Welcome back to ‘Voices of Early Career Researchers’, a monthly feature on the French History Network blog. Each month we’ll post a short interview with an Early Career Researcher of History, giving you an insight of the different paths that recent PhD holders are following in and outside academia. We invite our interviewees to share their experiences and we hope that the conversation carries on in universities, conferences and social media.
This academic year, Voices of ECRs focuses on PhD holders who are now working outside traditional academia. Our seventh interviewee is Patrick Longson who submitted his thesis in November of 2013 at the University of Birmingham and subsequently taught in two higher education institutions before joining a secondary school in East London. In this interview Patrick reflects on the challenges faced by ECRs after the PhD and offers insights into the recruitment process of teachers and the work he does with pupils in Dagenham.
Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis? How did you come to this field? Did you work outside academia before the start of your PhD and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?
I went straight from my undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham onto a funded place in their MA Contemporary History. I then was offered a funded post for a PhD in Modern History at Birmingham. At each stage I did not really believe I was capable of a career in academia and I simply assumed I would need to find employment once my course finished. The funding made my decision very easy: why would I not want to study history for longer and learn as much as I could.
I was never really that good at coming up with research ideas, and so I had a lot of help from my supervisors. My eventual project emerged as a kind of hybrid of their research: a combination of media and imperial history. My thesis was entitled ‘The Rise of the German Menace: Imperial Anxiety and British Popular Culture, 1896-1903’. It argues that the origins of British anti-German sentiment can be traced to imperial clashes between Britain and Germany which resulted in outbursts of popular indignation in the British press and public sphere. I argued that imperial entanglements such as the Kruger Telegram Crisis and Venezuela blockade, significantly impacted popular representations in Britain and were a driving force behind anti-German sentiment. In particular the popular sense of an embattled and frail empire which developed as a theme in popular literature during this period drove increasingly shrill reactions in the press. This in turn acted to cement stereotypes and hostile sentiment in popular literature and theatre. I argued that as early as 1903 the British public had become accustomed to referring to Germany as an aggressive, overbearing menace to British imperial security around the world, helping to drive government policy away from prospective détente with Germany. I think in the end, the project never really connected popular sentiment to policy in the way my supervisors had hoped, but I still feel proud that it passed with minor corrections in a viva with two influential British academics.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I submitted my thesis in November of 2013 and had my VIVA in the spring of 2014. In the interim period I was working at QMUL as a member of the teaching staff and providing IT support as an additional money earner.
When and why did you start considering a career outside academia?
I reached the point where my love for the research I was doing had virtually gone. I loved the teaching I was doing and found that this was the thing that I woke up every day wanting to do, not the research and writing needed to support a career as a lecturer. After a couple of unnecessarily harshly worded rejections from prestigious journals in my subject area, and the realisation that I’d have to do much more research and writing on the same material in order to produce the articles and books I needed for the REF, I hit a ‘wall’. After contemplating my situation for a few hours I realised I just did not care enough about having a research career to put myself through this and that all I wanted to do was teach. After looking into my options I realised that teaching in schools was by far the most appropriate career for me. The decision took about two days to come to.
What fields (outside academia) looked the most appealing and why? How did you feel you would fit into them?
I knew I wanted to be in education, above all else. I never really considered anything else. I had always received very positive feedback from students and staff at the universities I taught at and so felt confident that I would fit in. My parents were both school teachers and I already had a fairly clear impression of what to expect. Before I started my MA I had considered going into teaching and so I always felt it was something I could come back to.
What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes?
The application and interview process were extremely (perhaps even remarkably) rapid. I applied through UCAS for 3 posts. Two were in-school training posts and one was for a PGCE at the Institute of Education.
Before going to interview I was definitely focused on the PGCE option, as I was told by many friends in education that this was the best option for experience and to lay the foundation for a career in schools. I was accepted onto the course at the IOE provided I could get experience in schools (time was running out as I had applied in early July and schools were close to the end of term).
I was then offered an interview at one of the School Direct (Salaried) positions. This school in Dagenham invited me to interview and I had about 5 days to prepare an interview lesson. I had just finished marking Third Year dissertations and handed in my notice – I had very little idea of how to plan a Year 9 lesson on the Russian Revolution! I had a huge amount of support and advice from friends and family about how to put the lesson together. A science teacher friend stepped in to teach me the basics, and my parents tutored me through school-focused interview technique. In the end I turned up on a very hot Tuesday afternoon and faced a full class of Year 9s. The lesson rushed by pretty rapidly and I managed to hold the plan together. I then went straight to an interview with the Deputy Principal. The most pertinent question was, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ I had been prepped for this one by my mum who suggested that the school management would be most concerned about whether I was just using this as a stop-gap before I returned to academia. I assured the interviewer that I intended to stay in school education for the long-term and envisaged myself taking on management roles soon. After the interview I got back into my sweltering hot car and drove home, with the feeling that it had gone OK. I got back home and as soon as I got off the phone to my parents, the phone rang and the Deputy Principal offered me the post, on a raised salary to reflect my experience in education and qualifications. It was a significant pay cut, but my gut feeling was to accept – being in the school had totally changed my perspective on whether I needed time to adapt through university-based training. I just wanted to get started as soon as possible. In the space of 7 days I had gone from an academic with a two year contract, to a trainee teacher at a school in Dagenham. Instead of apprehension, I felt like a huge weight had lifted from me. I think for a long time I had felt the pressure to succeed in academia, without believing that I had the will or the ability to actually do so. I haven’t looked back since.
