In this post Jatinder Mann (Hong Kong Baptist University) offers some tips on self-promotion in academia, outlining his experience of using four of the major online platforms. The opinions expressed here are not intended as an endorsement of any of the platforms mentioned, but provide a personal view of their benefits and limitations.
Following on from one of my previous blog posts on ‘How to … Survive in academia until you secure a position (some personal reflections)’, I thought it would be useful to write another one on how to promote yourself in academia. Through training courses and discussions with friends and colleagues, I have come to use several platforms to promote my work and activities. I primarily use Academia.edu, ORCID, LinkedIn, and Twitter towards this end. I will make some general points about them and then take each in turn, talking about their benefits and limitations.
The first general point I would make—without sounding too much like someone who works in marketing—is to be consistent about your brand, which is ‘you’. So, ensure that the information you have on different platforms is up to date and consistent. Inconsistencies in things like your publication record can look unprofessional. It can be a little time-consuming updating various platforms, but the benefits I have seen come from this—be it research collaborations, invitations to give talks, expressions of interest to publish in the book series or journal that I edit, etc.—more than justify it. Another common benefit of the platforms I use compared with my staff web page is that I have control over updating it and can do so as many times as I like. Another collective benefit of platforms such as Academia.edu, ORCID and LinkedIn is that the information you have on them can be a very useful reference point when you are working on job or funding applications. So, even if there might be some significant time investment upfront when setting up your profiles, you will hopefully find that it saves you time in the future.
I will now look at each of the four platforms that I use in turn, focusing on some of their benefits and limitations.
I was introduced to this platform by a friend and former colleague in the United Kingdom after I had been awarded my PhD in 2011. You can view my profile here to see what kind of information you can include on it. At that time the site was completely free. I found it particularly useful as it acted as a de facto webpage for me as I was no longer a PhD student at the University of Sydney and had not yet started working on my postdoc at King’s College London. Another thing I really like about it is that you can see when people search for you on search engines and come across your profile, and where they are searching from. This is particularly useful when you are applying for jobs, as you can see that people from a particular institution you have applied to are searching for you. You can also see when people read papers you have put up on the site. However, the site has since become monetised, which has resulted in certain features now only being available to those who pay for a ‘Premium’ membership. Out of principle I will not sign up to this. But because I spent so much time over the years building up my profile on the site I do not have the heart to close it. And I still appreciate being able to see when people look for me on search engines.
I found out about this not-for-profit platform from a friend and colleague of mine at the library at my current institution. You can view my profile here to get an idea of what information can appear on it. If you have an ORCID profile you can provide your ORCID ID (a unique 16-digit code) to publishers, and the outputs they publish will automatically be included in the list of publications on your profile. Many publishers will also include ORCID IDs in the print and PDF versions of articles and other outputs, providing readers with a direct link to your profile. I have to say that I have become quite a big fan of this site, not least because it has various sections which Academia.edu does not. These include ‘Employment’, ‘Education and qualifications’, ‘Invited positions and distinctions’, ‘Membership and service’, and ‘Funding’. However, Academia.edu has certain features that ORCID does not (non-refereed publications and media interviews), which for me at least necessitates having profiles on both. Another benefit of ORCID is that you can include your ORCID ID on funding applications, which means assessors can view more detailed information that you might not be able to include in your application due to formatting and space constraints. One thing though that ORCID does lack compared to Academia.edu is the ability to put up a profile photo of yourself. Some might think this is not a bad thing, but I personally think it is a good idea for people to put a face to a name.
I was introduced to the benefits of LinkedIn at a training course I attended in 2013 when I was at King’s College London as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Like many academics I thought at the time that LinkedIn was more for people in the private sector. But the instructor at the training session made quite a persuasive case to create a profile, if for no other reason than for networking. You can view my public profile here (the private profile is only available to my connections). LinkedIn is probably the most useful platform for showcasing your employment history. Although ORCID also allows you to do this, an added feature of LinkedIn is that it provides space to go into more detail about what you actually did in each position you have held. I have found this a very useful reference point when working on job applications. Another feature of LinkedIn that I discovered from attending a networking event was the ability to post written work. This is something that I have really gone with and I have reached a much broader audience than I would have normally. A regular post that I put up is the fortnightly newsletter of my Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand Studies Network (ACNZSN), which has led to interest in opportunities mentioned in the newsletters as well as contributions for future issues. Another benefit of LinkedIn is the ability to list your skills. It also helps facilitate networking, which does sometimes involve some unsolicited approaches, but you can ignore these.
I joined Twitter in 2013 after a friend I made at a conference persuaded me of the benefits of using it. You can view my Twitter profile here. I now manage five Twitter accounts, so have certainly gone with it! However, unlike some people I only use it for work purposes, not personal ones. My main reason for this is that Twitter is a public platform (unless you have very high privacy settings, but then that defeats the purpose of it in my opinion), so anyone can see what you post. Keep in mind that potential employers very often look at applicants’ Twitter feeds before hiring them. The main benefit I have found from Twitter is being able to promote publications and presentations you have given and also publicise forthcoming events. Whenever I give presentations I make sure to include my Twitter handle so people can tag me on Twitter and put up any photos or comments about what they thought of my presentation.
I hope the above might be of some use in thinking about the different ways you can promote yourself in academia. If you have any questions about anything I have said, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I would mention that there are of course other platforms out there which I am sure are really useful as well, but the ones discussed in this piece are the ones that I have used and am most familiar with, and therefore can talk about with confidence from my own experience.
Last week, the blog featured a selection of tips for approaching academic job interviews. This week, it’s time for some advice relevant to a different career stage: supervising your first research student. You’ve got the job, but how do you oversee an honours or higher degree research (HDR) candidate well? Many people simply draw on what they liked or disliked of their own supervisors, or on a few tips exchanged in hallway conversations—or learn by experience. Let’s demystify the experience a bit!
As with the previous entry, I must emphasise that I received these comments just before the COVID-19 pandemic made itself felt in Australian higher education. Right now, even the most experienced supervisors are navigating a very new supervisory environment. So, please keep that in mind. I received comment from the same five generous historians who contributed to last week’s entry—plus I roped in one more! Let’s start with her.
Vera Mackie (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)
The key to a successful honours or HDR thesis is working constantly and consistently over the period of candidature. I always meet with my honours/HDR students once a fortnight (except when one of us is away on fieldwork or conference leave). We can supplement face-to-face meetings with e-mail, telephone or skype when needed. I have no strong feelings about whether to meet in an office, coffee shop or other place. The advantage of meeting in my office is that I have various resources close to hand on my bookshelves.
