Friday, 2 September 2011

Message for Anna full of unsolicited advice...

I was writing a reply to a comment made by Anna (from Step by Step to the Classics) on my last post when two things happened. 1, for some reason blogger won't let me leave the comment and 2, the comment got ridiculously long (which may be the cause of 1). So I thought I'd post it as an actual blog entry. It's mostly completely unsolicited advice about PhD and post-doctoral work. Since some of it's personal to Anna's situation I do hope that she won't mind my posting it like this... But then again my blog has a very limited readership, and it occurred to me that of the few people who do read it some may have useful comments to add, or corrections to make. For an academic career to be sustainable in the long term you have to get a permanent post, and I never managed to do that, which I'm very aware rather undercuts any advice I may give...

Hi Anna

My experience is not everyone's, and I think the crucial problem for me was the lack of stability. Because I do love the subject, and I loved the teaching, and for a while even though I was doing far too much (at one point two half-time jobs, two days a week of 9-5 supervising, plus various committees in my capacity as a research (hah!) fellow) it was stuff I liked doing. It's so hard to say no to something when it's something you really want to do. And there are plenty of tenured academics working that hard, though not all of them by any means. Because what they are doing is part of their real job, they can work like crazy over the examining period (the only way to get through it) and then in the following week take things just a bit easier, even if they still have things on like Masters examining. Whereas for me the following week was when I had to stay late at work to make up for all the time I'd had to take off to get the examining and supervising done (and even then my boss was doing me a favour by being flexible). I would get endless invitations to May Week afternoon garden parties and want to send them all back with "I HAVE A JOB!" scrawled on them in some sort of crazy crayon. (Which of course would have been very unfair on the inviters, who were just being nice.) The situation was not sustainable in terms of my mental health. Also I never meant to be an academic, and the job I adored was at the British Library, but it was only temporary, and there was a Research Associate post just at the right time to lure me back to Cambridge. With the benefit of hindsight that may have been a mistake, though at the time I didn't have much option.

But it was the constant worry at the back of my mind about what I'd be doing in a couple of years' time that eventually overcame me. I'm 35 now and I've never had a contract for more than three years. When I'm 40 I'd like to be in a position to make a guess at what I'll be up to when I'm 45. When I was a teenager my ambition was to work three days a week and have a dog. You can't have a dog if you don't know whether you'll be in a position to give it a home in five years' time, it would be irresponsible. And it's annoying how some senior academics, who got long-term posts at a young age, don't realise how grindingly disheartening this lack of stability becomes over time. You say something about how you're really busy, they say they're really busy too, as if it were the same when they're an internationally-renowned tenured professor with no reputation to make and a secure and generous wage and pension package. (Not that I'm bitter...)

I do wonder whether if things had gone differently -- say I had done a Maths or Computing degree instead, or had become an Actuary after my BA which was my plan if I didn't get a first -- I would now be thinking that the money and stability was all very well but I wanted to go with my passion for learning. And perhaps I would be making a move in an opposite direction. That might well be the case, and I think there's really nothing wrong with that. Neither choice is the absolute right one and of course what you want from life is going to be affected by your experience of it so far. Like Jane Eyre we might not be able to find absolute freedom, but still yearn for a new servitude. (I love Jane Eyre. We also learn from her to assume that all men have madwomen in their attics unless proven otherwise.)

Anyway that's a long-winded way of saying that you shouldn't let my experience put you off, just be aware of the pitfalls. You're a sensible person, and I expect having a daughter, though making some things harder practically speaking, would help to keep you grounded. And among all the administrative palaver and petty egotism of academia, you will find some people who truly love learning.

