By Malcom Craig |
There’s no getting away from it, people are hilarious. When strangers find out you’ve done (or are doing) a history doctorate, they tend to fall into four distinct camps: genuine interest, feigned interest, blank incomprehension, or “So, what possible use is that?” The last response is the very close cousin of the “would you like fries with that?” approach and tangentially related to the lesser spotted “So you’re afraid of the real world, then?” response.
There’s also no denying that the academic job market is extremely tough at the moment. Having viva’ed (I’m not sure that’s even a word) in June 2014, I can attest to exactly how difficult things are. So, how to avoid mumbling something non-committal to the “fries with that” crowd?
What follows is merely advice based on personal experience. None of this should be taken as universal. Indeed, you might disagree with a lot of what I’m about to say. Also, I should emphasise this is addressed to those who wish to pursue a career in academia. I’m manifestly unqualified to talk about all the other avenues, such as heritage, museums, and so on.
The year immediately after the viva is a period when you should be looking to enhance your CV. Publications, teaching, impact, future research plans, and administrative experience are all things that prospective employers are looking for. Many of the same things apply for post-doctoral positions, with a greater emphasis on publications and future research plans.
If you’re like me, you won’t have focused on getting articles out there during the doctorate. You might think that leaves you at a disadvantage, but with a good thesis under your belt, you’re in a prime position to craft a couple of high quality articles and get a book proposal out there. Regarding articles, pick your journals carefully. Always submit to the best journal you possibly can. Even if you get rejected, you’ll get great feedback that will make the article much stronger. Employers are looking for publications that will get at least three stars in the REF, so bear that in mind when submitting.
Feedback on your carefully crafted work can be soul destroying, especially when it comes in the form of anonymous reviews. When I had the comments back for my first article, they were very detailed and – for the first half hour – I took it all as a rejection. Then I read everything more carefully and realised that the feedback would make the article much stronger and that the journal would welcome resubmission. So, I knuckled down, did the work, and the article was accepted.
My second article was a totally different story. Feedback amounted to two or three lines of minor language and usage queries, plus very welcome praise and a recommendation to publish. It just goes to show that you learn from your mistakes.
The advice I’ve had from many established historians is that a book – or at least a book contract – is vital to getting a permanent position. Ask your supervisors if you can see book proposals they have done, carefully read the guidelines that all university and commercial presses offer, and make sure you tailor the proposal to the press. Be prepared for rejection – Lots and lots of it. However, if you keep trying, eventually a reputable press will want to publish your book.
Despite the centrality of publications to the hiring process, there’s still lots of other stuff you can do to enhance your CV. Do keep attending conferences and giving papers. These events can be pretty expensive at a time when you no longer have financial support from a university department. So, think carefully about where and when you want to present. In my first post-PhD year, I gave papers at one local conference, and one further afield. The latter was prestigious, but also offered free accommodation for presenters and there was no conference fee. Win!
Many of you will have taught, done public events, and taken part in activities that have created wider impact. Don’t stop! Keep up that blog or podcast, try to gain some teaching work to tide you over, continue to get involved in events (engagement with audiences beyond academia is something that an increasing number of employers are looking for). All of this valuably enhances the CV, keeps you in the loop, and helps to avoid that feeling of dislocation and loneliness that affects many of us when the thesis is done, the viva is but a memory, and the future is uncertain.
(Perhaps not the best models for your public engagement activity)
I won’t make any bones about it, the first year after the PhD is daunting. It’s vital that you keep your head up. Maintain contact with peers, supervisors, and viva examiners. If a job or a post-doc comes up that looks even vaguely do-able, apply for it. You’ll have to deal with endless rejection, but eventually something will come up. It took a while, but I’ve been lucky enough to get a post-doc for the 2015-16 academic year, which has been a great boost to my confidence.
With the pressure on universities, debate over the future of higher education, and the increasing number of PhD graduates, the challenges for the newly minted doctor are huge. But, when you get down to it, we all do this because we love history. None of us would be where we are without a passion for understanding the past and communicating it to others. And those who ask the “fries with that” question? Point them at your thesis. You’ve contributed to the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and will continue to do so. When things look bleak, remember that’s what you’ve done and will continue to do. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Malcolm is currently a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburghshire Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH). He also teaches about the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and US-UK relations. You can find his blog (irregularly maintained, thus ignoring his own advice) at theatomicage.wordpress.com and the podcast he co-hosts (despite widespread popular demands for its suppression) at americanhistorytoo.podbean.com.
(all images © wikimedia commons)