Thursday, 8 May 2014

How I Got To Be An Academic

by Jane Bunting (@DrMJBunting)

Time for my 'researcher profile', and particularly timely as Jacqueline Gill over at the wonderfully named "Contemplative Mammoth" blog has just announced a call for a blog carnival of posts about people's post-PhD-training careers, whether in academe or elsewhere.  I WILL begin my story with my training, but as I defended my PhD in 1993, it will cover 20 post-training years as well.  I'll try not to go on too long...

I'm currently a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at the University of Hull.  I'm a palaeoecologist (I study long term ecological systems using the remains of plants and animals preserved in stratigraphic order in lakes and bogs as my 'time machine' to look back and see how things have changed), using mainly pollen analysis, with a particular research interest in the uncertainties and limitations of our methods.  I teach biogeography, environmental change, Quaternary Science and 'skills' type modules, mostly, with a bit of environmental archaeology or landscape history some years.  Being an academic suits me because I like both teaching and research about equally (unless I'm asked the question in Marking Marathon Week).

Pond behind my childhood home (outlined in blue) - googlemaps
As a kid, I liked to know how things work - but not in a taking-apart-and-rebuilding-gadgets way, more in a systems and connections way.  Although I was raised in a really rather dull suburb of Manchester, our identikit suburban semi had an old field pond at the bottom of the garden (one of a series along a recharge zone in the clays in the area).  My parents had thoughtfully made a hedge between the tidier garden and the pond, which gave us kids privacy, and it was our own little bit of wilderness (more mine because my sister was scared of frogs and more averse to getting muddy).  I fell in it (quite a lot), fished creatures and plants out of it and identified them with the aid of a variety of books, made dens of various kinds, dug clay out of the banks and made pots, spent months of summers reading under the willow tree, collected and pressed the wild flowers... muck can be magic! I was also an obsessive reader of anything, history enthusiast, talked a lot, and played 'school' endlessly - I didn't like school, exactly, and liked it less the older I got, but I liked being the teacher and explaining stuff.

 Well into my teens, what I wanted to be when I grew up varied between an explorer, an English eccentric or a part-time hermit (I wanted two social afternoons a week, and a cabin in the hills the rest of the time.  I had it all worked out!).

I dropped Biology as soon as I could at school (didn't like the teacher, didn't want to dissect an eyeball which was the highlight of the next year's syllabus), but did get an O-level in Geography (one of the teachers was gorgeous - oh, the things that shape students' choices at 14!).  I wanted to take History, Latin and Double Maths at A-level, but when that couldn't be accommodated rather grumpily took the more conventional Double Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and realising that I wasn't good enough at maths to be a mathematician (I got A's, but there was a lad in the class who was just So Much Better than me...) applied to university to do natural sciences with a physics focus (my back-up choices were physics courses).  I messed up my first interview at Cambridge royally, was 'pooled' to Newnham College which kindly took me on, and went up in 1987 to study Natural Sciences.  Oh, the joy of a 24/7 library in the building I slept in!  But Physics quickly became my least favourite part of the course, as the theory went fine but the practicals did NOT - electronics and I are not good friends.  I soldered a lot of things together but rarely got anything to work.  I realised that the two topics in physics I most enjoyed in theory, sub-atomic and astronomy, required extensive electronics and optics, so came back for my second year not knowing what to do.  I took theoretical chemistry, history and philosophy of science and botany (chosen on the grounds that you didn't have to cut up animals or remember the names of biochemicals - despite my lack of school biology, the university sent me off with a summer reading list and let me switch), switched to the 'ecology' route in the second term which happened to include one lecture from Professor Richard West on the Quaternary History of the British Flora and that was it - I'd found my academic field.  I spent my final year in the Botany department, did dissertations on a historical topic (my first paper!) and on a pollen record from Star Carr in Yorkshire, got my first and got a NERC 'Framework' PhD studentship to continue in the department working with Dr (now Professor) Keith Bennett (sounds so tidy - hides a LOT of stress, panic, sweat etc. etc.).
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney - pic from Orkneyjar.

The topic we came up with was the Vegetation History of Orkney, and I spent three mostly happy years visiting one of the most beautiful and addictive places in Britain, reading masses of archaeological and historical literature alongside the palaeoecological stuff, counting challenging pollen samples and learning a huge amount about Geography and Environmental Change (by auditing classes, reading, listening, arguing, going to seminars, volunteering on other people's fieldwork...).  Keith gave me some very good advice on day one: "the chances of you getting an academic job are not zero, but at this point they aren't statistically distinct from zero.  If you get to the end of your PhD, can't get or don't want an academic job, and are starting out in a graduate career three years after your friends, will you regret the time lost?  If so, you should think very seriously about carrying on."  I never expected to be able to carry on after my PhD - I had vague ideas about teaching or accountancy (with a view to working for an environmental charity or the like, since they'd all need to have their books kept) - so I made the most of my chance to do nothing but learn (and row and sing, hobbies are important, but the learning was the point of it all).  At the end of my second year, Keith suggested it might be worth me applying for funding to do a year or two of post-doctoral work.  I liked the idea of spending some time overseas and being a typical near-monoglot Brit wanted to go somewhere English-speaking so contacted a few people in Sweden and Canada.  I put in a few (maybe 4?) applications for funding, then got on with my PhD, thinking of them more as a lottery ticket than a career plan.

Ontario fall
picture borrowed from tourist board web-site - can't find my photo folder!
 But much to my surprise, I got one - and became a NATO Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Wetlands Research Centre, University of Waterloo in Canada, with Professor Barry Warner for the next two years.  In short order, I learnt a lot about sub-zero winters, the importance of air-conditioning in humid summers, coffee shops, TimBits, black flies, bug jackets, the relative lack of slang in Canadian English and teaching in the North American system - oh, and wetlands.  I enjoyed the landscape ('fall' was as amazing as the tourist brochures promised), the people, the wildlife (a chipmunk raised babies just outside our office window, SO CUTE), I missed pubs, people who talked fast and crisps in single-serving packets, and got very frustrated by my project.  A lot of things went wrong and I actually spent about half my time working with surface samples rather than on lakes as planned... in the end that turned out to be a Good Thing, but at the time it was very stressful!
View from the city of Stirling towards the university - a lovely place to live
After two years of that, I came home with a few more papers on the way, spent a few months living at my parents (we all deserve medals for surviving that) and applying for everything that came my way, a six week stint in Sheffield doing some lab work, then got a six month contract at Stirling University on an environmental archaeology related project.  Relocating to Scotland and working on environmental archaeology was exactly what I wanted to do, but the scarcity of jobs was getting me down, even as I began to get some interviews.  Richard Tipping, my boss in Stirling, kindly helped me sort out an unpaid affiliation to the university after my contract ended which gave me a desk, library access etc., and passed little bits of contract work my way when he had them, but I got depressingly familiar with the whole process of signing on, proving you're looking for work every week, applying for housing benefit cycle.  Throughout 1996 and 1997, I applied for post-docs and academic jobs across the UK, and when my first contract in Stirling ended I also developed an exit plan and set myself a timetable for either getting another academic contract or stopping the academic jobhunt altogether.

And then, just like London buses, two jobs came along at once.  I took the one in Hull because it had the longer contract, despite not knowing anything about the place, and I've been here ever since.  Most days, I think that's a good thing!  Palaeoecology definitely lets - nay, encourages! - me to get muddy and to explore how the natural world works, I get to read archaeology and history books and have it count as work, and I get to teach as well.  You'll have to ask my students how I'm doing on the English Eccentric career path... but I don't despair of achieving that goal one day too.

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