Category Archives: Recent Posts

18. Coffee and editing: tales from the fourth year

It’s the 20th of January and, after coming back to work after the holidays on the 2nd, I finally feel like I’m back in the swing of things. My name is Matthew, and I’m a PhD student in that progressively dense, foggy space between the third and fourth years of my studies at Newcastle University, trying to finish a PhD on the confluence of transcontinental railways, geopolitics, imperialism, and ‘civilisation’ between c. 1875 and 1930. I’m at the point where I’ve got a good draft of every chapter and I’m trying to knot them all together into one smooth stretch of scholarly rope. It’s proving really difficult, and it would also make my usual ‘week in the life’ excruciatingly dull to read. Monday: drank coffee and did some editing. Tuesday: drank coffee and did some editing…and so on and so forth. This week has however been a little bit more varied, with a trip away from Newcastle and a couple of meetings to break up the monotony. This means that what follows is probably only pretty, as opposed to excruciatingly, dull to read.

Monday begins with, how about that, some coffee and some editing. I’m currently working on editing and slightly reworking my first empirical chapter on the German/Ottoman Baghdad Railway, having spent the last month or so doing the same to my introductory chapter, my theoretical framework, and my methodology. I’m happy with all of those now, so they’ve been ‘banked’ away as finished, only to be looked at again once the complete full draft is together. To be honest it is slow work, going through comments on the chapter from my supervisors, trying to clarify or remove some of the waffle and sharpen the arguments and key points I’m trying to make. The chapter is in a good state, but suffers from unnecessary detail in places. Some of it goes into footnotes and some of it gets removed entirely. Tuesday begins the same way, but at lunchtime I’m on the way back home to get picked up by my partner. She’s spent the last two years doing a part-time MA at Warwick University in Educational Leadership (whatever that means), and Wednesday is her graduation. The thought of one-and-a-half days away from the screen still conjures squirms of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, but it is something that I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, miss. So at around 3pm we start on the four hour journey down to Coventry. I have a book with me – Gitta Sereny’s ‘Into That Darkness’ – which is the second of the twenty-five ‘non-work’ books I resolved to read in 2017 as my New Year’s Resolution. I finish the last 70 pages or so just before it gets too dark to see. We arrive in Coventry at just before 8 and, after a quick bite to eat at a nearby pub, head to bed early.

The graduation takes place at 11am on the next day, but maddeningly I’m up at 7am and at the appropriate university building just after 9am. After a brief stop for coffee, I take my seat at around 10.20am and wait for things to get started. It’s been a while since I sat through a graduation, and this one taught me that graduations need at least three things. Firstly, canned applause (my hands were really sore by the end); secondly, complimentary deodorant (I was drenched); and thirdly, optional wee bags (I was very nearly even more drenched). A reasonably difficult Sudoku or crossword wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Still, before long it’s over, and after taking the necessary photographs it’s time to hit the road again. I start on book number three, a short and simple little rag entitled ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by some old German nobody called Friedrich Nietzsche. I get 40ish pages in before the light fades. It’s just before 7pm when I get back, and my housemate and I have some food and watch a couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica before the waves of tiredness lap over me. After a day-and-a-half effectively off work, I need to be up and ready to go again on Thursday morning.

Alas, it’s not to be, as I mess around for a couple of hours before heading off to a meeting at 11am. This meeting is with the Module Leader of the third-year undergraduate module I’m the Teaching Assistant for. I did the module last year, too, and we got the highest teaching feedback scores from across the whole department, so the meeting proceeds from a kind of ‘if it ain’t broke’ style premise. The seminars I’m leading are remaining almost exactly the same, and we talk about the microscopic changes to other parts of the module and to one of the assessments. The afternoon sees all of the geography postgrads congregate in the coffee room for one of our newest PhD students’ birthday. We have an ingenious system among the postgrads at Newcastle where the person whose birthday it has most recently been sorts a cake and card for the next person. We have chocolate cake, sing happy birthday, and although an incessant segment of my brain continually edges my eyesight towards the clock and the amount of editing I still have left to do, we stay in the coffee room for a good while, talking and laughing. We also decide where to go for a drink that evening to celebrate the aforementioned birthday. Drinks on a Thursday night are usually a huge no-no – ‘it’s a schoolnight, you slacker’ whispers the incessant segment of my brain with scarcely concealed venom – but what the hell. So, at 4.30pm, we head off to a fine local drinking establishment called Dat Bar, and stay there until 10pm. Slightly tipsy we disperse, and my housemate and I stop for a nightcap at another fine establishment called Bar Loco before completing the 15minute walk back to our house.