Once we have established the rhythm of our working relationship, I expect students to provide something in writing before each meeting. In the early days, this might just be notes on what they have been reading, dot points, a draft outline of a chapter or an abstract for an upcoming conference presentation. Once they start writing up, though, they will send me draft sections of chapters. I encourage them to think of these drafts as work-in-progress, as the basis for our discussions. If they submit a draft before our meeting, I try to provide feedback by the time we meet. I edit drafts quite closely for all students, particularly international students. I also expect drafts to be fully referenced right from the start. This is important for me in reading the drafts, so that I can follow up references for better understanding, if necessary. It is also important for the student, so that they are not chasing up stray references in the final hours and days before submitting their thesis.
Early on, I ask students to set out a realistic schedule for their work. In the case of honours students, this is the plan for just under a year’s work. I encourage them to write a schedule which includes having a complete draft about one month before the deadline for submission, so that we can take a month for editing and polishing. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but it is good for them to realise that a thesis is not something that can be written at the last minute – it really needs time for editing, polishing and redrafting. Similarly, I ask my PhD students to draft a schedule which involves having a complete draft at the three-year mark, leaving six months for editing, polishing and redrafting. (PhDs can go for four years, but in many cases scholarships are only for three-and-a-half years, and the timeline is particularly tight for international students.)
I try to work on the basis that the student is the one ‘driving’ the project. They are responsible for sending calendar invitations for meetings. At the end of each meeting, we will agree on a date for the next meeting, and agree on a goal for what is to be done before the next meeting. I try not to end meetings without agreeing on these commitments for the next meeting. Many universities advocate or mandate an agreement between supervisor(s) and student, which sets out the expectations with respect to frequency of meetings and other aspects of the supervisory relationship. Even if not mandated, this is an important conversation to have in early meetings.
At honours level, in particular, one may be supervising something which is not closely related to one’s own research interests. The most important thing for supervision, though, is helping the student to establish a workable regime for completing the thesis and to assist in developing writing skills (not only micro-level issues of grammar and style, but also macro-level issues of structuring a long piece of writing). It is a leap from undergraduate essays to an honours thesis, and an even greater leap from honours to a PhD thesis. This also involves encouraging the student to find their own ‘voice’ in writing.
The role of the supervisor is to provide advice and guidance on academic matters. When students are having other issues, it is good to encourage them to consult with student support advisors or counsellors, but it is ultimately the student’s decision to consult with these advisors. In some cases, it may be good to suggest students consult with learning support advisors. It is also good to keep in close contact with the honours co-ordinator or postgraduate co-ordinator. (The titles of these positions will vary from university to university.)
The supervisor-supervisee relationship is a professional relationship and not a friendship. While many supervisors and their former supervisees do go on to become friends and colleagues after the thesis, for the term of the student’s candidacy, this should be treated as a professional working relationship.
Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)
Supervision of honours or HDR students is quite different: honours is more like a sprint, HDR more like a marathon. But the supervision has some fundamentals in common.
Supervision is about a relationship. The power dynamics are skewed, but both parties have clear responsibilities. Talking about expectations up front is a very good idea. Even consider drawing up a ‘supervision contract’ that you discuss at the beginning of the supervision. It should include the responsibilities and expectations of each party. This can help keep expectations reasonable, e.g.: how regularly you meet, timeframes of the return work, how well developed you expect drafts to be, etc. If things start to go awry, or the student starts to expect more than you can deliver, you can then refer back to what had been agreed upon. The psychological dynamics in HDR supervision can be tricky; be aware that they will be there for both parties and that sometimes they might make the relationship difficult and unproductive. Most universities now expect ECRs to co-supervise a PhD to completion before they are allowed to be a primary supervisor. Make the most of this mentoring opportunity and discuss progress etc. with the more experienced staff member. A lot of research has been done on the supervisory relationship – take some time to read it and learn what works and what doesn’t.
A good supervisor offers both intellectual guidance and engagement, and usually some emotional support, but is clear about their boundaries. You are not their counsellor, or their mother/father, or friend. But it is important to know if a student is struggling emotionally or has significant life issues as it will affect their work and you might be able to direct them to appropriate help. The hardest part of a PhD is the emotional journey and students need to have good support networks in place to help them through it.
Encourage students to talk with other colleagues who might have specific expertise that is useful. Make use of the co-supervisor. Deep knowledge of the field is not necessary, but some knowledge helps. And supervisors might have to do some reading to make sure they have some grasp of the key debates or theoretical frameworks that the student is exploring.
Regular meetings, especially in the early stages, are very important. Make sure to set the time of the next meeting and what is to be done in between, before concluding a supervision meeting. I always meet in my office and ask students to email me a summary of the key points we discussed at a meeting, the next steps and the next meeting date. This way we are both clear about what has been agreed upon.
When students are commencing, I usually ask them to write a few thousand words summarising the key literature or debates in the area. This makes them engage with the historiography early on. Honours students need to start their primary research (whether Trove or interviews or archive based) early, but not so early that they don’t know what they are looking for or what questions to ask. Starting to write early and often is important. As the student progresses, set clear writing deadlines with them. There is a lot of pressure on students and staff for ‘timely completions’. If progress is unacceptably slow, there are often mechanisms such as progress panels where this can be addressed, and the onus is not just on the supervisor to make this call.
Don’t be hesitant about asking for help if you are worried about a supervision. Hopefully you will have more experienced colleagues who can offer advice. It’s better to swallow your pride and seek guidance, than allow a student who is not progressing well to flounder.
Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)
Try to get experience as a second supervisor alongside a more experienced primary supervisor if at all possible. At first, meet in your office rather than a more informal or public location. Set out expectations from the beginning – most universities have a first meeting document that you can use. Ensure regular meetings occur, especially during the early stages of the candidature, and monitor your student’s progress.
How much should you know about the student’s topic? It depends, especially whether you are the primary or secondary supervisor. You will need to make your own judgement of how great an ability the student has to work independently. Be careful not to do too much – you shouldn’t be doing research for a student. Ensure that they respond to your written feedback, and be clear about their strengths and weaknesses.
Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)
Supervisions – whether of Honours or Higher Degree Research students – are potentially intense and personal exercises. You do need to have good social skills to do it well; it’s not just about being ‘academic’ in a narrow sense. You need to be able to reassure, when reassurance is needed, but also to push someone along a little when they’re not meeting deadlines and falling behind. I usually supervise in my office, but on occasion, if things are going well with the candidature, we might sometimes meet over a coffee somewhere. But be sensitive to the possibility that there will sometimes be confidential or difficult matters that should only be dealt with in your office.
If the student is working in a way that’s not using your time effectively – for instance, you’re getting a barely revised draft a week after the last supervision – you need to say so. This kind of interaction can be hard because we’ll always be ignorant of many of the things going on in a student’s life, but it also has to be faced when things are not going well. Honours students, in particular, cannot afford to repeatedly go missing, or to wander off on a four-week research journey that goes nowhere. So it’s important to meet regularly, keep monitoring progress and intervene when necessary. In the end, it’s their project, not yours, but you do have a duty to warn on occasion, as well as support and share expertise. And keep an eye on whether they have all the support they need. Are there resources in the wider university that might help them? For research students, is their panel well-balanced, offering a range of perspectives and expertise?
