Dissecting the DECRA Part 2 – Interview with Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen

Image result for researchingAt this time of year many ECRs begin their Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) journey, scoping out suitable institutions, refining their research projects and drafting EOIs. In Part 2 of our Dissecting the DECRA series, Meggie Hutchison talks to successful DECRA winner Dr Elizabeth (Libby) Roberts-Pedersen about what to do (and what not to do) when developing your application. Libby discusses how her research narrative emerged and the core questions that inspire her work. She also offers some wonderful insights into how she refined and reshaped her project for her second application and talks about what it’s like to research with young children. For all ECRs applying in the next round of Australian Research Council grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!

Libby is an ARC DECRA Fellow in the Centre for the History of Violence, where she is researching the impact of World War Two on the theory and practice of psychiatry. She was previously a Lecturer in History at Western Sydney University (2010-2015). Libby’s research focuses on the cultural and social histories of warfare in the modern world and, increasingly, the broader history of psychiatry, psychiatric patients and treatment regimes. Her doctoral thesis (University of Sydney, 2007) examined the experience of British volunteers in the Greek War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War and the Russo-Finnish War. This became the book Freedom, Faction, Fame and Blood (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).  She has also published on wartime psychiatry and therapeutics, and sexual violence and the courts-martial system in the Second AIF. Her current ARC-funded project, ‘Unquiet Minds: Psychiatry in World War Two and its aftermaths’, aims to provide the first comprehensive account of the consequences of that conflict for psychiatric theory and practice by focusing on the ways in which the stringencies of total war forged new patient cohorts on the battlefield and the home front and thus implicated psychiatry in the social and economic projects of the post-war world.

Meggie Hutchison: Let’s start with an easy question, what is your favourite aspect of being an historian?

Libby Roberts-Pedersen: Being paid to read. I was an obsessive reader as a kid and I think it’s one of life’s pleasures, so I love that I can spend some time each day reading and thinking about what I’ve read. I perhaps don’t like writing so much as reading, but that can also be a real pleasure as well when it’s going well. Getting to do those two things regularly is just wonderful. When I think about the jobs that other people have to do, dangerous jobs, physically intensive jobs, boring jobs, I’m always grateful that I get to do this kind of work (while also doing my fair share of grousing about other aspects of the job).

Meggie: A lot of historians have burning questions that they’re researching. What are the core questions that inspire your research?

Libby: Well it’s a wonderful question, but in some ways a hard question to answer. If I’m trying to boil it down to one or two things, I think one of the animating themes in my work is trying to interrogate the experience of wartime from the perspective of combatants but also civilians. I think that’s one reason why I’ve tended to gravitate towards World War II and the experience of that kind of mass conflict where all sectors of society are involved in some way.

Meggie: Has that always been one of your burning questions, since you started studying history? Or have you shaped that narrative as you’ve gone along?

Libby: I’d say it’s been there all along, ever since I became really interested in history at high school. In fact, much of my interest was stoked by a British documentary made in the seventies called ‘The World at War’, which ran on SBS on Saturday nights when I was 14 or 15 (which also says a lot about my social life as a teenager).  I became fascinated with the conflict, through that documentary. Then as an undergraduate studying modern European history I became interested, as many students do, with ‘the age of extremes’ – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in particular.

Lots of my preconceptions about authority and obedience in those societies were challenged by reading historians like Robert Gellately, Tim Mason, Sheila Fitzpatrick and Christopher Browning. It really made me think about what people do in extreme situations, and how they react to authority, and what kind of pain they will inflict on other people in those environments.

Meggie: There seems quite a natural progression in what you’re saying about becoming interested as a teenager in World War II and the topic of your DECRA, but how did you arrive at this particular project?

Libby: After I finished my PhD (on British ‘soldiers of conscience’ in European wars) I worked in in policy research for three years. When I came back to academia I’d decided that my next project was going to be on deserters and desertion, which was a theme running through some of the work I’d done on the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. I was very interested in how militaries in general dealt with disobedience, desertion and other elements of discipline.

