Down the rabbit hole

It has been just over a year since I submitted my PhD, and it has certainly been eventful. Arriving at the end of my three years in Cambridge without the prospect of academic employment, my immediate response was to hyperventilate. Having hyperventilated, I then wallowed in self-imposed misery for awhile before embarking on the almost-full-time occupation of job applications. Before I go any further, I must stress that not only did I not have a job (academic or otherwise) but that I had almost convinced myself that the chances of getting an academic job were about as remote as leading the first manned mission to Mars.

So, in writing a blog post about the unexpected academic twists and turns over these past twelve months, I hope for it to be of use to those falling down the same post-PhD rabbit hole, and to demonstrate that things might not be so grim as they first appear.

How did I end up in Leeds?

During the final year of my PhD I was introduced to Professor Graeme Gooday (Centre for HPS, University of Leeds) and a number of academics associated with @LegaciesofWar. My original postdoctoral plan was to develop a project based on wartime and interwar medical practice. However, I eventually reconciled myself to the fact that much was still to be done on the subject of venereological knowledge and practice. By this stage, I had developed working relationships with several staff at Leeds and with Michael Worboys at CHSTM, and hoped to pursue a project on twentieth-century healthcare for venereal diseases. So, I began putting together applications for a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship.

But how to keep body and soul together in the interim?

Having completed my PhD, I found myself without the immediate prospect of paid employment. Knowing that I wanted to move to Leeds, I began applying for temporary administrative jobs within the University. I was fortunate enough to be offered three-months employment in the department with which I hoped to affiliate as an Early Career Researcher. These three months not only gave me paid employment but, importantly, the opportunity to develop working relationships with academic staff, and to form great friendships with a number of the postgraduates.

Applying for academic jobs

During my time as an Education Officer in PRHS, I was constantly applying for academic jobs. For most of these three months it felt like I did nothing but monitor student attendance during the working day, and apply for research fellowships and lectureships after work and during my lunch breaks. Many of these applications were for Junior Research Fellowships and postdoctoral posts on externally funded projects (if you want to read about these types of applications, see my post ‘Applying for academic jobs‘).

Among the applications I submitted was a short-term Fellowship with the Leeds Humanities Research Institute, which are designed to enable ECRs to spend time carrying out research aimed at developing their ability to make strong applications for externally funded postdocs. Happily, I was awarded one of these Fellowships in February, during which I began preparing an application for a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, along with materials to be submitted to the second-stage of British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship selections.

However, I was appointed to a Junior Research Fellowship in Oxford soon after, and had to set about withdrawing these applications. If I can offer one piece of advice, it would be to apply for many academic posts. True, there will be many rejection letters – as you will see from a previous blog post ‘Thank you for your application.‘, this can be a long and dispiriting process. However, you really do not know which of those applications might just prove successful, and for all those that do not, you will have gained valuable experience writing applications and attending interviews.

What I have I been doing in the interim?

The @museumofHSTM Hidden Histories display, which @LauraSellers11 and I helped put together.
The @museumofHSTM Hidden Histories display, which @LauraSellers11 and I helped put together.

Although I am taking up a new post in October, the question, since February, has been how to remain engaged with academia in the interim. Shortly after the conclusion of my LHRI Fellowship I was appointed as a Visiting Fellow with @hpsleeds. This Fellowship, with its unusual collection of responsibilities, has made for an interesting year. It has involved, at various times, academic support for the department’s postgraduates, working with the @museumofHSTM collections, writing articles and book proposals, writing funding applications for visiting professors, and elbow grease during the Gillinson Room refurbishments.

A lion's skull from the @museumofHSTM - one of the many items catalogued and relocated in the process of refurbishing the Gillinson Room.
A lion’s skull from the @museumofHSTM – one of the many items catalogued and relocated in the process of refurbishing the Gillinson Room.

The last few months have taught me how to adapt and integrate my own research interests into the wider research foci of a new department. It has taught me how to positively develop constructive professional relationships, it has allowed me to meet a superb group of research staff and students, and it has led to the development of some wonderful friendships.

Refining our sanding skills whilst refurbishing the Gillinson Room
Refining our sanding skills whilst refurbishing the Gillinson Room

Although this Fellowship has given me access to an academic department, along with its resources and wonderful staff and students, it has been unpaid. So, in order to keep proverbial body and soul together, I commuted to Cambridge each week during Lent Term to supervise undergraduates. I have also taken periodic editing jobs throughout the year and (with one rather large exception) have been as frugal as circumstances have allowed.

Hopefully, this blog post has put some problems into perspective and shown that it’s okay to find yourself at the end of your PhD without a clear idea of what comes next. Sometimes it’s not always forthcoming and you have to be inventive, flexible and prepared to take on work that is not immediately relevant to the (academic) career you may be working towards.


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