My name is Chelsea Barnett and I completed my PhD in modern history at Macquarie University in 2016. I am a gender and culturalhistorian; I’m primarily interested in how culture articulates and circulates gendered meanings, particularly masculinity. Since completing my PhD I’ve been living the glamorous Early Career Researcher (ECR) life of juggling multiple short-term, casual positions: I’m currently a research assistant at Macquarie University and the University of Melbourne, while doing sessional teaching work at Macquarie as well.
1. How did you come to be a historian?
I had absolutely no intention of ever being an historian, or even doing study beyond a three-year degree. I always wanted to go to university but as one of the first to do so in my large family, I had no idea what opportunities it could produce. I studied modern history at high school and did relatively well, but I always preferred English. During high school I always thought I’d end up in law, but when I got to university my career aspirations changed constantly: from law, to diplomacy, publishing, and then teaching. I did one first-year modern history unit which I hated (I genuinely can’t remember what it was but my attitude was thanks more to my obnoxious eighteen-year-old self than the actual unit, I’m sure) and then a second-year unit which I really enjoyed. I did quite well in that subject and my tutor encouraged me to consider pursuing Honours—I dutifully looked it up, was instantly intimidated by the thought of designing my own research project, thought “there’s no way I’m smart enough to do that”, and dropped the idea.
Two years later, a friend and I had decided that once finishing our undergraduate degrees, we’d enrol together to study a Masters of Education to each become high school teachers. But in the first semester of my final undergraduate year, I needed to complete a second-year history unit to fulfil some degree requirement. From memory there were two units I could pick from: one I don’t remember, the other a unit on Australian gender history. I picked the latter (somewhat begrudgingly, I’m ashamed to say now) and fell into a subject that opened my eyes and changed my life. I fell in love with history and with gender history and everything it offered; this time when my tutor suggested I consider Honours, I took it much more seriously and was excited about the prospect of pursuing my own research. (My tutor was Robert Reynolds, who would go on to supervise me in Honours and then PhD. Thanks, Robert!) I completed Honours, fell in love with research, went on to a PhD, and here we are!
2. Tell us about your PhD research.
My thesis focused on representations of masculinity in Australian films released between 1949 to 1962. It made three arguments. First, that there were multiple masculinities in circulation in this era, in an unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) tension for legitimacy. Second, that the fifties were a period of cultural flux, and third, that the fifties were a period of activity for Australian filmmaking.
3. Why does it matter?
It matters for a few reasons, I think! I understand the project of historicising masculinity as one driven by feminist politics; if we leave masculinity unquestioned or uninterrogated then we ultimately allow it to function as the norm, as “natural”. So it’s important to understand how and why masculinity works the way it does, especially in the Australian national context where our national political, social, and cultural lives are built upon and sustained by particular masculinist ideals. At the same time, we also need to recognise that differences of race, class, sexuality, etc produce different masculinities—so the idea of there being only one way of being an Australian man isn’t necessarily true. Exploring that in the context of the fifties, where Menzies’ prime ministerial shadow continues to loom large, complicates our understanding of postwar Australia. I also think my research has helped to shed new light on the fifties, an era that continues to function in metaphorical terms (as either the “repressive” or the “stable” fifties), particularly in our national political and public conversations. Other scholars had done lots of important work in showing the social tensions and uncertainties that dotted the period, but the cultural world had been left largely untouched, so it was exciting to jump in and explore that space. And finally, there is a very dominant historiographical narrative that renders the Australian fifties as a “dead” period for filmmaking (and this narrative is of course strengthened by the idea that Gough Whitlam in the 1970s came along and produced the “rebirth” of Australian film production). Despite these claims, though, Australian films were being made in the fifties, and Australian audiences were going to see them. And important films too! Like Jedda, the first Australian film with Indigenous actors in the leading roles, and The Back of Beyond, which won the Grand Prix at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.
4. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
Like most other ECRs, my big post-PhD project was to publish my thesis. I was lucky enough to secure a contract with Melbourne University Press pretty soon after I completed my PhD; I’ve spent the last eighteen months editing my thesis for this purpose. It’s in now and should be published next February.
