‘Did you get what you wanted from this life?’

book_reviewIt seems a little crass to review a book that – as Kate frequently reminds us – is intended to be given to her two sons when they are old enough to read it. However, as she also chose to publish this short collection, I suppose it is fair enough to consider how it works for a reader who didn’t know Kate. Facing terminal cancer in her early thirties, Kate Gross was surprised to discover that, alongside everything her illness was taking away from her, it also gifted her the freedom to do the things that she most loved; one of which was writing. Kate’s straightforward but elegant prose demonstrates just what a loss it was that she didn’t write more, sooner, although her glittering career could hardly be described as a waste of time. In Late Fragments, she explores the different phases of her life and what she has chosen to prioritise, ultimately both grieving for everything that is being denied her but concluding ‘I’ve had a great life’.

This book perhaps read slightly differently to me than it will for other readers, because there was an odd synchronicity between my life and Kate’s at times, although I have been fortunate enough so far not to have experienced her horrific bad luck with health. Early in the book, I realised, like me, that she attended Hayesfield School, which I recognised not from its description as an all-girls comprehensive in Bath but from the fact that the dozy physics teacher she remembers, Mr Whale, was still there in my day! I started at Hayesfield four or five years after Kate left, but her depiction of the school is spot-on, from its ‘particularly rank smell of female sweat and cruelty’ to the fact that ‘there was something profoundly uncool about being clever, at least at my school.’ Like Kate, when I went to university, despite my middle-class background, ‘we products of the state school system seemed chippier, more aggressive, less polished, perhaps less comfortable with ourselves.’ Kate attended Keble College, Oxford, where my husband is currently a lecturer. Later in her life, she moved to Bateman Street in Cambridge, where I lived for a year as a masters’ student from 2008-9, and as far as I can work out, almost certainly passed her on the street, if not in the Botanic Gardens, where I spent a lot of my time. These random connections perhaps made this book especially personal for me.

However, I think there is a lot in Late Fragments that will speak to a wide readership. Kate’s musings on motherhood and career are wise and honest, without the implied criticism of other people’s choices that you find in so much writing on the subject. The chapter on her family, and how differently her parents are handling their grief about the situation, was heartbreaking, and I also enjoyed the chapter on female friendship. Kate also writes beautifully about her relationship with her children and with her husband, Billy. Indeed, the quality of the book of the whole was so high that it was a real shame that there was one section that marred it for me. The one period of her life where Kate’s insight seems to have failed a little is her teenage years, where she disparagingly refers to herself and her peers as ‘grubs’ and muses ‘It’s lucky, really, that I didn’t die in 1992. I don’t think people would have had the happiest of memories of me.’ This is part of a wider trend that I’ve noticed in the analysis of teenage diaries (I will blog about this when I get hold of mine!), where adolescent emotions are never taken seriously and usually mocked and caricatured, unlike the treatment of childhood, which is generally remembered with more reverence. While this is not to say that we can’t laugh at our teenage selves – of course we can! – I wished that Kate had analysed her ‘grub’ phase with as much compassion as she shows throughout the rest of this book.

I would certainly recommend Late Fragments wholeheartedly; it is a well-written, thought-provoking and intelligent read that is often sad, but never depressing.

I received a free copy of this book via the Amazon Vine Programme in exchange for an honest review.

Monday Musings: The girl in the fridge

the-girl-on-the-trainThis post contains spoilers for Paula Hawkins’s The Girl On The Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

I was recently a bit bemused by an article in the TLS (OK, this happens a lot). Natasha Cooper, who is herself a crime writer, argues in ‘Girl, ill-treated’ [TLS, 31 July 2015, p.20, paywalled] that ‘The principal female characters of many engaging and well-written crime novels today are presented not only as victims but celebrated as such’. She uses four recent novels as examples – Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, SJ Watson’s Second Life, AR Torre’s The Girl in 6E and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You – but suggests that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the instigator of this trend. Noting that these novels are usually by women, with Watson as the exception, she asks why women without agency are so popular (implicitly, with women readers): ‘What is making so many people want to write – and read – about heroines who wallow in their victimhood?’ 

