Science and the Humanities for Early Career Scholars

Last Friday Reading played host to a British Academy funded workshop entitled Science and the Humanities for Early Career Scholars. Here the workshop organiser, Prof. David Stack explains the purpose of the workshop and the importance of support in the post-PhD period.

The truism that the first step is the hardest is not, as any toddler could tell you, always true. For wannabe walkers the first step is relatively straightforward; it is the third and fourth where the pace quickens, balance falters, and the bipedal experiment ends with an unceremonious slump onto a nappy-padded bottom. A similar pattern characterizes the early stages of many academic careers. Gaining a degree and then a Masters are relatively straightforward steps, and the momentum of the brightest and most determined carries them forward into doctoral study. The end of a PhD, however, is often a moment of uncertainty as well as achievement.

It is not just the uncomfortable mathematics of a job market in which candidates and posts are frighteningly disproportioned that one has to contend with. The cold turkey of completing a project that has dominated three years of one’s life is frequently accompanied by a loss of both institutional affiliation and the mentoring support that a good supervisor provides. And yet it is precisely at this moment that the newly titled ‘Dr’ would be well advised to develop a new project; win a book contract; and submit a funding application! Little wonder, therefore, that this is the point at which many a ‘career’ teeters from noun to verb – without the comfort of a padded backside on which to land.

The need for support in the post-PhD period has long been obvious, so I was delighted when the British Academy invited me to apply for funds to stage a one-day event to support early career scholars. The decision to make the day interdisciplinary was equally easy. The post-PhD period is particularly precarious for those whose work is self-consciously interdisciplinary, not least because they have to convince appointment panels whose default is to recruit in their own disciplinary image.

The unifying theme of our Science and the Humanities workshop was ‘making connections’: both intellectual and practical. Rather than a day of conventional academic papers we had a keynote address from Charlotte Sleigh (Kent), which explored the methodological problems of combining historical and literary techniques, and further sessions on the AHRC and interdisciplinarity (Neil Messer, Winchester), and how humanities scholars can best exploit opportunities for impact (the IRHS’s John Holmes). Alongside these, Martin Willis (Westminster) discussed how his own work combines the historical and the literary, and Peter Bowler (Queens, Belfast) shared a lifetime’s experience working on Darwinism. The aim, however, was not an asymmetrical advice session, but a genuine interaction between established and early career scholars, which would leave the latter better equipped to navigate their post-PhD path.

The workshop attracted delegates from Oxford, Cambridge, QMUL, Imperial, Birmingham, Exeter, Warwick, and, of course, Reading. What united the delegates was the verve, enthusiasm, and the sheer intellectual excitement with which they approached their topics, often in intriguingly innovative ways. Throughout the day I was struck by the breadth of work being undertaken and how well equipped this next generation of scholars is to articulate their research agenda both to each other and the wider public.

There is, of course, a limit to what days like these can achieve. That the University sector faces an uncertain future is probably a more valid truism than the ‘first step’ one with which we began. But the day ended on two positive notes. First, many delegates expressed a desire to hold further events and to develop a mutually supportive network. Second, Professor Michael Fulford, Vice-President of the British Academy, who chaired our plenary session, restated the BA’s commitment to its Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. Over many years this programme has helped generations of scholars through that faltering fourth step and enabled them to go on to make great, confident strides through academia.

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