Russell | History | University Teaching.

Russell shares his journey from PhD to lecturer/reader, detailing his job interview prep, financial worries, and career exploration. He reminisces about supportive friends and family, and the surprise of struggling to find full-time work. Despite initial insecurity, he finds teaching fulfilling. Reflecting on his PhD, he sees it as valuable despite stress. Networking proved crucial for job opportunities. Russell’s supervisor played a pivotal role in his post-PhD journey. He now advises students to consider careers earlier and ponders changes he might have made.

Explore Russell’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Russell’s PhD
The reasons behind his PhD
Encouragement from friends and family
Obstacles to doing a PhD
The role of the supervisor
Thinking seriously about an academic career
Moments of uncertainty
Career development activities
Wanting to become an academic
The influence on Russell’s decisions
The experiences of teaching
Weighing up paid work during the PhD
Considering a non-academic career
The expectations versus the reality of an academic career
Expectations beyond the PhD
Feelings about the PhD
Finishing the PhD
The role of networking in finding a job
The interview experience for academic jobs
Russell’s current role
The work trajectory
Considering what he may have done differently

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Career Pathway

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Turning Points

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Audio Interview

The background to Russell’s PhD

When did you complete your PhD and how many years did it take?

Three years.

And how old were you when you started?

I was 24.

And did you do the bulk of your PhD full-time or part-time?

Full-time.

And how did you fund your study?

I was funded by the university I did the PhD at.

And did you work beforehand?

Yes, I was in the record library at the BBC grammar phone library.

Well I left university and moved down to London and 'cause my parents had just moved to London, so moved back home with them as I applied for jobs. And that took a little while because it was a bit of a recession at the time. And I got a job at the BBC in the record library.

And I did that for a year of doing. That was fine. After a year, I just began to get a bit tired. The novelty of working with the BBC lost its appeal, as did working with records, which I like, but there's only so many times you can go, “Oh, there's that record I like”. So that kind of wore off a little bit. And I remember that, I remember the day almost, I just thought this isn't right, it was a really hot June day or something like that.

And I was on a tube and it was packed and it was like half past eight in the morning and it stunk and it, oh, it was just, I just thought, this is awful. I really don't want to do this every day for the foreseeable future. I would much rather be, reading, reading a history book or, or doing something I was interested in or doing a project that was my own project, thinking about other things. And from that moment on, I, I started kind of making plans. I got back in contact with an old lecturer who I, who I, whose work I liked at my old university.

And he said, “Well, here's the application form, fill it in and we'll put you in for a graduate teaching assistantship. Come and talk to me about the subject”. I went up and talked to him about the subject, came up with an idea that he thought was good and I was interested in put that application in and I got it. And so signed up October do the PhD as a graduate teaching assistant.

So you didn't do need to do a Masters?

No, I think officially it was, I went as a, as an MPhil and then it was updated the end of the year. But there was, it was very partic’, the graduate teaching assistantship was very particular to, to that. I think you applied to do it as a, as an MPhil stroke PhD rather than as a, as an MA.

The reasons behind his PhD

Why did you do a PhD?

I did a PhD because when I left university, I went and got a job, which was fine. But after a couple of years realised I missed doing History and I didn't like the kind of work structure that seemed to be an alternative to it, which was a kind of very rigid nine to five. At the time I was living in London, so commuting and that kind of stuff.

I just didn't like that. So I realised I missed, I didn't miss a student lifestyle, what I did miss was the research side of things. The kind of reading about stuff that I'm interested in and thinking about stuff that I'm interested in, writing about, stuff that I'm interested in. So I made the decision really after two years of work that I wanted to get out of that and go back into academia.

Encouragement from friends and family

And what about your friends and family? Did they encourage you to embark on the PhD?

Yeah, mum and dad would just, if that's what you want to do, then go for it, kind of thing. And a lot of friends thought it was a quite a good thing. I think they were quite jealous in a way, 'cause it seems such a nice thing to be doing, going off to read about things that you like. And they think it's even funnier now, I get paid for it.

Obstacles to doing a PhD

Did you have to overcome any significant obstacles in order to embark on your PhD?

I suppose two related ones are suddenly money disappears and secondly, you then have to find money. So those kind of two interrelated factors, because I was on a particularly good wage, but I was earning money and then you go into a PhD and I got funding, but it's always minimal. So, so I had to overcome that.

And so, so not so much getting accepted to do a PhD, but having some kind of means to do it, which either for most people means part-time, I suppose, or getting a funding body to fund you. And that's quite difficult and it's never, it's never enough money for you to properly live on. So you have to kind of, the obstacle is to get over as a kind of monetary one.

The role of the supervisor

How instrumental was your supervisor in talking to you about careers after the PhD?

He was, he was pretty good. He, no, he was, he was good. He's always been incredibly encouraging and he's always done me references ever since. And, at the time there wasn't quite as much thought given to it. It was a, at the end, the nineties was where everything was quite changing, I think quite dramatically in terms of academic. The more people were doing PhDs, the whole kind of process seems to be getting more complicated. And I think for him, he was, you know, he'd done what he'd always done with other students.

So he wasn't kind of giving me, you know, putting a chalkboard up with kind of step one, step two, you must do this, you must do that. But he was always very supportive and he'd kind of say, well, perhaps you could do that, turn that chapter into an article to send off to a journal. That kind of stuff. He kind of pushed me gently into certain directions rather than giving me a nine point plan. So yeah, he was, he was helpful, but not in a, no, not, not overtly.

Did he help you get any teaching after a PhD?