The problem with Cooper’s claims begins with Gone Girl. Firstly, as someone on the internet recently commented (I can’t remember where I read this – please let me know if you recognise the thought and I will credit appropriately!), Gone Girl drew attention to this type of novel, rather than inventing the sub-genre. I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but Nicci French’s novels were certainly playing with similar themes almost twenty years ago. Secondly, Amy in Gone Girl is an obvious deconstruction of the trope that Cooper views as so damaging, rather than a confirmation of it. She uses the trappings of victimhood to achieve her own ends, playing into images of wronged femininity to achieve agency. Nevertheless, a charitable reading of Cooper’s arguments might be to suggest that the novels that followed Gone Girl have tended to play this trope straight, depicting women as actual victims rather than manipulative agents.

I haven’t read three of the four novels that Cooper discusses, but her skewed reading of Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train doesn’t fill me with confidence. (I won’t give a mini-review of the novel here, but Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria has reviewed it, and I largely agree with her thoughtful discussion of its themes). Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic, is at the centre of The Girl on the Train; she is still in a desperate downward spiral after her divorce, and wishes she could be with her ex, Tom, again. Cooper claims that Rachel is primarily motivated by ‘revenge’; she wants to prove that the end of the relationship was her ex’s fault, so her responsibility for her behaviour when under the influence is ‘mitigated’ and ‘[h]er victimhood would become her victory’. But this is a profoundly distorted reading of the novel. Rachel certainly begins The Girl on the Train as a self-pitying victim, but far from being driven by vengeance, she blames herself, not her ex: ‘If I had to write down every transgression for which I should apologise to Tom, I could fill a book.’ She remembers the awful things she did during her alcoholic blackouts with intense shame, and while she is jealous of Tom’s new wife, Anna, she reflects that ‘I do care about making Tom unhappy. After everything he’s been through, he deserves to be happy. I will never begrudge him happiness, I only wish it could be with me.’

The twist in the tale of The Girl on the Train is Rachel’s realisation that Tom has been manipulating her all along, making her think she was responsible for things that she never did. While in one sense this does position Rachel as a victim, it is her recognition that she is not the useless drunk Tom portrayed her as that galvanises her into action. If there is a harmful trope in The Girl on the Train, it’s not indulgent victimhood but Woman in Refrigerator, where a female character is murdered, raped or otherwise victimised to motivate another character, usually a man. But the ‘girl in the fridge’ is not Rachel, but Megan, a woman whom Rachel does not know but whose life she idealises.

However, even if we want to critique the incessant deluge of dead and/or ‘fridged’ women in fiction, The Girl on the Train seems an odd place to start. Megan’s murder does not motivate the trajectory of a male character, but the rescue of one woman by another. Rachel’s determination to find Megan’s killer leads her not only to a new self-respect but to the formation of a fragile but effective alliance with the woman she previously hated, Anna. Indeed, given the number of female victims in crime novels, it seems a little disingenuous to single out novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, which are both written by women and leave plenty of room for female agency. Far from glorifying saintly victimhood, these narratives tend to undermine it.

What Katy Did… Again

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To my distress, I couldn’t find an image of the edition I have, and it is in storage so I couldn’t photograph it. I’ve picked my favourite of the modern Katy covers instead, and one of the few that doesn’t make Katy look much younger than she is.

