Early-Career Life 2015: George Campbell Gosling

A year ago, we published a series of reflections from early-career historians at various stages of their post-PhD lives. You can read them here. George Campbell Gosling kicked us off last year and he’s kindly allowed us to cross-post his account of 2015, one in which he felt his ‘split academic personality came of age’. Over the next few weeks, we hope to add to these reflections not just with updates from those who wrote last year, but with new voices.  If you’d like to contribute, please tweet @cathfeely or email me at c.feely[at]derby.ac.uk. Over to George (again!):

Looking back on 2015, it’s been a mix of bedding in and big changes. But the changes haven’t always been the ones I might have expected.

At the end of the year, my work life looks in some ways very similar to it did at the beginning. I’m still in the same department, even if I’ve moved up the corridor into a shared office. I’m still working on the same book, now putting the finishing pre-publication touches to the manuscript that was still coming together a year ago. Blogging about history and the teaching of it is still one of my favourite pastimes, even though I’ve started on a new research project and I’m not doing any teaching.

Yet this academic year feels very different from the last, and I guess that’s inevitable. For one thing, the second year in any institution – even if in a different position – is less stressful. You know the people and the place, the oddities and the opportunities. It’s why my only real regret from my 4+ years now of post-PhD academic life is all the moving around and uncertainty. Without it I wouldn’t have met some wonderful people and taken on some interesting and unexpected jobs, but I’d also have fewer grey hairs.

Swapping full-time teaching for full-time research is also bound to be different. Worries about how much of a student’s grammar to correct replaced with trying (and failing) to remember receipts while on archive visits around the country. The constant stimulation of mastering new topics each week with the chance to immerse myself in one (set of) thing(s). Piles of marking are out and taking minutes of team meetings is in.

But I also feel very differently about myself as an academic. A year ago I was enjoying being a jobbing history teacher. Now I feel like an historian. My appointment as a postdoctoral research fellow and the warm (yet helpfully constructive) backing of anonymous peer reviewers for publishing my first book – they both feel like more of a vindication than passing my viva. I earned the right to call myself Dr then, now I feel like I have the opportunity to put that into practice.

Put it another way – I feel like an expert now. Of course, that old friend Imposter Syndrome makes regular appearances, but through the ups and downs I do feel more confident professionally. It’s been a decade since my nan asked me why there was no NHS when she was a child. And I’ve spent the years in between thinking about the answer – even while distracted by the job hunt and trying to repeatedly refashion everything I had to say on the topic, in keeping with the latest imagined future employment opportunity. By now I know this stuff. I am an expert.

I also think I’m seen more as an expert, but often not for my research. An odd split has emerged. I feel like an expert for what I’ve been given a chance now to do full-time: researching and writing history. But I also think I appear and am seen as an expert for something else: my blogging.

I sometimes blog about my research. When I do the audience is usually many of the same people who would read a fuller academic publication, especially if I used the blog to let them know about it. Sometimes that’s the audience I want to reach and that’s fine. But the audience this past year for my blogging about teaching and studying history has  been far, far larger.

This kicked off the year before with my History Essay Checklist. I was gobsmacked by the response to what I assumed was the sort of common sense advice given by history tutors (as well as those across the humanities and beyond) to university students struggling with essay writing. It seems not. I’ve had hits again with advice on writing source commentaries, how to read for essays and why, when and how to reference in essays amongst others.

None of this is based on a greater knowledge or understanding than most history tutors, but the way it’s presented seems to be useful. This is probably because I’m useless at learning by intuition or imitation. The fact I need to analyse and learn thoroughly myself means I’m well-equipped perhaps to relay this to others. My brain works differently from most and I’ve turned that to my advantage.

By the end of 2015, over one-third of universities in the UK have now directed people to my blog from their institutional websites. The traffic from my own Warwick Uni is rivalled by Huddersfield and both Leeds and Leeds Beckett, outdone by Hertfordshire and Kent and, out in front, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. When I meet people for the first time in my academic life, it’s by far the most common thing they know about me. For most people who come across me, my expertise lies in blogging study skills advice to university students.

There have been a lot of changes in 2015 and there’s been lots of bedding in. But I think I’ll look back on this, above all else, as the year my split academic personality came of age.

You can read George’s very popular blog here.

