Today I would like to welcome Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity to the AHA ECR blog. Lyndon and Romain compiled the report You Matter: The Australian Historical Association’s Casualisation Survey, which was released last November. We’ve been meaning to sit down for a chat for a while, and I must confess it has been mainly my fault for the delay, but the upside is that the report could scarcely be more topical right now.
If you want to read the full report, please view it here.
N.B. This interview reflects the opinions and perspectives of Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity regarding casualisation in the history profession, based on questions framed by André Brett. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Historical Association.
Let’s cut directly to the chase. One respondent to the survey, who you quoted in your report, wrote “Our university is currently experiencing broad curriculum changes that are sudden and brutal, taking even the academics by surprise. When such restructuring occurs, casual staff and prospective students hoping to obtain scholarships are the first to be struck off the list as the money dries up” (p.23). Little could they have imagined the situation that the entire higher education sector finds itself in as a result of COVID-19 and the federal government’s refusal to allow public universities to access the JobKeeper scheme. What does this crisis mean for ECRs? How can they be expected to survive?
Romain: ECRs are certainly the most vulnerable in this context. They no longer have a PhD scholarship and a contract to protect them. Given the current restrictions, they can’t travel to conferences to present their work, network and become better known, they have little institutional support and perhaps not many “left over” copies of archival documents from past research trips that would enable them to sit down and write while the storm passes. In the best of times casual academic work is a precarious condition that Covid is making even worse, as universities brace themselves for significant revenue shortfalls that may or may not last. I’m afraid this isn’t a positive story for casuals in academia (or elsewhere) and I believe that like other Australians they should have been part of the JobKeeper program.
In fact, beyond everybody’s good health, I have two concerns with the sector’s response to Covid. First, as a non-native, I am surprised by the attitude of the Australian Government toward the education system: it appears to have a kind of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that is unhelpful. Education is a major resource for any nation, let alone for top-ranking OECD nations who need a highly educated population to further enhance their development. Coal will run out eventually and brains – or their lack thereof – is an asset that will remain. They might as well be strong ones, well-educated, well-informed and, dare I say, independent. Therefore, the argument that a government shouldn’t come to the rescue to one of the nation’s most important resources is beyond my understanding. As a historian, however, I can see that this shift isn’t new and that it is underpinned by a financial approach to education that several governments, left and right, have encouraged in the last four decades. My second concern is that some business-oriented universities may use this crisis to impose strategies that might succeed in attracting more dollars to the coffers momentarily but will significantly downgrade the quality and content of the education received. Tertiary education should be our most prized and valued institution, a public good worth cherishing. Petition your MP, our votes count.
Lyndon: The impact of COVID-19 on the university sector and the ECR employment situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Those are the hard facts of the situation and I wish that I was in a position to offer more hope and guidance. However, at some point, and it may be sooner than we imagine, there will be an improvement in job prospects for ECRs. It is at this very moment that the ECR and the job selection panel will have to meet each other half-way. The ECR must continue publishing and researching during this difficult period, but job selection panels also need to take into account the academic disruptions of COVID-19 when considering the skills and attributes of ECR applicants.
We will return further to the COVID-19 crisis during our chat. Let’s talk a bit about preparing your report. Did any responses to the survey surprise or even shock you?
Lyndon: No. The survey mainly confirmed what I already know, partly through my own personal experiences of casualisation. The relative invisibility of casual academics compared to permanent academics, the lack of status within the profession regardless of years of casual teaching and research, and the precarity of casual work are themes which are familiar to most of us in this position. I was not so much shocked but inspired by the resilience and continued enthusiasm of our survey participants for their chosen field.
Romain: As with Lyndon, sadly the responses neither surprised nor shocked me. I’ve been there myself and the worst part (I felt) was the isolation of not being able to speak your mind. If you criticise things too much (even if things are wrong) then work relationships may suffer and academic opportunities may vanish. So it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place where you can’t complain, which is all the more alienating as you may end up thinking that something is wrong with you. The level of resilience one can observe in the answers provided by participants to the survey is admirable. It is also saddening, because a nation should not treat those among its most educated citizens this way. Beyond the human aspect, from a purely economic point of view it’s not rational to train someone for 20+ years and let an industry casualise them. Some respondents had positive stories, for sure, others heartbreaking, but overall, the survey presented a fairly sombre picture. And that’s disheartening because we deserve better and we can afford to do better for casuals. What shocked me in fact wasn’t the type of responses to the survey but the level of relative indifference (beyond casuals themselves and the AHA) once the report was released.
Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you’d asked?
Lyndon: It was a fairly comprehensive survey, which covered a large range of economic, social and cultural issues surrounding casualisation. If it was being conducted today, the impact of COVID-19 would probably be the focus of some questions relating to employment options. However, what I am pleased with is the extent to which over 150 casual staff expressed their views, shared their experiences, and offered suggestions for improvement.
Romain: The survey’s questions were discussed at exec level and every member made useful suggestions. Of course, retrospectively, you always wish you had asked such and such questions. But we had to be mindful as well: casuals are asked to do so many things for free – subjecting them to a very long survey would have been dishonest, eating up more of their time. Some certainly wrote well over a page of comments. I wish we had asked them about the impact of casualisation within their family and social lives, and if they felt understood by others, non-academics in particular.
Another “in hindsight” question. Writing these reports is always an exercise in selection, so is there a topic or theme you wish you had emphasised more? Are there any points that missed the final cut that you’d like to share? Any great quotes from respondents that you simply could not fit?
Lyndon: One piece of advice from a participant that didn’t make the cut was the notion that one should “Live in a large city with several universities rather than a provincial town with only one university”. This is a legitimate perspective, because those lucky enough to live in capital cities have greater potential to secure contracts at multiple universities. But Australia is a large country, and moving from the regions to the cities is not easy unless you have secured employment first. Furthermore, the students from regional areas who want to learn a range of history subjects, and research regional themes, deserve to have those opportunities. Convincing business-oriented universities of that argument is an important task for the profession in general.
Romain: I believe Lyndon and I tried to provide a digestible synthesis that covered most (if not all) aspects of what respondents had discussed. Of course, we had to present the view of the majority and find a way to present it – just like the work of the historian, this selection can’t be perfect. But we did it with honesty and tried to present divergent views on some matters when they were expressed. You know, presenting the information in a “some said… while others said… but in general terms, the picture is…” kind of narrative format. Providing a broad picture of the casualisation experience was important and the quantitative part of the survey allowed for this to happen. One thing we had to be mindful of was protecting people’s identity – some respondents went into a lot of personal/situational details and it’s a small world. Sharing too personal a story could have, inadvertently, revealed someone’s identity, so we paid attention to that.
There are sometimes tensions between casual historians and their securely employed colleagues, with claims that each does not understand the conditions under which the other group labours. Is this fair? How can we ensure solidarity among historians to build better communities and workplaces for everyone?
Lyndon: I think our report indicates that casual and permanent academics are so far apart in terms of their conditions and status that misunderstandings and tensions are bound to occur sometimes, unfortunately. An egalitarian environment, in which casual, academic and admin staff gather together socially, at least for weekly morning tea, is a step towards building better communities and workplaces. Some of the older hands will “hold court”, of course, but morning tea (perhaps attached to a regular seminar series) can also become a forum where the achievements and work of casual academics are acknowledged formally and informally. A culture in which the teaching and research expertise of casual academics is valued should be fostered.
Romain: Some casuals said they felt truly supported by permanent staff and others, not so much. This is a space which clearly wasn’t black or white and very much depended on peoples’ situations. What is clear, however, is that permanent staff can make things better if they wish to, by making sure that casuals are paid for what they do and treated as well as possible, as well as being included in meetings or being provided with a desk/office.
This report and its recommendations are a positive step in the AHA’s advocacy for its casual members. But what, realistically, can an association like the AHA achieve? Is advocacy enough? How can we gain meaningful action on the recommendations?
Romain: The AHA is an association that doesn’t have coercive powers. It also has an executive with a healthy variety of views. I feel that this fight is far from over and I do encourage casuals and ECRs to run for election, be part of the AHA executive and create change, little by little. Lyndon and I will be putting to the vote a motion at the next AGM to reduce the membership rate of casuals of 15%. We hope that the next Executive will continue to work with historians in casual positions to ensure cheaper access to the conference as well.
A perennial source of complaint from casual and postgraduate members is the cost of conferences and memberships in Australia, a complaint not confined to the AHA. Are these complaints reasonable? Why are costs so high, and can they be reduced?
