Learning how to be wanted. My day at the Economic History Society training day.

It was one of those glorious summer days that only seem to happen in Oxford. The sun reflects off the Headington Stone, a limestone that is distinctive to the old Oxford colleges, and those dreaming spires stand proud against the deep blue sky. As a student in Oxford, I always felt that the buildings that together form Oxford University amplified the wisdom that was passed to me by its lecturers and fellow students, and inspired me to absorb it. My heightened sense of imagination made me sense an upward pressure from the footsteps of those who were treading there before me. On this summer day, I stepped into an environment that is rarefied even within Oxford University. All Souls College is a unique college, for it has no students, only fellows. As a result, as I entered through the gatehouse and stepped out into the first quad, I noted that the blades of grass in its manicured lawn were swaying in silence. An odd lonely figure circulated around the lawn opposite me. The pervading feeling was that the college was standing aloof, saluting its own grandeur. And here was I, standing in its epicentre. So, despite the fact that I was late, due to an unplanned dispute between myself and my alarm clock, I stood for a moment in awe of the location of the Economic History Society’s Women’s Committee training day. This was the environment in which a small group of esteemed academics, and esteemed academics of the future were gathering in an attempt to demystify the ‘game’ that is obtaining and nurturing a career in academia.


    The introductions are one of my favourite parts of workshops and conferences, especially where postgraduates are involved. I am aways struck by the diversity of interests in the room, even where the field of focus is relatively narrow. On this day, this lonely medievalist found herself in the presence of a scholar of first world war living conditions, a researcher of aboriginal Australians and someone working on ninteenth-century missionaries, just to mention a few. All were fascinating and all were bonded by a shared desire to launch themselves into a glittering postdoctoral career upon finishing their Ph.Ds. The fact that each of us had made the effort to strive for the knowledge and skills to make this happen makes me confident in our chances of success. I think that being a postgraduate is meeting people, sharing your work, and laying the foundations for your birth into a world in which you are determined to succeed. Part of this is strengthening your awareness of this world and so avoiding emerging blinking into the sunlight.

One of the most enlightening elements of this training day for me was the first session, which was a talk from Jane Thompson, a representative of the UCU, the union that represents academic researchers and lecturers. The talk was empowering for me: it made me confront myself with questions such as ‘how assertive am I?’ and ‘how knowledgeable am I about my rights?’ The answers were: ‘quite assertive, but not enough’, and ‘not very knowledgeable, as it stands’. As a recent graduate, I am very aware of the competitive nature of the job application process. In the face of this, it is easy to exude an aura of “thank the Lord you are employing me, take me, take me, take me!”. However, this can be a pathway to exploitation, especially as an early-career researcher, who is perhaps prepared to accept a certain amount of drudgery as a rite of passage on the initial rungs of the career ladder. My decisions as the talk drew to a close were: I will know my rights and will be confident in my worth. I will ask for what I deserve if I am not offered it. I will not be cynical and will always be respectful, but will be informed and intelligent at all points of my career. I will look at the UCU website carefully, and fortify myself with knowledge.

After a tea break, in which a large silver plate of over-sized-cookies were placed before me by a man in a waistcoat, like a ritual offering, we were given a talk by Professor Jane Humphreys. Professor Humphreys, a fellow at All Souls, spoke about interview skills in an engaging and humourous manner. A theme that she carried from the first talk was ‘confidence’. Show the importance of your work, stand your ground on your research outcomes, and glean confidence from the investigations that you have done into the department that you are applying to. This means that you have to do research into the department that you are applying to! Not just a minimal amount, but know its courses, modules, and its research strengths inside-out. Be prepared for ‘bad cop’, and if he or she makes an appearance show gumption and do not be afraid to debate (calmly). Situate your undoubtedly specialised interests within the broader field of your research, thus giving the interviewers confident of your ablility to diversify and apply yourself to areas  ‘beyond the studies of the hind legs of a grasshopper’ (I liked this analogy!) My favourite quote from Professor Humphreys, which seemed to burst from years of subjection to presentations by interview candidates: ‘use the Powerpoint, don’t let the Powerpoint use you!” Fantastic all round!

Lunch followed and I used the opportunity to chat with the other people around the table and, of course, the obligitary conversations about library frustrations and time pressures ensued. I breathed some fresh air in the tranquil quad and stared out at the tourists who were pressed up against the iron gates like spectators at an (empty) zoo.

The view from the inside.

The last speaker was the charismatic Professor Rosemary Sweet of Leicester University, who shared her wealth of experience in recruiting academic staff. She hoped to encourage us to replicate the successes that she had witnessed, and avoid the many pitfalls. Her key emphases were gaining a firm understanding of the Research Excellence Framework (‘REF’), the throbbing headache of every university department and the major hoop through which they are required to jump in taking on new faculty members. Funding will be at the forefront of the mind of every interviewer: so be aware of what funding your research will be eligable for and show how exactly how you are going to obtain it. Finally, be aware of what is shaking the boat in the academic world at the moment: for example, how much do you know about IMPACT?. The website of Research Councils UK has a good diagram with some  ways in which public ‘impact’ can be achieved. Once you have decided on how you wish to achieve impact, you have to show that it is measurable. Your intervewers will mostly hate arbitrary measurements of research outcomes like this, but they all have to show that they have impact! If you can show your pathways to impact, and how you will achieve measureable impact, you will be golddust to the interviewers.

After a final, fruitful, discussion on writing cover letters, I had begun to form new resolutions for myself: not to take anything for granted and to hold up every one of my skills and experiences as a wonderful and valuable thing, which makes me simply the best for the job. Nobody else will do! By then I felt slightly more prepared to show these abilities in a way that does justice to the hard work that I’ve done so far. With these thoughts swirling and buzzing around my head (and plenty of caffiene circulating in my blood vessels), I made my way through the rarefied surroundings of All Souls, and back out into some kind of real world.

Tempus fugit … but not here. it seems to stand still.


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