Victor | Archaeology | Archaelogy and academic research.

Victor shares his journey from being a gardener to embarking on a PhD, highlighting the importance of prior experiences. Offering a glimpse into his current role in a university archaeology department, specifically focused on a disability project, he discusses the perks of project-based work within academia and contemplates societal attitudes towards disability. Reflecting on the twists and turns of his career trajectory, Victor recounts transitioning through various contracts post-PhD. With sincerity, he delves into the personal significance of his doctoral research, reminiscing on both the triumphs and challenges inherent in the PhD journey. Victor also articulates his motivations for pursuing a PhD and reminisces about his viva experience with candour and insight.

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

The background to Victor’s PhD
The reasons behind his PhD
Victor’s expectations
Being a mature student
Victor’s PhD experience
What the PhD means to Victor
Finishing the PhD
The viva
Victor’s current role
Types of teaching
The challenges facing students with disabilities in archaeology
Anticipating an academic career

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Career Pathway

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Turning Points

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Audio Interview

The background to Victor’s PhD

I left school at 16, did various jobs. Got an apprenticeship and became a gardener. I was a professional gardener for, it was about 15 years. I did actually do college, full-time for one year, as a craftsman's course. And after that, I actually came to work at the university as a gardener. And I think I, I still quite miss it. But, and over the years I, as a hobby, I started doing evening classes, A levels, 'cause I only had three O levels when I left school, and I quite enjoyed that.

Then I started doing some Open University and enjoying it even more. And I thought I would quite like to do this, you know, full time. I thought, well, what am I interested in? Well, I thought historical things, but archaeology is a very practical thing because I had come from a very practical background. So I thought, I will try applying for that and see what happens. It, I cannot say things were rather planned.

I, I, I, I suppose I more drifted into it. But anyway, I applied and, everybody kept offering me places. So I thought, well, I will come here. 'Cause it is the university I worked at and, I did well as undergraduate. Did a master's, although I did not have funding for the master's, and that was very, very tough. And I got to the end of it thinking, do I really want to carry on?

But I had applied for funding for a PhD, got the funding for that. And I thought, well, I have got the funding. I will carry on.

The reasons behind his PhD

Can we, unpack a bit why you decided to do the PhD?

Interesting. I, although the master's was very difficult with not having funding, I had done a very, very good project and all the projects I had done were fieldwork-based. This was looking at, megaliths in, in, an area of Scotland and we had ideas to expand that project into a wider area of Scotland, taking a much larger area. And there is that, I suppose it is a research instinct, the academic side, you know, is this the right thing to do economically, financially? Probably not, at the time. But it was just so interesting. And I, I think I, I only just got in with the funding. I think I was very lucky, 'cause other people got heard they had funding a couple of weeks before I did. So I think perhaps I was just below the line, but somebody above the line had dropped out, which was enough to get me over the line to get me funding.

So I think it was very close. I am not sure what I would have done if I, I think by that point, even though I thought it is going to be hard, that is what I wanted to do. You know, do the four, all the three degrees all the way through, had a very interesting project. I was, which was very useful actually when I started the PhD. I knew exactly what I was doing from day one.

Did you have, family, input into the decision?

No. No, no, no. It has all basically been my own decision. I think the most advice I, I had, was from people within the department especially the, professor who supervised my MA and he helped me come up with the ideas for the PhD and was going to supervise that. And actually, he is the person I worked for on the first post postdoctoral, position.

Victor’s expectations

If someone had told you when you were 18 that you would have achieved the PhD and you would be doing what you are doing now, would it have been a surprise to you?

It would be very much a surprise. Oh, yes. Yeah.

What did you think life was going to be like?

I thought I would just be working my way up through a career as a gardener, but it just did not happen that way. Like I said, I, I started with the night classes as a hobby and just sort of drifted into academia.

There was no set plan. I think until my second year of doing Open University, I thought, I enjoy it. I want to do it full time. And I think even then I was unsure whether I would get up to PhD level. So no, I, I think that is the thing as well. It is very difficult to plan. They all, they all say you, you should have your career plan.