At the beginning, agree to some ground-rules. How often will you meet? What do you expect of the student in the early period? A regular report? A formal agenda for each meeting? It’s best to make this explicit, and then to stick to it unless you mutually agree to change it for some reason. Probably not very long after a student starts their research, they’ll have more expertise on the topic than you. Don’t be intimidated. You have both knowledge and skills that your student won’t have, and these are often more valuable than lots of specialist expertise on the topic. The reality for most of us in Australian public universities is that we will have to supervise topics that are at right angles to our expertise. Of course, you will sometimes need to say: ‘I don’t think I have sufficient expertise to supervise this thesis’. But you also need show a reasonable flexibility because there are usually many more students than staff, and the topics being pursued will range widely.
Supervision can be incredibly rewarding, so it’s worth investing the time and effort in improving one’s performance. It’s also among the most difficult things we do as history academics. I’m always conscious of learning on the job.
Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)
Most Universities now mandate co-supervision so with any luck you will start out by co-supervising a student alongside a colleague with a reputation for excellent supervision. A good supervisor is one who gives the student room to develop the project and make it their own, while the student knows that the supervisor has their back and can be relied upon to provide good advice and feedback. It is important to have a discussion at the outset about expectations, and develop a mutually satisfying way of working together. This includes setting limits around the reading of draft work, and establishing who has responsibility for initiating the paperwork associated with the program, as well as scheduling meetings.
Regular meetings are a must. Some people have a set day and time at regular intervals; others set the schedule according to the timeline for submission of written work. It is best to insist that prospective students have adequate preparation for the degree and time taken to establish this at the outset is generally well spent. It should become apparent within the first 12 months of a full-time PhD candidature whether the student is up to the task; if not, it is better to move to either downgrade to a lower degree or terminate the candidature than allow the process to drag on for potentially another three years or more with heartache on both sides and an uncertain outcome; how this is done will depend on institutional rules and processes. While early changes are possible, the topic should be well established by the end of the first (full-time equivalent) year and major changes after that point are likely to interfere with timely completion. At least one of the supervisors should have some broad expertise in the topic but even non-expert supervisors can provide useful input in the form of critical review of written work, suggestions for methods and approaches transferable from other areas, and general research mentoring.
Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Professor Laureate, University of Melbourne)
(André’s note: I am not impartial here. The first person I thought to ask when seeking input for this entry was Stuart. He was my PhD lead supervisor and the experience was, in a word, excellent.)
A good supervisor is supportive, encouraging, provides timely advice, is realistic, encourages the candidate to fulfil their potential. I don’t think it is necessary to have direct expertise on the topic; indeed, too close a knowledge can smother the candidate and restrict the rewards of discovery as well as the opportunity to come to their own understanding of the topic.
At the outset, I think it is important to ask the candidate how it is they decided to embark on the thesis, and how it fits within their career intentions. An honours student might well have no intention of pursuing postgraduate research; a postgraduate might not be wanting to pursue an academic career. But if they articulate their expectations, then it is possible to get them to see the thesis as more than an exercise in research and writing, and to think about the possibilities for acquiring ancillary skills, dissemination, and collegial life. That’s also the time when the supervisor should make clear their own knowledge and interest.
My own practice is to conduct supervisions over coffee in a quiet corner of the staff club, but I’m conscious there might be occasions when greater privacy is needed. A first step is to set the frequency of meetings, and keep to it, while emphasising that email and other opportunities should be used to maintain contact.
Both supervisor and candidate need to be clear about their mutual expectations; that is where questions of excess on both sides can be resolved. And the same holds for habits and style. Some candidates submit rough drafts; that is fine but I think it important to emphasise you want to see finished prose and finished references as soon as possible. Quick feedback is paramount.
The supervisor is familiar with the tasks of planning and execution. The candidate has probably never before attempted to write a thesis of this length and will benefit from advice on practical aspects such as bibliography, the search for sources, note-taking and the logistics of the exercise.
It is critical to win the candidate’s confidence. My most difficult supervisions have arisen where the candidate comes with predetermined conclusions and resists consideration of alternatives. All too soon you find a resistance to consider the alternatives and an excessively polemical treatment of the literature that does not accord with the candidate’s predilections; indeed, you find yourself seen as an obstacle to the thesis the candidate is determined to write.
A supervisor plays the role of the experienced researcher looking over the shoulders of the candidate as they enter into the process of intellectual discovery. The candidate will almost invariably acquire a detailed knowledge of the topic that surpasses that of the supervisor – that is one of the rewards of supervising research. The supervisor will contribute guidance on the practical skills of writing a thesis, time management, facilitating the research (field trips, advice on seminars and conferences, advice on professional development, etc.). Most of all, it is a partnership that sustains the discipline.
It’s well past time to kick the AHA ECR blog back into life. Back in February and March, I collected advice from historians in Australia on two topics for early career researchers: how to approach academic job interviews, and tips for your first honours/research higher degree supervision. The COVID-19 crisis rapidly overwhelmed all other business, and some of this discussion felt a bit on the nose to publish. Perhaps it still does. But sooner or later (very later?), this will regain relevance. So, let’s do job interviews first. I post this as a reference for the future, as few jobs are being advertised right now. Please note that all of the content below was written before Covid-19 seriously affected our universities and the academic job market.
Most people find job interviews pretty intimidating. It’s hard enough just to get on the shortlist, especially when history positions at Australian universities get so many applications. And once you’ve made it that far, what do you do? This entry is especially for those of you who are preparing for your first interview, and for people who feel like they’ve not performed well in interviews so far. There is no magic trick to make a selection panel fall in love with you—as will be clear from some of the respondents differing with each other on a few points—and there will often be preferences and institutional politics you cannot possibly know. But with any luck the comments in this entry will help you build confidence.
Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne)
Much depends on the composition of the selection committee, though the applicant can hardly be expected to know that in advance. It is likely to include academics with a direct interest in the field advertised, but also others who might well be looking for greater versatility.
It is common for selection committees to prepare and allocate generic questions on teaching experience and approach, research record and intentions, etc. These questions are likely to be formulated using the selection criteria; but it means the person asking the question is not necessarily the person with the greatest interest and understanding of that aspect of the duties. Accordingly, responses are best directed to the committee at large, as opposed to concentrating on the questioner. It is always helpful to elicit follow-up questions, these helping to go beyond the generic nature of the interview. I think track record (and indications of the trajectory of the applicant’s career) take precedence over ‘fit’ – but it is helpful to spend some time looking at the school and program’s curriculum, research interests, etc. and to light upon distinctive features. That way you can show you have given thought to fit. I think video interviews make it harder to establish rapport, though a good chair should assist.