I’ve also spent the last two years or so developing a new project—a cultural history of single men in Australia. In one of the films I wrote about in my thesis, one of the characters ends up alone, while his mate finally decides to commit to a relationship with his on-again, off-again love. I was intrigued by this single fellow: what happens to him? Actually, what happens to single men not just in the fifties, but across the twentieth century? I tried to do this research to include it in the thesis but alas, there’s very little written on single men in Australia. At the time I filed it away in my brain, but since completing I’ve been able to think about it more and more, and it’s since formed the basis of my postdoctoral fellowship applications. (I’m still in that process, so fingers crossed!)
5. What do you love about being a historian?
I probably shouldn’t admit this because it likely means I’m a bad historian, but I don’t love archival research. I do it dutifully, of course, but for me it’s a stressful process where I’m constantly worried that I won’t find what I need/want. Obviously, whatever you do/don’t find leads to new and interesting questions (and the moments when you strike gold are wonderful), but I find the process quite fraught and anxiety-inducing. (I should clarify that this really only applies to research for my own projects.) I much prefer what comes after archival research: when I’m going through what I’ve found, what I’ve read, and trying to answer whatever questions are there to be answered. It’s hard and exhausting intellectual work, but trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together is such fun. I often undertake this process through writing, so sitting at my computer looking at the blank screen (or laying down on my study floor with a blank notebook and a pencil) is scary and frustrating and exciting all at once. When it clicks, and makes sense, and you understand what’s happening… it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
The other lovely thing about being part of this community is that it is, indeed, a community. I’ve benefitted from the guidance and mentorship of overwhelmingly generous people who are far too kind to me (there are many, but at the top of the list are of course my supervisors, Robert Reynolds and Leigh Boucher). Academic life can be a tough road, and I have found post-PhD life to be harder than the process of doing a thesis (for reasons I outline below), but life would have been far, far more difficult without these wonderful people.
6. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
It’s probably no surprise that I agree with pretty much all the former contributors to this series—the precarity and instability of post-PhD/ECR life is an incredibly difficult terrain to navigate. It can be difficult to keep your head up and motivation high when your job applications are constantly getting rejected, you have no real idea what you’ll be doing in the next six months, let alone the next five years, and your bank account is deplorably low. I know other contributors have identified travel bursaries, fellowships, small grants etc that do exist for ECRs, yet I’ve found that in most of these cases you need to be employed by a university on a contract, rather than a casual basis (and thus have a “proper” institutional affiliation) to even be eligible. And although I understand their intentions, I get frustrated by senior academics who were able to secure permanent employment before submitting their PhDs telling the current crop of ECRs to hang on, be patient, keep on going etc. Such advice should only be given with a heavy dose of self-awareness.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
Is it terrible to only go back a few decades? I’ll justify it by clinging to my intellectual attachment to the twentieth century! But in the process of beginning research for my new project I’ve learned even more about the 1970s and, by extension, the efforts of second-wave feminists. I’m very aware that the opportunities I’ve enjoyed as a young woman in academia are only possible because of the tireless efforts of the women who came before me. I think I’d like to go back and see that fight.
At 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?
At many Australian universities, July is Expression of Interest (EOI) season for Australian Research Council Grants. For most ECRs this means the beginning of the long process of applying for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA). In this post Meggie Hutchison talks all things DECRA with successful winner Dr Benjamin T. Jones. He discusses the process of refining his topic, finding the best institution for his project, and how to respond to rejoinders. Benjamin also gives some great tips on when to apply, how many publications you will need and offers wonderful advice from his personal experience on what to do if you don’t win a DECRA. For all ECRs applying in the next round of ARC grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!
Benjamin is an Australian Research Council DECRA recipient working in the School of History. He has taught history at the Australian National University, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and Western Sydney University and held Visiting Fellow posts at Indiana University and Durham University. He has also worked as a historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy. Benjamin has a broad range of research interests including Australian and Canadian colonial histories, republicanism, Australian nationalism, secularism, and pedagogical theory. He is the author of This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future (Redback, 2018), Atheism for Christians: Are there lessons for the religious world from the secular tradition? (Wipf & Stock 2016) and Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Democracy in Australia and Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2014). He is the co-editor of Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia (Black Inc 2013). He is currently editing a new collection of essays on seminal Australian elections. Dr Jones was the lead researcher of the Alternative Australian Flag Survey.