I think that is a load of crap. 'Cause in reality, it does not work out like that. And I, I have never really had a career plan. I suppose in some ways it, it has been looking into it industry, you know, three years of undergraduate, year of masters, three years of PhD, and then these three, two year, three year contracts that I guess after that,

So do you think that you just very much sort of person that likes to immerse themselves in what they are doing in the present, and you are not? You do not dwell on the uncertainties.

Try not to dwell on the uncertainties and you get on with what you are doing. You have moments of, you know, the insecurity. Yes, certainly. Again, going back to me, staff development review, the, personal review says, well, you do not seem very twitchy. He says, you do not seem too worried about it.

I said, well, perhaps when he gets a couple of months towards the end of the contract, that is when he gets twitchy. You think what is gonna happen next? And you just hope the work is gonna come up.

Being a mature student

Do you think that there are some advantages to coming into academia in the time of your life that you did and having had a career? Do you think there are some advantages to that?

Yes. I mean, it is using the usual cliches. You have got more life skills, the, transferable skills, things like that. And you can, especially, it works very well in something like archaeology where all skills can, can potentially be of use.

And I have managed to bring skills from my background into archaeology. So yes, it, that has helped, having that. And I, I do not know if I am that much more mature, I still try and behave like a 20-year-old if I can. I suppose there is some form of maturity you bring into it and staying power perhaps. Just trying to think of people who drop out of PhDs.

They do tend to be the younger ones. I imagine you must have had an enormous amount of self-belief to have gone from such different one's environment so different into another. You do not start off like that. I think I have the self-belief now having done it. I do not have the self-belief that you have some self-belief, but you do not have a lot of it at the time. And it has been a process of like say, you know, the night classes and some correspondence courses, then full-time undergraduate and you are building up to it.

It is something you build up to. It is, it is not something you just have something you go into. I believe, you know, there is sometimes I come across some tasks I am given. I thought, oh no, how am I going to do this? Can I really do it? And you surprise yourself. You do do it.

Victor’s PhD experience

What was the PhD like?

Again, very hard work. One thing I will say about a PhD, it is quite interesting that I have just had a, one of our current PhD students in who is a bit down at the moment, and it is mountain moments and trough moments, and it is a very up and down process, very exciting times, and there are times you just get totally exhausted and very, very depressed. It is basically because you are working on one thing, you have got to be very obsessed about it and you are working on your own most of the time.

If you have got a good supervisor, it is great. I mean, I was fortunate to have probably one of the best supervisors in archaeology in the country, who was very interested in what I was doing. But you are still very much on your own, you know, it is a very lonely process. Oh, and I know of people who have actually become ill, people who do drop out because the pressure is just too much.

They burn out.

What do you think that pressure is?

I think a lot of the pressure you create yourself from a lack of confidence in yourself. It is your first time at the working at this sort of academic level at such a high level. And I certainly was not that sure of myself. A lot of current PhD students who I talk to, I think they feel like that as well.

They are not really sure, you know, of things. and where the greatest help does actually come from is from your supervisor and, well, we do advisory panels for all the PhD students here. I think they are once a term and having an advisory panel, know as a support mechanism, how much support a department can give. It is very difficult. Everybody is so busy. But no, I, I, I think most of the pressure does come from, from ourselves.

And then what were the, the upsides? What did you enjoy?

The upsides. I got to live in a tent for two summers in Northern Scotland and just travel around looking at sites, also finding the best cafes, the best pubs, and the best restaurants. And it was just great fun doing the fieldwork. for me personally, it is why I enjoy research. Getting a load of data in, it is a hard slog, analysing that data, going through it.

But then when you have got made all your databases done, all that, the hard work coming up with the results, all the patterns start emerging. That gets very exciting as well. And that is the exciting part of the search. Suddenly discovering that you have got some answers.

What the PhD means to Victor

What does the PhD mean to you? On a personal level, what is it?