I think it is helpful to prepare notes in advance, formulating the salient aspects you want to emphasise; though using these notes can make for a somewhat wooden self-presentation. The key phrases will stick in your memory. Similarly with questions: formulate them but don’t force them on the interview and be prepared to take up any signals during the interview.
I’m most impressed when a candidate engages my attention. (Along with other members of the committee, a day of interviews can become wearisome, and it is sometimes hard to maintain concentration.) Without overselling yourself, try to communicate why you think this particular appointment attracts you and why you think you would make a good colleague.
Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)
Panels for academic teaching and research positions will often ask for an example of a unit you would like to develop and teach, so it can be worth fleshing out some possibilities that would work in the context of the institution you are hoping to work for. Panels will also want to hear you convey the excitement of your research, and may also want to know how you go about combining the demands of teaching and research. You would definitely want to be able to explain why the position is attractive to you and how the role fits with your career plan – the panel will be looking for a candidate who genuinely wants this particular job, and not just any vaguely relevant post. Astute panels will also be looking to hire people who are not only excellent researchers and/or teachers, but also great colleagues, so they may ask how you have managed disagreements, and how you go about working in a collaborative environment. It’s useful to be able to provide particular examples (without naming names!). Every selection panel I have been on has asked candidates whether they have any questions and I think it is a good idea to have some of these prepared, if there are indeed things you might reasonably want to ask of the panel. The panel’s answers can help you decide whether you really want the position, and your questions can help to reinforce the impression that you have taken the time to really imagine yourself in the position, as an ongoing commitment rather than a remote prospect. Do also come with a clear idea about when you would like to start.
Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)
Expect a question about why you want the job and what you have to contribute – try and make it clear why your track record and research fits with the institution. If it’s a teaching and research position, you will get questions which cover both areas. Consider how you’d answer a question about your most difficult teaching experience, or what some of your main teaching challenges have been and how you addressed them. What are your research plans and your research trajectory: where would you like to be, research wise, in five years? Take the opportunity to sell the importance of your research and why it matters. Universities like to hear about research impact so think about that, although as an ECR no-one will be expecting your research to have had major impact yet.
If you possibly can, ask your peers and/or supervisor and/or experienced staff member, to give you a mock interview. Take this seriously and use it as an opportunity to practice how you respond to questions. Ask for critical feedback. If you are going to be interviewed via a video link or phone, practice that mode. In both face to face and video interviews, be conscious of your body language and what you are conveying. Watch this TED talk for some really interesting ideas about ‘power poses’ to help get your energy flowing ahead of the interview.
Do your research. Know what the job will be, what you might be teaching, where the synergies are with other staff members, what the university demographic is (and if you can’t find that out easily, ask it in the interview). Make sure you’ve looked up who the panel members are and, in a face to face interview, make sure you look at them all and don’t focus too much on one person. One of the key challenges of remote interviews is that it’s harder to ‘read’ the room. Don’t make the mistake of talking too much. If you have a half an hour time slot, practice within that time and don’t spend too long answering a question when you know that the committee will have other things they want to ask you. For a remote interview, dress as you would if it were face to face – it helps get you in the mode.
Always have at least one question prepared that you want to ask – it shows you’ve thought about the position and are genuinely interested. Don’t ask about workloads unless it’s a question about the teaching/research workload balance.
The most impressive interviews are the ones where the candidate is well prepared and conveys energy and enthusiasm for the position.
Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)
I wouldn’t claim to be a very accomplished interviewee, but I think I’ve generally done best when I’ve had time to prepare thoroughly, and when I feel that I’m a pretty good fit for the job and the department. I also suspect I tend to do a little better when I rate my chances poorly, as I relax more and find it easier to articulate my case.
I’m more often on the other side of the table these days, and I’d say there’s nothing more important than being able to explain why you want the position. It will often be the first question you’re asked and, if you can’t answer it, it will likely create a poor impression. It’s the equivalent of an introduction to an article, or perhaps an abstract: if you can’t manage it, that usually means you’re not really sure of what the research you’ve done is really about.
There’s no harm in trying to anticipate the questions in your preparation, and in having a practice session with a friend or family member using those questions. Remote interviews will have their own challenges, such as the technology and the general difficulty of reading the room. If that’s what you face, it would be best to practice that way. I was part of a panel a while back interviewing an overseas candidate remotely and I was surprised when he asked for time to consider each of his answers – I suppose he sat silently, taking notes, for 30 seconds or more after each question before answering. It seems to have worked because we gave him the job!
I’d also do whatever you can to uncover local knowledge. If you seem to know nothing of the institution, including what the staff – possibly your future colleagues – are researching, an interview panel might read a career of future disengagement into it. For similar reasons, make sure you know what courses are being offered in the department, so that you can make a case about where your expertise might fit in – and also, again, so that you look interested. We all like to have people show interest in what we do, and members of job panels are no exception. Remember, you’re being interviewed for a position that, if it’s continuing, could be for a long time for all concerned, and those interviewing you will want to be assured that you’ll be a good colleague. Yes, they want to hear about your research, and your teaching plans, but they’ll also be looking for signs of flexibility and proportion. Your research is important but it’s not the only game in town!
Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)
As a committee member I have frequently found that my view of who is strongest on the shortlist based on the CV does not turn out to be the preferred candidate after an interview. Do your home work on the organisation – check their website, then take any opportunity to have a discussion with the contact person. This gives you a closer idea of what sort of person they are really looking for; this is not always self-evident from adverts.
During the interview, ensure you make regular eye contact. Don’t rush your answers or speak too quickly – appear thoughtful in the way you respond. Try to be the most positive, enthusiastic person in the room but don’t overdo that. While addressing questions to a reasonable degree, ensure you slip in points that you really want to make – treat it a bit like a media interview. Be honest about something you don’t know the answer to rather than stumble or struggle.
Make sure you know who’s on the committee and what their interests or perspective are likely to be. Expect the normal opening question: why are you interested in the position, what would you bring to it, what do you know about us. Do ask your own questions at the end – not too many – and take this as a further opportunity to reiterate your enthusiasm and to demonstrate your knowledge of the place.
Last: let your referees know you are being interviewed in case you are asked if it is okay to approach them.
Today, Tamara Cooper reflects on an important topic: chronic illness and disability in academia. Positive talk about accommodating chronic illnesses and disabilities often runs well ahead of tangible actions—your ECR rep, André Brett, is legally blind and knows this all too well. Tamara draws on her experience of endometriosis to give suggestions to those postgraduate and early career historians who live with chronic illness or disability and work within a system that is not always sympathetic.