And then it’s Friday, and here I am, with that very same incessant segment of my brain jumping up and down in fury at the fact I’m writing this blog post instead of editing my chapter. A few months ago I would have let this incessant segment dominate my time, shouting its orders through a megaphone and throwing books and lightbulbs at me every time I seem like I’m going to get another coffee or have a 5minute break. Now though, it shouts at me as if through a window: I can still hear it and make out the words it is saying, but I can tune them out and choose not to obey them. It’s already sent me a strongly worded letter decrying my plans for the weekend: a meal out with my partner on Friday evening, then a trip to Newcastle vs. Rotherham at St. James Park on Saturday before a few drinks on Saturday evening for a friends’ birthday. It got particularly livid about my plans to have a lazy Sunday with a mild hangover doing washing and some meal prep for the following week, alerting me to its wrath by sending both a carrier pigeon and a thinly veiled threat via the Beacons of Gondor. ‘You have marking to finish!’ it shrieks when learning of my plans to possibly even have a nap on Sunday afternoon. ‘And what about your chapter?! You’re spending a day doing basically nothing when you could be finishing your PhD!’

Ignoring the fact that there are voices inside my head, there’s a genuinely important message in all this, something I remind myself of frequently and something that is worth thinking about. When you come towards the end of your PhD, you can place yourself, consciously or not, under overwhelming pressure. Your 6pm finishes can creep slowly later, your working week can increasingly bleed into Saturdays and Sundays, and you can often feel like your entire life is placed under a suffocating blanket of stress as the clock ticks down and your supervisors still insist on you tweaking this section or that argument. On top of this, you will often be juggling this pressure with a number of other tasks. You might take on (more) teaching to keep your finances ticking over, you might be frenziedly filling out postdoc or teaching fellowship applications, and – if you’re serious about staying in academia – you’ll quite often be spending all of the spare time you have trying to draft papers and manoeuvre them through the labyrinthine peer review process. Not only this, you’ll be trying to understand (let alone demonstrate) the dreaded word ‘impact’, you’ll be attempting to maintain and extend your networking reach, and you’ll be doing all of this alongside your other, non-academic responsibilities, whatever they may be.

The point is that we have a tendency, often because we think we’re getting paid to ‘do what we love’, to allow work to colonise our lives; to allow it to stretch its tentacles into all aspects of our existence, constricting anything and everything even slightly detrimental to our levels of productivity and efficiency. And we have a tendency to think that it’s both normal and necessary to our future careers. It isn’t. I’m increasingly convinced it’s vital that PhD students of all stages draw themselves firm boundaries, work bloody hard within those boundaries, but then switch off as much as possible outside of them. So I guess what I’m saying is that when you get an invitation to go out for drinks on a Thursday evening but want to finish this or that section, or are contemplating spending that spare Sunday doing another full day on your methodology, ask yourself: is it really necessary to do so? Will you fail your PhD if you don’t spend that one day or that one evening doing a few more hours work? If the answer is no, then go out for those drinks or spend that Sunday doing something you will really enjoy. Go to the cinema or to the coast. And don’t regret it or allow any incessant segments of your brain to make you feel guilty. You’ll still get your doctorate, the paper will still be written, and the right job will still come along. Most important of all, you’ll have a much less of a stressful time about it along the way.