What Katy Did (1879) would be easy to write off as a hopelessly old-fashioned and didactic nineteenth-century children’s novel if you had only heard the basic plot outline. Twelve-year-old Katy Carr is the oldest of a large family of children, expected to take on responsibility for her younger siblings, especially as her mother is dead. However, Katy is naturally exuberant and imaginative, and can’t help getting into ‘scrapes’, as the book would put it. When she tries out the children’s new swing before it is ready, her rashness has disastrous consequences. She injures her back and is told that, if she is to hope to recover, she will have to endure a long period of pain and boredom, confined to her room and largely isolated from the rest of the household. Fortunately, saintly Cousin Helen, who is herself an ‘invalid’, is available to guide Katy through her troubles. Helen emphasises the lessons that Katy can learn from her suffering, and how she can still remain involved in her family’s life if she makes her sickroom the centre of the house, and encourages her siblings to come to her with their troubles. After several years of illness, Katy is rewarded by regaining the use of her legs, and has become the more responsible, serene adult that she always wanted to be.

51C9MlfKbSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It’s unsurprising that when Jacqueline Wilson decided to rewrite her own version of What Katy Did – also one of her favourite children’s novels – that she chose to remove some of the most obviously damaging messages in this basic story. The Telegraph is already panicking about the ‘rewriting’ of children’s classics: ‘If you don’t start reading outside your comfort zone when you’re young and adaptable, when will you?… This is how you end up with a generation of people that can only read books with ‘”characters they can totally relate to'”‘. While I completely agree that classics like What Katy Did should still be read by children, I find it hard to see how Wilson’s book will prevent this from happening. If anything, it will surely introduce the novel to readers who would otherwise never have found it, as the article itself recognises. And far from being motivated by the idea that young readers won’t understand What Katy Did, Wilson seems to be, rightly, afraid that they will understand it all too well:

I found Helen rather too preachy and saintly, especially when she started talking about “God’s School of Pain.” I remember even as a child thinking it was horribly unfair that you were supposed to change your whole personality and become positively angelic if you became an invalid… I thought of all the real children in wheelchairs reading these books, wondering why religion and fresh air weren’t working miracles for them too. (The Guardian31st July)

Accordingly, in Wilson’s version of the story, Helen, a friend of the family who uses a wheelchair because of rheumatoid arthritis, becomes a mentor to Katy, but encourages her to fight for what she wants, rather than to passively endure. Katy knows by the end of Katy that she won’t be able to walk again, but she has managed to get a place at the secondary school that she wanted to attend, despite official objections, and is dreaming of becoming a Paralympic athlete. (I’m afraid I found New Helen as saintly as the original Cousin Helen – but the intentions are certainly in the right place!)

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The repackaged version indicates that the publishers are, in fact, aiming to get children to read both books, not just Wilson’s.

Perhaps the Telegraph’s fears might better be rephrased as the concern that, because Katy is clearly a much better book about dealing with disability, What Katy Did will simply be superseded. But What Katy Did is not simply a lesser version of its modern retelling. It, too, accomplishes things that its counterpart cannot. Firstly, its overtly ‘saintly’ message becomes something rather more complex in the telling. Katy’s accident is framed by her father, Dr Carr, as a result of disobedience; she was told not to use the new swing, and, if she had done what she was told, she would never have been injured. However, our omniscient narrator gives us a rather different picture that plays against Dr Carr’s worldview. When Aunt Izzie, who takes care of the Carr children, tells Katy that she is not to use the swing, she refuses to give a reason. The narrator explains:

This was unwise of Aunt Izzie. She would better have explained further. The truth was, that Alexander, in putting up the swing, had cracked one of the staples which fastened it to the roof… If she had told this to the children, all would have been right; but Aunt Izzie’s theory was, that young people must obey their elders without explanation.’

