‘Tis the season for reflecting on where our path has led us and which map to choose for the future. For many of us this allows us to think about where we want to be but also the choices we have made to get to where we are now. One decision that I made in 2013 was declare myself as an independent scholar as the distance between my PhD viva and 2013 no longer gave me much kudos as ‘early career’, especially when it came to funding bodies and post-doctoral positions. Independent scholar status seemed an identity shrouded in mystery and I was determined to unveil its secrets over the course of the year.
An independent scholar is defined as ‘ anyone who conducts scholarly research outside universities and traditional academia’ and a fitting commentary on this can be found on ‘How to be an Independent Scholar‘. The definition suits me and the freedom to research and publish when I can, mentoring younger scholars and dedicating time to advocacy work for early career and independent researchers certainly has its benefits.
Since I finished my PhD, the choices made and path chosen have made a difference to where I am at today with my research and my career (or lack thereof) in academia. I have a family, I have a full-time job and commitments to my discipline that include being part of research networks and setting up research networks. I am also Chair of a high-profile support network for early career and independent scholars. I do not have an academic post. Does this give me much time for my own research, finishing the manuscript, finishing articles or teaching? Not really. There are many out there in the same position who have made the choice between taking a job to pay the bills or surviving on a pittance with a short-term contract. We may also have children or are carers and have less mobility (both geographically and economically) than before. Does it bother me that I cannot dedicate more time to research and/or the development of my new research project? Sure. Sometimes it feels like the good ol’ days of the PhD and the guilt that came from taking any time off from researching.
Is this the downside of being and independent scholar? Possibly. However, the guilt comes from my own issue of feeling like a failure to those who mentored me (supervisors) and supported my research. From speaking to other colleagues who have made decisions not to go into academic positions (or are still struggling to find one), the failure factor weighs heavy on their mind. I am constantly reminded that the measure of success after the PhD is the coveted academic position. What about dedication to the discipline, teaching, supporting colleagues, advocacy and being part of the wider developments in your field and encouraging networks (research and otherwise)? For those who come to events sponsored by History Lab Plus, these issues always come up and there is no right or wrong answer to this. But it is something to keep in mind.
Something else to bear in mind: there are more of us out there searching for academic positions in history and related disciplines than ever before and what may have been a ‘best seller’ on the c.v. and would have gotten you in the door for an interview, may not be the same as it was 5 or even 3 years ago. The REF, grant capture, Open Access, impact and engagement and social media are making jobs even more competitive – if they were not already. For many of us, knowing the ‘buzz’ words and keeping apace can be daunting if there is no one to explain these to you.
I have also seen the landscape of academia change and have been at the mercy of those changes. I have watched as friends, colleagues and acquaintances moved into academia successfully – celebrating their successes – whilst others still struggle to find their way in an ever-changing world – sharing in their defeat and sense of frustration. Some have called their appointments ‘pure luck’ or being at the right place at the right time, for those still searching, believing that lady luck may shine in your favour can only last for so long. The best thing you can do to keep up is to stay in touch with mentors and friends inside the academy, come to an event by History Lab Plus, join a society, join a network – support network, research or teaching – and lastly, get your on-line profile up to scratch (yes, for those out there who have yet to venture into this land, give it a try, you will be surprised at the outcome). All of these things make a difference and you will feel the benefit. Dedicate time to networking, connecting and updating your on-line profile part of your resolution this year, they are mine.
Having to re-invent or re-think where your research fits within departments or trends is not un-common for early career or independent scholars. I ask myself questions all the time: Am I a social historian, gender historian or a historian at all? Where do I fit in my discipline? I often wonder if I am doubly damned as my research covers the ‘long middle ages’ (1100-1600) where many (but not all) medievalists tend to cover niche periods or subjects. I still do not know the answer – I just work on ‘nuns’. But these questions are important and allow me to think more widely about the discipline and how my research can make a difference. Make another resolution this year to keep asking questions about your research and where it may ‘fit’. Get out there and engage with your subject with other people – outside your time period – or give a paper a local history society, contact a museum, archive or heritage organisation. I have learned more from those who work in different time periods, disciplines and from public organisations then I could have imagined.
I am sure this all sounds rather easy in the grand scheme of things but I confess, there have been low points and I have lost the plot many times over the years out of frustration with academia and the pressures put on scholars to succeed. I have wondered if I can continue to go on with my research, developing networks and doing advocacy work after receiving one too many rejection letters or the bog standard rejection email. (Yep, got two last week). How to get out of the – low self-esteem, kicked in the teeth, exhausted because you spent all those extra hours putting the application together – deep, dark hole? Find a friend, and go somewhere that allows you to rejuvenate yourself – I go to Leeds IMC. After a week spent with friends and medieval scholars, I always come back more positive about my academic profile than ever before, confident in my research capabilities and have made a few more friends and contacts along the way.
So for 2014, I encourage you to make resolutions that are attainable: dedicate time to networking, connecting and updating your online profile; ask questions and engage with your discipline and beyond; go to the place that makes you feel your best. After reading the blog piece by Melodee Beals, I am also hopeful about putting strategies in place to dedicate time to research whilst balancing all my other commitments. Another New Years resolution? Definitely.