Yeah, he kept me on for another couple of terms at the place where I, where I did my PhD. So I just kind of kept, he used to, one thing he did always used to say was, applying for jobs, it always helps to have headed paper. So to have an institution on your application letter is very good and it'll always at least get you read, you know, you won't get scrunched up immediately and put in the bin.

And, he, he always said that, so he was very, keen that once I finished my PhD that there would, I would have a kind of little breathing space in between to, I'd have a bit of teaching, I'd have a bit of money coming in, I'd have the heading note paper, and I'd also have a bit of time to knock out an article to try and get to adjourn and also apply for other, other positions.

Thinking seriously about an academic career

When did you start to think seriously about, the things you'd have to do in order to develop an academic career?

Probably in my third year of the PhD is when I began to think, alright, I need to keep an eye out for employment opportunities beyond the PhD. I think about getting publications in process, and I need to find out more about the kind of, you know, the structures, how it, how you go about finding work beyond the PhD.

Again, I think I kind of had a slightly naïve idea that there'd be a job at the institution I was at once I finished my PhD and again, that's very rare. I think so, but at the time I kind of, I don't know quite why, but I thought that's kind of how it, how it kind of worked. I'd do my PhD and I'd have done a bit of teaching there and I might stay on doing some more teaching there and eventually end up with a job and it doesn't really work like that.

So probably when I got to the third year and I kind of realised that it wasn't quite as, easy is the wrong word, but it wasn't quite as smooth if you like, is when I started thinking hard about how I go about hanging, hanging on in academia.

Moments of uncertainty

When I started you, you, it seems like a long time, three years to do this thing, but oh, that's a cliche. It goes very quickly. And then once you realise, you invest all this amount of time and energy and money and everything into specialising in something, and then you've got to apply it. And that becomes quite daunting because on the one hand you're thinking, all of a sudden you realise, well, there's not millions of jobs out there and they're quite hard to get and get into. And the other hand you're thinking, “What kind of employer's going to, look at somebody who's just spent three years looking at British Communists?”

You know, it doesn't really apply. There are transferrable skills of course, but essentially it, it all just seems a bit kind of like you might have gone too far out there to ever get back in, if you see what I mean. So, there was that feeling of uncertainty. There's the constant worry about money, about how you can pay the rent and eat properly and also maybe go out once every now and again, which is a kind of a running concern.

And then you also get, and I think everyone gets this kind of slight uncertain, you kind of get your own kind of personal intellectual, uncertainty as you do in your PhD that you'll go through crises of like, I can't do this. There's too much information, or I don't quite know what my argument is. Or, that historian over there's done this even better than I could ever do, and how am I gonna be on the same playing field as them, that, those kind of things.

So there's quite, there is quite a lot of insecurity I think in involved, but it's, I think it's a universal thing. I know obviously it feels very personal, but I think it's, it's something that everybody goes through to, to some degree.

Does that uncertainty, do you think affect your academic job search?

It did a bit to me because my approach, and it worked kind of, was that I just thought, right, “I'm gonna have to blanket bomb every university within eyesight” saying, “Here I am, I do this. If there's any teaching, I'm willing to do it”.

Which is how I kind of got my first jobs beyond the institution I did my PhD at. So I sent out speculative letters to universities just saying, I research, I, I can teach on 20th century British history, if there's anything in that area that you do you need, or any people around maternity leave or people who got a new job I'd be happy to fill in and stuff like that.

So it kind of encouraged me to be quite proactive and wide ranging in what I applied for, that uncertainty. I dunno if that's a, that's a good thing. It's a, it felt like being at the end of a bayonet point rather than kind of being gently led into something. But, but it did, it did push me in that direction.

Career development activities

When you look back to your PhD, what kind of career development activities were you engaging in?

Not a lot really. the graduate teaching assistant thing meant I got on the job teacher training as it were. Once a year, we had a, we all met up and asked how it went, how it was going, and my supervisor was very good at supervising my PhD, but there was nothing really in place to really explain how things worked. And I remember the whole period of one of almost like being in a maze, trying to find your way to the middle.

Kind of always just trying to work it out for myself as I went on and trying to work, focusing on certain things. I thought if I can get over that hurdle, then I'll be somewhere further down the, down the line. But it seemed very, very, cloudy and very, very uncertain. I remember the whole period of being one of quite great uncertainty about, of what was coming next.

Wanting to become an academic

What would you say to anybody who's thinking about becoming an Academic?

That it's a, it's a very good job if you like teaching and you like, and you genuinely care about the subjects that you, you are interested in. Some people moan about the money. I think it's all right, really in the scheme of things. You're never gonna be very rich, but then that's not what you do it for. So, yeah, I think it is a, it is a good thing, but it's, it can be quite a, an undulating journey getting from that first year of doing the PhD.

And probably it's even more difficult from when I did it because the, the competition for funding's even greater than it was, and the amount of money you have to pay in fees and all that kind of stuff is so horrendous. That it's an even more of a, a big decision, financial decision to make. Especially it comes along the back of at least three years of fees and debts and possibly another one or two as well.

So it's a big decision, but the end, the prize, if you like, is, is good. And I, I, I think for me, it's the best job in the world is being an academic. That's what I've always wanted to do. But the process of getting there is, is not, not always a pleasant experience.

So, so you wouldn't like to be doing anything else?

No, not really.

The influence on Russell’s decisions

What or who influenced some of the decisions and actions that you took?

I suppose my, I suppose my supervisor was probably the, the main positive one in that he was the one who said what you need, what you need to do, he said was, a book and four articles. So that's the target. It was the first time after your PhD actually you target things so the PhD into a book and get three, four articles in print.

He said that's when people will start looking very seriously at your CV.

What was the timeframe he suggested for that?