As I was poking around in the archives I kept running across cases of soldiers who were using psychiatric language to explain why they couldn’t perform their duties. I became quite interested in the way psychiatric issues were managed in the world wars. And it was just lucky that it turned out that while there was lots of writing about shell shock in World War I there was comparatively little on what was known as ‘war neurosis’ in World War II. I mean, every time we try to pitch a project or begin an article or conference paper we say there’s a gap in the scholarship and here was an actual gap. So of course I gravitated towards that.

I suppose implicit in the question is the idea of trying to demonstrate a continuity between your PhD work and the project you’re proposing for the DECRA. I think you’ve got to try and hedge your bets. You can’t make a radical detour from say, soldiers of conscience in 19th and 20th century Britain to, I don’t know, the gender politics of Florence in the 15th century. At the same time, you can’t then propose a DECRA project that is so close to your PhD it shows no intellectual development at all. If you can show a theme that runs between your projects, then that is one way you can smooth that transition.

Meggie: That gap that you were talking about, would you be able to describe how you went about testing whether there was a legitimate project in that? That balance can be hard to find. How broad do you think you can go?

Libby: You need to take advice on this from several people familiar with the state of scholarship in your topic area. My experience was that my first DECRA application was too narrow and not ambitious enough. It was asking a fairly small question about the Australian management of combat psychiatry casualties in World War II, something that can probably be adequately discussed in one or two journal articles.

My second attempt asked much broader questions about psychiatry as theorised and practiced in many aspects of World War II, and the implications of practicing psychiatry in the context of mass warfare and what this meant for psychiatric theory and practice in the post-war world.

I would definitely encourage people to look at the kinds of projects that are successful, and the language that they’re couched in. Then you can make judgements about how ambitious and sweeping you’re going to be in the claims that you make about this research you haven’t done yet. That’s another intellectual challenge of the DECRA application: being convincing about the outcomes of research you’ve yet to undertake.

Meggie: There’s so much speculation about that perfect moment in your career when you should apply for a DECRA. Do have any advice on that, especially given that you applied twice?

Libby: I’ll give you advice that I found useful for me. It may not apply to everyone, and I’m conscious that everyone’s circumstance will dictate what they can and can’t do. You’ve got a five-year window after your PhD for two attempts, so it seems sensible to me to have one early and one late. And bear in mind that the five-year window may actually turn out to be longer, as it did for me, if you have periods of non-academic employment or you go on parental or some other kind of leave.

Some people are successful on their first early attempt, and that’s great. As long as you look at it as a learning opportunity if you’re not successful, as a way of refining the intellectual parameters of a project, then it can be very clarifying. You can also repurpose sections of the text for other job or fellowship applications.

All that said, I think the figures indicate that people tend to win DECRAs later in the five-year window, which makes sense, because you’ll likely have more of a research track record by then.

It’s also necessary to say that the widespread precarity of the post-PhD years can make putting an application together very difficult. You perhaps don’t need to have a submission-ready application 18 months before the deadline (as some people will advise you) but you do need some breathing room in the months preceding submission. I’m keenly aware that developing an application with institutional support is a privilege and that talk of ‘winning’ a DECRA reinforces the myth that academia is some kind of unalloyed meritocracy.

Meggie: The advice for ECRs is that a strong publishing track record makes a big difference in the success of a DECRA application. How many publications should you be looking at before considering applying?

Libby: Oh, this is so tricky, and so fraught, because people tell you different things. The most frequent advice I heard was that you probably need a monograph, either published or under contract, or a series of articles in major international journals. But that is not necessarily a hard and fast rule.

One thing to keep in mind is the weighting for your track record. People need to check the funding rules for the year they submit their application, but the application does not live or die by your track record alone. Another thing is that your track record is framed by the ROPE section, which is where you explain your research performance relative to opportunity. You’re essentially writing a commentary on your publications and letting assessors know about things like periods of non-academic employment, periods of parental leave, periods of very high teaching loads and so on. This is good for quelling anxieties about not having written 40 journal articles in three years.

