Early-Career Life in 2015 – Christopher Phillips

Dr Christopher Phillips is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, having been awarded his PhD in History by the University of Leeds in April 2015. He is in the process of preparing his thesis for publication under the title Managing Armageddon: Transportation on the Western Front, 1914-1918, and is pursuing funding opportunities for a new research project to investigate the development of railway towns in England between 1870 and 1970. Here he reflects on 2015, his first post-PhD, and the uncertainty of 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DoctorCPhillips

The genesis of this blog was an, on reflection, somewhat bitter comment posted on Twitter in response to the History Lab Plus’ call for contributions on life as an early career researcher. It focused on the negatives which have largely dominated my professional life over the second half of 2015, and which ultimately overshadowed my experience of the year as a whole. Having been offered the chance to elaborate on the initial 140 character response, however, I realised that my knee-jerk reaction did not adequately reflect the range of experiences which I faced over the course of the year. What follows is not an attempt to right any of the perceived ‘wrongs’ of academia, or an attempt to comprehend why I find myself at the start of 2016 with only one task – the supervision of five dissertation students to completion in May – guaranteed to pay me an income for the foreseeable future. What it is, I hope, is an attempt to document what may (or may not) be a transitory period from PhD student to academic without the usual happy ending that other such discussions that I have read tend to conclude with.

2015 actually began rather well for me. I received broadly positive, constructive feedback on the full draft of my thesis which I’d submitted to my supervisors before Christmas, and news of the acceptance of a journal article (subject to a few wrangles over the title) within the first week of January. By the end of the month, a book review had also been accepted for publication in a highly respected journal in the field, and all 100,000 words of my thesis had been soft-bound and sent off to my examiners. In March I delivered a really well received seminar paper at my undergraduate university on a chapter of my thesis, was invited to speak at a public event at Leeds Industrial Museum in May, and despatched the final proofs for an article which had been finished almost two years before. In early April, two hours of viva examination resulted in the award of a PhD (subject to correcting a few spelling mistakes), and encouragement from both examiners to publish. In the same week as the Graduate Board confirmed my doctorate, I was invited to interview for a three-year research post.

And then the handbrake was applied. The interview did not lead to anything. Nor did any of the other thirty plus applications I submitted for various roles during the academic year 2014-15. I applied for permanent lectureships, three- and five-year research fellowships, teaching fellowships ranging from three months to two years, and a number of non-academic posts. I received no invitations to interview, and in many cases no response whatsoever. In no cases did I receive any feedback on my application, and on one specific occasion I remember the rejection email stating – in bold type no less – that no feedback would be given to ‘unsuccessful applicants’. I received only a handful of rejection emails, the majority of which were not even personalised but began ‘Dear applicant’. Some, of course, hurt more than others. The one for a permanent lectureship at a very prestigious institution which doubtless received a shedload of applicants was unsurprising. The one for a two-year fellowship where I’d done my PhD was utterly humiliating. Aside from not being deemed worthy of addressing by name, the rest of the content of these emails was equally discouraging, impersonal, and demotivating. There was nothing constructive upon which I could improve for future applications. Friends and former colleagues, including an incredibly supportive supervisor, could offer no further suggestions to improve my cover letters. Was my intended research deemed unimaginative and uninspiring? Was the relatively narrow band of teaching experience I gained during my thesis (not for the want of trying to gain more) what was holding me back? Was it the lack of a book contract that meant my applications were being consigned to the ‘no’ pile? I have no idea.

I have tried to rectify all of these, but without success. After four months of no contact whatsoever, my first choice of publisher for my ‘book of the thesis’ finally got in touch to essentially say ‘you should have proposed an entirely different book’. A second never responded to the proposal at all. I am currently awaiting the result of the latest attempt. Throughout the summer I emailed my CV to various Heads of Department to enquire about the availability of sessional teaching, without success (although, to my eternal gratitude, every single department I contacted in this matter responded quickly). The last attempt to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship with the research proposal I had developed during the final year of my PhD foundered when the academic I had contacted at a potential host simply stopped responding to my emails two weeks before the deadline.

In the middle of September, I got a job. Two weeks before the start of term I was offered the chance to teach a survey course on British History from the Roman Conquest to the Industrial Revolution, and to supervise a number of dissertations. Halfway through the term, I took over the delivery of another module – this time on US civil rights. I did not get this work through any application process, but as a result of being in the right place at the right time, and thanks to the recommendation of a former colleague who had originally been approached to do the job. Although the majority of that contract is now finished, I have been put on a database of potential teachers for another university (again at the recommendation of a former colleague) which may lead to some more teaching experience in the upcoming semester to add to my CV. I’ve also created a new potential research project which I have received encouraging feedback on prior to submission for funding through the Leverhulme Trust. Whether any of this work will lead to anything or not who knows. I am under no illusions as to the competitiveness of such schemes, but perhaps if unsuccessful on that avenue it will intrigue someone on a hiring committee for a job yet to be advertised for next year. Perhaps the extra teaching I have undertaken this term outside my area of expertise will shift me from one pile of applications to the other. Perhaps a publisher will take a chance on my thesis and offer me the chance to write the book, and that will be enough evidence to convince someone, somewhere, to offer me an interview.

In the meantime, I keep searching jobs.ac.uk and H-Net, and working on preparations for a two-day conference I am part of the organising committee for. The book is on the back burner, not least because the necessary research trips to London are too expensive, and the new research project is still in the process of conducting literature searches and scanning through what secondary material I can lay my hands on. What state either project will be in come 1 January 2017 is impossible to say right now.