‘History within the Academy: Ask the Experts’

On 27th June we held the third ‘Ask the Experts’ event in London with the support of the Royal Historical Society. The event was intended to bring experts from the academy to comment on key issues relevant to early career researchers and those approaching the end of their PhD.

Our panel of experts: Professor Arthur Burns (King’s College London), Professor Margot Finn (UCL), Professor Peter Mandler (Cambridge & President, Royal Historical Society), Professor Nicola Miller (UCL) and Professor Mary Vincent (Sheffield).

The panel on … academic jobs

  • The appointment committee will judge you on the day on how you’ll fit in the department. It is important that you have more than just the book and your research to make yourself a functioning colleague. Have a store of experiences and draw on them on your CV and in person. If you’ve organised events, won funding, handled administration then you’re bringing more to the table. There’s plenty of information out there on institutions, so do your research. A really good application letter will demonstrate a thoughtful consideration of how you would operate in that department.
  • Think widely and think long term. How do you fit into the profession? What sort of historian are you and what do you want to become? Departments look for a sense of how people will develop. Look across the College and School. What interdisciplinary connections could you make? Do you have interests in other disciplines and departments?
  • Presentations are a test for your teaching skills. Can you engage the audience? You must convey what type of historian you are. Those outside your subject will wonder what you’re going to bring. Demonstrate a sense of self that goes beyond the dissertation.
  • It is rare that appointment committees are homogenous so you must consider how to speak to potentially different audiences in the interview. A panel member from outside the discipline will take a different approach.
  • References are still an integral part of the appointment. If you don’t have a reference from your supervisor this can appear odd, and the same goes for your current institution. Consider asking your external examiner to be a reference.
  • Age is not a factor. You are dated from the award of your PhD. Academics might come from different career backgrounds and can bring with them much experience as a result.

Peter Mandler strongly recommended an academic career. He acknowledged that because it was still desirable, it was therefore grossly overstocked. Despite early setbacks, he never thought it wasn’t worth persisting. While acknowledging the increase in pressure and fewer resources, ultimately the academic profession is more vibrant and outward looking than ever before. You need to be a good teacher, a good communicator, be able to engage wider audiences, and be interdisciplinary. The job specification is tougher than it used to be but far more inspiring.

The panel on … public engagement

  • If public engagement is done well it can change the way you think about doing history. It forces you to ask ‘so what?’ You can’t assume your audience have read any literature. What is the big question you’re trying to ask and answer? Your audience can spark new thoughts.
  • Public engagement can be regarded as a diversion, but not if you do it well and thoughtfully. Most job descriptions will mention it. Seek out opportunities and look beyond just museums and archives to smaller organisations.
  • As an early career researcher you can do quite a lot on a fairly small scale: organising a small exhibition or workshop can be achievable and generate feedback. There are sources of money around for this type of work.
  • Some departments may have a greater tradition of public engagement than others. It is up to you to look at local activities and consider how the wider themes and projects of the department can fit in. There are passionate local historians, heritage workers, and genealogists working outside the university. Even if you don’t work on British local history, there are still opportunities.
  • Margot Finn’s project on The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 is a good example of research that involved many people and organisations beyond academia, and produced output suitable for both academic and non-academic audiences.

The panel on … Open Access and REF2020

  • The Open Access policy doesn’t apply until 2016 but it is worth getting used to. As a matter of academic practice we should get used to submitting the accepted manuscript in an institutional repository. If you don’t have an institution or your institution doesn’t have a repository, try your PhD-granting institution. But don’t worry unduly- you are exempt until your first academic role.
  • You should be working on your best work and publishing in the forms you feel are best. Don’t be put off publishing in refereed journals. It is harder to be visible in edited collections and the process can be haphazard with editing and scrutiny. The peer review process for an article in a quality journal will make your article better.
  • Open access only applies to articles in journals. You have to publish in compliant journals and there are a limited number, but you can ask advice from your University. Peter Mandler advised submitting to compliant journal if you can but it may not be possible. You may publish anywhere if that journal is the most appropriate for you.US journals especially from learned societies may not be compliant.
  • Fewer and better publications are better in the medium to long term. Publish really good things. The maximum number you can submit to the REF is four items.
  • Beware of pirates. Don’t use journals you’ve never heard of, or even not used their content. Never pay for open access. Any reputable journal should have a gold and green option. Green helps for those without institutional support.
  • If you are RCUK funded then your dissertation should be made open access. Check what embargo periods are available and check the mandate of your own institution. There is huge variation so you need to be informed. If you’re not funded, you’re not required to do anything but if you want to be employable in the UK you need to be compliant and keep an eye on the rules.The Royal Historical Society provides accurate advice aimed at historians funded by RCUK.

At the end of the afternoon we heard about plans for the Royal Historical Society website which will feature specific resources for early career researchers on topics such as: presenting your work, grant applications, and publishing. The new website will launch in October and will be a valuable resource for ECRs.
We are grateful to the panel of experts for giving up their time as well as Dr Adam Smith for his assistance and the Royal Historical Society for generously supporting the event.

Helen Steele, History Lab Plus Representative to the Royal Historical Society.


2 thoughts on “‘History within the Academy: Ask the Experts’

  1. I don’t disagree with any of the advice here but I would add that the hardest bit is often getting shortlisted in the first place. In an interview you’re up against maybe 4 o 5 other people. In trying to get shortlisted you could easily be up against 100.

    Shortlisting is very difficult. The panel is faced with a large number of applications to go through and you often don’t have much time. People on the panel aren’t always looking for the same thing. There’s thus a lot of luck involved in getting shortlisted but a fair proportion of applications are not well constructed and do not help themselves.

    Applications should be easy to scan and pick out the key information from. Lots of dense text or a lack of subheadings do not help. Applications should be clearly divided into sections on teaching, research, administration and (probably) public engagement. They should be tailored to where you are applying rather than generic.

    Many applicants also leave out key information. It’s not enough to say you taught on module X. What did you do on it? Lectures? Seminars? Did you design it? If you don’t say people will just assume you simply delivered seminars someone else designed. Even if your role was limited to seminars, it is still worth adding something about how you approached them and your teaching techniques. Most applicants for junior lectureships will have similar publication profiles. My experience is that it is teaching experience, and showing the panel that you think about teaching, that gets people shortlisted.

    Applicants often do not think through the modules they are proposing. They should not replicate what is already on offer. They should be similar in format to what is already on offer. They should be something that ordinary undergraduate students want to study. (I can’t emphasize that last point enough.)

    The other thing that applications often miss is any sense of where the applicant is going or wants to go. Tell the panel what your publication plans and what your future projects are. A job is an investment in someone. Panels want to know what you might be like in 5 years time. Show ambition.

    As the piece above highlights, when it comes to publications quality matters far more than quantity. The panel aren’t going to have read your publications. This means they rely on where it is published and who published it. Journals are much, much better than edited collections and mainstream journals are better than specialist ones. For books university presses or major trade publishers are better than small outfits. This is unfair – where something is published is not an indication of a quality – but it’s a reality of what happens at shortlisting and at interviews (and probably to some extent in the REF…)

    Finally, I think you can learn a lot about an applicant from Googling them. Does your online profile match your application?

  2. Pingback: History Lab Plus Events: More Dates for your Diaries! | History Lab Plus

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