Within a kind of couple of years after doing a PhD, the sooner the better. I think if you, I think what I didn't do and what I wish I had done was try to get a couple of articles done before I even finished the PhD so that they were already there. What I did do was I finished a PhD and spent a year writing up the articles, which came out the year after and then finished the book and that came after.

The experiences of teaching

And you've done quite a lot of teaching as a PhD student, so were you fairly confident about the teaching side of things?

I wouldn't say. I mean, even now I can get a bit nervy and go in sometimes. I wouldn't say I got comfortable with the teaching for a good couple of years after I finished the PhD, I'd say. And that was partly to do with just because it's, you know, it's you and lots of people and you've got to know all this stuff.

So first of all, it's this idea that, how am I gonna remember all this and what if somebody asks me difficult questions and all that stuff. Secondly, it's just a kind of social thing is that, you know, you're meeting lots of new people and that can be quite a nervy thing in any, any situation. After a while I kind of got, got used to that. Like, say even now sometimes it can be a bit nervous if you, sometimes you just don't, you don't feel like talking to 12 people at 10 o'clock in the morning, but at the time, yeah, but it's fine.

But I wouldn't, yeah, I wouldn't say I got comfortable with it for a, for a while. I think it takes quite a long time. The other thing actually linked to that is the, age. I think once I got a bit older, I kind of hit 30. I think I kind of felt there was enough time difference between me and the students to make it obvious that I didn't just look like one of them had stood up and was doing it. The, and it's nonsense really. And it's kind of, what do you call it, symbolic, probably not quite the right word, but I kind of felt there was, it was obvious I was the teacher, they were the students.

And so I felt more slightly just more comfortable in the position, I think so, so it took time.

Weighing up paid work during the PhD

Did you do any paid work during your PhD?

Not during it, no, because I was kind of, I was worried it would interfere and make it, drag it out even longer, and I had a real fear of it dragging out. I kind of, at the place I was, there were a few people knocking around. It seemed to be on the, like the seventh year of the PhD. And I was just thinking like, God, I, I can't do that because you're just aware that in, job specs, you know, one of the things everyone wants to know is that you can manage your time.

If you can't manage your time doing a PhD where it is totally down to you, then not good. So I didn't, I didn't take any paid work while I was doing my PhD, although, you know, some, the person I was my partner at the time, she had to, she had no funding at all, so she had to do part-time work and it, it was very difficult, very difficult for her.

Considering a non-academic career

Did you ever consider a non-academic career?

When I was doing the PhD, yeah, a little bit. I kind of thought about doing freelance kind of journalism and that, that kind of thing, but that seemed even more kind of, insecure, profession than academia at the time. So I kind of toyed with it and didn't. Then once I finished my PhD, I was in a situation where I was in part-time jobs and there was just, at the end of each term, you didn't know if you were gonna get kept on or not.

I began thinking about the old chestnut of, you know, doing a PGCE, I think it is a teacher training, you know, those kind of things as, as an alternative. So there's always kinda, yeah, there's always kind of things in my head, I think too adventurous, but, you know, that kind of thing. Things to do with writing and teaching where what I had done before wouldn't seem a complete waste of time.

You see, I had no, I, I had no thoughts of going, right. I'm gonna go off and become a, a violinist or anything like that at all related.

And why did you consider non-academic?

Just because the, it was so the, the whole experience was one of insecurity where I felt I always had to be thinking of contingency plans because I could be so, I was so unsure of the future that, it would be foolish not to, you know, I, I had to think of what I could do if this suddenly disappears overnight, which at times it looked like it might do, because like I said, I'd be coming up from this time of year and coming up to the end of the third term and I'd, you know, next term starts in October and I'd be coming into the summer with no clue whether I would have a job at the end of it.

So, you know, I was constantly having to think of ideas and I think, I think I actually did go in and talk to, yeah, I did.

I went into a couple of universities to talk to people about PGCE. I don't think I ever quite got around to filling in the form because I never quite had to, but I had the forms, they were there. And I sent in letters and have made contacts at local newspapers in terms of doing subedit editing and that kind of stuff, and local newspapers as a way into that kind of work. So again, without going too far into it, I'd made kind of little forays into alternatives.

The expectations versus the reality of an academic career

Do you think that your academic career bears any relation to the kind of expectations you had of, of an academic career?

Most of it does and what I do, it does. What was, didn't for me was just how long it did take. And like I said, I might be unusual, but how long it took to go from those insecurities of short terms and part-times and temporary contracts to a full-time position. And during that time you do get exploited quite badly.

You, you're not paid enough for what you do and it's very difficult. And that did that and you know, people said it to me so they said, you know, that that did go on far longer than it should have. And it all came right in the end. But that, that was something I didn't expect to be so difficult for so, so long. And I dunno, I don't, I think it was partly just to do with timing in some ways was, when I came out of my PhD was a time when there seemed to be, the jobs seemed to dry up, dry up a little bit and more people were in the field.

And so it just seemed a bit, it just seemed very difficult. And so, I mean there are an awful lot of element of luck I think involved in, in a lot of, you know, progression after being a postgraduate. I mean, for example, a friend of mine finished doing a PhD and all of a sudden unrelated to that, to but another university had a research proposal was literally, was almost exactly the same as what they'd done for the PhD on quite a specialist subject.

So they applied for it and obviously got it, 'cause they were really the only kind of person of that age at that stage in their career who was doing that subject. And that just landed on their doormat. And so he got himself a two year fellowship at a good university doing stuff like that. I mean, he'll still at the end of that two year fellowship have the next step to do, but you know, things can kind of pan out in that way as well.

Expectations beyond the PhD

And where, if anywhere, did you see yourself beyond the PhD? And did that change at all along the way?