Meggie Hutchison: What do you love about being a historian?
Benjamin T. Jones: I think the most fun thing about being a historian is storytelling. I think everyone loves being that person at a party who can tell this wonderful anecdote, and it’s partly the small details as well that the historians eye picks up that really brings stories to life. Recently I’ve read Tom Griffiths, amazing the Art of Time Travel. One thing I love about Tom’s histories in general, but especially in this book, is the way he points out that history is an art, and I think sometimes we get bogged down in this really hardnosed historical methodology. I think that’s the real history and the storytelling aspect of it.
That’s the arty insignificant thing. But I think that’s what makes history beautiful. When you have this sort of eye for details. I wrote an article recently on the currency lads and lasses. The first white Australian born men and women and their sense of identity as being British but born in Australia. The first generation.
It could seem an insignificant detail, but they played this cricket match between the Australian born and the British born Australians and they got so worked up about it. There was a dubious leg before wicket call and the Australian batsman was challenged to a duel to settle it. It’s just these little details that make the stories of history so engaging.
I could go on about how it’s this conversation between the past and the present which I think it is. But I really love telling stories. And I love the empowerment you get as a historian. It’s that you’re not just relying on other people’s stories, you have got the toolkit and you have got the ability to go into archives and to make sense of all these figures and documents. And you can discover new stories and tell them. So there’s a real pleasure in that.
Meggie: I wanted to ask about the questions that drive your research. Do you have any burning questions that have led you to your topics?
Benjamin: Yes. Absolutely. My main interest is in Australian nationalism. Well, I’m an Australiainist first and foremost, although I do a lot of comparative transnational histories. I’m interested in nationalism, especially republicanism. So I guess some of the driving questions for me is just, how did Australia ended up the way it is? How do you have a country that on the one hand is so proud of its multicultural diverse, open, tolerant society, but it’s also cool with having a giant union jack. Establishing sort of this Anglo Celtic privileging.
How do you get a country that is so staunchly independent and competitive with other nations and especially with the UK, but it’s also very comfortable having it’s head of state being the monarch of a foreign nation. How do you get a country like Australia and its history is sort of baffling in some senses. It is so democratic in some cases. It’s the most democratic nation in the world. In introducing the Australian ballot and all these different things. But then it has this obviously undemocratic way of choosing its head of state. I suppose those are the questions that drive me. How did Australia turn up as this sort of funny bag of contradictions that it is.
Meggie: Do these questions stem from your PhD or further back?
Benjamin: Further back actually. From my honours thesis really. I looked at the republican campaigns in the 1850s and compared it to the 1990s. I grew up a little bit in the 80s but mainly in the 90s and the 90s was a huge period of Australia questioning its identity. It kicks off with Paul Keating having this very strong vision that Australia needs to reimagine itself as part of Asia. As a republic and losing the baggage of imperialism and British colonization and all the rest of it.
Australia has almost this 180 degree turn in 1996 when John Howard comes in. Someone who couldn’t be more different in their approach. And so a lot of historians who I admire, Mark Mckenna’s right up there, John Hirst is right up there. Writing these amazing books in the 1990s all about identity. I suppose even though I was a teenager in that period, these ideas are just in the air and that’s when I did go through university, it’s what I wanted to research.
Meggie: Can you tell us about the topic of your PhD?
Benjamin: My PhD is called ‘Commonwealth of Republics’ and it currently sits on my dad’s desk where it props up his monitor to just the right height that he likes it, so I’m glad that it’s gone to good use! I was inspired somewhat by my honors supervisor, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, to look at Australia, Canada comparative studies. She’s done a lot of that research on WWI. Comparing volunteers and different things. When you look at just the mountain of books there are comparing Canada and the United States, it’s kind of amazing that there’s so few because Australia and Canada are actually better comparisons in many regards, but not that many historians have looked at it.
