Victorians Unbound: PGR and ECR Provision

Gemma Outen has just submitted her PhD thesis on the Women’s Total Abstinence Union and their periodical Wings. This project uses an under-explored group and periodical to examine how women in reform work negotiated gender boundaries, and considers periodical culture as a key part of this. She has a forthcoming chapter in Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1830s-1900s, edited by Beth Rodgers, Alexis Easley, and Claire Gill and is also the postgraduate representative of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals. She can be contacted on Twitter via @gemmaouten.

With only 6 weeks until my PhD submission, I travelled to Lincoln for the BAVS annual conference.

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Coming to the end of a PhD is a little confusing, definitely demanding, and although submission is an amazing achievement, it’s often a very uncertain time. Although I was looking forward to the conference, I was a little preoccupied and concerned about my next tentative steps into the academic world. Therefore, when I saw that the first sessions were workshops aimed at PGRs and ECRs, I was a little relieved and eager to attend. I was hopeful that I could get some advice, guidance, and perhaps begin make sense of the academic job market. Along with around fifty other PGR/ECRs, I arrived at the conference bright and early, in order to attend sessions on archival practice, employability, and CV skills.

The archival workshop was ably led by Alyson Price, an archivist at the British Institute of Florence, who firstly gave a general overview of archival work, before providing practical guidance. Within the room there was a range of experience as some had never done archival work, whilst others had undertaken a great deal. As a result, for some attendees, some of the early parts of the session were perhaps already known but for others, absolutely necessary. After some best-practice discussion and sharing of experiences, attendees were given a chance to do some hands-on work as groups were given ‘raw’ archival material and asked to consider the piece and attempt to decipher its age, author, and purpose. This was a fascinating exercise and, if the extensive discussion was anything to go by, thoroughly enjoyed by all! On reflection however, there is an argument to be made for a wider range of practical workshops like this. Although it would no doubt be even more difficult to organise, attendees could instead choose which sessions they wanted to attend – based on their interests, skills, and existing experience.

The second session though was doubtless of interest to all attendees. In the midst of seemingly endless gloom and doom about the academic job market, Professor Ann Heilmann provided useful advice to PhDs and ECRs on the dos and don’ts of job applications. Encompassing cover letters, application materials and touching briefly on interview techniques, she provided practical insight into the shortlisting process and most importantly, asserted that there was hope for everyone present! She rightly reiterated the need for passion and dedication when entering the academic job market, but also usefully addressed the potential of alt-ac jobs and encouraged attendees to think about alternative career paths. As we are continually told that there are ‘too many PhDs and not enough jobs’, this piece of simple advice was illuminating and supportive. She was truly passionate in her delivery, and as a result, I certainly came away feeling aware of pitfalls and problems, yes, but also encouraged and, dare I say it, a little more positive!

Finally, everyone attended a CV speed-dating event, and the session which I found most useful. Attendees were asked to bring a (maximum) 2 page CV, and ten academics, at different levels in their own careers, very kindly gave up their time and expertise to provide advice on these. They spent a maximum of five minutes with each attendee and PGRs and ECRs moved around the room, with an experienced academic at each table. Some of the experts were at the start of their own careers whilst others had significant experience of shortlisting and interviewing. Usefully, the experts were also from across several disciplines, and working both within Universities and across the wider education and heritage sectors. In the course of the session, I moved around five stations and received a wide range of advice, from the practicalities of presenting my CV, to possible next steps for my own career. Fascinatingly, the advice was even conflicting at times and no two offered the same advice. Whilst some may see this as a negative, I instead took a positive message. Simply, there is not necessarily a ‘right’ way or a template to follow. Instead, I plan to take their advice and guidance, and marry this with my own ideas and plans. Most importantly though, the session supplemented advice given by Professor Heilmann to tailor each application for each position and institution. The extent of feedback was excellent but longer slots would have been useful here. As it was, the five minute buzzer sounded a little too often and more time on each table would have been beneficial. Overall though, ‘real life’ advice from people who have been successful was extremely useful and provided me with food for thought on how to tailor my own CV and present my own skills and experiences.

Overall, it seems clear that the number of attendees shows a real need and desire for these events. On a more practical level, getting to know fellow PGR/ECRs before the conference began in earnest helped to build a sense of community and comradeship. These sessions were really useful, and I’m sure were appreciated by all who attended. Particular thanks therefore must go to Abigail Boucher, Grace Harvey and Michele Poland for organising the workshops, as well as to the speakers and panellists who were so very generous with their time and expertise. You’ve certainly helped one attendee feel a little less nervous about the next steps, post PhD. I look forward to more excellent sessions at BAVS 2018!

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