Lyndon: Membership rates reflect the large range of activities and goals pursued by the AHA, including the journal and support for conferences. Conferences are expensive to run and cater, and the conference dinner costs reflect the desire of the restaurant or caterer to make a profit on a three-course meal for, say, 80-120 delegates. I think we can acknowledge that while these various fees may be reasonable for full-time academics, they are less affordable to casual academics. In terms of conferences, I think it is important for conference convenors to consider ways of making AHA conferences more accessible and inclusive for casuals, and it is certainly an issue I intend to pursue if re-elected as a member of the committee.
Let’s now talk about the broader sector—what should universities be doing to ensure we do not have an entire lost generation of scholars?
Lyndon: A number of things come to mind. After a few years of teaching and/or publication, casual historians should generally be given the status of adjunct lecturers. Not only that, but such adjunct lecturers should be given the capacity and support to apply for small grants. Too much emphasis is placed on large expensive ARC projects: more money should be spread wider among the historical profession to encourage individual research, especially among casuals. Universities also need to invest further in the publication process (e.g. subsidies to university-based publishers) to ensure that good research among ECRs and Mid-Career academics gets published and recognised. Finally, universities must recognise that the concept of “subject-cutting” is a self-defeating form of cost-cutting: amalgamating a large number of subjects into a small number of broad, hurried overviews is a recipe for fewer students, less scholarship and less employment for the next generation of historians.
Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, talking generally, are universities shirking their responsibilities to casuals?
Romain: Well that’s part of the problem and why universities use casuals: to have limited contractual obligations toward them. One avenue is to work on the terms of the contracts at University level, imposing better practices through the Enterprise Agreement of each institution. The survey has enabled me to see that things change here as well. Little by little, university by university. These improvements range from better rates for marking and teaching to conversion of repeated casual contracts to permanent positions. Advocacy and seeking representation are working. Slowly, but it is working. Historians know that social change takes time, but it’s no reason to be standing by.
Some of the advice in the recent blog post on job interviews emphasised that applicants need to explain why they want a particular job. Selection committees are well justified in making sure that an applicant will be an engaged colleague who is pleasant to work with. The reality for casuals, however, is that jobs are so scarce that many talented people will take any job to pay the bills, and they will make great colleagues. Nobody is holding out for the perfect dream job—we do not have the sort of job market where people can pick and choose where to apply. Do selection committees need to be more realistic about the context of their applicants?
Lyndon: I think that the selection criteria for academic jobs need to be rethought: the expectations for “leadership”, “publication in leading journals” and “innovative teaching” are such that many casual staff are unable to compete because their contracts do not allow them to develop those skills compared to long-term permanent staff. The pressure on PhD students to publish and teach well before they have submitted is becoming pedagogically problematic: the postgrad’s focus should be on learning and growing through developing the best academic thesis they can. The quality of the resulting thesis should guide employment and postdoc opportunities more that the quantity of publications, in my view.
A lot of recommendations for casuals suggest the importance of building community—not just for advocacy, but for mental health, connections, and sociability. Your recommendation 9(iii) suggests this. Many casuals, however, are already working lengthy hours for inadequate payment, trying to advance their own (unpaid) research, and have significant other responsibilities such as childcare or barriers such as disability. These networks can be great means of support, but they require even more unpaid hours and energy. Is a solution truly a solution if it just asks casuals to find even more hours in the day to add another commitment? How do we save casuals from burnout?
Romain: I think there’s no definitive answer for that one and this very much depends on peoples’ preferences. Networks, while they take time, are worth building. There is immense comfort in knowing that you can turn to several colleagues that genuinely care about you, your research and how you are going. Finding out who these people are and nourishing these relationships is so important – perhaps not so much for the career but to feel good about one’s community, feel engaged with the discipline and getting honest feedback or support. There are colleagues that have become friends and that I could call virtually any time to talk about anything and they really make my academic world a better place. But again, everyone is different and while I enjoy being part of a community of historians, some people prefer finding a community outside of their workplace.
Time to be frank: how long should casuals stick it out? Do you think there is a general rule of thumb? I ask this question not to suggest that it’s a failure to choose a non-academic career path—it quite obviously is not, and some graduates have no intention to enter academia or they find an academic career not to their liking. But, for many, it is the goal, and it is what they have trained to do. No amount of extolling other career paths can change the fact that they might consider it a failure to leave academia. What do you say to these people?