This is where there is value in remembering that you’re speaking to a broad audience of scholars in the humanities who might need some guidance on publishing norms in our discipline. Historians tend to publish long, single-author pieces based on months of work in archives. If there’s a way to communicate that without sounding self-pitying, then do it. That said, your assessors may be more sympathetic than you think. When I was preparing my last application, I had some lovely and well-meaning colleagues in sociology gentling telling me there was no way I would be competitive with my track record – I needed two books and twice as many articles. But when I got my assessor reports back at least one of them used words like ‘prolific’ and ‘energetic’! Now, I don’t actually think I’m either of those things, but it just goes to show that disciplinary norms can be very different.

Meggie: You mentioned that you worked outside of academia in the public service before you applied for the DECRA. Did you use that experience in your application?

Libby: Well, the way that it did help was to justify why I hadn’t published much for those three years. Also, in a funny way, that time away from academia gave me time to think. The same has been true for my two periods of parental leave. Ideas, if they are good ones, keep percolating in the background.

This is where knowing the funding rules and procedures about ‘stop the clock’ provisions is really important. If I think about it, I was eight or nine years out from the PhD when I applied for the DECRA. Because I had a three-year period away from academia and also my first period of parental leave, I’d technically only been in academic employment for three and a half years the second time I applied for the DECRA. Use these provisions if they apply to you. They do not amount to special treatment. They exist to redress, however imperfectly, structural inequalities sunk deep into the bedrock of academia.

Meggie: How do you go about picking the institution to support your DECRA?

Libby: That’s a really good question. Again, it comes down to your personal circumstances. Which institutions will support you? Which institutions have research concentrations and strengths that tally with your project? Are you prepared to move? What will be your situation once the DECRA finishes?

For me, making a case to move to the University of Newcastle was fairly straightforward, because my project fit with the research of the Centre for the History of Violence, which has a strong record of attracting funding. It’s probably not enough to say, “There are historians at this university, of which I will be one.” Better to say something like, “There are the following historians who work my topic, or something close to my topic. Here are the seminars that they have, here are the projects that they’re doing, I’ll fit with this research agenda in this way”.

Meggie: Let’s talk a bit about the budget, how much funding do you ask for?

Libby: Here I think you need to take advice from your Research Office or equivalent. They figure out the major items like salary and on-costs. You need to do some leg work in terms of identifying the archives you will visit and the conferences you will attend. Will you need a research assistant? Transcription services? Equipment? It’s a bit of balancing act. You don’t want to ask for too little, because that looks under-confident. But you can’t be outlandish either. In any case, the Research Office should be able to help you figure out a reasonable budget based on what has worked in the past.

Meggie: One of the challenges of putting in a humanities DECRA is articulating outcomes. How did you make convincing links between psychiatry and World War II and Australia’s national interest in your application?

Libby: It’s hard isn’t it? I think as historians we wring our hands over this, because we can see the political machinations implicit in this kind of requirement: make your research valuable to the nation! But really, I think it’s good to be pushed to think about this and it’s not too hard to think up some form of words about why understanding the past is helpful for the present.

In the case of psychiatry and World War II, for example, that topic is very bound up in a bigger story about the way psychiatry has changed from being a speciality largely located in institutions to a discipline interested in treating ‘mental illness’ more broadly, in part through psycho-pharmaceutical interventions. World War II requires psychiatry to grapple with large numbers of patients outside of institutions. Efficiency was key and so drug treatments and other kind of physical interventions were very attractive. Mass warfare was in some ways a trial run for various forms of socialized medicine. So I didn’t feel like an intellectual charlatan in saying, “Look, doing this project is going to give us some sense of why psychiatry has ended up the way it’s ended up.”

Meggie: Let’s talk about rejoinders, how important are they and will they change the outcome of an application?

