Some reflections on working in a short, fixed-term academic contract.
I have recently completed a short research project at the Ashmolean Museum and having packed up my bags, cleared my desk, and handed in my security pass, I thought I’d write a post about my experience working on a very short-term research project, and what I have learned about how to make the most of them. Most recently-graduated researchers in the field of humanities will embark upon some sort of fixed-term ‘postdoc’ as their first form of gainful employment following the Ph.D. It’s the way of the world: most full-time, permanent, lectureship vacancies are subject to such competition that they are likely to be won by experienced researcher-teachers who have completed at least one or two of these short contracts in order to build up experience, publications, and contacts. And it is also the case that these fixed-term contracts may not be three years long, or may not be even a year long. Funding is so hard to come by that some institutions hire research assistants or interns to complete small tasks, or to perform pilot studies for applications for further funding. Alternatively, some funding bodies offer relatively small grants to postgraduates or early career researchers, to fund research visits, or short bursts of research in order to kickstart their research beyond their thesis research.
The project that I worked on was an information-gathering exercise for the Winton Institute for Monetary History for a bigger project that interrogates medieval, early modern, and Nineteenth-Century documentary sources for the information that they contain about the rental of urban properties. My doctoral interest in medieval scribes and manuscripts came to the fore on this project: I was required to quickly, and accurately, extract information from original hand-written sources about properties and their rental prices. However, the documents with which I was engaging were from a much later time period than I was used to, the environment was strange to me, and the people were new. With a short project like this, it is important to hit the ground running, so I will share some of my thoughts about what worked for me.
As I have mentioned, my internship was based in the Ashmolean Museum and my desk was on the corridor that is assigned to the curators and staff of the Heberden Coin Room. I imagine that this is a rather unusual experience for a researcher of Medieval Studies, since most will be based in universities or libraries, but I think the lessons to be learnt are universal. I was very fortunate that my colleagues at the Winton Institute put in great effort to introduce me to everyone. However, on occasions that they were not around and I saw a new face, I always made the effort to chase them down and say hello. As a result I made good friends with members of the finance team (and so was invited to their office-warming party), chatted to several visiting researchers, passed an hour over a glass of wine with a postgraduate student of Roman coins, and met a fascinating cartographer. I felt that this diversity of contact was the most wonderful thing about my internship. The first research project after your viva propels you into a new world with new faces, and every one of these new faces offers opportunities for interaction and learning. My inclination is that if someone offers you a coffee meeting, or invites you to after-work drinks – go, because I found that it is in these ‘informal’ environments that the real business is done (and where the really interesting information is learnt)!
Short-term contracts are good for a bit of financial and emotional breathing space. However, I learnt that they are not time to rest on your laurels. Rather, they buy you time to work on your next move. If the work is funded by a research council, it is probable that the council also fund training initiatives and conferences that can strengthen your chances at making that next move. So it is always worth asking at the very beginning of the placement what opportinities are available. Again, I was fortunate that my bosses volunteered many golden nuggets of information, but it’s always worth doing some digging yourself. At my interview, I was told that there was a conference hosted by the funding body, which was to be held the week before the start of my internship. I think I impressed my interviewers by expressing my interest in attending, but I also reaped lots of personal benefits by going. I had a chance to talk informally about the project with a diverse group of researchers, which helped me to begin my work with lots of ideas already buzzing in my head. Later on in the internship, I jumped at the opportunity to go to a training day held by the Economic History Society, which was genuinely one of the most beneficial elements of my internship (and the free lunch is always a bonus on an intern’s wage).
The bonus of working on a fixed-term research project as a ‘Research Assistant’ or intern, is that you will not be the Principal Investigator. Of course, one day you want to be the PI, but for now this is prime opportunity to forage in the minds of those with more experience than you – and avoid all that distracting bureaucracy! So, my advice would be to take every opportunity to test out your ideas on your senior colleagues. My colleagues were massively helpful to me: one implanted a new idea in my head for a journal article, and the others proposed co-writing a conference paper. If your expected research output for the project is not your own personal work, this process of discussion and ideas generation is even more crucial. My work as an intern was not my personal ‘baby’, and instead contributed to a project that ‘belongs’ to my colleagues. However, by using every opportunity to discuss, and get advice about, my own ideas, I managed to generate my own research output: a conference paper that examines my internship data from the perspective of my personal socio-historical interests.
My short-term research project was a resounding success and I felt that it has really pushed me beyond my Ph.D research. Next week, I will move onto my next short-term research project (this time for a year), and I am excited about what lies around the corner.