By Sam Grinsell |

On 22 June 2017, Durham University played host to Ask the Experts, an event designed to help PhD students and early-career researchers (ECRs) understand how to approach the highly competitive academic job market. There were four talks given by experts from Durham and the Royal Historical Society (RHS). History Lab Plus, which organised the event, is a network that supports early-career historians. Although the advice was discipline specific, in this post I’ve taken some key messages that have wider significance for scholars across the humanities (and beyond) considering how to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

A chessboard during a game, focus is on black king and white pawns

Publish strategically

The RHS’s Literary Director, Professor Andrew Spicer, gave the first talk of the day on publication. A key part of his advice was to think carefully about the kind of article you have written or are planning: does it stand alone as a significant contribution to the discipline? Or, is it an interesting case study that extends a particular area of study? Or is it a version of one of your PhD chapters? Think also about the kind of readership you want and are likely to attract for this particular article.

You should target journals based not on which is the most prestigious in your overall field, but instead on which will be the most suitable way of disseminating the article you are planning. For historians, this might mean choosing a journal with a particular specialism on period, location or methodology (for example Renaissance Studies, The African Historical Review or Urban History). These will likely take less time from submission to publication than more general historical publications. It’s worth noting that this chimes with some recent advice from Nobel Prize winning scientists.

Of course, if you do have an article that speaks to the discipline as a whole, you should seek out one of the general journals in your discipline. Particular praise was given to The Historical Journal as one with broad coverage but a reasonable turnaround from submission to publication. In the discussion afterwards, Professor Margot Finn, President of the RHS, emphasised the importance of getting one or two good publications out during your PhD.

Christian God, bearded and haloed, looks down from a cloud

Don’t fear regulatory systems beyond your control

Finn’s own presentation gave a general overview of the history, purpose and methodology of the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). Her message to us was simple: be sceptical of folklore surrounding the REF, and don’t get too caught up in the detail of what the requirements might be next time round, as quite simply no-one yet knows. Of course, if you’re outside the UK you needn’t worry about it at all, but our international readers can take this advice as: don’t become too obsessed with the large national and supranational environments in which we operate. They are things we should understand, but cannot control, at least at this stage of our careers.

Although presenting a broadly sympathetic account of the REF, Finn was scathing on its misuse by some institutions as a managerial tool. Attempts to game the system sometimes lead to the ‘tail wagging the dog,’ and ‘If you go on and have academic careers, fight for the dog to wag the tail.’

The message from Margot Finn and the other panel members was that we should understand the REF, but try to avoid getting too obsessed with its details. This is not to say that we should not care, or share our views with organisations such as the RHS or our unions etc., but that we should not let these things distract from our real work as researchers and educators.

Two women climbing a cliff face in 1908

Be a good colleague

Durham’s own Professor Jo Fox, head of their History Department, then gave a presentation on employability and interviews. This included a lot of excellent and detailed advice, far too much to go into here. So I’ll focus on one that ran through a lot of the discussions of other topics as well: remember that an interview panel is looking for a new colleague, so be someone people want to work with.

It sounds so simple, and yet when asked ‘what makes a good colleague?’ many applicants give self-centred or ill-thought-through replies. Think about what you might do to create a pleasant working environment in your department. Also consider the experiences you’ve gained working in teams, inside or outside academia. All of this matters, even in disciplines that don’t feature much collaborative research.

Interns from the National Museum of the United States Navy work together creating small history books for children

Be a good citizen

The event ended with a wonderfully energising talk from Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, also of Durham. She exhorted us to engage with public history in order to share ideas beyond institutional walls. She gave an overview of public history as both an academic sub-discipline and a set of engagement practices, before going on to advise us about engaging with museums and other groups.

The wider message of her talk, however, and one which related to the preceding presentations as well, was that we should consider our place within the world. This goes for the academic communities we work within, be they our international colleagues who read our articles, the national bodies that represent us in discussions about the future of higher education, our departmental colleagues, or the wider public. The key message from the event was that how we approach these groups is what makes our reputations, for good or ill. A valuable reminder that your thesis is not everything, and that being a professional academic requires more than purely scholarly skills.

Interested in how historical skills might help you find a career outside academia? Check out this post by Andrew Mackley

Sam Grinsell is coming to the end of his first year as a PhD student at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, where he studies British imperial architecture in the Nile valley. His research is funded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. He is the new chair of Pubs and Publications

Image 1, Contract, Steve Snodgrass, 2011. CC-BY

Image 2, Chess, ABW174, 2016, CC0

Image 3, God the father, attributed to Cima da Conegliano, c. 1510-17

Image 4, Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club, 1908

Image 5, Interns from the National Museum of the United States Navy work together creating small history books for children, 2011. Public Domain