Academic jobs post-PhD (re-post)

On 5th December Dr Charlotte Mathieson spoke to PGRs in Surrey’s School of English and Languages about getting the first job post-PhD. She talked through her career path, from the messy immediacy of the post-PhD stage through to the permanent job started 4 months ago, and drew out some (potentially) useful things she learned along the way. Charlotte published her notes and slides from the talk on her website, and kindly agreed to share her blog with the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum as her experience will be very valuable to geographers nearing the end of their PhD.

What jobs are available post-PhD?

I focused on the academic route post-PhD, while my colleague Joanna Gough gave further insights into industry in her half of the talk. Going the academic route, I assumed that the end goal is a permanent lectureship combining teaching, research, and admin.

To get there, though, may take several years via the following:

What jobs.png

My experience has covered most of these at some point – a brief summary of my career path is as follows:

  • PhD, University of Warwick 2007-2010 (viva 2011)
  • 1.5 years of hourly-paid teaching, marking, invigilation, academic writing and 1-1 tuition, A-level tuition, short term research fellowship, research assistant on project bid, work on University projects supporting ECRs, freelance proofreading, etc… (Jan 2011 – Oct 2012)
  • 1 year as 0.6 FTE research project fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick; plus hourly-paid teaching (Oct 2012 – Sept 2013)
  • 2 years further in this position FT with research time (Sept 2013 – Sept 2015)
  • 10-month teaching fellowship at Newcastle University (Sept 2015 – July 2016)
  • University of Surrey lectureship (August 2016 – )

In what followed I talked through this in more detail, drawing out a few things I learned along the way about how to make the most of what has been a highly unpredictable, precarious, and varied career path.

The first 1-2 years

This, for me, was the hardest in terms of managing multiple jobs. Like many others I found myself in the double bind of the post-PhD landscape: teaching is what pays, but research publications are (typically) the key experience needed for permanent job. Unless you are very lucky to secure a research post straight away – and some are, of course – you will likely find yourself with a heavy and unpredictable teaching load while trying to write publications. At this point my key aim was finding a way to stay in the game by any means possible. The key things I learned in this period were:

Be flexible: take any job that builds up experience; look for the benefits of these positions e.g. skills development, building networks and connections

Stay affiliated: a library card and institutional affiliation are key, and various University positions should keep you in with these. At Warwick an Associate Fellow status was created which granted 3 years affiliation post-PhD.

Support is everything: work with, not against, your peers for advice, moral support, and help each other with applications and interviews – talk to people who have been to interviews, ask what questions they had and what their experiences were like, build up knowledge of the sector. Your supervisor(s) will hopefully remain a valuable source of support at this point, but you may also seek out others who can mentor you – advice from a range of people across career stages is especially valuable, from early career colleagues who are a few years down the line to more senior  professors who have been on interview panels. (Not sure how to find a mentor? This ECRchat has some good advice).

Plan: have a 1, 2, and 5-year plan. This is far from easy when you are living month to month, but keeping in mind long-term goals and objectives is crucial to making the most of the time you do have and, importantly, keeping your morale and long-term focus going in difficult times. Be strategic and prioritise publications, as well as identifying CV gaps to fill; and be realistic, recognize that plans will change and you need to review, revise, readjust periodically.

3-5 years: finding (some) stability

After 2 years of precarity I took up a 0.6 position at Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. I was nominally a Research Fellow but employed to work on public engagement strategy, launching Warwick’s first Book Festival. There were some less than ideal features about the post, not least that I had to make up the remaining time from hourly-paid teaching, and while in theory I had 1 day a week (unpaid) for research, in practice I was working every spare hour on teaching, marking, and applying for jobs.