There was an amazing sense of achievement, and I did a big project with a lot of field work. To me personally, I felt it was a really good achievement, something to be proud. I wrote a book based on it, you know, everybody has got a book inside of them. I managed to write a book now, so that is always nice. I just learned so much doing it, and even though okay, I was in, I was in my thirties when I did it, I think I matured even more doing it.

You do become more self-reliant. You work things out for yourself because you have to. Okay. I was sort of living in a tent on my own for a couple of months each summer I did, I was very fortunate, I had a supervisor who was just obsessed and really interested in what I was doing and kept coming, flying up to visit me whenever ever I was up there.

But I, I think even if it was a desk-based PhD, you would, you learn a lot of reliance, self-reliance. You have got to do it yourself. You have got to work to the deadlines. It, it really teaches you so much. it is a damn hard way of going about it.

Mm-Hmm. In terms of your identity, you were a gardener.

Mm-Hmm.

You were then a PhD student. Did you feel that people treated you differently, responded differently towards you when they knew what you were doing, especially people that had known you as in your previous career?

Interesting. I would say some of the guys in the pub were intimidated, you know, where I had come from. Those people were intimidated. I was very much accepted by students, very, very much accepted by the staff. they, they thought it was great, you know, one of the university gardeners doing, you know, ending up doing a PhD.

And they had always been very supportive, very helpful. And, I had a lot of opportunities to work on great projects. But no, I have, I always found, found that interesting. My original peers were a bit funny about it and intimidated and my new set of peers were accepting of me.

Finishing the PhD

Managed to get the PhD done in three years and six weeks, which was popular. 'Cause a lot of them do go to four years now, although that is a cutoff point. Got the PhD, but from, I, I suppose from finishing it to graduation was about six months. When, when, when you go through all the examiner, examiner's process and then they do the actual graduations. But from graduation it was, I was just doing odd jobs around.

The department would give me a few jobs and various other people around. We would put in for funding for a post, for me, a research post for three years. On the third try, we actually got it, but it was 18 months from finishing the PhD to actually getting a job. And that can be quite hard going through that sort of process. You think, well, you have, academically got the highest you can get, in qualification wise, and you do not walk straight into a job, you know, not, not, not these days.

And so that was a difficult process to go through. But I did that project. There was another project coming up in the department they wanted me to work on, but there was a six week gap, and I did do some, self-employed work in archaeology, basically writing reports for various, agencies and, government bodies.

And that again, was difficult because it was not the guaranteed income. Some months there was more money than others, and it was difficult process to go through again. Had a, another research contract, which I did, and then there was another post came up just as that finished. And I walk straight into that. And that is what I am working on at the moment. So I am really on my third postdoc, postdoctoral position.

Within the same institution?

Within the same institution. Yeah. So I have been very fortunate. I just get on with everybody here. It is a very good department and we all get on and I, I do seem to fit in. So, it is a pleasant place to work, which has its plus side. Perhaps on the downside, I am not getting the wider experience I should perhaps. But no, no, I, I think that is a summary. Well, the first project that was going to, various offices around the country to collect unpublished excavation reports.

There is masses of excavation done that is not published. And we realized that, we just did not really know what the prehistory of Britain is like. So if you look at my shelves and shelves of photocopies, that is all the material I collected and the map shows you everywhere I went. So that was basically going around collecting, well, actually having to negotiate with people, negotiate things like copyright, to copy the material.

Fortunately, it was a very popular project with the people who were doing the work, who held the copyright and they waived copyright. We never had a problem with that. getting the material in, putting it together, collating it, building the database, and basically providing all the support so that the book could be written, written, the disability project, that was when they first approached me and asked me to apply for it.

I thought, “Do I really want to do something like this?” but then I read the research, plan for it, and I thought, no, this is really a really well put together project. And I thought this, this can work. And I did get the job. that involved basically doing all the background work, finding out what is disability in archaeology like for students and people who are employed.