My particular angle in my PhD was to compare the granting of responsible government in Canada and then in Australia. It did end up getting published as a book called Republicanism and Responsible Government through McGill-Queen’s University Press and let that be lesson number one to aspirational DECRA people, don’t be modest and plug your work whenever you get the chance!
Meggie: Good lesson! What’s the subject in the DECRA then?
Benjamin: It’s called ‘Aristotle’s Australia’ and I’ve moved from the 19th century into the 20th and it’s a history of civic republican thought from federation to modern times.
Meggie: What’s the process by which you arrived at this project? You’re moving into a different century, but are there direct links to your previous research?
Benjamin: Yes, a different century but the same ideas. I did very consciously approach the DECRA by saying, “Not only do I think this is a good topic, but I also think that I’m the right person to write it”. So, to that end I drew a lot of links straight from my PhD and I almost pitched it as this is going to be volume two. Staying on the same themes and looking at a different time period, but building on a lot of the strengths and a lot of the archival work that I’ve already done. Certainly, in my case it worked to very strongly say how this project is a natural progression from my PhD.
Meggie: We’re always told that we have to create a strong research narrative for the DECRA. Do you think that’s one of the reasons that you were so successful in yours? Because you could make that kind of connection?
Benjamin: I think so because you leave yourself a little bit vulnerable if you just invest in creating a really great topic but not making it obvious why you’re also the natural person to do it. I can understand people having a bit of research fatigue. It’s a long journey to complete a PhD and you may feel like great, now I’m going to go off to my “love project”, as people sometimes put it. But if you’ve invested so many years and so much time researching a particular area, it can be a different topic, but at least if you’re saying I’m going to be drawing on the same methodological principles. Or if there’s at least somewhere to say that the skills you’ve acquired over the last four or five years or however long it took to do your PhD, are still going to be used and in fact are essential to getting this project done, then I think you’re giving yourself a fighting chance.
Meggie: Does your DECRA draw on the comparative element of your PhD as well?
Benjamin: It doesn’t actually. So that’s one difference. I’m using the same themes and the same ideas. My PhD was an intellectual history of ideas. So I’m looking for the same intellectual tradition. But no, I’ve dropped the transnational aspect and that wasn’t so much strategic. I suppose it does make sense for the Australian Research Council to want to fund something that is 100% Australian focused, but it also just sort of naturally ended up that way.
Meggie: Let’s talk a bit about the process of actually applying for a DECRA. You get two shots at it, so what is the best point to apply? There’s advice that two to four years out of your PhD is optimum.
Benjamin: Well, yes, that’s right. If you look at the percentages of people who are successful, it’s sort of virtually no one a year out, a few more, two years out and three and then sort of three and four is the sweet spot so to speak. But of course every person’s different and you may have already have published a couple of books and several articles and you may be ready to apply for a DECRA a year out and people do get them a year out. But I suppose if you went along the traditional sort of academic route, most people aren’t going to have the research backing behind them in their first or second year. So it is, as you say, with only the two shots, you’re playing the percentages if you apply in your third and fourth year out.
Meggie: When did you apply?
Benjamin: In the third and fourth year out. I was as ambitious as anyone and I went to a DECRA seminar on how to apply for one which was run at the ANU in my first year. And they said something like, you should really emphasize your best 10 publications or something like that. And I was there like, I’ve got four publications all up, so I more or less just left. And I thought, okay, it’s not for me yet. I feel like I should have stayed and listened to the rest for future reference!
I got a strong sense anyway that third and fourth year is the right time to apply. In the third year I didn’t get it and I amended it, not greatly I should add, which also is an important point, that there is such an element of chance and luck and whoever happens to assess it or however many other applications that might be very similar to yours. I do think my second application was better but only marginally. Essentially I think I just applied twice and was unsuccessful one year and was successful the next. That might give hope to people who have been knocked back once, it is definitely worth going through the whole circus again.
Probably the biggest change between the first application and the second application, is I applied at a group of eight university and I kind of just took it for granted that its reputation should speak for itself. So I invested really the bulk of my energy into saying, this is a great project. I’m someone worth backing. Please pick me. And also, I’m going to a great institution and sort of left it at that.