I had a, I had a vague idea, but I'd see myself where, you know, eventually where I was, which was becoming a lecturer in a university. But it was a very, I was very woolly about what that entailed and how you went about that. At the start, I didn't really get how things panned out, how you were meant to get from A to B. And I kind of, after about a year and a half doing the PhD, I began to think harder about that and think, how does this work?

You know, I think I had a slightly naïve idea that it was kind of, not quite an inevitability, but there was, it was quite, that was how, what you did, you did PhD, then you, you got a job kind of related to it and it doesn't work out like that. So I didn't think too hard about it. And perhaps I probably should have done a bit more, I certainly encourage my PhD students to think longer and wider than I did about what the PhD's going to do for them.

Feelings about the PhD

PhD experience, now, I'm really glad for it because very soon into having left university, it became very clear I wanted to, this is what the kind of life I'd like to have. I like, I like the teaching now. I do like it. I enjoy doing it. I like talking about things I'm interested in talking about and doing. I like doing my research. I like the environment of a university, generally. And so the PhD experience was worth that.

The PhD experience in itself was in equal measures, enjoyable and unenjoyable by, yeah, by about equal measure. It's enjoyable because it's interesting and you're doing what you want to do and you're finding out all this stuff. And if you enjoy that process, then it's great. It wasn't enjoyable because of the, the financial worries and the kind of stresses that it has on you. So yeah, so I think it, it is worth it, but I think you do need to be very sure of why you are going into it and what you want to get out it at the end.

I wouldn't recommend it to anybody as just a way of passing three years. I just think that that would be a very daft way to, to go into it. I think it's gotta be something where you kind of, you know what you want to do and why you are doing it and where you want to go at the end of it.

Finishing the PhD

I'm really interested in the transition period. So like the last year of your PhD and into the year that followed the PhD. Can you talk me through that in some detail?

Yeah. The last year, that's, and that is quite, that's a, a scary one because you, your finishing point is suddenly well within sight. You've got, well, certainly even more worrying if you didn't have all the information that you think you'll need kind of there. But you are writing up, you've got so many different things on your mind because on the one hand, what you've most focused on is finishing your PhD and getting all this research that you've done into a coherent and readable form, but you're also worrying about what comes next.

You've got the kind of ongoing worries about the, about finance and all that kind of stuff. And so it's quite a daunting, daunting period. Like I say, my, I think I kind of closed down and thought, right, I'm just going to make sure I pass, because if I pass, that's that obstacle out the way.

If I had my time, again, like I said, I might have thought about saying like, almost if I'd taken another two months to finish the PhD, but I'd spent those two months writing an article and get it sent off. That might have been a, a better, better use of my, my time. But I was very aware that money would run out once I finished my PhD and all those kind of material concerns. So the final year, yeah, it's a very daunting point. And again, and I think everyone goes through it.

You do you have another one of those kind of intellectual crisis at the end, well, just, when it's all finished or something, you're thinking, “This isn't, this isn't any good”, “What am I doing?” and again, almost everyone I've ever spoken to says they've, they've felt that. So it's a, it's, it's diff it's difficult. It's, it's, it's a difficult thing to do. It's enjoyable doing a PhD, but it's, it's hard. And that third year is probably the hardest because it's about to end.

My money ran out, I think at the end of September. I wanted it submitted and to have passed by the time my money stopped because I had this idea that then I just evolved into another job, which kind of isn't how it worked. So I, and I hit my deadline, finished the PhD and another thing my chief, my supervisor said, he said, “The PhD as it stands when you finish is not the book that's gonna come out”.

He says, “So don't worry about it being the book. Make sure it's a good PhD. Turn it into a book later”. Which I think was good advice. And so I kind of, made sure it was a good PhD, did what it had to do, put it in, in end of July, I then had, and I had to go out to the university and I had my, what is called a Viva, where a chap came down from another university and they all seemed to go off for lunch and leave me sweating, in the department.

And they all came back. And, before I went in, I suppose should say, but before I went in the room, my supervisor, “Oh, congratulations. Everything's okay”. So I went in and they said, “Yeah, you, you've got it. That's fine. It was interesting and good”. They asked me a few questions and, and there we go. I think I, I had a very easy ride with the Viva. And I know of other people who it's a lot more difficult.

And then, so once I got that, so I had a day of thinking, fantastic, I, I can now call myself doctor and isn't that wonderful? And then, reality hits in the morning and you think, “Right, right now, okay, now I need, now I do need to get a job”, and that was when my supervisor was good again because he said, he said, what I've done is, that there will definitely be teaching for you in the next two terms, but what we need to do now is start sending out your applications and keeping our eyes open for, you know, openings at other places.

And so I kind of, from then on, really, I spent half my time, doing application forms and half my time writing up articles in between doing these little bits of, of teaching and send it. And it was about then, yeah, no, it was then exactly, actually October, just as I finished that, I sent off the spec letters to all the universities in my area just saying, ‘here's my CV, here's what I can teach and what I have done. Just let me know if anything comes up.’

So I sent off about 35 letters of which I got, three opportunities most come back, say we haven't got anything at the moment, but there's three like where I am now, my, let's land on the desk. Literally the day somebody walked in the office and said, “I've got a job somewhere else”. So it's pure luck.

And I also, and at the end of that, each term I did it as well. So I sent them all off in September or the end of September, then all off again in December to the same places and all off at the end of March again saying, ‘I've done this since I last wrote, I've done this and that, but I'm still interested’. And over time I kind of built up bits of experience at different universities doing teaching and always had enough just to keep me ticking over.

How long is it between being Viva’d and getting the first bit of work?