So there was a lot of doing questionnaires, lots of interviewing people, building up, quantitative and qualitative data. And it was the first time I had worked on qualitative data like that, which I, I found absolutely fascinating. and then we, designed a self-evaluation toolkit for disabled and non-disabled students to use. And although this was built as a teaching and learning project, it be, we managed to make it very much a research project, which again made a great film.

What I am doing at present is, working on a project that is trying to encourage students to, do their own research and also, do more work with actual hands-on with artifacts. So we have been building up teaching collections. I have been collating the collections, cataloging everything I have to, A lot of it is material I have never worked on before, so I have to teach myself it first, then do, catalogue all the stuff and produce all the teaching material to go with it.

So it is more like teaching development. I am on there, certainly just, just as you came, I was working on, the put putting together the, materials for background material for the field trips that we run. So yeah, it has been very varied, the work I have done, from one that was pure research into one that was partly research, partly teaching and learning.

And now I suppose I am more on the teaching and learning side at the moment. This particular post, where it will go after that, I do not know. Certainly it is not a career path that is been planned. these are opportunities that have come up and I have either applied for them or been asked to, they have said, we would like you to apply for this. And so really it is, it is, things have just happened as it has gone along.

The viva

Did you have any uncertainty about the viva?

Yes. Yeah. It's this thing by, by the time you get to your viva, you just don't know in your own head and it's very difficult to make, an objective judgment of your own work. You dunno what's gonna happen. And I, I was very fortunate I went into the viva and they said, they immediately told me they're very happy I'd got it, and they said, we want to talk about the issues that's brought up in it. So we spent two and a half hours going through that.

But before the viva yes, I, I was pretty nervous. But I think it's a piece of advice it'd always pass on. If you've got a good supervisor, he won't let you actually submit until he thinks it's ready to submit, you know? So until he thinks, well, he or she whatever, thinks that the PhD is actually at a stage where it will pass viva. So that actually comes down to your supervisor quite a lot.

Victor’s current role

A bit more about your life now. What, what is life like?

Still hard work. Lots of pressure. You know, you, you have to keep writing stuff, doing your own research on the side and publishing. but I suppose I am in a discipline where people go into it because it is something they are interested in. It is something you enjoy, you know, so you are quite happy to work long hours and do the extra bit.

But I enjoy that. There is always hanging over me that sort of insecurity, you know, 'cause it is the short term contracts. and I have got a year left, 12 months left on this one. nothing in the pipeline yet. And you always keep an eye on the job market. I have never actually walked out of a contract early, although they have always told me here, if the right job comes up, I must apply for it. they have very much stressed that with this contract.

I think, I think the insecurity is the thing, but I, I remember being quite insecure when I was doing the PhD anyway. So, recently having this staff development review, we discussed this and it is almost like the insecurity has become a way of life.

Can you explain that a bit more?

In that, you know, there, there could be periods where there is going to be that unemployment and you cannot see what is coming in the next month.

But then are not a lot of people like that in this country. Self-employed people, plumbers, brickies labourers, things like that. And on the building site now, it is very rare these firms actually employ people directly. Everything is contracted, subcontracted, subcontracted. so if I start thinking like that, well, I think actually I am not the only one.

Do you think there is anything about the PhD experience that equips you to deal with uncertainty?  

It helps you get used to it. Certainly that.

And can you give me an idea of what a typical day might be like for you?

For, for me at the moment?

Yeah.

Come in early, switch the computer on, oh, sorry, switch the computer on, make a coffee, do all the emails.

By the time I have done that, I want another coffee. And literally I am, I have got various jobs I have to do in this project. And I am just working down my list of the jobs I have to do. These are the smaller ones. We, we have got a meeting next week about some big, things we, you know, they have, to see if I can get done. So I just, I will sit down in the project direction, the line manager and, decide what to do with that.

But it is been very much, I am just left on my own. They say, oh, this needs doing and get on with it. it was when coins, I have never worked on coins in my life before. Coins, that is money you spend. And so I had to learn coins from all things. So I had to find out what, what are the books, you know, the, the, standard text you classify them with, how do you classify them? And really just being left to get on with it. although I will say if I do come up against a brick wall, I have problems.