I also wasn’t in a strictly academic post as my remit was public engagement. However, there are strong advantages in alternative paths such as this: I gained valuable skills and experience in public engagement which became a unique selling-point on my CV. I learned a lot about the higher education landscape and relationships between universities and the public sector, and was able to build up networks of contacts around the University and beyond which became useful in my academic work. It was also immensely enjoyable and refreshing, if challenging at times, to work on something completely different but related to my academic work.

I also tried to be as proactive as possible in making the most of the project I’d been given, and following the success of the pilot Festival in 2013, funding was secured for my job for a further two years. At this point I was extremely lucky: my post was extended to full-time and this included some research time, which was exactly what I needed to write my monograph which in turn, I hoped, would help me get an academic post. Although the job didn’t started as the ideal position, a combination of luck, hard work, and being proactive meant that it came to work to my advantage in the long-term.

4 years post-viva

By March 2015 it was 4 years since my viva and my monograph had been contracted, but getting long- and short-listed for jobs was still tough. At this point, I referred to the statistics published by Professor Andrew McRae, Head of the English Department at the University of Exeter, on the recruitment of a typical permanent lectureship and the number of applicants that had monographs at various stages of publication:Picture11.png

See: Professor Andrew McRae, “That tricky first book: trends from the job market”, July 2015 )

While these figures are a stark reminder of the realities of competition on the job market, I raised these not to prompt worry but rather as a reminder of the importance of both being realistic, and staying on top of this kind of information. Reading about the job market and the state of HE in general may not be the most cheering topic, but it’s much better to know what you, and universities, are up against. Going to professionalisation talks, reading HE news, and talking to others about this, is as important to your career development as what goes on your CV and will not only help you focus your goals but also speak to these better in interviews.

  • One particular challenge for ECRs has, and will continue to be, the Research Excellence Framework. My work on the REF 2014 is fast becoming outdated as the landscape changes ahead of the next REF, but this post on my talk at the Westminster HE forum in 2015 and my detailed post on the REF for the New Academic will give an idea of what last time involved, some of which will likely remain relevant.
  • Other places you might look to read up about the current state of HE and its impact on ECRs include the THEGuardian HE NetworkTaylor & Francis blog. If you’re on twitter then check out the #ecrchat and #phdchat threads and consider joining the fortnightly chats for more on particular topics.

Year 5-6

The final stage of my career journey was relatively straightforward – not withstanding the small issue of moving 300 miles across the country at 2 weeks’ notice for a 10-month job. This position was one that I very (very!) nearly didn’t apply for: the logistics seemed entirely unfeasible for a short-term post, and the quick lead-in time from application close to job start date was such that I assumed there were ideal candidates already in mind. Many of us have been to an interview where another candidate looks sure to get the job – and yet for every experience like this, I have heard another story that ended in success, if not with that job then with future applications to the same department. Although it may not seem like it when you’re faced with a folder full of rejection letters, going for the job you don’t expect to get is always worthwhile: if nothing else, interview experience (and the opportunity to get feedback – something you should always ask for) is always valuable. The experience of going to an interview with a feeling of “nothing to lose” can also be highly liberating – gone is the stifling anxiety of expectation.

And so it was that a couple of weeks later I found myself commuting across the country, and balancing the trials of a new teaching load, panicked flat-hunting in a city I barely knew, and living out of a suitcase in budget hotels for a month (not only soul-destroyingly dull, but 3 fire alarms the night before your first seminars is not the most ideal start).

Even though this was a fixed-term position for 10 months, I had a feeling that this job would be the stepping-stone I needed to get to a permanent position and my instinct was right: I gained useful teaching experience in a new department, built up new networks of contacts, and had incredibly valuable research and career mentorship from senior colleagues, as well as support from fantastic peers. It was the final push I needed to be ready to apply for permanent positions in the spring, securing my current job in late May.

This weekend, I finally faced the horror that is my applications folder and did some sums. Over the course of 5 years, I had applied for a total of 35 jobs, plus 4 attempts at early career fellowship schemes.

job stat.png

I know people who have done many less, and people who have done many more, applications. It varies. There is no golden number, because just like the infuriating advice that something you’ve lost will be in the last place you look, you just never know until the final phone call which application will be the last.