When I submitted my PhD thesis in March this year I found myself both mentally and physically fatigued. While some of this fatigue could be put down to the insanity of my rush to the finish line, on reflection a fair chunk of it was caused by endometriosis. Throughout my PhD candidature I was under the impression that my endometriosis had no tangible effect on my ability to write and research; it was only in the last six months or so of my candidature that I realised this was not the case.
For those who don’t know, endometriosis is a chronic, incurable disease that affects approximately one in ten women of reproductive age, though some suggest that this figure is well underestimated. The disease occurs when cells similar to the lining of the uterus grow outside of the uterus and on the surrounding organs and tissue. The main symptoms of endometriosis are severe cramps during menstruation and prolonged and heavy menstrual cycles. Unlike many diseases, the severity of the symptoms does not necessarily reflect the severity of the disease. It has on average a seven to ten-year delay in diagnosis from the onset of symptoms and the only way to diagnose it with any certainty is through surgery. For myself, I started showing symptoms at the age of twelve, but I was not diagnosed until I was twenty-three years old. This diagnosis and excision surgery was six months before I commenced my PhD studies.
This was not the end of my journey with the disease as anyone living with a chronic illness will tell you. The next step is figuring out how to live with the illness. Chronic illness does have an effect on the way you live your life, but it does not need to dominate it. Below I wanted to share with you some of the things that helped me to live with this illness while completing my thesis. It is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies but rather a start to the conversation of how to accommodate research and chronic illness.
Know your symptoms: While this seems straightforward, many chronic illnesses have wide and varied symptoms that manifest differently in different bodies. You need to take your time to learn how the illness is affecting you. For instance, it took me three and a half years of my four and a half year long dissertation to learn that fatigue is a major symptom of my illness and that I need to watch for and manage the signs of fatigue before it wipes me out.
Quality versus Quantity: On bad days I discovered I could achieve more in a focused three hours than in an unfocused six hours. So I would sometimes work intensively for a few hours without a break and then take the rest of the day off, instead of forcing myself to stay the computer all day. I also realised that on the really bad days that is was better to just take the day off to recover than try to push through and come up with material that I would only need to re-write later (after I had delayed my recovery).
Alternative Therapies: While pharmaceuticals are fantastic (you will never find me skipping a vaccine!) they are sometimes not enough to manage symptoms; when this happens, it is good to look at the alternative therapies that are available. I’ve found that regular remedial massages, as well as exercises like yoga and pilates, help me deal with the aches and pains of endometriosis. I know ladies who swear by acupuncture and Chinese medicine and others who use naturopathic remedies to compliment their medications. With chronic illness there is no one therapy to suit everyone, so try everything!
Diet: While it seems obvious, food can be central to managing chronic illness. One of the best things I did to help manage the symptoms of endometriosis was to pack myself off to see a dietician who put me on a Low FODMAP. This diet (when I follow it) has helped to drastically reduce symptoms like bloating and inflammation.
The culture of busyness: This is perhaps the hardest part of any chronic illness, juggling your medical needs with society’s constant pressure to always be busy. In academia, this is further exacerbated by increasing rates of casualisation and employment precarity. The simplest answer to this is to simply refuse the culture of busyness, schedule in time off, even days off. However, if you are casually employed this is not easy or even possible sometimes. But I still think it’s important to push back against this idea of constantly being busy even if it’s only small. Give yourself time to just be. This might mean taking a daily indulgent bath or perhaps making reading for leisure a priority. It might also mean taking some time to simply sit and let yourself breathe; whatever it means to you, own it and don’t let society make you feel ashamed for it.
As I said before this is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies – it is geared towards my own experience with endometriosis – but rather a conversation starter. Many people within academia live with chronic illness and many find it hard to juggle the demands of research against the demands of illness. I think the most important lesson that my thesis and my illness taught me is that I don’t need permission to be sick and that even though my illness may not be visible it is by no means less intrusive. At the same time, it does not need to define my life. To all my colleagues with chronic illness, we got this!
Submissions for this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, hosted in Toowoomba by the University of Southern Queensland, are due
this Thursday, 28 February 2019 (new date: Tuesday 12 March 2019). For many postgraduates and early career researchers, presenting a paper can be a daunting experience. The good news: it need not be! In this entry, Lyndon Megarrity offers his tips for how to present effectively.
Does the thought of 400–500 historians creating a cacophony of noise in a conference venue fill you with anxiety and dread? Does the idea of getting up and presenting a paper seem like a fate worse than death? These are natural feelings: most of us suffer from nerves and anxiety as we try to make a good public impression. However, good preparation and a thoughtful, positive attitude can help conference-goers transcend all those internal fears and doubts when they get up to deliver a paper.
Thoughts and Advice on Giving a Paper
- You can’t do everything in 20 minutes. In preparing your speech, either try to write a broad overview, or tell a story which sheds light on a wider theme.
- Stick to time. Generally speaking, AHA conferences give you 20 minutes for the formal presentation and 10 minutes question time. It is unfair on your fellow presenters and the audience to go overtime. Time yourself beforehand so that you know that you are under the time limit, thus avoiding a) having your presentation cut off abruptly by the chairperson before your conclusion; b) having limited time for questions if the chair lets you go overtime; or c) having people look at their watches and disengage.
- Include visuals (e.g. PowerPoint Slides). We live in a visual age, and sometimes a visual element to a presentation helps us to engage with a speaker and sit up and take notice. You may believe that you can get by on the strength of your powerful and expressive voice alone, but remember that there may be many people in the audience who are not immediately enthralled by your topic: you need to get them to pay attention and engage, and well-thought out visuals can do this.
- Vary your tone, and remember that while your topic may be old to you, it is new to others. Too many presentations are spoiled by the speaker speaking in a monotone and not making the most of that powerful instrument, the voice. In some ways, the conference presenter must be an actor, highlighting the most interesting parts of the story or theme so that the full significance of your research becomes clear to the audience.
- Remember your audience. You need to think how you would like to be addressed as an audience member hearing your speech. In writing your paper, try to avoid jargon and terms which might be unfamiliar to those outside your field. Further, a relaxed but engaged tone, and a willingness to gaze at different sections of the room at various times, will help you win the audience.
- Prepare but do not over-prepare. Ideally, you need to be familiar with the contents of your paper so that you can retain a reasonable amount of eye contact with the audience so that you are not just ‘reading’ the paper with your head down. Practise the paper several times but not so much that it seems stale (if it seems stale to you, it will sound stale to others). It is a good idea to rehearse the night before, but it is equally a good idea to give the paper a rest on the day of the presentation so when the times comes, you will approach it with some degree of freshness.
- Accept that mistakes happen to the best of us. You may mispronounce the surname of a famous historian, nerves might make you trip over a phrase, the PowerPoint slides may be placed in the wrong order, a question from the audience might stump you … these things happen. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Usually, it is best to try and move on with the presentation rather than drawing further attention to the ‘faux-pas’. Make a mental note for next time if it is something you can fix at the next conference with more preparation.
