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Academic Job Market: ESHSS Careers Workshop
by Ben Thomas

At the end of November last year, the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland (ESHSS) ran a careers workshop with support from the Scottish History Network and the Scottish Graduate School of the Arts and Humanities.  On the basis that careers advice for early career researchers is always useful, I thought I’d use my blog post to reflect on some of the main themes the day raised.  We explored history-related jobs both inside and outside of academia, but in the interests of space (and because I’m even less of an expert on non-academic jobs than on academic ones!) I’ll focus on the academic career path, and particularly on postdoctoral research opportunities.

 

The Job Market

The academic job market is awful.  I think any careers advice for PhDs or ECRs needs to acknowledge this upfront, and to be honest about the prospects of getting that fabled lectureship.  A few years ago I attended a talk at Aberdeen on the state of Irish history, at which attendees were told that the Irish academy reproduces itself every three years.  That is, in Ireland, enough history PhDs are produced every three years to fill all the history lectureships in all the history departments in the country.  Although no-one (to my knowledge at least) has produced comparable statistics for Scotland, we can probably assume they’ll be similar.  In short, there are simply far too many history PhD students and far too few jobs.  But this led to one of the main takeaways from our careers workshop – not only are you not alone in your struggles to find a stable and permanent job, but failing to get that precious lectureship is in no way a slight on your ability as a teacher or researcher.  Indeed, any ‘failings’ are down to our elected representatives, department managers, and university heads, who together have created a system that exploits the love and labour of young researchers while providing little or nothing in return.

So, that was the bad stuff.  But at our workshop we also had some great advice from a range of academic historians for those looking to overcome the main hurdles faced by PhDs and ECRs.  Eilidh MacRae and Siobhan Talbott kicked things off, by reflecting on their careers so far and the steps they took to become full-time university lecturers.  Both spoke honestly about the struggles and setbacks they encountered before landing full-time roles, and about the luck they had that the right position happened to be available at the right time.  Siobhan also told us how she had benefitted enormously from a junior research fellowship at the IHR, which helped her begin a new research project after completing her PhD.  As someone who has held one of these myself, I can certainly vouch for their value, and would strongly encourage anyone to apply for one (see below).  But we also heard from Eilidh that you can apply your interests and expertise in history to areas of academic life you might not have previously considered.  In Eilidh’s case, she now uses her knowledge of sports history to work as a lecturer in sports development at the University of the West of Scotland.  In this role, Eilidh works closely with community groups to encourage participation in sport and exercise, as well as helping students studying sports development understand the historical context to modern sports initiatives.  As Eilidh herself told us, this job was not one she would have considered applying for had a colleague who was familiar with her work not encouraged her to apply.  In short, the message from both Eilidh and Siobhan was not only to broaden your research expertise on completion of your PhD, but to think too about the less obvious ways in which you can retain your ‘historian hat’ while working as a different kind of academic.

 

Some Practical Advice

From Eilidh and Siobhan’s talks, we moved on to some more practical matters: the REF, and how to get published.  Andrew Dilley guided us through the recent Stern Review, and unpacked what it’s likely to mean for us in terms of legislation and the requirements of the next REF cycle.  Ultimately, his message was that we won’t know until the legislation is passed!  But for PhDs and ECRS, one of the main messages was that the value of publications will change slightly, and the value of teaching experience is likely to increase dramatically.  For the former, although we still don’t know whether an ECR’s publications will be portable, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on future outputs rather than current ones.  This should mean less pressure to publish early, and more emphasis on what quality publications you’ll be able to bring to any long-term academic position.  But Andrew also emphasised that academic monographs are much more likely than journal articles to be granted the 3* or 4* REF designation needed for an institution to get that elusive government funding.  Thus, published journal articles are likely to matter a little less for ECRs in future, but books (and especially book contracts) will matter more.  An effective way of putting yourself in a good position to appeal to potential employers is therefore to try and get one journal article accepted for publication (to prove that you can produce publishable work), one under revision, and a book contract in hand.

Of course, this is all much easier said than done!  But luckily Ewen Cameron was on hand to share his experiences as editor of – variously – the Scottish Historical Review, the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and the SHR’s related monograph series.  Ewen’s main advice was to think about how ‘the book’ will extend your PhD research, and how you can make that work appeal to a wider audience.  After all, very few publishers will want to publish your PhD as it stands – why would they, when all PhDs are available for free through EThOS?  So, when writing your PhD, or thinking about how to transform the work into a publishable version, think about how you’ll move beyond what you’ve already produced.  This will involve not just re-writing the thesis to make it more accessible, but might require an extended timeframe, new chapters, and possibly new research too.  When writing your book proposal, it’s also important to think about the wider contribution you’ll be making to the historiography, and to avoid the kind of language that PhDs are often couched in (‘original contribution to knowledge’, ‘nuances’, etc. etc.).  Understanding your publisher will also be important.  For ECRs, specialist academic book series are more likely to accept your proposal than the major academic presses (although this is by no means to say that OUP, CUP, MUP, or EUP will reject you).  Specialist series – such as the SHR’s one – are often supported by a subvention from their founding society too, which helps cover the costs of publication.  This means your proposal for such a series doesn’t need to place as much emphasis on the book’s potential profitability, and can dwell instead on its contribution to historical knowledge.  Of course, the needs and requirements of publishers and series editors will vary enormously, and this does limit the ability to generalise about the perfect book proposal.