Lyndon: There is a difference between leaving a physical institution of employment (i.e. the university) and leaving academia. Many independent scholars are able to do good solid historical work outside the system through books, journal articles and other means. If you have fire in the belly and have something to say, you will find an audience for your work.
Romain: The survey suggested that the majority of respondents did not continue in casual academic work after three years post conferral. That’s what the data clearly showed. But data doesn’t talk and unfortunately the reason “why” is unclear because this wasn’t one of our survey questions: the finding was an observation based on respondents’ year of PhD conferral versus the number of years during which they have been a casual. After 3 years, there is a significant drop. I suppose that after several years, it becomes financially untenable to remain a casual in the academic sector. But I can only speculate. Some will get a full-time job or a postdoc in academia but those are the minority. You asked us to be frank so I’ll try to be just that. A PhD isn’t a thesis anymore, whether we like it or not. If you haven’t published articles in top journals, been to conferences, networked, taught, organised one or more conferences and done “all the things” by the time your PhD is conferred, your prospects may be limited, even more so if you are an international candidate because your Confirmation or Enrolment expires when you hand in your (unexamined) thesis, so you are no longer invited to stay in Australia. So in many ways, honest conversations about academic jobs need to happen from Day 1 into the PhD program and here academics have a role to play. Most graduates with a PhD in history will end up in other sectors of the economy, and a good deal actually choose this and live a happy professional life.
I think it would be interesting to conduct a a “5-year post PhD” survey to see what people do after a PhD in History, where they live, if they use the skills they refined during their candidature, if they are happy with their non-academic job, how much they earn etc. I suppose – at least from what I have been able to observe around me – that the majority don’t stick around academia and settle for a stable job where their skills are valued. In this sense, the picture is perhaps less dark than we think. But for those who remain in the game, the pressure is there because it’s like gambling: the more you have invested, the harder it becomes to turn away from the card table. Overall, I recommend to any casual (and PhD candidates at an early stage of their candidature) to fully read our report and make that assessment for themselves, as there is enough data and views expressed within it for everyone to weigh up for how long they should pursue in the sector post PhD conferral.
We’ve talked a lot about the position of casuals and the challenges they face, but are all of our proposals and schemes really a desperate dance around the obvious—the only real solution for casuals is meaningful job security?
Romain: Yes it is. But it may have to be in another sector. There is a finite number of students per year, one has to be realistic. The major issue shown in our report is the way casualisation has become systemic rather than a positive variable of adjustment for each party. By this I mean that the experience of being a casual worker can offer benefits (training, money, flexibility – often something pointed out by the “newest” casuals in the survey) but when it becomes the only prospect, the negatives accumulate, as also pointed out by the respondents. Clearly, where there is proven recurrent work, casual positions ought to be converted to full-time positions. Overall though, if one looks at the amount of PhD graduates coming out of Australian universities, it is clear that there isn’t an academic position for each of these graduates and that seems to be the norm in other countries too. And this is why I believe that universities ought to develop a responsibility toward their PhD candidates: right from the get-go they should tell them that the likelihood of securing a permanent academic position is very, very thin. They may be scared to say that because they need PhD recruits to receive funding, but I think that’s an excuse not to actually address the issue and train PhD candidates for alternative careers.
Lyndon: In an ideal world, I would agree that meaningful job security is the solution to the problem of casualisation. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is clear that until politicians and more university leaders value the cultural and social benefits of social science and the arts, casuals in these areas will be the first to go and the last to be rehired in difficult economic times. Gaining wider awareness of casual circumstances, alleviating hardship, and celebrating academic achievements are all important elements of improving the plight of casual academics.
Romain: Graduates with a PhD in history have valuable skill that many workplaces look for: research skills, project management skills, organising skills, writing and presentation skills, interpersonal skills, resilience, etc. In other words, they are highly employable. Yet, at the end of the PhD, or even as an ECR, it seems that many find themselves wondering whether they are going to have a job at all – this wouldn’t provoke such fear of the unknown if graduate schools were providing professional training and preparing PhD candidates for post PhD life. Some of them are starting to do this, so here as well, change is coming.
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?