In retrospect it is easy to make some observations about this pattern: I wish I had been more strategic early on and focused on getting published rather than the huge amount of time spent on those unsuccessful applications; I am also aware that I was extremely lucky that the one application I focused my time and energy on this year was successful (there were others advertised at the same time that I decided against going for, for reasons including the vague and not-entirely-advisable “gut instinct”). It is tricky to advise when to start going for jobs as everyone’s preparedness is different at every stage, but hopefully this post has given a few pointers to consider and I am always willing to answer questions in the comments or via email.

Become a web content manager!

The RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum is looking to appoint a Web Content Manager. This is a brand new role in which you will be responsible for the development of the PGF website and for maintaining the PGF web presence. No manual HTML coding knowledge is necessary in order to fulfil the role. Prospective Web Content Managers should have an eye for detail, excellent communication skills, and blogging or other content management experience; and should have a good all-round level of I.T. literacy, although no specific skills are required. This would be a great addition to your CV! Anyone interested should contact the webmaster, Martin Jones at http://www.pgforum.org.uk/contact/technical_and_registration for further details.
The RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum is run by a friendly, committed group of postgraduates based in geography departments around the UK, who volunteer their time and skills for a year or more to maintain and develop the PGF as a useful resource for other geography postgraduates.

Important: Proposed 2011 Constitution – Draft for Review

The RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum committee have now published their proposed 2011 Constitution – Draft for Review.  The proposed constitution will be put to the membership at the AGM on 2nd April 2011 at the PGF Mid-Term Conference.
To register your interest in taking up any of these positions, please contact the committee via the contact form
Please see the attached PDF document for full details of the positions

Call for committee members 2011-12

The current PGF committee would be grateful to receive expressions of interest from geography postgraduate students interested in becoming involved in the work of the Postgraduate Forum committee.
We need volunteers to fill the following posts (full details in the PDF attachment beneath this article):-

CHAIR AND/OR CHAIR-ELECT
TREASURER
RGS-IBG ANNUAL CONFERENCE PGF SESSIONS CO-ORDINATOR 2011/2012
WEB CONTENT MANAGER
PGF MID-TERM CONFERENCE ORGANISER(S) 2012
SOCIAL CO-ORDINATOR
PGF ANNUAL CONFERENCE TRAINING SYMPOSIUM CO-ORDINATOR 2011-2012

If you are a geography postgraduate student and are interested in taking on any of these roles or would like more information regarding any of the posts, please contact the current PGF Chair Rosie Emeny via the contact form.
If you are attending the PGF Mid-Term Conference at Durham University:On Saturday 2ND April 2011 the PGF will hold its AGM during the Mid-Term Conference and you are all invited to attend. During the meeting there will be the chance to discuss the roles and you will be able to express your interest in undertaking any of the roles.
Elections may be held for any posts with multiple candidates.
Don’t see a role that suits you? Do you think you can contribute to the role of the PGF in a different way? We would be delighted to hear any ideas that you may have.  Please help us to continue the Postgraduate Forum work by becoming involved. Thank you!
Please download the PDF below for full details

Agenda for the AGM 2011

To be held: 1:30pm, Appleby Lecture Theatre, Durham University, 2nd April 2011

PGF Constitution Review – to be put to the membership
Call for Committee members 2011-2012: discussion of roles and collection of expressions of interest
Annual Report 2010
RGS-IBG Annual International Conference (31st August – 2nd September 2011): PGF Paper Sessions and Soapbox Session
AOB

New PGF website launched

You may have noticed that the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum website has changed. The new design is part of a whole new approach; in the coming weeks and months we’ll ‘switch on’ a number of interactive features including user accounts, interactive forums, blogs, and polls that will make the website less of a message board and more of a resource that is able to better serve today’s geography postgraduates. Use the Create new account link on the left-hand menu to get started!