This aside, with its undercutting of the virtues of mindless obedience, gives us a glimpse into the tensions beneath the surface of the outwardly moralistic What Katy Did. The sheer joy with which Katy’s exploits in the first half of the novel are described indicates that Coolidge is in complete sympathy with her heroine, and although Katy schools herself in virtue after her accident, this section still feels powerful and resonant to a modern audience, despite some unpleasant messages about the need for women always to appear gentle and pretty. Engaging with the experience of chronic pain, it covers even more unusual material for a children’s book than Katy, which goes pretty far in its depiction of the realities of spinal injury. And while Katy tries to conform to a nineteenth-century template of the female invalid, Coolidge is realistic about the difficulties she faces, and, in not leaving her in her saintly sickbed, also emphasises the importance of an active life. In the very tensions between what Katy is told and how she really is, What Katy Did does interesting work that is not present in Wilson’s retelling, even if some of this work is unintentional. And I think that some of these themes made the novel attractive to me as a child, though I read it more than a hundred years after it was written.

Interviews, Part Three: Presentations and Q&A Sessions

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This is the only photograph of me giving a presentation that I have. Unfortunately, it is at my wedding. You’ll have to imagine that I am wearing more professional attire and looking less tipsy. Credit: Ben Robins Photography.

Much of what I outlined in my post on Junior Research Fellowship interviews holds true for the other interviews I have had this year as well. Interviewers don’t always ask good questions; you need to work out what you want to convey in the interview beforehand, and try your best to get that information across; often the result of the interview has very little to do with your performance. However, giving presentations is one aspect of the interview experience that I didn’t touch on in as much depth, and so I’ll talk a bit about this in this wrap-up post.

Presentations

I suggested that for JRF interviews, the quality of your presentation is not make or break. This is less likely to be true for interviews for teaching posts, for obvious reasons. However, this is one instance when my personal experience actually comes into conflict with what I believe to be good and sensible advice. For virtually all the interviews where I gave a presentation (excluding one interview for an Oxford college-based teaching post, where I’m happy to admit that I under-prepared and messed up!) the feedback on the presentation itself was extremely positive. Nevertheless, I was only given one of these jobs. Therefore, I have some grounds for believing that, while you can shoot yourself in the foot by presenting very badly or not thinking through your research properly, the presentation itself is likely to be less important than the Q&A session that may follow it, or indeed the interview. If you can meet the minimum requirements, it will probably be in one of these two areas that you distinguish yourself from the other candidates. As with all my advice, however, this is based on personal experience only.

So, how to prepare a good presentation?

The presentations I have been asked to give range from a five-minute presentation on my research to the interview panel alone to a twenty-minute presentation to the department and its postgraduate students. I have also been asked to give presentations on an aspect of one of the modules I would be expected to teach if offered the job, which are more like mini-lectures. Developing a presentation style that works for you is a very personal job; I can only tell you what’s worked for me.

  • 1. Minimal notes. When I first started speaking in public as an academic – by giving conference papers – I used to read from a script. While I have seen some historians pull this off beautifully, it wrecked my presentations. Once I started speaking from a set of bullet-points instead, often referring very little to my script at all, everything became much easier. Problems that had seemed insurmountable, like speaking too fast, were not instantly solved but became much less difficult to handle. In general, I think that this style of speaking is much more engaging once you have the confidence to handle it, although there are always exceptions to the rule.
  • 2. A certain amount of practice, and no more. In my first few interviews, during last academic year, I practiced my presentations intensely. Unfortunately, even though I was speaking from bullet-points, this re-introduced some of the problems I’d had when I was using a script, as I inadvertently memorised most of my presentation. One interviewer even criticised me in the feedback after the interview for using a script, when I’d only had very scrappy notes! Due to this problem, I don’t do too many run-throughs of my presentation once I have what I have to say sorted out. This is TERRIFYING – but has led to much better results. (It also works for lectures.)
  • 3. Telling a story. Having had some experience with traditional storytelling, I was amazed by how much better people focus when you tell them something in story-form rather than as a more theoretical discourse. While I’m not advocating beginning your presentations with ‘Once upon a time’, I’ve found that thinking about the different narratives that historians tell about a period can work very well for teaching presentations. Tell a story, then challenge it; why has newer work found this explanation insufficient? Similarly, in my research presentations, there was a certain moment when I used this technique and could feel the audience’s attentiveness suddenly increase. Not enough space here to fully explain what I mean – but go see some traditional storytelling and/or spoken word performances for inspiration!
  • 4. Remember that it’s a performance. Following on from the previous point, the way you use your voice (as demonstrated fantastically by Catherine Hall in her keynote at the Rethinking Modern British Studies conference at Birmingham) is crucial in making your presentation come alive. I would think especially carefully about this if you’ve been asked to give a presentation ‘as if to a group of 1st/2nd/3rd year undergraduates’, but it certainly isn’t unimportant when presenting on your research to colleagues as well. Similarly, gesture should be used thoughtfully, not distractingly (though it is impossible to eliminate all your bad habits!)
  • 5. Think carefully about using a Powerpoint. I tend to ditch the Powerpoint entirely for presentations that are ten minutes or less, and use a small number of slides for longer presentations, with the minimal amount of text. This is a matter of opinion, but I find that Powerpoint can be distracting for both the audience and the speaker, especially if it is overused. If you are presenting in a context where you feel that Powerpoint will be expected, however, ignore this advice.