 

Postdocs

One of the biggest points to come out of the workshop – and something we’d have liked to have covered in greater depth – was the importance of postdoc positions in aiding the transition from PhD to lecturer.  These can come in a variety of formats.  Most obviously, some postdoctoral research positions become available when senior academics win big funding awards.  These are usually advertised through jobs.ac.uk, but can be very specific, don’t always allow ECRS great freedom to pursue their own research, can be part-time or short-term in nature, and often feel like they were designed for an internal candidate.  The best ones, however, last a few years, and allow you plenty of scope to research and publish under your own steam.  Regardless of type, research postdocs can be useful for getting your foot on the ladder, and in helping you to develop your research interests in new and exciting ways.  Arguably, in fact, senior academics should build more of these postdoctoral research opportunities into their funding bids – and fewer PhDs – since the addition of yet more PhDs into an already overcrowded market is clearly of little use to anyone except departmental balance sheets.

Moving beyond these more specific postdocs, there also exist plenty of fellowships designed to help young researchers either develop their doctoral research further, or transition into a full-time lectureship.  The latter are incredibly rare, as too is the likelihood of getting one of the big British Academy or Leverhulme grants (although this should by no means stop you trying).  But smaller and more accessible fellowships are offered by institutions like the IHR, by most of the Oxbridge Colleges, and by some of the bigger history departments throughout the UK.  Alas, the Oxbridge positions – particularly when they involve teaching alongside research – can be confusing, self-referential, and nepotistic, with arcane vocabulary and job outlines that make sense only to those who know the system.  Most also set a limit on the number of years of postgraduate study you can have undertaken to be eligible, so are only really a possibility for freshly-minted PhDs.  Across the board, however, a good way of approaching these fellowships is not to build a proposal for ‘thesis mk. II’, but to think instead about how you can build on your previous research in ways that go bigger and broader.  This might take the form of designing a bespoke project on a theme raised – but ultimately left unanswered – by your thesis, creating a comparative study around a theme your thesis touches upon, or widening your time-scale or topic from region to nation, or nation to international.  For some of the one- or two-year fellowships, being realistic about the publications you’ll produce from your work will also be useful.  These positions are, after all, designed to get you started on a new project as much as to let you complete one!  Thus, promising to produce a journal article on your fellowship findings would be a realistic and manageable outcome, especially as most fellowship providers will expect you to be working on other articles or the book proposal alongside your new project.  In short, postdocs are arguably the best way of getting the space to get a new research project started, the time to think about translating your thesis into a more accessible monograph, and the opportunity to get some publications under review.  We need more of them, especially in Scottish history, and need more historians of Scotland to apply for the ones that exist!

 

 

Future Steps

How might we begin to create some form of blueprint for best practice in navigating the academic job market?  Can we?  Careers advice obviously varies enormously between discipline and institution: when I was studying at Aberdeen for instance, history PhDs were well-provided with advice about both academic and non-academic careers through an annual careers workshop.  Across Scotland, however – and for historians of Scotland in particular – we lack anything similar that’s open to all students, rather than to students with certain funding, or studying a certain historical topic or area.  Of course, how we might fund such an event is a problem, but even the ESHSS’ small efforts last year demonstrated that there is a big market for something to be done.  Pooling resources across institutions or non-profit organisations would be a start, especially if it brings in professionals and institutions from outside the academy.  More effectively linking PhD students with museums, archives, or public sector organisations would also help boost employability, and many of the latest PhD studentships have thankfully started to build this in to their remit.  We certainly need to do more for our PhDs and ECRS, especially in terms of allowing passionate and motivated historians to continue their work outside of academia.  Losing access to journal articles following the ending of a PhD, for instance, can kill off any hopes one has of working on publications on the side.  Conference fees can also be prohibitively expensive for unemployed postdocs, while the less said about academic book costs the better.

Ultimately, no blog post can provide all the answers.  I hope the advice given by historians at last year’s ESHSS workshop will be of some use to readers of this blog, and I hope the SHN will use the blog series more widely to spark and sustain discussion about the job market.  We could do more, and we should do more, for PhDs and ECRs.  Your thoughts and suggestions on what form this could take would be much appreciated.