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History Lab Plus Events: More Dates for your Diaries!

We have a busy few months ahead at History Lab Plus, with events coming up left, right and centre all across the country. Here are a few details of upcoming events, a Call for Papers and some preliminary dates for your diary.

First of all, we are running an event on Teaching and Technology: Making Digital History‘ at Liverpool John Moores University on 14th March 2015. A stellar line-up of historians will share their experience of engaging history students with digital technologies and will help you to develop your own course ideas. You can read more details and book for this exciting event on our Eventbrite page.

Our very popular event ‘Life After the PhD’ will again be exploring a whole range of post-PhD careers, both academic and non-academic, on 21st April 2015 at Senate House, London. More details will follow very soon.

On June 12th, we’re pleased to be sponsoring a one-day symposium on ‘Teaching World History’ at the University of Derby. This Call for Papers invites proposals for 10-15 minute presentations about how to engage students on international topics. The deadline for proposals is 31st March 2015.

Also in June, we’ll also be running our annual joint event with the Royal Historical Society and this time we’re moving out of London! Watch this space for a announcement of date and brand new location very soon. In the meantime, here’s some of the excellent advice our professors gave last year to be going on with.

In July we’re also proud to be sponsoring early-career workshops at the ‘Rethinking Modern British Studies‘ conference at the University of Birmingham and the Leeds Medieval Congress.

There are also other events in the planning, including one on becoming a freelance historian or heritage professional. So there’s even more to come! Hard to believe, I know; we do our best for you …

Early Career Life in 2014 – Cath Feely

Continuing our reflections on life in 2014, co-chair Cath Feely shares her early career experience and her New Year’s resolution to stop worrying so much and enjoy her job …

On New Year’s Day 2014, I was packing. I can’t remember much of last Christmas as most of it was spent in a whirl of picking up house keys, surviving the hell of IKEA Nottingham and worrying about starting a new (and permanent, as much as any job is permanent) job at the University of Derby. Anyone reading this who knows me will know that worrying is, or at least seems to be, my default mode. My boss tells me that in the first few weeks he would occasionally see me from afar in the University Atrium and that my face always looked worried. A few weeks in, I had to explain to him that my worried face was just my ‘resting face’. He laughed at me (not for the last time) and I realised how ridiculous that sounded. Why was I expending so much energy worrying?

office view

The view from here. Taken out of the window of our office at the University of Derby, January 2014.

Part of it was, I think, a hangover from the previous year. Just before Christmas 2012, I had got a temporary job at the University of Sheffield, a job that required me to take over a third year Special Subject and dissertations half way through. That the group of students I inherited were the best bunch that I could have ever imagined didn’t take away the stress of the task, especially getting my head around someone else’s course based on their own research area and preparing students for an exam not set by me. At the same time, I was also in the middle of teaching my own module at the University of Durham, and so, for the first six months of 2013, my natural home was the Transpennine Express, as I commuted between my home in Manchester and Sheffield and Durham. This took a heavy toll on my health (so many station Burger Kings) and my personal life. My husband will never know just how grateful I am that he got up every morning at 6am to drive me to Manchester Piccadilly.

All of this was incredible experience, and I got excellent advice along the way, especially from my Head of Department at Sheffield. But it was always going to be temporary and, sure enough, in June 2013, I found myself at the edge of the early-career abyss. For the first time since graduating in 2011, I had absolutely nothing lined up for September, not even the odd seminar group here or there. I seriously thought this was the end of the road. I was, therefore, very relieved to get a ten month lectureship at the University of Manchester starting in September 2013. As this was the place where I had done my PhD, there was an outpouring of glee on social media from my peers and I couldn’t have been happier. But it was still temporary and I still kept on applying for permanent jobs.
When I got one, it was a bit of a shock. I had never been to Derby, I didn’t know any of my interviewers, and I hadn’t (because the interview was the week before term started at Manchester) had the time I would have liked to prepare. But I think this helped. Neither they nor I had any preconceived ideas; what they saw was what they got (so they only have themselves to blame!)