That was, that happened to be seamless because the bit of work was at the same institution.

So there was no gap. The only ever gap I've had in my employment was in March where the Easter term finished and the summer term starts at the end of April.

And I had managed to get something sourced out, but I had a kind of six weeks with no work or no income and I had to get a kind of part-time job through a friend. Did a bit of work then. But I did know that I was gonna go back and do some teaching at where I am now actually. But, the irony there was I a part-time job, I got paid me more money than I've earned here until recently. I think. 'cause it just made you realise kind of there are other jobs out there that do earn more money, but I hated doing it.

So I worked in solicitor's office, just, helping out in the secretary's office basically. It was awful. It was horrible. But I, I earned more money doing it than I, I did do for quite a long time in academia.

So the three institutions that get back to you and often you teaching. Do they all fit together and enabled you to work at those simultaneously?

Let me see. How did it work out? I come out of where I was at on my PhD and I taught there.

And then in January I worked at three different places, two different places in January to March of my first year after my PhD. Then between April and the summer I worked in three different places. The job at where I was then PhD had gone. And so then I did have three, different institutions where I'd go in on different days and do different courses.

One of those institutions, the one I'm at now also had a continuing education department and I did a bit of nighttime teaching there as well. So of course was people doing access courses. So I did a bit of work there. So I was literally doing these potted bits all over the country. So I, at one point I was traveling literally, you know, to different parts of the country to do teaching and it was eating into how much money I earned, but I just thought it's got to be worth it just to build up the experience to meet people and to make sure I just hung in there.

So what scared me most was that line about the not having the head note paper to apply for jobs that, you know, there must, I must always be at, have my foot in some door somewhere while I was applying.

How did you manage that traveling and having to produce courses for these, three different places?

It was hard, but ‘cause you work in three different places. It's not like three full-time jobs. So they were like three part-time jobs really.

So, so I did have time. I think one of the courses at two of the places were quite probably quite similar to each other as well, you know, and so much you can do. And also once your courses are kind of done, they're done in, but in, in, in this, in the basis of them. So, you know, once they were, some of them had been written while I was doing my PhD more or less, so I then could transfer 'em and tweak them to fit in with the, the next institution that I was moving on to.

But at one point it was, you know, it was, you'd, I'd get up on a Tuesday and I was like, kind of, “Where am I going today? And I'd go and get a tube and a train and a bus and be somewhere out in the middle of Hertfordshire or something. Then the next day I'd be in another county. And that was, that was, there wasn't, I look back on it now and it seems quite fun really in this way. But at the time it was quite hard. It was quite hard. And I was very relieved that once I kind of got, kind of went from getting part-time and worked to a short term one year contract at the place where I'm, I'm at now, that felt really quite a relief.

'cause I meant “Right, okay, I can concentrate on this one. This is the place where I'm in and I'm, I'm doing a full-time job. It's just, it's just a short term contract”.

And did they interview you for these, all these part-time jobs?

Yeah, every single one. I kind of went in and had a chat with the head of department and they talked to me about what I'd done and everything. It wasn't like a formal interview with other people, but it was a, you know, they, they didn't just say, all right, turn up on a certain date and do it.

I kind of came and talked to them about it.

Can you remember the kind of questions they asked you?

Yeah, it was quite straightforward really. if we needed you to teach a course on so and so, could you do it? Have you taught anything like that before? What kind of thing would you do if you had to organise a two hour seminar on this topic? How would you go about doing it?

Then it just went on and did, do you know, so-and-so's at the university you were, so it's quite kind of straightforward really on in that kind of instance. It's obviously everything to an interview you'd get if you were actually going for a job, you know, a proper full-time job somewhere.

Can you pick up the story then from what the institution that you're at now? You were at teaching part-time? And what happened?

I was teaching part-time for essentially a year and a half.

And while I was doing that, and this is definitely a good thing for people to do, is I applied for funding from a funding by the Leverhulme Trust, am I allowed to say that? From Leverhulme Trust in order to do a pilot research project. And in order to do, I mean basically I asked them for, for a wage essentially for certainly half my wage for a year. And I said to the institution I was at that I said, right, I'll get half my wage here, can I have a bit of teaching as well to make up the other half of a wage and it'll basically a full a year thing.

And so I put into Leverhulme, the project was successful, so I got my £12,500 research money for my for to pay me to be a researcher for half my time. And I think money the other half of that, another £12,000 pounds approximately, has paid for me for doing, half a load of teaching for the year.

And I got the kudos, which is very important nowadays of having research money. And so that, that kind of, when I look back on it now, there's possibly people would disagree, powers that be here would disagree, but that's how I felt I got properly in the department. I no longer felt like a, a temp kind of coming in every and just doing bits and bobs. I felt like someone who properly integrated themselves within the department and was, you know, move properly onto the next project research project in a proper sense.

And after that year, that kind of went well and at the end of that year, somebody else in the department was, had a year's leave to do some research so those another year's contract open up. So in that, so because it had gone well and I got a couple of publications out of what they'd done, I got offered that year's teaching and stuff. And in that year I wrote another couple of papers and put basic together for another book.

And at the end of that year I kind of got to a situation where I published quite a lot of stuff. they didn't have a job here, but I would kind of was I'd so far into the department that it'd be difficult for 'em to get rid. I had students wanted to do my courses. I was, you know, my publications meant that I wasn't just a complete rookie as someone who could kind of, could, you know, at least kind of, what's the right word, you know, expect to have some work.

And so, and again, somebody was on research leave and so I filled that space again. And while I did that, I put in for a big funding bid at the AHRC for a big project - and got that, so by the end of the, the year it was on a, on another short term contract, I suddenly got a two year grant basically from the AHRC. And as a result of that, I was given a full-time contract.