Q&A Sessions

These are very difficult to prepare for. Some miscellaneous thoughts are as follows:

  • If you don’t want to be asked about a particular aspect of your research, don’t include it in your presentation, especially if it is particularly controversial and bound to attract questions.
  • The same rules apply as for interview questions, but more so; don’t assume too much knowledge on the part of the questioner, even if the question is asked very aggressively, which sometimes does happen.
  • Don’t be wrong-footed if there is no Q&A session (less likely if you have given your presentation to the department, but I’ve been surprised by interview panels who haven’t addressed any questions specifically to the content of my presentation). If this happens, and there are parts of the presentation that you did want to address in greater depth, add them to your interview objectives and try to work them into other answers (I know this is easier said than done…)
  • Finally, I enjoyed Alice Violett’s account of what it’s like to be in the audience for a recruitment presentation. I would certainly try to hear from as many colleagues as possible before I next have to do a presentation like this, to gather tips and advice. It’s also interesting to hear how divided opinion often was.

This concludes my series of posts on academic interviews. The best of luck to anybody who is currently on the job market – it’s hell, but you are not alone.

See also: The academic job marketInterviews, Part One (JRFs); Interviews, Part Two (Getting Interviews).

Rewriting Sliding Doors: a road better not taken?

51vbt6QaXpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As Eva rushes to a supervision in Cambridge in 1958, a bicycle accident leads to a chance meeting with a fellow undergraduate, Jim. This encounter will fundamentally shape both Jim and Eva’s lives. But what if they had never met? The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett’s debut novel, traces three possible paths that the couple’s lives could have taken, together – and apart. Nevertheless, it seems that Jim and Eva are destined to connect, despite the divergent roads they take in these different versions of their lives. The sense that their relationship is written in the stars was the beginning of my problem with The Versions of Us. Despite the fact that both characters constantly (and rather irritatingly) muse on the ‘different versions’ of themselves that they show to other people and that they have inhabited throughout their lives, both Eva and, to a lesser extent, Jim, remain largely untouched by the three different lives that they live. Similarly, the world around them appears little affected by any ‘ripple effect’ that their different fates might have been expected to have set off; for example, Eva’s brother Anton marries the same woman, has the same children and makes the same friends, despite his sister’s radically different trajectories. Rather than an exploration of how much chance counts for in our lives, The Version of Us seems to be saying that we will hit certain predestined peaks and troughs, no matter what happens to us.