One thing that I think I definitely improved on the second one was saying, okay, let me actually show you more. Here’s some of the people who are at ANU. Here are some of the resources that are close by. Here are some of the libraries I can use. I guess you’ve just got to take every section as seriously as the one before. Even that one I felt was a bit of an obvious one. Whether that made a difference, I don’t know. But that’s one thing that was definitely stronger the second time around.
Meggie: Was there anything else you fixed that you think might have made the second attempt sparkle more than the first?
Benjamin: Well, there is this, I applied in the ANU’s Humanities Research Centre which is where I did my PhD. I think a lot of the appeal there was that I was applying so that I could be with people I know and a place that I’m comfortable with, and I wondered whether the reason I’d chosen that was more emotional than for academic integrity. So, I applied through the ANU’s School of History, which I was quite unfamiliar with instead, having made a reassessment that actually this is a better place for the project to be and I can make a stronger argument for being here even though I won’t be with my friends.
Meggie: So the research environment is very important for a DECRA.
Benjamin: Yes, absolutely. It’s definitely not as simple as just saying, I’ll apply for at a group of eight university. They’re the ones with the reputation depending on. And all these projects are so individual and probably if you’re serious about it, you need to get some people who are going to read your application closely because this is all good general advice, but you do need people who can tailor the application specifically to you.
But there are all sorts of reasons why a regional university or a university that has a particular center or a particular school might be the perfect place to do whatever the project is. It definitely would be lazy to just think, well, I’m just going to pick whoever is highest in the rankings this year as my home.
Meggie: How do you choose your institution?
Benjamin: Well, I looked first at a geography. You’ve got a limited budget and of course you can fly places but you’ve got to stay in hotels and all that sort of thing. So wherever the bulk of the archival material or the field work stuff is, is really where you want to be. In my case, Canberra just in general was the first idea. I was in Sydney at the time, which obviously has a lot of great archive as well but I made a conscious decision that Canberra was going to be the best place first off. Then which university in Canberra was a secondary decision. But having already so many contacts at the ANU, it sort of seemed like an easy choice in that sense as well.
Meggie: There’s so much speculation and rumour about how many publications you should have when you apply. What’s your advice on that?
Benjamin: When I applied I had about 10, so I still wasn’t in the position of picking my best 10. I just put them all. I suppose that is ideal. It certainly is a case that quality is better than quantity, but I think all ECRs should think seriously about co-publishing a couple of things. I published an article with my PhD supervisor and another one with one of my close friends who did their PhD at the same time as me as well as publishing a couple of solo ones.
Meggie: Getting your book out before you apply for a DECRA, so as quickly as possible, is often the advice given to ECRs.
Benjamin: Yes, and it’s a shame. If I’m giving advice it is just get it out as quickly as you can almost with whoever will publish it. I think that’s a real shame. In retrospect I wish I’d actually had the luxury of taking five or so years to just not even think about my thesis and then go back and really enhance it and make it a more superior document. Reading back over it now, it kind of screams recent graduate, but such is life. I guess it’s a historical record of where I was at the time.
Meggie: What’s the first thing you do when you decide on your DECRA topic?
Benjamin: Well, be realistic about how long it takes to write a DECRA application I think is probably the first thing. The best advice I had actually was to think of it as being as much effort and time and energy as writing a journal article and going in with that sort of mindset. This isn’t just a job application you’re going for. It is quite a serious research proposal. If you go in thinking, “Okay, I’m not going to finish this in one or two nights,” then that’s a good starting point.
The way I did it was to look through the entire document and put one or two sentences under each thing and start to collect my thoughts about the project as a whole and to make sure I was happy with it. I pitched it to a few friends and a few colleagues, got their advice and then went for the project description first and again circulated that to various people and received edits on it.
Meggie: What about the budget? Did you have any help?
Benjamin: I didn’t and should have is the short answer. I thought I was doing myself a big favour by having a really modest budget and I cut every little corner I could and said I’d stay in the cheapest hotels and find the most budget. But the feedback I’ve got since is that they’re not going to judge you more harshly if you have a bigger budget, so long as the items are the normal things that people would expect.