'cause the, partly because the department was expanding again at the time, and so opportunities were coming up and basically they had someone on their doorstep who would, you'd like to think at the time fall into a job by that point having got the AHRC money. So they employed me. Then once that project finished, that's when I got the, now I just got the readership. So that's kind of how it went.

How long was it between finishing the PhD and getting a permanent contract?

God, let’s see, eight years, yeah.

And then how, how many years after that did you get the readership?

Just now. So two.

And what does it mean to have a readership and who do you get it from?

To get, when I got my permanent contract, one of the professors in department said, right now, put in for the readership. He said, because you just, how it had been with me. He said, what you've got in your CV is better than most people have as a readership or a senior lecturer, so put in for it straight away.

So I did. And what it basically means is the readership is kind of, I suppose it's parallel to the senior lecturer. So it's the, the, if you look at it in a simple way, it's the stage in between being a lecturer and a professor. So it's kind of next stage up how I see it anyway. And it means the reader's distinct from the terms of the emphasis on research, rather on administrative. I'm not, I'm not pining to be the head of department around the university.

I'm one of those ones who wants to carry on doing the books and doing the research and stuff like that.

So does that mean that you are heading towards the professorship?

It'd be nice, in the future. I'm not particularly precious about these kind of titles as long as I can… What means most to me is having flexibility with my time to do the things I'm interested in. But that's, that's the kind of career trajectory suppose.

The role of networking in finding a job

What part do you think networking played in finding a job after the PhD?

I think it is important. It was something I, I don't like the idea of, and at the time when I was doing my PhD, I didn't do a lot of, because I'm not very good at doing that kind of thing. I find it awkward, difficult turning up at some kind of conference and trying to you know, jostle your way into a position where you can say, “Hello, I'm so and so, and I'm doing this”.

And it, it just all seems a bit, kind of kind, crass and false. But there is something to be said for, for doing it just because, just so people know your name and so when they see your name, they'll say, “Oh, that's that the bloke who is at the, the conference”. Or even better if you can give papers at conference. I mean, that's the kind of way then people will come up to you afterwards perhaps and ask and ask you questions. I think it is important and because, and this is probably not a very professional thing to say, but I think, you know, if, if people meet someone - like somebody, then they, they have a disposition towards 'em.

So when you apply for a job and one of the people reading your application for me, someone who's met you and thinks, “Well, they seem all right”, they'll think, “Well, they could be someone I could work with”, whatever their academic credential, which are obviously important, but they'll have a sense that, well, I can get on with them. They, they were, they weren't some loony in the ivory tower kind of stuff. They were someone you could have a, have a chat with. So I think it is, it is important and it also just helps you share experiences with other people who are in similar boats and also get to learn some of the stuff I was saying earlier where I didn't get an idea of how things work.

The structures of going from a PhD student to work. You learn about that by go, by talking to people who've gone through it.

The interview experience for academic jobs

Will you just tell me a bit about the, interview experiences for academic jobs? I know you talked to me a little bit about the temporary jobs, when you went for your first proper interview for an academic position.

I had about, I've had about, see I had about four or five interviews elsewhere. I didn't get them so I dunno, I can't give a kind of killer answer that kind of says this is how you get a job, but on what a kind of negative thing on one of them. I definitely went there and as soon as I got there, I knew who was gonna get the job.

It was definitely gonna be the internal candidate and it was bizarre. There were four of us at one end of the room come for the interview and the other one who was internal, kinda at the other end of the room with all the people who were interviewing him, kind of having a drink and a, a laugh and you just, we just sit there, looked at each other and thought this isn't gonna be our day. They're going through the motions. And a couple of, couple of the others where I, I think I came quite close, one thing that was useful that I got wrong at one of them was, you have to do a presentation.

I did a presentation on my current research and what somebody said to me afterwards was, you shouldn't have done it on your current research in the narrowest sense. You should have told about everything that you've ever done and told them your research history and built a big picture of the scope of your research and that kind of thing. So for example, if I, I went in there and told 'em, I think about, I'm doing Oswald Mosley in the Labour Party they said I should have gone and said, I do British Politics and I’ve looked at this dimension and that dimension or this kind of stuff.

And so you should paint, paint yourself as big as possible. So I think that would be quite useful. In terms of the actual face-to-face interviews, all of them that I've had, there's been about four or five people and they've all been relatively kind of quite jolly really just asking again, you know – “What kind of work have you planned to do in the future?” “What kind of courses can you teach?”, “How flexible are you in terms of what you would teach?”, “How do you lay out your seminars?” and all that kind of stuff.

They like, it's always good to have a big project in mind for the future 'cause they'd like to know where, if money's coming in and, and that kind of stuff. Like I said, I didn't get those jobs.

So did you prepare for any of those interviews?

Yeah, yeah, quite a lot. I kind of looked at the, and the main thing I did was look at the university websites and find out what they, how they build themselves, how they presented themselves, how they worded their specialisms, and how they kind of, chose to present themselves really.

And I made sure I had an idea of who's in the department particularly who was relevant to me. And so, you know, I say you could say that if I, you know, if I was at this department, I would fit in with so and so, I'd compliment what they do rather than, you know, eclipse it. I'd compliment what they do. So that kind of, I had a knowledge of the, the institution I was having the interview with both the staff and their presentations themselves.

Russell’s current role

What is your current role?

I am officially from October - I'm a reader in history. Which means I, have to, well as well as teaching, doing seminars and lectures. I am expected to do lots of research, write articles, write books, bring in research money to fund projects for myself and for others. Supervise undergraduates, postgraduates. I'm also in charge of admissions this year, so I'll be busy in October with clearing and stuff like that and assessing who comes into the university and who we keep there.