- Question time comes to us all. Question time is difficult and sometimes awkward, because you are being impromptu, without the help of a text. Your personal knowledge and background re: the topic and its context should help guide you through most questions. Give yourself some breathing space before answering a tough question. Be prepared to ask someone to repeat a question if you do not fully understand it. Be prepared (very occasionally) to admit that you can’t fully answer a question and perhaps throw the question to a relevant expert in the room. In addition, be on the lookout for the notorious ‘look at me’ questioner who is essentially advertising their own position on the topic rather than genuinely seeking information. In such situations, all you can do is be as graceful as possible and do your best to make the questioner feel that their contribution has been acknowledged.
- Reflect on the presentation. You’ve got through it! Well done! Think about the positives and how you can enhance them in future. Think about what was not so effective and how you might improve it for next time.
All information about this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, including how to submit a paper proposal, can be found on the conference website. There are a number of bursaries and prizes available, too.
In our first blog post of the year, Dr Imogen Wegman provides a guide to tour guiding. Imogen, who recently completed her PhD in History at the University of Tasmania, talks about the joys and frustrations of leading tour groups, explains how it can improve your skills as a scholar and communicator, and shares some selections from her collection of memorable moments.
An older man stands in front of the cells in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, admiring the ruins of the stone walls and floors. He turns to his family, clearly proud about deducing the purpose of these small rooms. He declares them to be shower cubicles. As a tour guide, there are times to feign deafness, but some things cannot be ignored. I step forward, “Uh, sir, these were the cells, where the prisoners were kept, where they slept. Not showers.” He insists, pointing at the little stone shelf built into the wall, “Showers! For the soap!” His companions look on, uncertain who to believe. I try once more, this time showing him the illustrated information board. “See?” No. I would not be winning that battle. Another guest calls for my attention, and with some relief I move away.
For the past six summers I have worked as a tour guide in Hobart, taking guests from the cruise ships that visit our harbour out to experience some of southern Tasmania’s heritage, culture and food. This was a welcome break as I researched and wrote my thesis. But it was more than a change of scene. I started tour guiding and my PhD in the same summer, and I quickly found it to be an extension of my academic work. With limited opportunities for teaching within the university, guiding is an effective place to practise communicating complicated concepts to the most general of audiences.
There are lots of different types of tour guiding – site-based, themed, multi-stop, posh, regular… I usually work on tours booked onboard, chosen by guests for the stops on the route. The compulsory part of my job is to get them all back to the ship on time and in one piece. I work alongside a coach driver (although a lot of companies use driver-guides), and any talking I do en route is up to me.
Like giving a conference paper, multiplied by fifty
Being a tour guide is not for everyone. You become a performer for a captive, but not always captivated, audience and it can be a confronting exercise. At any given moment, only half of your audience will actually be listening to you. They have come on this tour to see Australian animals or taste Tasmanian wines, not to get a history lesson. Your audience will probably have some retired academics, but it will also have young couples, eastern European oligarchs, American ranch owners, Indigenous peoples, children, and a shaky granddad sent on tour by a family who want someone else to look after him.
*murblemutter from the back of the coach*
Me: “Can everyone at the back hear me?”
Them shouting: “No!”
*Twiddles mic volume* “How about now?”
Them: “No! It’s not you mate, there’s a bloody rude woman on her phone and we can’t hear over her!”
The questions they ask won’t be theory-laden trip hazards, but they will reveal prejudices you need to decide how to address. In Tasmania I am regularly asked if this island ever had an Indigenous population. This is despite spending the first twenty minutes of the tour talking about the history of the island before 1788. Holiday brain is real, and it makes people forget everything.
You’ll need a thick skin – the grumpy uncle who thinks doing a PhD is a waste of time also goes on holiday, and doesn’t keep his views for the family table. My usual response to rudeness is to mentally catalogue that person and their behaviour as fodder for future dinner party stories, while tossing my head with an insincere laugh and walking away. I have an entire digital folder of amusing moments. Guests will also insist that they are right, which will equip you for dealing with those inevitable statement-questions at conferences.
How to get into it
My mother has been guiding for the cruise ships for years, and as the new season approached in 2013 she mentioned to her bosses that I could ‘talk under wet cement’. I accompanied a couple of tours to see how it worked, and then I was in. In my experience this is how a lot of the touring industry works – I have been offered tour guide positions based on an official application process, but have also seen a lot of emails from the bosses asking for new names to add to their lists.
Not everyone has a contact on the inside, but if you think you might like to get into tour guiding, start by looking on TripAdvisor for reviews of tour companies in your area, watching for clues about the guides they hire – reviewers often mention that their guide is studying if they think it affected the quality. Go on some tours and talk to the guides – they might tell you who to contact, and you’ll get a feel for how the companies operate.
Do I need tour guide training?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In Tasmania there are no requirements of certification, but that might vary around Australia. Even if nothing is required, it is good practice to think critically about every tour you have ever been on – what did you enjoy about the guide’s performance, what not? If I have an experienced driver I’ll often ask for their feedback at the end of the day. Often companies are looking for employees with some kind of heavy vehicle license, so they can talk and drive at the same time, but walking tours around our cities are getting more popular, and site-specific tours don’t usually require any driving.
A couple have an album of their visit to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary from a few years earlier. They are determined to recreate some of the photos.
Her: Where can I hold a koala bear?
Me: Oh, holding them stresses them out, but you can go and have a photo next to one.
Him: But we held one last time, here’s the photo. Is that somewhere else?
Me: No, that’s here, but the person holding it is an employee, and she’s holding a wombat, not a koala.
Her: So you know her? Why can she hold a koala bear?
Me: Well, it’s a wombat…
Her: No, it isn’t.
Me: Yes, it is. They’re from the same family, so they do look a little similar…
Her: But how can I hold a koala bear like she is?
Me: *exit left, with haste*
So, what do I talk about?
Some companies give their guides scripts to learn and recite, but the best companies will encourage you to do some research and find new stories to tell. I have the advantage of researching Tasmanian history, so there has been a direct conversion from my thesis into a commentary. Not everyone researches local history that can feed directly into their guiding however, but we are not bound by our research topics. As trained researchers, we have the skills to filter good research from bad, fact from fiction, and I would argue that this is what makes us valuable guides.
I focus on a narrative that runs from 40,000 years ago to the late-nineteenth century. As we drive this is broken up by discussion about local landmarks and smaller stories – non-Australians love hearing about the Bunnings Onion-Sausage debacle if we go past a prominent hardware store. I try to end each of my history bits at a key point, and then pick it back up later when there’s another stretch of road. I don’t usually tell them explicitly about my PhD unless it comes up in conversation, although I will sometimes mention that I’m a historian.