Libby: Don’t you wish you were in the room where these deliberations were made? The advice that I had was to take the rejoinders seriously and respond in a constructive fashion. And yes, if your application is teetering between funded and not funded, because of something a particular assessor has said, and you are able to rebut the assessor in a constructive and intellectually rigorous way, then I have heard that it can make a difference. It’s also a chance to really emphasize the good things the reviewers have said.

Again, ask your Research Office if you can get examples of rejoinders and the applicant’s response to those rejoinders. Don’t be sarcastic. Try not to write when you’re angry but be robust and sufficiently assertive if you think an assessor has been unfair or made a mistake.

Meggie: It’s a great opportunity to reiterate your case.

Libby: Exactly, so think of it as an opportunity. The other thing that I was told time and again was not to try to read too much into the tone of the comments that you get. Some assessors write glowing reviews and then rank you last. Some give terse comments even if they think you’re brilliant. There’s just no way to tell.

Meggie: You’ve had the experience of both an unsuccessful and a successful DECRA application, would you be able to speak a little about how you dealt with the outcome of the first application?

Libby: Having just said that you can’t judge the final outcome from the assessor comments, for the first application my assessor comments were uniformly tepid, so by the time October or November rolled around I was not really on tenterhooks expecting success. Also, because I had an ongoing position it was easier to take it on the chin and think, “well, I know the process now, I’ve got some ideas about the way I can change the project, or extend the project, and what’s got to change.”

Meggie: How long did you wait before reapplying?

Libby: I would have submitted the first time in 2012 (for a 2013 start) and then again in 2015 (for a 2016 start), so three years.

Meggie: So that’s a lot of time to reassess the goals of your project. Did you do a lot of research on the topic in that time?

Libby: Yes, I kept thinking about it and writing conference papers and seminar papers and articles based on what archives I could access electronically. Keeping things ticking over was really important. I think there can be huge value in giving conference papers as a way to think through and get feedback on the broad themes of an emerging project. Then if you are lucky enough to get a DECRA it’s good to facilitate that kind of culture back into your institution. Organize seminars and organize conferences to give other people a chance to do papers that might later become journal articles that will then help them win funding down the track. Once I’m back to working full-time (I had another baby last year) that’s one of my aims.

Meggie: How have you found researching with a new baby?

Libby: I had my second child in May 2016 and so I’m working part-time this year. It’s both good and bad, and of course lots depends on having a partner who is doing their fair share and also employment that allows for parental leave. Apart from that, there’s no getting away from how taxing it is not to sleep properly for years. The kids don’t care about deadlines or how engrossed I am in an article. But then being squeezed for time promotes a kind of pragmatism and focus that can be quite freeing. Time away from the hurly-burly of academic life is good for perspective and often for getting some real thinking done. I also think babies and small children are a bit of an antidote to the grandiosity and self-absorption academia can breed. The baby does not care how many articles you published this triennium, what you think of Discipline and Punish and also he has just vomited in your hair and is now trying to bite your face.

Meggie: What’s one tip you wished that you had known before beginning the DECRA application?

Libby: A month before the application was due the light bulb went on and it was suddenly, “I’m not writing for only historians. My audience for this application is not just historians. It’s for scholars in various humanities disciplines and it must speak to an intellectual project that is comprehensible to everyone in that milieu.” I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that, but once the implications of the whole ARC assessment process dawned on me, narrating the project became so much easier.

Meggie: Just one last question, who would you invite if you could have dinner with anyone from history?

Libby:  What a question! That’s a deceptively hard question. How pragmatic can I be? I mean at the moment I’m in the middle of reading The Interpretation of Dreams, for some work I’m doing on some POW dream diaries. So I would have to say Freud. I would like to have dinner with Freud.

Meggie:  It would be such an intense dinner!

Libby: I’m sure he’d regard me as a textbook neurotic (and that would not be wrong). But selfishly I’ve got a whole bunch of questions for him about dream interpretation. Also his relationship with Jung (and, okay, all the other people he had dramatic fallings out with). But Jung – what was that all about? Why all the fainting around Jung?

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Dissecting the DECRA Part 3 – Interview with Mark Edele | Australian Historical Association

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