I think I'm right that you've just done a Masters and now it's a question of whether or not to do a PhD and embark on the academic ladder? Don't do a PhD unless you love it, because Humanities PhDs are a weird experience, and the scholarship is only half of it. I think you will be able to dodge a lot of the neuroses by being a bit older and having an actual life, but you will be surrounded by neurotics. I've got some PhD tips:
1. The first thing to write is the contents page. Don't leave your first term without one. Of course you're bound to change it hugely, but having an overview of what you're planning to do is very useful, and makes you feel less helpless in the face of a huge task.
2. Work out what your PhD supervisor is like. There are a few very good PhD supervisors out there but most have at least one serious flaw which you'll need to learn to work around. My supervisor turned my PhD into a complex game of hide and seek, and made me feel like a stalker when all I wanted was a meeting once every two or three months. But he was always wonderfully helpful when I did catch him. Another supervisor I knew was brilliant if given work to look at on the spot but never found time to read it in advance, and was thus best approached in person with little things he could deal with immediately. If you have a sensible PhD supervisor then arrange a schedule with them, agreeing on meetings at particular intervals and on what work you'll produce. Some PhD supervisors do this automatically but you'd be surprised how many wouldn't, and you may have to take the lead in making this sort of arrangement. Some treat dealing with their supervisees as a chore which they will avoid like a small child who does not want a bath. Again, being a bit older and more grounded will probably help you here. But don't be surprised if you have to be the adult one in the supervisor--supervisee relationship. Decide what you want, double-check to assure yourself that it's reasonable, and work out how best to get it given your supervisor's character.
3. Don't get caught up in the "who is cleverer" game. Decide you're clever enough and then just get on with it. There's a lot of neurosis out there. It's not only postgrads either. Again you're a sensible person, I expect you'd be fine about this.
4. Something that was really useful for me, though it might not be for everyone, was having a side-project during my PhD. The main one was a book on Anglo-Saxon calendars which came out as a departmental publication and then more recently with the Henry Bradshaw Society. Its use as a publication is secondary to its usefulness in giving me something to escape into when the PhD was a bit much, something I could feel uncomplicatedly good about because it didn't have the PhD's pressures on it. But because you have a proper life you might not need that escape. A friend of mine played professional-level squash, and said that that different world helped to keep him sane.
5. Invest a little time in learning how to use Word (or whatever word processor you use). Word has features which I discovered a month or two after finishing my PhD which would have been so so useful. Outline view lets you outline things before writing them, and then later move whole paragraphs around without trouble. Styles are really helpful because you can set up a Heading style, a Sub-heading style, a Sub-sub-heading, etc, and then just get on with the writing, secure in the knowledge that your formatting will be consistent. Automatic cross-references will save you from having to fill in lots of "See below, pp. 000-000" footnotes at the last minute. If you've used Styles properly then Word can automatically produce a Table of Contents for you, complete with page references, to your own specifications. And Word also has automatic index-generating features, which can cope with headwords and sub-headwords. My PhD was very manuscript-based so only had a manuscript index, which I compiled laboriously by hand at the last minute, using a complete printout and several different colours of highlighter pen. Indexes, as opposed to styles, are something you can worry about at the end, but it would still be pretty useful to do it automatically: for example, you could search for all instances of the name "Boethius" and each time mark it up as a headword, instead of doing the searching with your eyes. (I don't personally use Endnote's Cite as You Write feature because I find it just a tad more hassle than it's worth, but I do use Endnote to store bibliography for future reference.) These Word features don't take much time to learn and are then really useful. Cambridge has free courses in using Word and I learnt all this stuff in two mornings (a Basic and an Advanced), and it has saved me so very much time since. It drives me crazy now when I have to deal with editors who don't know this stuff -- I send them a beautifully edited piece and they send it back for a few minor alterations with all the styles messed up. Or they can't even deal with tracked comments.
6. Relating to that last complaint, I think the thing which would most improve academia would be the introduction of this simple concept: "professionalism". Younger academics tend to be better at this, but there are so many academics who seem to think it's in some way OK not to be able to use the basic tools of their trade, or OK to act like divas or troubled geniuses. I'm sure you won't need to be exhorted to be professional, with your real-world experience, but you might be shocked to find those around you not being.