Listen to how your guests respond. The questions they ask reveal a lot. Some questions will tell you they just weren’t listening, but don’t take that personally. There are usually some engaged guests who ask for clarification or more information. Ask yourself if that meant you used too much jargon, or didn’t explain a fundamental concept? In my first tours I heard a lot of surprise that convicts would receive land grants, because I hadn’t properly explained that the earliest convicts sent to the colonies were young, fertile, healthy, and chosen to populate and build a new centre of British control. Generally I try to remain neutral, aware that every tour group includes a broad political spectrum. I am unwilling to spark off a fight in a fully-packed coach.
Find a balance between simplification and too much detail. Credit your group with some brains, and remember that often people think history is boring because of the way it’s told, rather than the content. Tell some humorous stories, a bit of mild gore, some adventure, but do what we are trained to do – use it to illustrate a larger point about the convict system, supply shortages, whatever part of the history you are up to. Practise using humour to make a serious point, but be careful and be receptive to the response. If something doesn’t work, try telling it differently next time – you will end up on the same route hundreds of times, use that to refine and hone your skills.
Be aware of what your guest is actually asking. They will ask questions that seem dumb, but consider what might be pushing that question – what basic principle might they not be familiar with? This applies also in academia, where we tend to assume understanding as we work with expert audiences, which can be frustrating for newbies to the field. View your topic as an outsider would. For Americans this might be the role of a governor within Commonwealth countries, for older Australians it might relate to mid-twentieth century school lessons about the ‘extinction’ of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.
A conversation I have at least once every tour
A: I’m looking for Bus 7.
Me: Yep, you’re with me, on this one here.
A: This one?
Me: Yes, this is number 7.
A: You’re sure?
A: Honey, she says this is our bus.
B: Number 7? This one here?
B: This is our bus?
Me: Yes! Number 7!
B: Oh. OK.
This job has been met by some academics with scorn – recently on hearing that I had started a few regular jobs post-PhD, someone commented that I ‘must be able to stop with all that tour guide stuff now.’ But with every tour I am becoming a better communicator of history. I am nowhere near perfect, but I do credit this job with improving my written and oral storytelling skills. So, every time someone tells me they’d learned something new, has an engaged question, or asks for a book recommendation to learn more, I do a little happy dance because what I’m doing might just work.
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 Expressions of Interest. Today we conclude our Dissecting the DECRA series with Carolyn Holbrook’s interview of Professor Mark Edele. He is the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne, and an Australian Research Counil (ARC) Future Fellow. In this interview, Mark provides insights as a member of the ARC College of Experts. He talks about what happens to DECRA applications after submission, and how to handle the rejoinder process. Catch up on part one, with Benjamin T. Jones, here, and part two, with Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen, here. 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!
Mark is a historian of the Soviet Union and its successor states, especially Russia. He trained at the Universities of Erlangen, Tübingen, Moscow, and Chicago, and before taking up the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne he was based at the University of Western Australia. His Future Fellowship studies the history of Soviet war experiences from 1937 to 1950. Among many credits, he is the author of Soviet Veterans of the Second World War (Oxford University Press 2008), Stalinist Society (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Stalin’s Defectors (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Carolyn Holbrook: Tell me about your background, where you grew up, where you studied history and where you have worked prior to Melbourne University.
Mark Edele: I’m from a little town in Southern Bavaria in Germany. I began studying at the University of Erlangen, which is very close to Nuremberg. The one academic in my family warned me that I had made a bad choice and I should choose my university more carefully, according to what professors were there and not where I wanted to live. I disregarded this completely and by mistake, I ended up in a first-year Russian history seminar, and I have basically never left. I went to St Petersburg in 1994 to learn Russian, which was the beginning of a completely unplanned life in Russian history.
In the German system at the time there was sort of a mid-degree exam, which allowed you to go into more advanced courses. I decided that I wasn’t as excited by the people teaching in the advanced courses as I was by the people who taught in the less advanced, undergraduate courses. So I left for the University of Tübingen, which is close to Stuttgart, and had the biggest institute for eastern European history in Germany, where I got my MA. Then I left for the University of Chicago, which at the time had the biggest Soviet history graduate program in the world, outside of the former Soviet Union itself.
In the last year of my PhD (I graduated in 2004) I started looking for a job, as one does. I sent out seventy or eighty job letters to anywhere in the English-speaking world and I got two interviews. One went extremely badly and the other was at the University of Western Australia. That must have gone better because they offered me a job and then I was there for the next thirteen years.
Carolyn: What was that like, growing up in Germany, going to the United States and then moving to Perth?
Mark: It was very nice actually, in many ways. Life is much easier in Perth than it is in Chicago. I remember asking people where the no-go areas in the city were and I was told there was no such thing in Australia and nobody would rob me at gun point. It was, in a certain way, intellectually liberating to go, at the risk of insulting my friends in Western Australia, to the provinces because I came from this hothouse atmosphere at the University of Chicago, where ten people could sit around the table and talk about the same archival file in a provincial archive somewhere in Russia.
I was not only the only Soviet historian in Perth, but I was also in charge of German history, and for a while I was in charge of the French Revolution. I realised that most people didn’t actually know when Stalin died, for example, or what the acronym GARF means, which is the State Archive of the Russian Federation. It made me think about history and Soviet history quite differently because I got to talk to a broader audience. My wife noted that the dinner conversations got more interesting.
Carolyn: Can you tell us about your area of research and about the questions that inspire your research?
Mark: I have moved from cultural history via social history, to some version of political and at times, military history. My earliest work was about poster propaganda in the Second World War; the imagery used to mobilise Soviet soldiers and what it might tell us about the war. I then did an essay, which I think is still my most cited article, on a strange, tiny little group of cultural people in late Stalinist Moscow called the Stiliagi, who thought they were adopting Western fashions. Because their information was very fragmentary, however, they actually made up their own little thing.
I then looked at the role of veterans after the Second World War because some of the earliest pieces of Western fashion were brought from Germany by veterans. I ended up doing a social history of veterans in the decade before there was a veterans’ movement in the Soviet Union. That became part of a larger study of the Soviet Union veterans’ movement which went all the way to 1991 – my first book. My second book then was a broad history of Stalinism, which brought together the new social, cultural, and political histories which emerged since the opening of the Soviet archives.
My ARC-funded research has moved into the Second World War itself. I’ve just published a book about Red Army defectors called Stalin’s Defectors. I’m particularly interested in war-related dislocations of people and I’m planning to write a broader history of the multifaceted experience of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, which goes beyond the state-centred story about the victory over fascism. In between, I have written a short history of the Soviet Union, which will be published later this year. Currently, I am working on a historiographical book on the history of Stalinism. It is trying to tell a transnational history of my field.