If it’s something unusual, obviously justify it is important. Another successful DECRA applicant told me casually down the corridor that they just applied for as much money as the maximum amount and then worked backwards from there. So, in retrospect maybe I should’ve done that. Although one of my assessor’s reports comment on my frugality. Maybe it impressed someone a little bit, but I think you should actually feel safe to say I’m going to claim as much as I need.
Meggie: How did you go about “selling” the value of your DECRA and its relevance to Australia today?
Benjamin: It’s a funny question because I’m definitely working on a love project. I guess I can give hope to people who have just one project which is the only topic they want to write about that it is possible. But I suppose by the same token, right back from my honours year (again, I’ve always had good people giving me good advice) I knew that I should gear my project towards subjects that are going to be relevant and areas that are likely to get funding.
You certainly have to keep in mind that this is the Australian Research Council and they have a specific mission to advance knowledge on Australia and to fund research that is going to help in its strategic areas. So you need to at least be aware of those strategic areas. You need to be able to pitch it in such a way that this is going to be of the greater good of our Commonwealth. But there is a very broad understanding that the historical projects are just as valuable as combating climate change.
It may not feel that way, but I think sometimes the humanities has this inferiority complex. Like we’re the least important and we deserve the least funding and we matter the least. It really is a self-fulfilling prophecy sometimes. I think it is fundamentally important to the health and vibrancy of our nation that there are people out there researching Australian history and telling Australian stories. It’s important and it should be pitched that way. It’s in the national interest of Australia that I complete this research and I stand by it.
Meggie: How did you do that with your DECRA application?
Benjamin: Well, I framed it as gaining a better understanding of Australian politics, Australian identity. Australia’s place in the world was probably the one that most aligned with the ARC. Saying that Australia has fundamentally shifted the way it imagines itself from being this British white European outpost to this vibrant, multicultural nation in the Asia-Pacific region, and how civic republicanism has shaped the way Australians think about themselves. And this has all sorts of repercussions to how we teach history in schools and how we present ourselves on the international stage.
Meggie: How did you approach the feasibility of the project which is an important part of the application?
Benjamin: I think the rules may even have changed since I did it. It used to be sort of equal weighting to the project, to the individual and to the institution. But I suppose even if it has changed, the idea is that every section needs to be taken incredibly seriously. It needs to have the same thoughtful, intelligent, coherent answers throughout. In terms of feasibility though, that was something where I seemed to get particular ticks from the assessors.
So it is important to say that this is a project you have the ability to do. You need to almost go back and look at the project description and the aims and the outcomes and possibly reign it in a little bit if you’ve been perhaps too grand. You should think about how much you achieved during the three years of your PhD and use that as a starting point. Certainly, you’ll be doing work at a higher quality than junior PhD candidacy. But it does give you a little bit of realism in how much is actually possible.
Of course you have to factor in that if you go to a new institution and perhaps you’re wanting to eventually get some sort of secure employment there at the end, then it’s going to be worth your while to be a good academic citizen and you should factor in that. You may find yourself teaching, unless the rules have changed. Is it up to 20% of your time you can spend teaching? But just general collegiality. You’re going to be giving guest lectures, you’re going to be giving seminars, you’re going to be helping run conferences.
All these things are really, really good for a DECRA applicant to be doing. But you’ve also got to think that these are things that are going to take away your research and writing time as well. So have that in mind when you’re thinking about how much you can realistically do because, especially if you get it, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you can actually tick off the things you said you were going to do and it certainly will improve your chances of getting another ARC discovery in the future if you can point back to a successful DECRA and say, look, I said I was going to do X, Y, and Z and I did X, Y and Z, and now here’s my new project.
Meggie: What are your outcomes from your DECRA?
Benjamin: Well, the centrepiece was certainly that I’ll write am academic monograph. I also highlighted about three different aspects of my research that I thought should also be standalone journal articles. I said I was going to attend conferences along the way, particularly in the early stages so that I could give work in progress seminars. I also requested funding to host a conference towards the end of my project.
