I do have friends who wanted academic jobs and didn't get them, and I did. And on paper I shouldn't have done probably. I have to say that this university has a great history and precedent of appointing interesting people who aren't from a particularly Oxbridge model and don't do particularly mainstream research. A lot of historians might even argue that what I do is not history and yet I got a job. So on some level I am a success story, if getting an academic job is your goal, then I am a success story. And there must have been – there must have been certain things that were in place for that to happen I think. Some of it was literally about being in the right place at the right time. It's quite unusual to get a job where your PhD was based. You could even argue it's a good idea not to get a job where your PhD was based. I would be much clearer what I would bring new to a department, if I was going somewhere else. I think institutions generally don't value what they've produced themselves in the same way because they know it and its familiar and it's not seen as a new currency in any way. You have to shift from a student identity to a peer identity and that's a little bit of a juggle, although I haven't had any problem, everyone's been really lovely about it.
But how did I end up getting a job when other people didn't. I think a lot of it is absolute luck. Also I worked really hard at my teaching and I worked really hard at going to conferences, and I worked really hard at trying to get work published and actually the PhD is not going to get you a job. I mean that's the real irony of this, we treat PhDs as though they're a training ground for academic jobs and doing a PhD is not what gets you a job. What gets you a job at the current state of play is how much work you've published and the day I got a book contract from NUP was the day I was more likely to get a job. And I had a window of opportunity to do that.
There's a real problem if PhD students are not having it explained to them that publication as it stands is what's going to get you a job and if you get a book contract in effect it will pay for your wages for the year or whatever, because of the way that the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) works.
I think probably what nailed it for me was the fact that I was junior and cheap. And but also that I have as I explained a background in education and I'm really interested in adult education and I think about education a lot, and its not separate from my research. So I could sell myself as a teacher and increasingly being good at the teaching is going to be counted by the government to having to dish out the money to universities. So whereas a couple of years ago I might have advised friends of mine who were doing PhDs to get a little bit of teaching experience but really focus on getting a grant in and putting on a post grad conference and getting involved in post graduate initiatives (we've got an online Journal of Contemporary History that I edited a couple of years ago) and get something published, but just get a bit of teaching to tick the box. Now, I would be suggesting to students to take their teaching much more seriously, which also means I would now be advising people to allow themselves to be really fully exploited and very, very badly paid and very badly treated.
And I almost felt the reason I got a job was a massive game of chicken, I just put up with being treated really badly for longer than anybody else did. Maybe that's not a bad take, but I think its almost a right of passage, I don't think its about your abilities My husband's a builder a carpenter, we've lived together since before I got my job when I was doing my PhD and he cannot believe that in effect you do a 10 year apprenticeship to then work casually in academia. And its not as if you get a permanent job straight away. Having said that, it's more money than I've ever earned, I am definitely earning more money than I've ever earned. I've got sick pay, holiday pay and a pension. I am really very, very happy and I'm earning enough to pay tax which I'm delighted about, I feel like a citizen at last.
But it's not the biggest earner in the world. It would be really interesting to find out if we've got PhD students who are really working out how to sell their skills, and earn more money than academics. I think particularly for older academics there's a sense of lost status. I think for us new lot, we don't have that sense of loss because we understand academics to be badly paid. It's not about the money though is it? It's all about sick pay and having holiday pay and a pension.
I think my getting the book contract led on to the next bit of employment. The Head of Department at the time was really supportive and really helpful in terms of getting me going. I was working as Associate Tutor and then I was working on a partial teaching only contract and another guy had the same contract as me. It was really clear with us that we weren't being paid to do any research or writing but the only way to get us out of the situation we were in, if we wanted to stay in academia, was to publish. He sent me his CV and I went through his CV with him and he gave me a list of contacts that he had some knowledge or sway with, or had had a history of working with the department, publishers basically who worked in the areas that I worked in, and I sent God knows how many – I don't know – five or six book proposals because you have to wait till each one comes back before sending another one out, and got really awful comments. 'This is the sort of nonsense that gives cultural history a bad name' was the one that particularly stung. I think, partly, I didn't really know how to write a book proposal. I didn't really know or understand how to translate a PhD into a book until someone said just take all the theory out. And 'oh right' it's a story, I've got a story, you don't really want to know about my reading of Act Two do you, I'll just tell you what happened.' It's not quite like that but I basically somebody said take all the theory out and suddenly it was a book rather than a PhD, and cut at least two thirds off I think.
I gave a conference paper at an inter disciplinary conference in Manchester called Public Man and there was a guy from Manchester there who was involved in a book series at MEP who came up to me in a coffee break and just said 'that was really interesting and relevant for the Bermondsey By Election.' He asked if I had any other similar work and 'have you got a book?' At that point I think I was still waiting to hear back from somebody so I said 'Yeah I'm waiting to hear back from so and so'. He suggested I should get back in touch with him if that fell through, in the way that people do when they're being nice. It's all so gendered you know 'Oh he was nice' you know. What a nice man, how polite of him to be nice about my paper. And then ages later a mate of mine met him at a dinner party and they ended talking about it and she said 'oh she hasn't got a contract' and he just said she should get in touch then shouldn't she. And that's it, I mean that's how I got the contract. I rewrote the book proposal and it got through, came up with MEP. So it's about being out there actually. It's not just about luck, it's about being out there. It doesn't have to be networking in terms of schmoozing, because I'm really bad at that and I always end up just chatting to the nice people in the bar, which is a much more natural way for me than schmoozing. I don't really want to go and talk to the big 'flown in' professor. I'll go and meet someone nice in the bar and have a few drinks. But that actually putting yourself out there means you start understanding what the job involves and you start having a much more realistic idea about what you need to do to get that job if that jobs what you want to do.