it was an invaluable and refreshing addition to the postgraduate landscape.

After the day, whilst my anxiety of looking for a potential academic position may not have been alleviated at least I feel I have the information to hand so I can make the right choices as I progress. If every postgraduate event could leave the audience feeling like this then the academic community might seem to those in the midst of writing their thesis a more reassuring space and leave most of us thinking towards a more optimistic future.

The 2014 HOTCUS Elections for the steering committee are currently underway. Voting ends on the 8th of August so get your votes in now!
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About Tom Bishop

Tom Bishop is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the relationship between nuclear survival, shelter culture, and masculinity during the Early Cold War. He holds a BA in History and an MA in American History from the University of Sheffield. He is currently constructing a fallout shelter in his garden and awaiting the inevitable apocalypse.
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