41clh8Uv6hL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_For me, this fundamental flaw with the novel cut to the heart of what a Sliding Doors narrative – and indeed, a novel – is meant to be accomplishing anyway. If character is at the heart of a novel like this, what is it doing if it isn’t exploring how these characters are fundamentally changed by their experiences? If Jim and Eva are essentially to remain themselves despite everything, why write about them at all? The persistence of their relationship is only one of the ‘fixed points’(as Doctor Who might say); Eva’s writing and Jim’s art remain constants, as does the production of children and their relationships with their parents. One fixed point might be forgivable – I could buy that the nineteen-year-old Eva, for example, is already committed to a life of writing – but not so many. It’s the same problem I had with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book I loathed even though so many other people loved it. Ursula’s reactions to her different lives are never explored seriously, and so the Sliding Doors trope becomes a gimmick instead of an illuminating experiment.

Unknown Nevertheless, I think we can go even further in critiquing how novelists have generally taken up the Sliding Doors theme, and indeed, how the film itself handles the idea. All these narratives are divided from each other by chance, rather than choice. The circumstances of Ursula’s birth change; Eva’s bicycle breaks, or does not break; Helen misses the tube or just makes it. In my opinion, it is the choices we make, as well as the things that we cannot control, that produce the most interesting speculations about what might have been. Eva can’t choose whether she meets Jim or not, so it’s ultimately fruitless to wonder which of her three lives is ‘better’ or what she ought to have done differently. But surely this is where a novelist can make the most of this premise, by considering how both choice and chance intersect to build our lives?

the-post-birthday-world Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World demonstrates this brilliantly by pivoting upon a decision, rather than a meet-cute. Irina is happily married to Lawrence, but when she meets, and falls for, the charismatic Ramsey, she has to decide whether to leave her husband for him or continue with the life that she already has. By exploring the consequences of Irina’s decision in two parallel narratives, Shriver not only returns the agency to Irina but poses fascinating questions to the reader. Should she stay or should she go? Does the answer to this question change as we follow her further? And, turning the dullness of Jim and Eva’s star-crossed love on its head, the novel ultimately asks whether it really matters if Irina goes through her life with Lawrence or with Ramsey. Are our most important attachments simply the products of chance after all – even when we think that we have chosen? If a novelist is going to answer everything we want to know about the might-have-beens of a character’s life, they need to pose more interesting questions while doing so.

Interviews, Part Two: Getting Interviews

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Celebrating when I finally got a new job in July 2015.

Having talked about the peculiar process of getting a JRF, I’ve decided to devote this post to the topic of getting an academic interview in the first place, before my third and final post on how to prepare for the interview itself. While my record at academic interviews has been pretty dismal, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve done better at getting longlisted and shortlisted for things. The stats for the two years I’ve been on the academic job market are:

2013-14: I made 19 applications and was invited for 4 interviews, one of which was successful. So 21% of my applications were shortlisted, or roughly 1 in 5.

I was also longlisted for 2 positions. Including this data, 31% of my applications were longlisted or shortlisted, or roughly 1 in 3.

2014-15: I made 31 applications and was invited for 14 interviews, one of which was successful (and one of which I didn’t attend). So 45% of my applications were shortlisted.

I was also longlisted for 1 position. Including this data, 48% of my applications were longlisted or shortlisted, or roughly 1 in 2.

I applied for the full range of academic positions, from permanent lectureships to fixed-term nine-month teaching contracts to junior research fellowships to grant-awarding organisations such as Leverhulme and Wellcome. Broadly speaking, the only type of academic post at this level that I have no experience applying for are postdoctoral positions on an existing research project. It was also notable that the seniority of the position did not seem to affect my chances (I was shortlisted for some permanent jobs and rejected outright for some short-term teaching posts!)

So there are two key questions that come to mind: why were my applications doing so well overall, and why did they do substantially better in 2014-15?

It’s obviously difficult for me to say why selection committees tended to like my applications; I can only speculate. However, I have tried to organise my thoughts into two sets of criteria; factors that you cannot control, and factors which you can. I think it is important to highlight the first set of factors, as it would be really disingenuous to suggest this was all due to me personally. However, I don’t intend this to be too disheartening, as there are factors within your control as well.

