ECR-Blog: Early-career creativity

In this month’s blog post, Emily Troscianko talks about the academic life that happens while you make other plans, thinking about one’s research from different angles or frameworks, and the challenges of juggling a portfolio career. Emily (and WiGS) would love to hear your thoughts on these issues, so please feel free to leave your comments below or to contact me directly under birgit.mikus at

If you are an Early Career Researcher, no matter in what position or situation, and you want to write here about your perspective and experiences in the post-doc world, please do contact me, too!


Early-career creativity

Emily T. Troscianko (Postdoctoral Training Coordinator, Humanities Division; Research Associate, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford)

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Dr Emily Troscianko

The whole universe is complicated, but the universe of an early-career academic usually feels like a particular hotspot of complicatedness and all the stresses and uncertainties attendant on it. In the face of often overwhelming pressures – to publish, to teach, to have impact, to have the most well-rounded CV ever – what we tend to turn to is the familiar. For most humanities ECAs, as successfully obedient products of the university system, this means the familiar pattern of aspiration: doctorate, one or two fixed-term teaching or research posts, and then the promised land of a permanent lecturership. And it means the familiar means to the ends we’ve achieved so far: shore up your academic credentials as solidly as possible, with academic books and journal articles and as much teaching as you can viably squeeze into the gaps left by the researching and the writing.

The trouble is, battening down the hatches of the ivory tower, quite apart from being pretty awful for mental and physical health in the long term, has stopped working like it used to – like it did for the supervisors and PIs we’ve grown up under the wing of. Most basically, the ratio of PhD graduates to academic jobs is now so bad that merely being brilliant and working yourself into the ground is no longer a guarantee of anything. Yesterday I went to a talk by the director of Imperial’s Postdoc Development Centre. She remarked that 90% of their postdocs want an academic career, and 10% will get one – and that’s in the sciences. Another problem is that being amazing at both teaching and research (though that was always hard enough) no longer cuts it: now we’re being expected to demonstrate the wider social impacts of what we do, to engage in reciprocal knowledge exchange with other communities, to inhabit even more personas beyond the tutor-scholar. Often we can’t even follow the example of our seniors here any more, because they too are playing catch-up with the new rules.

Collectively these new expectations further ramp up the pressure on the ECA who’s trying to tick the right boxes to maximise the chance of making an academic career happen. But I think they also open up the space for thinking in more creative and less pigeonholed ways about the research we do, and by extension the kinds of career success we can imagine for ourselves. If anything characterises the past year or so of my own life, it’s this kind of radical opening-up of possibilities. Having done French and German at undergrad followed by a doctorate on Kafka, I vivaed in 2010 and had a four-year Junior Research Fellowship at St John’s, Oxford, and then found myself starting to shift from the field of cognitive literary studies to the medical humanities, or maybe some territory in between. This was already a significant connection-making move for me, since it brought my research on how texts and readers interact into dialogue with my personal experience of and popular writing on eating disorders. Specifically, I’ve begun to investigate how readers with mental health problems might read differently, and the ways in which reading might be helpful or harmful to them.

I applied for various research fellowships at various institutions and through various funding bodies, and didn’t get them, and then applied for a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and did get it: six months’ funding to work with the leading UK eating disorders charity Beat. I’d never really thought about knowledge exchange as more than annoying academic buzzword until a friend pointed out the call for applications and I suddenly thought: this could be really good. My work with Beat has brought me into contact with all kinds of fascinating people and taught me a huge amount about the realities of research that aims to make a difference beyond the academy, as well as giving me a wealth of data and ideas for the research itself.

Then another personal connection led to another professional link being forged. Someone suggested I apply for the temporary, part-time position of Postdoctoral Training Coordinator for the Humanities Division at Oxford, and reading the job description I realised that I actually care a lot about the things that matter for this role: thinking holistically about how research, career development, and welfare relate to each other; getting different parts of the University talking to each other more; finding ways of stopping ECAs falling through the cracks between student and academic staff provision. I’ve only been doing it since the 1st of October, but this work too has been deeply interesting, not least in seeing how the University is run from the other side – where the money comes from, what the pressures and priorities are, how academic and support staff talk to each other or fail to.