And how long have you been working in your particular role? Within this institution?

Well, it's kind of evolved every year. Slightly different. I started this institution in a part-time capacity. So every year I've had slightly different things to do if you like. It's been, it's been quite a, mine's quite an unusual story, I imagine, if that's possible.

It's a lot of unusual stories.

In what way is it unusual?

Well, 'cause I started off here part-time. I was also work, doing part-time work at a couple of other universities. I was down on a series of contracts that were initially part-time, then they were, what's the term? “Set term”, I think that's set term contracts for like one year. And then for two years I then had research funding, which funded me for part of my time here in part was coming out of the central apartment.

And then I got a full-time post and then within two years I got the readership. So it kind of started off quite slow and undulating and then kind of sped up as it went on. So it was a rather, like I said, I mean all the, you said earlier as well, all the stories are slightly different, but mine's quite protracted, strange one I think is exactly right.

And when you say that you did part-time work, was it like sessional teaching?  

Yeah, I'd, the first thing I did at the university I'm at now was, one course for one term. Because somebody was leaving I think, and I covered their course and that went okay. And so I did the course again the next term and also did a, a first year course as well. And so it kind of built up bit by bit like that.

What does your job involve?

As a kinda lecturer, reader kind of, on paper it's meant to split three ways and it kind of does split three ways is you have an administrative tasks or tasks to do.

You have research tasks to do and you have teaching tasks to do. So I tend to kind of think of it in those three brackets. I think on the contract they're broken down as being equal, but they never are. I mean, it depends on the year and the time of year and all that kind of thing. I'd say the bulk of my time is taken up with the teaching and research.

So I teach usually three or four courses a year, which can be up to a hundred students. I also supervise a couple of PhD students. Research wise, again, depending on where I'm in a project at the moment, I'm writing up a book at the moment. So my research is sitting at a computer typing up my research rather than sitting in an archive. It can depend, depending on where the project's at. And then there are these kind of administrative things which I, I like to try to fit in, around things rather than give up too much of my time to administrative tasks.

But there are obviously things you have to do. And in the kind of grey areas between that, there's obviously stuff like marking which, comes at different times of the year of the exams and during the coursework, submissions and stuff like that.

You said you're teaching four courses a year. So what does that involve and how much preparation do you have to do for it?

When you first start a course, there's a lot of preparation.

I, well, how I did it was I, you have a 10 week term, so you've got to teach, usually the courses are about 30 hours per course. I'm generalising here. They're all slightly different but 30 hours. So you have to break it down into seminars and or lectures and, research what you're going to teach. Plan your lessons, sort out handouts, think if you are how you want to, involve the students in the class, discuss seminar discussion, whether you set tasks to do, projects to do and all that can change as you go through the course.

'cause each group you teach are slightly different and dynamics in the groups are different. Sometimes students need a bit of prodding and other times they're all, you know, quite enthusiastic. So, so it can depend. So there's, initially when you set up a course, there's an awful lot of work goes into it. Once you've done it once or twice, you've got the bulk of the materials there and you kind of add to it and you rethink it as you go through.

Some seminars go, well, you can kind of you more or less kind, turn up and do them each year knowing that they're gonna be good. Other ones you kind of have to play about with and think about like that. But I'd say the bulk of the work in terms of courses comes at the very start. And once they're set up, they kind of manage themselves. And given that you are teaching stuff that's, you know, your subject as it were, you are kind of up to, we should be up to speed with the historiography. In my case, it's going on around it. So you just add to it as it as it comes really.

And how did you learn how to teach or?

Got thrown in at the deep end really was, when I did my PhD, the way I might come onto this later, but the way I was funded was as a graduate teaching assistant.

So part of the deal was that I got a certain amount of money a year in return for six hours of my time teaching a week. So I all of a sudden started a PhD and straight away was told, “and you'll be teaching a first year group for six hours or six different groups or six hours”.

And so I literally just had to, that, that was 'cause the first year group, the course was kind of laid out for me. I didn't really have to do much, do too much planning of course, but I obviously had to decide how I taught and what information I discussed. And so, yeah, so it was just literally a case of being thrown in and I wouldn't say there's always a case of sink or swim, but it went okay enough for me to think this is all right and I can do this and I know how I can, I could see immediately the ways that this, that it would be a bearable way to, to go on.

But it, it is difficult. I mean, the first time, first time you teach. And usually, again, it depends on the people. Usually you are not too much older than the people you are teaching. That's quite strange. As you get older, it gets a bit easier 'cause the gap opens up and you don't kind of, you don't quite feel the same affinity in a good way.

Can you describe what your work environment's like?

Again, it work depends on, on time really. in term time and in a normal term. My work environment is probably two, I'd say three days a week. I'll be in the university in my office doing or in the seminar rooms teaching and doing administrative stuff. I used to, I tend to like to do my writing and research outta the university.

So when I'm in my office or in the department, you, I can't get anything done like that. There's always gonna be somebody come and knock on the door or you know, you going out for a cup of tea and all that kind of stuff. So my work environment there, oscillates between being at the university in my office with colleagues and students and being at home doing my research, kinda quite isolated, cutoff and thinking about what I do.

Does your job have any connection with the subject area of your PhD?

Yeah, I still teach the, the same subjects and my, I like to think my research has evolved from it and my teachings evolved from it and that my, my PhD was about British communists, and that came out just an interest about kind of, I suppose, I like the idea of kind of, I like think first is the idea of people kind of kicking against the grain of it, which I find very interesting.