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Getting my AS Level results in 2004 (far right), on the start of the road to Cambridge. Credit: Bath Chronicle.

Luck and Privilege

  • The job market. None of us can control if suitable positions come up in our field, and some of us are fortunate to work in fields that hire much more often than others. As a modern British historian, I believe I have been lucky* with both my choice of research specialisation and with the jobs that have come up in recent years. *(I don’t consider this to be a matter of choosing the ‘right’ field to specialise in, as I don’t believe this is a choice that should be made with an eye on the job market – especially given how quickly things can change).
  • Oxbridge, Oxbridge. I have been fortunate enough to have been educated entirely at Cambridge, and my first job (building on this privilege) was at Oxford. There is some anti-Oxbridge bias out there, but this in general is an enormous advantage, especially given the number of jobs that come up at Oxbridge and want Oxbridge teaching experience.
  • Other Privileges. I am a state-educated woman, but other than that, I am about as privileged as you can get, so all that was working in my favour.
  • General Luck. I cannot emphasise the importance of this enough. Unfortunately, this is a big factor for all of us.

What can you do?

There is lots of great advice out there about making academic applications, and I’m not going to reiterate most of it here. The resources that I used most when putting together my applications were The Professor is In (on grant proposals, but this US-focused site is generally very helpful) Steve Joy (on cover letters, but check out all his Guardian columns) and Cambridge Careers Service (sorry, Cambridge students and alumni only). Anne Hanley has also recently written a useful guide to different types of application and what is required.

What I do want to add is:

  1. The CV. Apologies for spelling out the obvious to most of you, but especially if you are a new PhD student planning a career in academia, it is important to keep in mind that there are four areas that most job applications will ask you to demonstrate competence in. These are (a) research, including publications (b) teaching (c) public engagement and dissemination of findings and (d) administrative experience. The relative importance of these criteria will differ depending on the application you are making, but when building your CV, none of them should be completely written off. As a PhD student, this often means being very savvy with time management to fit all of this around timely completion of the thesis. In general, my advice is: it’s better to take longer to finish your PhD and come out with a strong CV, than to finish it in the minimum time and not have these skills. This is the time to take advantage of opportunities you may not have as an early career researcher. Given the pressure often exerted upon PhD students by institutions and supervisors to finish swiftly, this is not an easy thing to do; but it is important in the long term.
  2. The cover letter. It is worth spending a substantial amount of time writing a template cover letter. This will be the basis for the vast majority of your applications, although it will of course need to be altered to respond to the specific requirements of the posts you are applying for. In general, my rule for cover letters is that they should be treated, in some ways, like other pieces of persuasive writing; in other words, don’t simply make statements (‘I am an experienced and innovative teacher’) but give evidence (‘For example, I designed a recent seminar on X topic to appeal to students by using Y method.’) Don’t forget the STAR approach – this is often advised for use in interviews, but works in this context as well – and make sure to emphasise the result of the actions that you took, if possible (I was rated on average 4.5/5 by students who took this seminar and comments included ‘I felt much more engaged with the topic than in previous seminars’)* [*sycophantic examples here are completely invented…]
  3. Thinking like a committee member. What are the most important qualities that the successful candidate will require? What could the department do with more of? What concerns will they have about you as a candidate for this position? How far can you address these things in the written application, before you even make it to interview? While you obviously won’t be answering these questions directly, these are the sort of considerations that you should keep in mind when tailoring your CV, cover letter, and other application materials. The answers won’t necessarily be obvious, and job specifications, although they should be read closely, can be misleading. I would recommend thoroughly checking out the department website and its latest REF report.
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Graduating from my PhD in February 2015.

Having made these general points, I’ll move on to my second question; why, specifically, did my applications do so much better in 2014-15 than 2013-14?

