Emma Probett is a current PhD student with the University of Leicester, researching the transformation of the conduct novel in the Long Nineteenth Century using the novels of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell.
One inevitability of studying for a doctorate is being constantly bombarded with the question: what exactly are you planning on doing with your PhD?
As part of the process of beginning my PhD at Leicester I attended an induction which in part focused on our future prospects; by a show of hands, 80% of the room were planning on pursuing a career in academia and over half had not studied for an MA, but gone straight from undergraduate to PhD. Nearly a year later and whilst myself and many of my peers continue to plan for a career in academia, we have become increasingly aware of the difficulties of trying to get there through a strictly linear checklist: PhD, to Postdoc, to university academic. I was thrilled to see that BAVS was setting up a Careers Day which included both academic and alternative career paths to help shed some light and share some specialised knowledge on post-PhD life.
The day began with an engaging and informative talk from the keynote speaker, Dr Naomi Paxton, which centred on opportunities. Paxton’s portfolio is immensely varied as a researcher and performer; possibly her most inspiring remark was that she did not meticulously execute a grand master plan to get to where she is today, she has cultivated her CV through a series of opportunities. Her bottom line was to be proactive in taking and most importantly creating opportunities for yourself, emphasising that that’s only possible, within or outside of academia, if you are a person before a scholar. Primarily, this is being pleasant to work with by being accessible, polite, and recognising the effort of others; over the course of a career those referencing you will be invested in your success and your colleagues will form a network of people who are able to testify to your being good to work with. Beyond this, being a person before a scholar means thinking about the accessibility of your research in terms of public engagement. I found this section of Paxton’s speech the most compelling, as she encouraged us to think beyond the stringent forms of academic writing and reflect on what made us enthusiastic about our research and how we could share this in a public-friendly way, whilst telling us that what we found fascinating might not attract the public’s attention in the same way and further consider what would capture the public’s imagination.
Throughout the day I opted to sit in on the academic careers sessions. The first session was with Warwick academics Dr Emma Francis, Prof. Pablo Mukherjee, Dr James Poskett and Dr Jen Baker. This roundtable was on applying for academic jobs although once again great emphasis was placed on the organic route they had taken to their current positions: Prof. Mukherjee had not intended to establish his career in the UK and Dr Poskett, now in the humanities department researching the history of science and technology, had initially studied science as an undergraduate. A common theme amongst the advice given was to show off your versatility as a researcher. Since academic turnover can be unpredictable due to research or parental leave and staff leaving permanently for one reason or another, your specialisms might appear secondary at the time of applying but may be priceless at the time of interview or appointment to an academic post. One of the most motivating parts of this roundtable was hearing Dr Baker’s experiences as an ECR; in her closing remarks she reminded us that our thesis/publications are a condensed version of the amount of research we have actually undertaken, and encouraged us to use our extensive research to tailor ourselves to job applications.
From there I went to the Finding Funding workshop run by Dr Barry Dixon, Dave Duncan, and Dr Susannah Wilson, which highlighted key funding bodies: the Leverhulme Trust, the Wellcome Trust, and the AHRC. We were given advice on which funding would be most suitable to apply for in terms of a benefit ratio of the number of applicants, and how much effort an application may require. An interesting part of this session was learning that despite some stipulations, such as the Leverhulme Trust asking that ECR research is undertaken at a different institution from the applicants PhD, 10-15% of successful applicants remained in the same institution, most likely because they hadn’t studied at the institution for their undergraduate or MA. Dr Wilson’s talk revolved around her experiences applying for funding, and she spoke as much about her academic success as she spoke about her unsuccessful funding applications and book proposals. It was reassuring to discover that someone awarded the prestigious British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship was at one time told that a manuscript was “unpublishable” and advised us not to be discouraged when overlooked for funding and that most times it is that the application is premature or we are one of the many unlucky applicants in a large cohort.
The final session was led by Sarah Meharg, the University of Warwick’s Mental Health Coordinator. This was an excellent workshop and was a very constructive way to end the day by dealing with any stress and anxiety that often comes after information-intensive workshops. The talk was brilliantly constructed to highlight living with stress, experiencing depression, and most importantly, how common it is for PhD students and ECRs to experience poor mental health, with 47% of all PhD students and 64% of PhD humanities and arts students experiencing depression at some point according to a US study. Alongside the practical help such as using university counselling services and contacting your GP, I found her suggestion to separate identity and academia an incredibly important exercise for anyone at any stage in the education system, in order to avoid self worth being controlled by academic success.
The BAVS Careers Day helped to answer a lot of pressing questions in terms of: what funding bodies can I apply to? What if I don’t get a postdoc? How can my niche research be important to the world outside of academia? And many more! Despite this day being geared towards final-year PhD students and ECRs, specifically with research interests in the Long Nineteenth Century, I would highly recommend anyone within the Humanities to attend any future BAVS Careers Day. It was filled with invaluable information on what a career in academia really looks like and what you are able to do with a doctorate outside of a university-based career. Whilst this has been immeasurably helpful to me personally as a first year PhD student it has also helped me to explain to MA and BA students alike who are currently considering continuing their education, all of the opportunities and career prospects which come with doing a PhD.