Life is a bit tough at the moment, though, because I’m trying to do a hundred things at once: the coordinator role is 0.3FTE, and then I’m still analysing the data from the survey we ran during the KE Fellowship, and am co-author of a textbook on consciousness, and am starting a book based on my eating disorders blog, and co-editing a cog lit studies volume, and writing various articles, and applying for funding for a follow-on medical humanities project, and… and of course all these things simply can’t happen at once. I haven’t even managed to get going yet on one more element I’d really like to make part of my mixture: getting a personal trainer qualification and working freelance with clients interested in strength training.

Earlier this week I helped run a portfolio careers event, and two of the other contributors who currently have portfolio, or mixed, careers spoke of pivotal moments where for the first time they actively chose not to apply for permanent teaching positions in (what had been) their subject areas. I’ve been making that decision for a while through necessity, because of making the transition between fields and so not currently being a good fit either for German studies or for the medical humanities. But actually I’m now realising that this attitude may be turning into something more lasting. Yes, the current state of my ‘portfolio’ is tiring and stressful and lots of the time feels like it’s just all too much: less an executive briefcase than a bulging plastic bag full of holes. And yes, I’m currently in the luxurious position of having no dependants and (thanks to my partner) no rent to pay, so making a third of a salary plus some odds and ends of book advances and royalties is vaguely viable for now. If this is to continue longer-term, I will need more time for myself, and more money. But for now, I realise, I’m also loving the freedom and the feeling of different parts of my life and my mind coming together in ways I hadn’t predicted.

It’s great having a set of practical tasks to carry out in my ‘proper job’. It’s great having the time to write for audiences more diverse and far larger than those academic books and journals command. If the personal trainer thing works out, it’ll be great to be making money from something that involves my body as well as my mind. I feel, right now at least, that the demands of a lectureship would make it harder to make time for the things I find most rewarding. Maybe I’ve been encouraged, or given the courage, to think along these lines by my mother’s example: she gave up her academic job when I was an undergrad, because, she said, ‘my job was preventing me from getting work done’. (She now makes a modest living as a freelance writer, lecturer, and broadcaster.) My father was a professor, and made that work brilliantly for himself, not least by insisting that the academic life be full of fun and travel and time for other people. But there was always another career model to consider – and right now I find myself seriously contemplating the appeal of alternatives.

I really don’t have any of the answers yet, not even for myself, let alone for anyone else. But if there’s anything I want to achieve in the time I have in my current coordinator role, it’s to encourage more joined-up thinking about everything that defines us as ECAs: the research and the teaching, yes, but also how we engage with our peers and with other communities, and the difference we can make in the world beyond university, and the inseparability of productivity from mental and physical health – and, not least, how all our apparently academic skills open up options for us beyond academia, if we want them to.

There was some joking at the portfolio session on Tuesday that we should have called it ‘Portfolios Anonymous’, because it’s pretty easy to fall into exchanging tales of the trials of not having a permanent job. But talking openly about these insecurities and anxieties was good. It was good, also, to come fairly quickly to the communal realisation that an academic career is always a portfolio (often an unrealistic one, juggling many very demanding balls). It’s good to think clearly about these kinds of facts, and to allow yourself, if you want, to redefine the notions of career progression and success that you’ve inherited. I don’t at all mean to downplay the importance of being able to plan more than a year ahead, or having a decent salary or even a pension. But the world is full of possibilities, and we’re all better equipped to seize them than daily immersion in the PhD thesis might have led us to believe.

My stepfather, who turned seventy last year, always says that he still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. His website currently describes him as a freelance writer and photographer, but from books about lavatories and urine to riding around Britain on a fluorescent pink and yellow bicycle, his career has been and remains beautifully mad. And it all started with a DPhil in organometallic chemistry.

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