Friday, July 22, 2016

A Tale of Two Conferences

Conference Season is officially complete for me!

I have just returned home from 4 days at the Harlaxton Symposium on the theme of the "The Great Household, 1100-1500" where I presented a paper. Two weeks prior to that, I attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and presented a paper as part of a session series organised by the Oxford Medieval Diet Group (nope, it's not a dieting group for medievalists!).

I am incredibly tired but also incredibly inspired. 

As many of you know, I currently work in professional services at the University of Oxford and am thoroughly enjoying working on the "inside" of a university. It was a conscious and deliberate choice not to pursue academic positions at the moment, but that does not mean that I am suddenly disengaged with the academic community. 

My attendance at both conferences this month were the result of invitations to speak, invitations which were impossible to turn down. The conferences are wildly different. IMC Leeds is the second largest conference for medievalists, and over 2,000 people attend. While the number and range of sessions is staggering, personally I find it overwhelming if you don't know many people there, and the sheer volume of people attending makes it difficult to strike up conversations (especially if you are an introvert like me!).

Harlaxton Symposium is much more intimate, located in the beautiful setting of Harlaxton Manor, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. The fact that the 100 delegates all stay at the manor, and share meals and drinks at the bar, makes it far more conducive and less intimidating to talk to people. There are no parallels sessions, which means that you are exposed to a wide range of papers.

I attended Harlaxton in receipt of the Barry Dobson Scholarship to cover the costs, and I am immensely grateful to the steering committee. Harlaxton is a good model for conferences which seek to share knowledge, form connections and build networks, and also have a little fun. I already have a few article ideas stemming from the conference....

But, I do need to highlight one issue I have. And this is not a criticism of the Harlaxton Symposium at all, nor of the attendees. On discussing the recent completion of my doctorate, virtually everybody that I talked to asked me a variant on "where are you doing your postdoc?" 

That is a problem for a number of reasons. It is the naive assumption that it is *that* easy to walk into a postdoc in history straight after the PhD. That may have been more true 15-20 years ago, but the academic job market today is fierce, competitive, uncompromising, and often a matter of luck.

Another problem is that it can be quite upsetting for someone who dreams of that academic position, but is forced to work outside of academia which continuing to apply for academic jobs. Feelings of failure and inadequacy can be tough enough, without being compounded by such questions. Luckily, this doesn't apply to me as I am quite happy doing what I am doing. I was very open when talking to people that I have taken a break from academia, and most people were very responsive and encouraging. However, a couple raised an eyebrow...

More and more, this will become an issue as fewer PhD graduates in humanities will walk into an academic position immediately. More and more will take alternative jobs for various reasons (money, job security, needing a break, etc.) but will continue to conference. I conference because I enjoy presenting on my material, learning from others, and keeping up with advancements in my field. Others will conference to network and work towards improving their job applications. So, we need more and more nuance and understanding from everybody. One may assume that the question "where are you doing you postdoc" or "do you have a research position" is a generational one emanating from the older of the delegates. But the truth was that it spanned current PhD students to emeritus professors.

We must shift the question to one which is inclusive not exclusive. A better way to ask a recent PhD graduate is to say:

"So, what are you up to at the moment?"


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