Five cities, seven years: my life post-PhD

The life of an early career researcher is a challenging one, finds Catherine Fletcher, as she heads to city number six

July 8, 2015

It’s seven years today since I was awarded my PhD, and it’s also my last official day in the office at my current job.

That’ll be the seventh job in seven years, the fifth city and the second country. In Year One I had two part-time teaching jobs (Open University, Birkbeck) and a part-time academic-related role for the Kent and Medway Lifelong Learning Network. In Year Two I was a fellow at the British School at Rome; in Year Three I was a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, near Florence.

In Year Four I had a temporary lectureship at Durham; since Year Five I’ve been at Sheffield. Later this summer I’m off to a new role as associate professor in history and heritage at Swansea.

In the conventional terms of academic “successes” (problematic though those are) I’ve done pretty well. The point is that this career track would have been close to impossible for anyone with caring responsibilities, or whose well-being relied on stability and routine. Five cities in seven years? This is not a good way to run things. But you know that. The first years of academic life are more than ever characterised by insecurity.

There are plenty of big political points to be made here, and I might write about them in future. But here, for what it’s worth, is the more personal advice I’d give to anyone who has to navigate the “early career” world.

Bad things will happen. They are not your fault. Don’t fall into thinking “if only I’d got X on my CV it would all have been different”.

Not all the advice you will get is right. Do listen to what people tell you, but remember that there is always more than one opinion and make up your own mind. Several people were sceptical about me writing a trade book (ie, one for a general, not just academic readership), but I did it anyway, and it opened up a whole new set of opportunities for me. In particular, bear in mind that…

Times change. What was good advice in 2005 may not be so good any more. It’s worth watching trends in the job market. I managed to make my way into the subdiscipline of public history as universities began to recruit to this specialism, based on a few things I’d done in previous jobs plus that trade book. I know several colleagues who’ve tweaked CVs and shifted from Western to global history, or into digital humanities specialisms.

Work out your strengths and play to them. There are certain basics that academics need to deliver: research, teaching, willingness to do the necessary admin. But within that, try to work out what you do best, and what you enjoy, and make that “your thing”. My thing has turned out to be the writing and media stuff. Every so often, someone asks me, “should I write a trade book?” The answer is, I don’t know. But if you enjoy writing, and you’re good at it (good enough that people compliment you on your writing), then it might be worth considering.

Join your union and get involved. The vast majority of positive things that have been done for junior staff have been thanks to the efforts of union activists. Warwick University and College Union helped stop the systematisation of casual employment through TeachHigher. On a more modest but still important note, Sheffield UCU has just secured the introduction of a new redeployment system that should make it easier for colleagues whose contracts are ending to move to new jobs within the institution. If we’re going to make a difference, it will be like this. Your union can also help you assert your full legal employment rights should this become necessary (but don’t leave it to the last minute to join: there’s usually a qualifying period). You can join UCU here.

Remember, there is more to life. I started my PhD age 29, having done lots of other things already. I’ve found that outside perspective really helpful (did you know, there are jobs out there where people don’t work ridiculous overtime?!). There are lovely things about academia, and most of the time I enjoy my job. But I also know that the system could work, oh, so much better.

City number six, here I come.

From September 2015, Catherine Fletcher will be associate professor in history and heritage at Swansea University. This article was originally posted on 30 June 2015 on her personal blog.

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