  • The job market and luck – again. As a modern British historian, I was amazed by the number of modern British history posts that were advertised during this academic year, especially at Oxford. This is not a normal state of affairs and, as I was also based at Oxford, I was very well-placed to apply for these positions, which certainly contributed to much of my success in getting shortlisted.
  • I had my PhD. My successful viva was held in October 2014, so I applied to virtually all of these jobs with a PhD. This was probably the single biggest difference from my 2013-14 applications.
  • I was able to use my external examiner as a reference. While I was lucky enough to have two great referees to call upon before my viva, I do think it helps a lot when you can use your external examiner. This also meant that I could supply three strong references for the jobs that required three, whereas in 2013-14, I had to scrabble around a bit to find a third.
  • I had a second publication. I actually wouldn’t put as much weight on this as one might assume, as I have seen applicants with fewer publications being appointed above applicants with more, and I think that the real difference at this level is between being published and not being published, rather than the number of publications you have. But it certainly didn’t hurt to have two journal articles, rather than one, especially as the second was based on a chapter of my thesis.
  • I had had an actual job before. While I had a fair amount of teaching experience in 2013-14, I had never been employed in an actual academic job. This is another one that I suspect made a big difference.

These were really the only substantial differences between my applications in 2013-14 and 2014-15, other than the fact that I was submitting a revised version of my research proposal. However, the majority of posts I applied for did not require a full research proposal, so I’m unsure how significant this was.

I hope that some of this has been helpful to PhDs and ECRs looking for an academic job now, or thinking about how to prepare themselves for the job market in years to come. In my final post, up next Monday, August 17th, I will talk about the interviews themselves.

See also: The academic job marketInterviews, Part One (JRFs) and Interviews, Part Three (General Academic Interviews) [upcoming].

Divided and divisive

cover66427-mediumLotto and Mathilde marry young. For Lotto, a struggling actor in New York, their marriage is a small miracle; not only was his strikingly beautiful wife a virgin until shortly before they wed, she uncomplainingly supports him by working at an art gallery while he brings in little more than $700 a year. Mathilde may be a bit of a cipher, but Lotto would be lost without her, even when – or especially when – he embarks upon a more successful career as a playwright. But what has his wife really been thinking all these years?

Examining both sides of the story of a long marriage, this novel, bifurcated into two halves and two points of view, is in many ways retreading very old ground. I certainly felt as if I’d read the ‘struggling artist tries to make it in New York after college graduation’ aspect of the plot many times before, and I unfortunately read Fates and Furies immediately after Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which blew it out of the water. Nevertheless, I still felt that Lauren Groff wove interesting insights into these parallel tales, highlighting the myth of the subservient, deferent wife while still emphasising the lasting love between Lotto and Mathilde.

This novel has clearly split opinion, and I agree with many of the points made on both sides. I loved Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton, because it was genuinely quirky and magical – making inventive use of photographs and scrapbook cuttings, and cleverly told in a voice that was not too complex or too simple. Like some other reviewers, I did not feel that she used language as well in Fates and Furies, and the prose threatens to overpower the story at certain points, although there are still some wonderful passages, such as her description of Lotto’s mother’s, Antoinette’s, early employment as a ‘mermaid’. It’s fair to say, however, that I did not find this a barrier to enjoying the story as a whole, and I think that Groff tones down the conscious literariness of her writing throughout much of the narrative (the first few pages are some of the hardest to get through, even when re-reading!) Similarly, while the omniscient voice can be distancing, I felt attached to Lotto and Mathilde, despite their flaws, and wanted to find out what happened to them. At its best, the novel mixes quasi-mythical descriptions of place with true insight into its characters, achieving brief but intensely memorable moments.

While I enjoyed the novel, I can understand why it hasn’t been popular with some reviewers, and I think The Monsters of Templeton is a better place to start if you are new to Groff’s work. Nevertheless, if you can bear with the occasionally pretentious language, there is more than there seems to this story of a marriage.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher via Amazon Vine.