I won’t say that this last year hasn’t been hard at times. There have been significant personal compromises, and it has taken me time to adjust to a different environment and expectations. In my teaching, I have felt challenged and, as any student knows, this isn’t always a comfortable feeling. Time-management has not always been as perfect as it could (or should) be. But, overall, I think that I have grown as a teacher and scholar. I have had to go back to basics and recognise that what worked in one context, or in a 50-minute seminar, for years doesn’t necessarily work in a four hour workshop. I have learned that teaching in a team of six is very different to teaching in a team of thirty five, and that it can be as awesome as it is hard work. I have never laughed as much as I have in the last year and for that I have both my colleagues and students to thank.

In terms of research, this year has been frustrating but in a really odd way. I did far too many conference and seminar papers than was both sustainable and desirable, considering it was my first year on the job. I think I was still doing the desperate-for-a-job-say-yes-to-everything act, not quite realising that it was no longer necessary. In the coming months, I am going to say no to things that distract me from what I really want to do. I guess all I need to do now is figure out exactly what that is.

But, actually, I think that I do know what that is, and co-teaching a third year course on Material Culture with my incredible colleague Ruth Larsen has had more of an impact than she and our students know. But it has also shown me how far our scholarship is bound up in our teaching. There is a lot of talk about research-led teaching but from where I’m standing it’s all about teaching-led research. Teaching this year has stretched and forced me to clarify my ideas in an extremely productive manner. It’s not just the teaching itself that has had an impact on the way I think as a scholar, but being part of a little intellectual community where we challenge our students to do the best that they can. And, my gosh, we challenge them and they rise to meet that challenge. I will never forget the Public History conference in May, when our second year students stood up in front of 250 people and gave astonishingly good and original papers about the First World War, all of them publishable. They were incredible and made me realise just how lucky I am.

MuseomixScans049 - Cath cropped

Me, looking worried and out of my comfort zone, at the Museomix event at Derby Silk Mill, November 2014. This awesome picture was drawn by the artist in residence Sally Jane Thompson. See more of her work here: http://www.sallyjanethompson.co.uk/

So this coming year I want to follow our students and try to be the best that I can be. But that means doing a bit more adjusting and a lot less worrying. It means focusing my time and energy on the things that matter both to me as an individual and to our team, and learning to say no occasionally. It means having high expectations but realistic ones. It means not getting overwhelmed and just f***ing doing it. And, perhaps most of all, it means looking after myself and allowing myself to enjoy a job where I go to work laughing, spend most of the day laughing and come home laughing.

Keeping the Faith: Researching as a Part-time Teacher or Teaching Fellow

By M. H. Beals

For many early careerists, the first step up the post-doctorate ladder is working as an associate lecturer or teaching fellow. The precise nature of these posts can vary widely. Some contracts are paid on an hourly basis—literally or virtually including hours for preparation and marking—while others are contracted as a percentage of a full-time equivalent position, or FTE. The latter Is more likely to include a clearly defined number of preparation and administration hours, but, like the former, these may or may not remotely resemble the amount of time you actually spend. Nor can all FTE contracts be considered full-time positions. In recent years, I have seen them range from 0.1 FTE (or a half a day) to 1.0 (or a 35 nominal hours a week) and everything in between. Moreover, as teaching staff, you will only be paid during term-time and usually not more than ten months out of a year.

In the end, whichever arrangement you and your employer reach, a teaching position is just that—teaching. Any research activities you undertake will be done without direct recompense or—in most cases—any form of financial support. If you intend to continue your research, and most certainly intend to do so, choices have to be made about how you spend your time. Many will simply put their research on hold until term breaks while others will forgo those eight daily hours they used to waste on sleep. But while a teaching fellowship can cause bone-shattering exhaustion, it does not need to. There are some choices you can make to keep your research alive, without becoming the walking dead yourself. Continue reading

Welcome!

Welcome to the HistoryLab+ blog!

Over the next few months our team of writers will be contributing posts on a variety of topics of interest to Early Career Historians, working both within and outwith academia.

Forthcoming posts include

  • a commentary on Open Access and the Fitch Report from our chair, Kimm Curran
  • a series on ‘what I wish I knew when’
  • help and advice from our ‘academic uncles’
  • advice on getting published in peer-reviewed journals
  • support on getting involved in historical consultancy
  • event reports from our members
  • thoughts and inspirations on teaching and learning
  • practical advice on surviving (and thriving under) the REF

If there are subjects, problems or questions you would like to see covered here, please leave a comment below.