Could you tell us a little about your non-academic career so far and your current job? What are your main responsibilities? How does a typical week in this job look like?
My training year was tough. I started with a timetable of 17 hours of lessons a week (leaving 8 free). On my first full day I faced a very tough group of Year 8s who were used to well organised and experienced teachers. They showed me the ropes pretty quickly. In the first few weeks I was on the phone to my parents daily for advice on behaviour management. I also had help from members of staff, but in reality, when you’re in the classroom you have to find your own way through. After a month or so I stopped dreading the tougher classes and started to find my feet. The training started off pretty slowly but by Christmas I had started to really enjoy learning about the psychology of children and discovered the intellectual challenge of learning and teaching from ages 11 to 18. By chance, I was asked to take over two groups of Y13s after Christmas due to the sudden departure of a member of staff. This changed my whole experience and I loved working with these older students. Their results at the end of the year seemed to show I had done a decent job with them and I was offered two posts, as well as a permanent position as an NQT at the school.
I now act as Key Stage 5 Coordinator for History and also High Achievers Coordinator for 16+. Both roles allow me to draw upon the invaluable experience I gained in Higher Education and I am extremely happy with it. However, these additional roles have presented a significant time-management challenge and this year has been tough. It also happens that I have taken over A Level teaching of a brand new linear syllabus (i.e. no modular AS and A Levels). I had to teach a brand new Coursework module in the Summer and support students through this extremely challenging assessment. They are now asked to write a 4,000 word essay using footnotes and drawing upon the works of three academic historians. Frankly, this is more challenging than most First Year essays. This year I have been planning Y12 and Y13 modules from scratch, whilst trying to stay on top of my other responsibilities and year groups. Some weeks have been extremely hard and since Christmas I have worked outside of school hours virtually every day in order to keep on top of my marking load. Despite this, I can say without doubt that I love my job. Working with students every day and seeing them progress is one of the greatest thrills one can experience. Unlike university where you might see a student 10 times a term, I see my Y13s three times a week, and feel I can have far more of an impact upon their academic development. Equally, I have been able to support the development of Y12 and Y13 High Achievers with extracurricular opportunities ranging from debating competitions, one-to-one tuition and even a trip to Japan with three of our leading debaters.
The most important thing with my role is that I feel I am able to contribute significantly to the lives of the hundreds of students I teach. I always felt that the historical research I did was satisfying, but would never really contribute to our society and community. My current job allows me to experience daily challenges and successes, and the greatest reward is seeing children from challenging backgrounds gain a passion for history and skills that can equip them for successful careers.
How has your training as an academic facilitated the transition to a job outside academia?
I draw on my academic training every single working day of the year. The reading, research and teaching that I did in Higher Education inform my planning, marking and teaching directly. Equally, the IT skills I developed through my research and support roles benefit me hugely in keeping on top of data and managing my various roles. Although a PhD is not essential to be a history teacher, it is a significant advantage to have spent more time thinking about historical processes and methodology, especially when working in 16+ education. I do not regret my studies for a moment and am so glad that I came to teaching after pursuing my own fascination with history. I have no doubt it will continue to make me a better teacher and education professional.
What advice can you give to graduate students considering a career outside academia?
My supervisors were extremely supportive and they gave me excellent advice about career paths. Even in my first year of doctoral studies I sat down with my supervisor and grilled him about the realities of a career in academia. His advice stayed with me: do not feel that a career in academia is for everyone. He always said that I needed to decide whether it was right for me, not because of whether I was able to do it, but if I would actually be happy doing it. For a long time I believed that if I didn’t become a lecturer, I would be a failure; an intellectual dwarf. This is so far from the truth and I have now come to see this much more clearly. A career in academia takes a lot of patience, self-belief, bloody-mindedness and an ability to work alone for long periods. I never possessed an abundance of any of these characteristics, and ultimately I wanted to work with people, for people.
Just don’t believe that choosing a career outside of academia represents a personal failure. Most academics I met were extremely supportive and kind hearted, but there was a prevailing belief that research was the ‘holy grail’ – nothing else really mattered. All I ever wanted to do was lecture and teach; I pretended otherwise, but the research grants always seemed like a tool to allow me to get a lectureship and teach as many students for as long as possible. Because of the emphasis placed on research, the idea that someone would want to do something else is not considered. Don’t be afraid to admit that it is not for you.
I still read academic texts and find intellectual stimulation easy to find in my work, and my private life. Every now and then I long to sit in an archive and leaf through a box file; but I soon remember the loneliness and frustration I used to feel and it passes. I will always be fascinated by history and will maintain my academic interest. I miss much about working in universities, but mostly it is the students and the staff, rather than my research. Even if you are absolutely certain that academic career is for you, it is definitely worth trying out other options too. You never know what you might find that makes you happy and fulfils you.