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...
|Pond behind my childhood home (outlined in blue) - googlemaps|
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.
|picture borrowed from tourist board web-site - can't find my photo folder!|
|View from the city of Stirling towards the university - a lovely place to live|
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.