Anyway that was some unasked for advice, given rather more for my benefit (because it's nice to feel one has learnt something) than for yours. Here's some more about the post-PhD years:
1. Publish. Don't be neurotic about it, just be active. This was something I did right, because I have always loved writing.
2. Consider your options and be pro-active about creating options for yourself. This is something I did wrong, because I tended to take opportunities which were presented instead of making them for myself. The post-docs were things which were offered to me, and things which I took on the grounds of combined interest and needing a job. Probably I should have applied for money to do my own thing. I never once put in an application for Leverhulme or British Academy funding, because I always had too much on my plate to which I was already committed. I think that landing one of those big projects has its pitfalls -- personally I really like the daily routine of working with people from set hours, and too much working alone drives me a little crazy. But I got so fed up eventually with never getting to do my own thing, and also landing funding looks really good on your CV. (I was involved in lots of funding applications but always as part of a team.) I think that publications, teaching, and ability to procure funding are the three big things employers want to see.
3. If you can go to courses about teaching then that's probably a good thing. A friend of mine missed out on a big job because she didn't talk about Learning Outcomes. She would have been so much better at it than the person who got it. Academics moan about these bureaucratic requirements but I think they've usually got their good points as well as bad. I would have welcomed more opportunity to learn about standard thought on teaching practice, but I didn't realise it was an option until it was too late to take advantage. It comes down to a desire for professionalism.
4. How to be loved at conferences: never ever ever go over the time limit, and give them something to look at, either texts or images. And try to convey a reason why your audience should be interested. The worst papers are those given by people who think their paper is about how clever they are, and actually the more eminent the speaker the more likely they are to fall into this trap, and think that no-one will mind if they go over time. It's professionalism again -- a lot of academics seem to think that being frightfully clever excuses them from professionalism, or even act as though being professional would in some way imply that they didn't have frightfully clever brains, and then younger impressionable ones copy the older ones because they think that's the standard academic way to behave.

Anyway, this was a bit self-indulgent of me,and I hope you won't think it condescending -- I expect that you will effortlessly avoid the pitfalls that await green 22-year-olds when they start a PhD straight from a BA and Masters with no break. Whatever you decide, I sincerely wish you all the best with it.


  1. Very exciting to find a long post with my name at the top of it - all advice always welcome. As yet I am only nearing the end of my BA degree and about to apply for a Masters, but it's always good to plan ahead. I suspect I will be revisiting this advice many times over the coming years. The key question for me is whether proximity to academia would somehow cast an aura of glory over any work in that field, or whether a decent salary, pension etc would provide more flexibility to work on what I want. You (and Jane) are quite right that ultimate freedom is not actually an option.

    One thing I will actually do right now is polish up my IT skills - as you say, a bit of attention now will save time later.

  2. Well, having spent some time considering my time in academia, and what I might have done differently and what I have particularly enjoyed, it's cathartic to dump all that out there, and it's nice of you not to mind all the unsolicited advice. Rereading it I think I may have been a bit fierce about the IT thing, but as you say it's so much a case of saving yourself hours and hours later by careful use of an hour or two now. Styles and templates in Word, for example, mean you can decide on your own style and then use it for every document ever after, and never have to think again about whether a particular heading ought to be in italics or bold.

    As for your particular point, proximity to academia will not cast an aura of glory over things. Academia is rather depressing. (I don't know if you've ever been involved in a church, but churches are like that too -- somehow a large group of people who agree that love of God and love of your neighbour are the rules for life end up in endless squabbles over flower-arranging rotas, instead of, say, changing the world for the better.) What does cast an aura of glory is proximity to the brilliant scholars out there who aren't part of the game, and proximity to the subject itself. For me that would be an afternoon in a manuscript library working out how text, script, and physical structure fit together. Hopefully I won't be shut out of that world in future because I have a PhD and publications, so if I have the time I expect I'll still be allowed to handle at eleventh-century manuscripts. I'm guessing that it is easier to be an independent scholar with some qualifications and/or publications to your name, which may affect your decision. If you go for a PhD then you can always decide again once you've got it, especially if your previous experience is in something flexible.