I suppose I should reiterate. Don’t be shy about sending it to people. One of the things that really was great for me was getting so many people say that it was a manageable project. It just gives you that confidence to say, okay, well people I know and respect think this is a good project. They think it’s a good application. I can put it forward now, if it gets rejected, it’s not going to break my heart that much. I’m not going to completely lose my confidence because I know that people I know and respect have said that it’s okay.
Even though it’s not ideal, if you fail to get a DECRA twice, you really should just do the project anyway, though it’s difficult if you’re not going to get that particular funding. There are still other funding sources and there are ways to do it. But if you’ve invested that much time in developing a really great project, you really should have that resolve that this is getting done one way or the other and that’ll probably even improve the language of how you write the application.
Meggie: I wanted to ask about the rejoinder. How important is it and can it make or break your success in getting a DECRA?
Benjamin: I think it definitely can. Much more than the application actually, it gives a little insight into the applicant’s attitude and personality. I think certainly if you came back really indignant, then that’s not going to be a good look.
But by the same token, I don’t think it’s a great look either to just be like, “Oh yes, you’ve called me. It’s useless, it’s terrible. I’ll just withdraw.” You do have to sort of find the sweet spot where on the one hand you’re saying “I stand by my application, I stand by my project and this is a worthwhile thing”. But also on the other hand conceding as much as you can where you see legitimate chinks in the armour that could have been strengthened.
My basic approach, which I think was effective, was to read really carefully what they said and to almost write it back in the rejoinder. I started off with, “I am so glad that review A said X, and I’m so glad that review B agreed and said Y”. I pointed out a few things where there were criticisms that I could have mentioned this or that. I politely said review B raised this issue. However, on page 23 of the application I did address that. Adding in for modesty that I could have made this clearer or longer or whatnot.
It’s sort of tight rope between showing you’re someone who believes in themselves, but are also someone who can take criticism constructively. But I think it is really a serious part of the process. In the same way that you should get people to read over your application, I definitely wouldn’t just quickly write it. I had at least three people read my response and then also people from the research office and I edited it reasonably substantially actually from those comments. So yes, the rejoinder is very important.
Meggie: I also wanted to talk a little bit about failure. You were successful on your second attempt, but how did you deal with not getting a DECRA on your first try?
Benjamin: My personal process is actually very similar to a rejection to a journal article, which is to quickly read it and then just ignore it. Just do something you enjoy. Go for a run, watch a movie. I usually have to leave it for a week or two and to come back when I’m calm and I know it’s a rejection but I’ll read it. But just having that little bit of space really helps.
It really helps you discern between what might be the more reasonable criticisms and other criticisms which you have to just say, well I disagree with that and I’m going to more or less a reapply with the same ideas. But as much as you can take the emotions out of it, be as stoic as you can. I guess it’s like anything else in life, getting rejected from a job or something. If your passion is to be a historian, then you have to just move forward with it.
Meggie: Was there a plan B that you had in mind?
Benjamin: I had a few plan B’s in my time. I actually went through the whole process to become an education officer in the army, so I think I’m technically still in the pool of applicants to be drawn on. Although I probably would have to decline now if they came back to me. That was one, I did do a teaching degree as well. So I’ve also got high school teaching as a fall back plan. But as long as academia is still paying the bills in one way or another, it is where I want to be. But yes I do have plan Bs and it’s probably not a bad idea to have them.
Meggie: OK, one more question. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?
Benjamin: I find this question deceptively difficult because the way I approach it is why am I having dinner with them? If it was purely for the pleasure of their company, I’d pick someone like Oscar Wilde. Just because he would be charming. But if it was for my own research so that I could have an exclusive interview (and yes, I know I overthink this way too much) then it would be someone like John Dunmore Lang so he could tell me about republicanism in the 19th century.
But if it was more so I could be a time traveller going back to warn people about the future, then I’d probably pick someone like Robert Menzies and just say, “you need to drop the British stuff. I know it seems like your whole world in the 1950s, but in only two decades, there’s not going to be a British empire. Nobody’s going to think the way you do and you’re going to be the most successful prime minister, but also remembered as this kind of dinosaur who makes comments about being in love with a 20-year-old queen!”.