Carolyn: Moving onto the DECRA, can you tell us what happens to a DECRA application once it is submitted to the ARC?
Mark: I am not privy to all of the processes but I can tell you how it looks from the perspective of a member of the College of Experts. Each application has two people from the College assigned to it; one is in overall charge and the other one is in an assistant position.
Carolyn: How is that worked out? Who gets what?
Mark: I don’t know. The ARC does that. What needs to be very clear to applicants is that unless you’re very, very lucky, you will not have an expert, in the narrow sense of the word, as the college member in charge of your application. If you’re a historian, you might have an archaeologist, or you might have somebody who is a medievalist, though you do modern history. You should really try to craft your application so that an intelligent non-specialist can read it. One of the most basic mistakes you can make is to imagine that you’ll have your PhD supervisor reading your application.
The first thing that happens is that the person who is in charge of your application, the ‘carriage one’ person, will assign readers. The assessors whose reports you will read are assigned by the College of Expert member, with the help of a computer program, which gives suggested readers.
A very basic mistake one can make is to either put in too many or irrelevant FoR codes. If you’re doing a history project, which also uses anthropological methods, don’t put both FoR codes; just put a history FoR code because you’re more likely to get a historian assigned. And make sure that the title and short description, together, have all the key words that are most likely to bring up the right assessors. These are also the most likely sections of the application College members will go back to when trying to match assessors to proposals. They are often undervalued parts of the proposal. It is worth spending time and thought on them.
Carolyn: So, the application then gets sent out using those keywords to the assessors?
Mark: The assessors are assigned by the carriage one, then the assessors read the application and write reports. Next, the college members rank the proposals. This is a competitive process. As a teacher, if you have two students who are absolutely brilliant, you can give them both 90 per cent. You cannot do that as an ARC college member; you need to rank your applications. So it’s really a competitive process in the hard sense of the term. Your application can be absolutely brilliant, but if there are twenty people who are even more brilliant, you will be in position twenty-one in the rankings.
There’s this idea out there, which I used to share, that the ARC assessment process is a lottery. I no longer think that is actually true. It might look like a lottery from the outside, because you cannot predict the outcome. But the processes are very robust, so the reason you might be in the top ten per cent one year and then the next year, after you’ve improved the application, fall down the rankings, is because the competition was harder that year.
Carolyn: Does a great project stand out? Can you distill some of the characteristics of those projects?
Mark: Great projects do stand out, but my overall impression is how high the quality is, in particular with the DECRAs. The competition is really, really very strong. My most basic piece of advice is that, if you don’t have the track record, it might not be worth your while spending two months writing a good application, because the competition is such that even if this is a fantastic project, if you have two articles to your name, you’re not going to be competitive. It might be better to make sure that your book comes out, or maybe the second book comes out, in some cases, because the competition is really very, very fierce.
But I think a good project is one that a non-specialist can see the point of. You need to think about why the ARC should spend a lot of money on your project. You need to convince the College members that this is outstanding work that will change something in the field, or sometimes even in the real world. It can’t just be research as usual.
Carolyn: The ARC seems to be putting increasing emphasis on projects that address problems in the real world. And also, the sense of urgency: why does this project need to be done now? That is quite hard for history projects isn’t it?
Mark: I think there’s a danger in trying to make up things because everybody who’s on the College has written applications themselves, have gotten some funded and others not, and have made crazy claims. So mostly, you know a crazy claim when you see it.
The methodology is often a problem too, because historians basically say, ‘Well, I read, I think, I write. That’s my method’. And then there is the danger that one over-stresses methodological innovation, but then the experts see that immediately, and say, ‘Well, actually, that’s just normal’.
Carolyn: But do you think there’s a need to be explicit about what the method is and link the methodology to the research questions?
Mark: Yes, you need to be able to describe what you will actually do to get from the question to the answer. That is quite important. But there are only so many methodological innovations one can make, and more history projects are funded than actually do methodological innovation.
Carolyn: One thing I think that DECRA applicants have trouble with is making the transition from general article writing, and perhaps book writing, to grant writing. How discursive do you think we need to be as opposed to being concise, and getting to the point? What weight do you put on a narrative as opposed to just stating the arguments?
Mark: I think stating the arguments is much more important. Also, in terms of titles, a grant title is not the same as a book title, or a journal title. It can be, and actually probably should be, much more descriptive because that will get you the keywords you need, and it will make it understandable for the reader. Remember that College members and some assessors are reading an awful lot of these applications and, of course, they’re all busy people doing other things.
Clarity is crucial, as is saying the most important thing at the beginning, and following the guidelines, and answering the questions the guidelines ask you to answer. Some applicants simply ignore the guidelines, which is not very helpful because we look for certain information in certain places and if you can’t find it because the applicant has done something much more literate and literary, that can waste a lot of time.
Carolyn: Can we talk about the rejoinder process? If someone gets fairly poor assessments, are they doomed? What about if someone gets average assessment? How seriously we should take the rejoinder process and how we should approach it?
Mark: Well, first of all, you actually don’t know what you got because you only get the text, and not the numerical assessment. And the numerical assessment is much more important for where the application lands in the overall rankings. It can go both ways. You can have fairly critical assessments in the text, and then very high scores or quite friendly assessments, and then very damning scores, so you shouldn’t second guess that process too much.
The rejoinder can make a difference, in particular when a criticism is made of the application, and you can say, ‘Assessor B says I’m not doing this’, but, in fact, on page seven of the application I outline that in quite some detail. This is especially important in the band where it’s uncertain whether the projects will be funded or not. There are some projects that will very clearly be funded. There are some projects that clearly have no chance, but there is a band in between. If you can answer critical comments without anger, that can be very important.
Remember that these terrible people who wrote these terrible critiques of your work never read your rejoinder. So, letting off steam doesn’t actually help; you’re not getting at the target who has slighted you. Your rejoinder goes back to the people who are making the final decisions and unfair criticism by assessors is often taken with a grain of salt by College members. The rejoinder needs to be as calm as possible. Try to answer the criticisms by pointing back to where the application is actually dealing with the issue, saying, ‘Well, this criticism is missing the point because this is not actually what I’m proposing to do’.
Carolyn: What emphasis do you think the ARC puts on the so-called ‘research narrative’, the extent to which the proposed project fits with a person’s previous research, and extends it?
Mark: For DECRAs, in particular, there is a sense that you have more chance of getting funded if one can see a clear progression from your earlier research. If you’ve done seventeenth century Britain, and then you propose to work on twentieth century Poland because you happen to also be Polish, there will probably be some questions about that. But neither should it look as if the applicant is just writing the same book again or simply turning the PhD thesis into a book. It should be something new, but if there is a clear sense that it builds on what you’ve done before, that probably helps because it will make it seem to the College members that it’s more likely that this is will succeed than something which is completely in a new field.
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!”.