‘Negotiating Academic Careers’: The Scottish Association for American Studies Workshop

Our post today reflects on a recent academic careers event funded by SGSAH. It was organised by Catherine Bateson, a third-year AHRC SGSAH funded PhD student at the University of Edinburgh,  Nicola Martin, a third-year AHRC SGSAH funded PhD student at the University of Stirling and David Wilson, a third-year PhD student funded by the University of Strathclyde. Find out more about their research (and other projects) by following all three organisers on Twitter: @catbateson@NicolaMartin14, & @CalicoDiv.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as the end of the PhD process draws closer, thoughts turn to post-doctoral careers. For those undertaking American history and studies research, academic avenues across the Atlantic are also available, where both the job market and nature of positions differ significantly from the British system. Whilst careers workshops are increasingly common, those with an academic focus tend to concentrate on the British sector. With this gap in the academic careers development market in mind, three current doctoral students – Catherine Bateson, Nicola Martin and David Wilson – organised ‘Negotiating Academic Careers’, funded by SGSAH’s Cohort Development Fund. This one-day, student-led workshop for current doctoral researchers in Scotland trained participants how to negotiate the different academic job markets, application processes, requirements and opportunities available in the United Kingdom and United States.

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Our Negotiating Academic Careers poster gained a lot of comment during the workshop – any resemblance to real life academic job hunting is purely accidental

Meeting at the University of Edinburgh in early February, attendees first heard from Dr. Matthew Smith (University of Strathclyde) and Dr. Mark McLay (University of Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian University) about American history and studies related jobs in the United Kingdom. Both speakers discussed opportunities within history departments for teaching on courses relating to Americana topics. They also had useful advice about gaining teaching and lecturing experience on a variety of subjects, including those outside the strict confines of your PhD research. Both speakers stressed the importance of obtaining student feedback to demonstrate teaching strengths and how these, alongside concrete teaching statements, are key to applications. Indeed, the importance of having some teaching experience became a running theme during the workshop. Both Matt and Mark also offered up honest opinions on the realities of academic history careers, commenting on the importance of obtaining funding within the UK system, through grants and fellowships, a subject returned to later in the workshop. They were optimistic that there were opportunities out there, and shared their own stories to demonstrate how they negotiated the sector. Matt also related his own personal experiences of the Canadian academic system.

Dr. David Silkenat (University of Edinburgh) and Dr. Kevin Waite (Durham University) offered similar advice and optimism during their discussion of jobs in the United States. Academic application processes in America vary greatly from Britain and both speakers highlighted what American university employers are looking for in candidates. They also discussed career progression prospects in a system geared towards tenured and permanent positions. The main difference between UK and US academic careers paths is that the latter takes more time – the process often begins with job presentations, interviews and CV dissemination at the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting that takes place early in the new year. From there, if lucky, campus visits take place. The process occurs over months instead weeks. David and Kevin did much to dissipate some of the myths and concerns about the ‘cattle-market’ mentality the AHA conjures in the minds of Americanist researchers. They also gave helpful advice on how British academics should market themselves in relation to American graduate students who often take longer to complete their doctorates than in the UK. Key to this was further discussion about teaching, something of particular importance in the US.

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Having a breadth of speakers at different stages of their careers provided a wide-range of experiences and advice for attendees

After lots of animated conversation over lunch, Dr. Felicity Donohoe (University of Glasgow) and Dr. Malcolm Craig (Liverpool John Moores University) discussed research fellowships and post-doctorate grants. Felicity focused particularly on her enviable success in securing research fellowships at American universities, libraries and archive institutions. Both short and long term fellowships provide generous grants to ensure travel and subsistence to graduate and early career researchers – a vital financial incentive to conduct transnational archive projects. They also carry prestigious value within academic circles on both sides of the Atlantic and often lead to public speaking and research sharing opportunities.

A ‘success begets success’ outcome often occurs with fellowship awards, either generating further funding or opportunities to work on projects as a fellow, and it was encouraging to hear all of the workshop’s speakers comment that post-doctorate positions and fellowships are a common route to full-time positions. Malcolm furthered Felicity’s advice by discussing the myriad world of journal article writing and book publications, providing his own experience as an early career researcher working on a first book. He provided attendees with valuable advice on targeted book proposals, handling publishing contracts and open access publishing, There was also some discussion of publishing and article writing in relation to the REF system in Britain and the differences between research assessment in the UK and in North American academic counterparts.

The final session of the day was an open roundtable for participants to raise any outstanding questions and concerns, discuss their own experiences and ask for advice from the speakers. By the afternoon, a supportive atmosphere had enveloped the workshop and it was great to see an academic careers discussion end with positivity about the varied options open to postgraduates. One of the main aims of the workshop was to create a supportive network of Americanist doctoral scholars through the help of the Scottish Association for the Study of America (SASA) and establish a foundation of practical academic and careers advice, complementing systems already in place for facilitating research. Feedback from the day revealed that optimistic and realistic subject-specific academic careers advice was of great help to attendees and ensured the workshop’s success.

Catherine, Nicola and David hope this will be the first of many workshops of its kind. We would like to express our utmost thanks to SGSAH for their generous Cohort Development Funding, the SASA committee for their support, the University of Edinburgh for hosting us on the day, and to all our speakers and attendees for their valuable contributions and participation.

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