Early Career Life in 2014 – Niamh NicGhabhann

In the final of our reflections on early career life in 2014 (for now), Niamh NicGhabhann writes about how her career has taken her in unforeseen directions this year and on the importance of finding focus. We hope you’ve enjoyed these first series of posts, and if you’ve written to us about doing a reflective blog, we’ll be in touch very soon as we hope to make this a regular feature of the blog. We’d especially like to hear from you if you feel like you’ve had a different experience to those we’ve had so far. Over to Niamh …

On 31 December, as I was working my way towards my 3pm New Year’s Eve essay-marking cut-off point, I saw a note on Twitter looking for ECRs to write about their life and experiences post-submission. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Anything beats grading, after all. I was also motivated, however, by the fact the I’ve learned so much about academic life, the jobs market, publications and general good working practices from Twitter and from similar blogs, and would be delighted if my few experiences could be of any value to others in a similar way.

I completed my PhD in TRIARC: the Irish Art Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin (https://www.tcd.ie/History_of_Art/research/centres/triarc/) in 2011 and graduated in 2012. My thesis was on the preservation of medieval ecclesiastical buildings in Ireland, and was completed under the supervision of Professor Roger Stalley. My undergraduate degree had also been at Trinity College Dublin, following which I spent a year working as a tour guide, as an education intern in the National Gallery of Ireland, and finally as an administrator for the Irish Museums Association. Since my undergrad, and throughout my postgrad years, I was keenly aware of the fact that I would emerge from university in need of a job – this led me to take on a series of jobs and internships with festivals and contemporary art galleries. I did everything from writing essays for art books to sanding down gallery walls. I was lucky to have a funded doctoral position – on the IRC (Irish Research Council)-funded Reconstructions of the Gothic Past project, yet I knew that this would not last forever. The years of my PhD, therefore, were busy ones – I was working on my thesis, doing as much gallery and curatorial work as possible, and trying to attend and present at as many conferences as possible. The fact that I did my PhD within a larger funded project meant that I was more supported, with team meetings, regular working patterns, and a major conference and a publication at the end to showcase findings. A digital humanities component was also developed (www.gothicpast.com) , which I didn’t work on directly, but which did give me some insight into the world of DH. Was this strategy of busy multi-tasking successful in the end? I do worry that it made me more of a Jill of all trades, and sometimes wish that I had simply found the key to the ivory tower for those three years, hopped in and put my head down. However, when I graduated, I was glad to have had those experiences, as they stood me in good stead when it came to negotiating the jobs market.

On graduating, I found myself taking on too much. I was teaching in two universities, and got a job as a researcher on a new digital humanities project based on medieval buildings. I was afraid to let anything go, but ended up having to drop one set of teaching – I regret not being more aware of this earlier, and letting the university know in advance, as I fear I risked some of the goodwill which I had built up there. Working and teaching gave me time to recover from the final year of the PhD – I found myself being able to work from a US college for a period, which opened my eyes to that system. Around this time, I realized that I needed to give myself a bit of a kick in terms of ensuring that I was working on publications – I put a book proposal together and was accepted (http://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/2015/building-on-the-past/) . I also started several articles, finished a few, and had some rejected. I presented at different conferences, but did not find that this was a particularly good research period for me. Bad habits are slow to break, however, and I took on further gallery and curatorial work, and not only that, founded a company with three of my colleagues aimed at providing historical project management and research skills to a variety of clients. We were successful in our first tender bid for a large government project exploring the history of a former psychiatric hospital in Co. Monaghan. This experience was, like many others, was a positive one, but took up a lot of time and energy, and brought me into yet another career direction. In setting up the company, I was involved in innovation and enterprise training, and also ran a conference and established a research project (with some small funding) on the subject of Innovation and the Humanities (http://innovationandthehumanities.wordpress.com/).

(What you don’t see here, of course, are the worries, the crappy flats, the breakups, the incredibly supportive partner, family and friends, the exhaustion and self-doubt, but they are very much part of this picture too).

The world works in mysterious ways – despite feeling increasingly worried that these varied experiences would render me unemployable, I found myself applying for the position of Course Director for a new MA Programme in Festive Arts at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (http://chronicle.com/academicDestinationArticle/Festivals-are-on-the/233/) . This position allows me to combine my experiences and passion for curating, arts management and policy, innovation, together with my research expertise in the ritual and festive uses of post-medieval spaces and landscapes. The Irish World Academy is based at the University of Limerick, and I have taken full advantage of their research mentoring schemes – I have been advised to do what I have known all along – focus! Find one direction and work there! I have been in my new position for a year and a half now, and it has been extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. Putting a new course together, positioning the discipline, promoting the course to potential students and learning the ropes at a new university has had me jump through more hoops than I thought I could. I am now at the point where I am finishing a number of projects – I am stepping down from the company as entrepreneurship is a full-time job, and I simply don’t have time for two of those, I’m waiting for the first set of page proofs of my book, and I am tying up some final essays and projects which have been in the pipeline for a few years. I write a blog (http://niamhnicghabhann.tumblr.com/) , which I find is a useful place to put thoughts and ideas not for publication or other projects (although blog posts have often led to other opportunities).

My next stage is to consolidate my research, teaching and supervision, and to define a new direction that I feel combines my various research interests in a unified way, and to work in a focused way in that area. I’ve also started mentoring undergraduate students within TCD’s GradLink scheme. I want to cull some of the more eclectic jobs that I had accumulated in my very-ECR years, and to give myself more recreation time. The things that I have learned – go for opportunities (even if they seem beyond you at the time), take your own place at the table (speak up, get used to the sound of your own voice), and take time off (you can do anything, but only if you stop often enough).


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