There are people I can go and ask.

Okay.

But no, I, I think the project director at one point I says, “Oh, I am, I am going to take a few days off holiday”. Said, he just looks at me and says, “Just manage yourself”. So I, I am very much left to, to do it.

I mean, you could only do your job with a PhD.

Yeah.

Anyway. But the, the very nature of this self-directed self-management sort of work style.  

Yeah, of course. Yes. Yeah. I suppose that is actually come out for the PhD now you talk about it. Yeah. 'cause going out and doing that in doing things independently, but then that is maybe something I have increased because a lot of the gardening jobs I have done, I have been a solo gardener and been responsible for everything myself and basically had to go out and work out what is doing and do it myself. So I do have actually have a background in that.

Types of teaching

Now you were saying that you, you love research.

Mm-Hmm.

And you don't think that you would want to have a lecturing career?

No.

Can you talk to me a bit more about that?

I don't like lecturing. I don't mind, standing up, giving papers at conferences. It's quite interesting. Giving a paper at a conference and lecturing is a totally different way of talking. I don't, I, in some ways I, I worried that I was afraid of the hard work with all the preparation and this is hard work. But then what I do now is very hard work.

It's difficult to explain. I don't like lecturing. If possible I want to avoid all the administration that's involved. I certainly don't mind what dealing with students, I've always gone on very well with students, you know, been around students for what, over 25 years. It's the actual lecturing itself and probably the admin that goes with it.

And do you think you might have a change of heart?  

I dunno. I dunno. I enjoy teaching practical stuff. That's good fun. Now that's interactive. I think now, I mean, a lectureship in archaeology is just so competitive. I don't, I think at my age I don't think I'd get one. I might get sort of part-time teaching or, teaching part-time courses, things like that. But a full lecture academic post?

And happy doing research. You and just the practical teaching. Enjoy that. It's all very interactive.

The challenges facing students with disabilities in archaeology

Talking about disability, can you, unpack a bit more? What maybe are the challenges facing students with disabilities in archaeology?

I think the main challenge, if I can get the word right, is the perception of it, is the perception of, disabled people. And once you overcome that, you can actually do a great deal with disabled people. I mean, we, we, I had lots of volunteers, not just students, but we were getting from, one of the local councils were helping us with this.

They were sending me blind people, people in wheelchairs, all sorts. And we just worked out ways that they could actually do some of the jobs. The main thing I would say is that you have to basically recognize not everyone can do everything. And for one individual, they, there may be some, some activities they cannot do. That does not mean they can be excluded from archaeology.

'Cause there are some people with the label of non-disabled, there are activities they cannot do. A simple thing. I am not very tall. I could stand on a chair with health and safety. I am looking to get folders, to get files off my top shelf. Whereas I have colleagues who can get it off the top shelf. So I make a reasonable adjustment. I stand on the chair. But no, I, this is a thing that is changing. I mean, what was initially driving the project was the recent disability legislation, which is now come into effect across universities, across workplaces, employment and everything.

And people's perceptions of it are changing. it is not a thing that happens overnight though. but no, I, I think perception is the biggest problem. It is not, it is not any physical barrier. Its attitude is the biggest barrier.

Anticipating an academic career

Did you anticipate when you, when you embarked on the PhD, that it would be leading you into an academic profession?

I hoped it would. I hoped it would. For me personally, from what I have seen around, I do not think I would like to take on a lectureship. I do not think I would enjoy that, at the, certainly at the current moment, I am enjoying, doing okay. They are short-term contracts, so there is not that secure, but I get to do very interesting work.

And I worked on one project just traveling the whole UK and, Ireland collecting data, for a, you know, big overall synthesis of material. I worked on, with disabled students for just over two years, and now I am working, putting together all different artifacts. I had always worked in prehistoric things, but now I am getting a chance to work on material and things from other periods.

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