And secondly, I, I think I've a, a love of, glorious failures and I think the British Communist Party kind of summed it up and everything I've kind ever done since you could probably fit under that umbrella of glorious failure. So, yeah. So everything is all bound.

Do you feel that you are using your PhD experience?

Yeah, very much so. In lots of different ways. first of all, the knowledge you gain from spending that time researching a subject, so in depth.

And then applying it in a teaching, environment, you are using it when you go into research, your next project, everything you've learned from your PhD you take with you and some things you discard and other things you keep and some things you do slightly differently, but everything relates back to that, that experience. And thirdly, very important. And on that score is, your own postgraduate students.

And when they're doing their PhD and they're having the crisis, everyone has after nine to 10 months thinking, I can't do this. Is that, you know, to say, well, no, everybody goes through that and weighs around that, how to structure your research and all that kind of thing. I mean, everyone's slightly different how they do their PhD's no generalised pattern, but I think there are common experiences in which, you know, having been through it, you can talk to people about that.

Do you think there's something about the PhD experience that equipped you or equips you to, to do your job?  

On the research side of things, definitely because it teaches you a kind of, not just an intensive trainer, intensive period of actual research and how to sift through an awful lot of material construct into an argument, all that kind of stuff, which you learn as, undergraduate and have a post group. But as we're doing a PhD, it's really quite intensive.

So, so yeah, definitely, definitely on that side of things with the teaching, it's more a transfer of knowledge. It's not like your practice of your PhD doesn't really affect your teaching per se.

And do you have an idea about where your work might go in the future?

Yeah, I tend to have ideas as I'm going on about what I want to, to do next. And usually I have two or three that are kind of in my head.

And as I get closer to the end point of what I'm doing, those ideas, I begin to narrow down to whatever project it is next. So I suppose in terms of my research life at the moment, I'm onto my, just coming to the end of my, I suppose my third if you, if I kind of divided it up into stages. My third stage of research, I did communist party, then I did a, a big project on the Labor party and now I'm doing a project on Sir Oswald Mosley when he left Labour to become a, become a fascist.

Eventually I'm looking at that thing and they all kind of link up and they're all within the same period, but they're all kind of part of a, a stage at the moment. I'm then thinking about two or three projects in the future that once I finish the Mosley project, which will be next year, I'll then start on, on that.

Are they all books?

I tend to think around books. Yeah. One of the ideas I've got for future research involves teaming up with somebody from another university and setting a project, which would, include hiring, if that's the right word, post grads to do research so that maybe PhDs or postgraduate research would spin off the project.

So, and as that suggests, that would be quite a broad ranging topic of which I'd be doing something in it, but also supervising other people, doing other strands of research relating to it.

And this is in a very, beginning stage at the moment where we literally kind of mulling over the logistics of doing such a project and talking with it with a colleague at another university about how we could perhaps have one person at one end of the country and one at the other supervising students in around those areas and doing certain research into, into the wise. And where thoughts or the, sorry, the relationship between communities and politics within certain constituencies around the country.

Do you feel that the pressure for research mainly comes from you or from externally?

There is pressure externally on people, not so much to do research because I don't think you'd be in the job if you didn't like research. I wouldn't have thought. But there is pressure to produce and so there's a debate that goes on amongst colleagues about how the, those old projects where people should spent 10 years on something at the end of it would be a book or even just one article or something.

They just, you know, they absorbed all this information and produce what they'd like to see as the kind of definitive piece of work that, that's perhaps less the case. Now there's more an, an emphasis and this has to do with kind of making sure you, you keep up a steady, a steady stream of, of publications. So whenever I think of a project, I think in terms of a book and at least two articles that could come off it, and that's how I kind of picture it in my head, given that I say to write a book, you are looking at a five to six year period from start to finish, from having the idea to publishing it.

So there is, for myself, I tend to put deadlines on myself, which occasionally I get a tizzy about thinking, well, you know, I've got to meet that deadline. Then I usually realise, well, no, I set that deadline so I can just revise it if I really want to. But there obviously are other deadlines, like if my funding body, I got research money from the AHRC and they wanted me to say when I would finish a project.

So that's what I'm, I'm, I gave them a, a date and I'm aiming at that date. And nothing's ever fixed in stone, but I want to try and meet that, you know, I've aimed for it and I've, I've signed a contract with the publisher, so there's a date there. So there are these deadlines that do come in. I mean, they're never insurmountable, I wouldn't have thought. But I think I, and personally I find that good to have something to aim at rather than a, a big open-ended field in front of me seems more daunting than having a deadline.

Yeah.

The work trajectory

And when you said that you did part-time work, was it like sessional teaching?

Yeah, I'd, the first thing I did at the university I'm at now was, one course for one term. Okay. Because somebody was leaving I think, and I covered their course and that went okay. And so I did the course again the next term and also did a, a first year course as well. And so it kind of built up bit by bit like that.

Considering what he may have done differently

If you could do anything differently, what would you have done differently?

I would've definitely saw some publications out a bit earlier. I'd have gone to a few more conferences and that kind of thing. Why I didn't do, which, because I was living in London while I was studying somewhere else, was I didn't really integrate within the kind of postgraduate community at the university I was at. And I, that's not really something I'd necessarily do differently, but something I kind of regret a bit. I, I didn't for, for good reasons and I don't think it hampered my work particularly, probably made me work better, but I think I missed out on a little bit of that kind of, social side where other people are going through the same thing as you and they're not gonna get bored to tears when you talk about academic stuff.

So I possibly have done, done that differently. Other than that it was just a case of crossing bridges as you came to them, really.

I think probably things I could have done things slightly different, but I don't know if that would've helped at all. So there's nothing else I would've definitely done differently.

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