Postgraduate Futures Conference Report 1999

By Tory Young with Rychard Carrington

Although by nature a little depressing at times, it was certainly the most useful and interesting conference I’ve been to in some four years of postgraduacy [sic]. – David Rudrum, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

  • Introduction
  • Report on Postgraduate Teaching Practice (from Professor Regenia Gagnier)
  • Session on Getting Published (Led by Dr. John Mullan)
  • Workshop on Job Applications (Led by Professor Judy Simons)
  • Discussion on Rewriting a Thesis of Submission, Preparing for a Viva (Led by Professor Dame Gillian Beer)
  • Conclusion

Introduction

The 1999 Postgraduate Futures Conference took place at the Cambridge Campus of Anglia Polytechnic University on Saturday 10 July. The original aims were twofold: firstly, to provide an opportunity for postgraduate students of English to receive practical advice on how to negotiate crucial early stages in an academic career; secondly, to provide a forum in which delegates could raise and discuss issues of concern. Rather than offer an array of small workshops, the conference organisers (Dr Rebecca Stott, Professor Rick Rylance and myself) decided to base the conference programme around four plenary sessions, each focusing on a major area of postgraduate career development: teaching, publishing, preparing a thesis for examination, and applying for jobs. Each session lasted ninety minutes, and each consisted of a paper given by a senior academic, followed by an open discussion. These discussion periods were consistently lively and fruitful, indicating the high level of strong feelings and articulate thought on topics within the postgraduate community, and proving the value of the conference as a rare opportunity for expression of opinions upon issues fundamental to the English postgraduate community. It was in response to these discussions that Rebecca Stott wrote an article for the Times Higher Educational Supplement entitled “No jobs for the boys … or girls” (which has been published at http://www.leicester.ac.uk/engassoc/pg/index.html). This article in return stimulated debate in the letters page of subsequent editions (see THES July 16 1999 and beyond).

The conference attracted more than eighty postgraduates, from over thirty different universities. This impressive turnout is surely in part a reflection of the current climate in English Departments of anxiety and uncertainty about the notoriously competitive job market. Recent statistics show only 18% of academic appointments made last year were for permanent contracts, compared to 40% three years earlier and 90% twenty years ago. Most of the delegates were in the first two years of writing a doctoral thesis; a few were MA students intending to register for PhDs in the future. An eager desire for greater information about the changing character of an academic career was very evident; many delegates reported that their departments had not raised awareness of HEFCE, the QAA and the likely impact of the RAE on their future research decisions. Indeed, when the first speaker, Professor Regenia Gagnier, delivered her paper, it became evident that many delegates were unfamiliar with some of the acronyms and names she was citing. Professor Gagnier urged a familiarity with the relevant organisations, as a first step towards greater empowerment for academics, including postgraduates; in particular she advocated the utilisation of these bodies as a means of lobbying parliament. For this reason I have provided a brief glossary:

  • AHRB – Arts and Humanities Research Board
  • CCUE – The Council for College and University English – the professional body representing English as a college and university subject.
  • The English Association – organisation representing English.
  • Dearing Report – In May 1996 a committee headed by Sir Ron Dearing was appointed to make recommendations on how the purposes, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop to meet the needs of the UK over the next 20 years. Their report was submitted in July 1997.
  • HEFCE – Higher Education Funding Council in England
  • ILTHE – Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
  • MLA – Modern Language Association of America; the professional body of English and modern language staff in all higher education institutions in the US.
  • NPC – National Postgraduate Committee
  • QAA – The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education was established in 1997 and has responsibility for assessing the quality of HE in England and Northern Ireland under the terms of a contract with the HEFCE.
  • RAE – Research Assessment Exercise – a four or five yearly census of research by Department which results in a research ranking of 1-5* upon which research monies are allocated by HEFCE.
  • SEDA – Staff and Educational Development Association

Report on Postgraduate Teaching Practice (from Professor Regenia Gagnier)

Professor Regenia Gagnier, Chair at Exeter University, and a leading commentator on higher education in Britain and the US, lead the session on postgraduate teaching practice. Professor Gagnier has pioneered a SEDA-accredited Teaching Assistant programme at Exeter, along the lines of one she directed at Stanford (see below). Professor Gagnier suggested that recent American experience offers salutary lessons for British academics. She discussed two reports published by the MLA in December 1997.

The first, entitled The Final Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment, analysed the history and current crisis of “the academic job system.” In the post-war period there was both a rapid professionalisation of research and a democratisation of student access to university education. As a result there was an increased demand for both undergraduate teachers and high level researchers. This demand resulted in the unevenly developed introduction of the graduate programme which trained graduate students for research while employing them as teachers of lower-division, or first-year courses. While universities were still richly financed by state, federal, and private sources this system functioned adequately; graduate students were trained to teach, and were usually rewarded with full-time tenure-track jobs. However, the combination of the end of the Cold War and the neoliberal withdrawal of commitment to higher education on the part of government and taxpayers drastically reduced the numbers of full-time permanent positions. If postgraduate study was simply a means of training students for their own employment, numbers could be reduced accordingly to fit the number of jobs available. However, the simultaneous increase in undergraduate numbers has meant that reduced numbers of postgraduates would result in a shortage of teachers. Furthermore the social and material rewards for research, in terms of appointments, promotions, professional status, and material benefits result in the staff withdrawal from undergraduate teaching. The MLA reported that in 1997 part-timers constituted 40% of total staff in higher education in the US; these part-timers mostly worked under markedly less favourable than those applying to full-time staff with a license to research.

The MLA responded to the crisis on a number of fronts:

  • It sought to convert devalued part-time positions into full-time posts with equal access to pay, benefits, research, and teaching.
  • In its second report, A Guide to Evaluating the Mission, Size, and Composition of Your Doctoral Programs it instructed that every graduate programme in English and the Modern Languages should conduct and publish a self-study to be distributed to prospective graduate students.
  • It strongly recommend an increase in dialogue for graduate students, within their specialist fields, with other graduate students and with senior academics.

Applying these considerations to the situation in contemporary British universities, Professor Gagnier suggested that the MLA’s recommendation of a self-study could be fruitfully applied to postgraduate programmes here, especially with regard to giving prospective students accurate information on pedagogy, and on post-PhD job prospects. She endorsed the call for greater dialogue, claiming that most British PhD students are seriously disadvantaged by their isolation, at most universities having contact with only their thesis supervisors. A graduate student whose sole dialogue is with one staff member, however eminent, will be at a disadvantage in the job market, competing with students who have experienced broader direct contact with practitioners of the numerous ideological positions and methodologies in the field of contemporary English studies.

Professor Gagnier suggested that professionalisation, as has effectively been occurring in the US, would be a liberating influence which postgraduates should embrace, despite the resistance to the idea which exists here in some quarters. Professionalisation would reduce the stress caused by working in environments of uncertainty and mystification. Professionalisation is partly about freedom of information: the dissemination of full and accurate information to all concerned about how teaching, research, funding, publication and academic social culture actually work.

Professor Gagnier observed that the American post-war experience has been echoed in Britain. In the last two decades Britain has suffered a comparable withdrawal of funding to higher education coupled with an increase in student access, while the RAEs have affirmed a comparable reification of research, based on a multi-tiered system. Unlike the US, Britain has a number of organisations dedicated to the planning of higher education (see glossary above). However, if these bodies fail to collaborate adequately on the matter of relating teaching to research, then professionalisation might lead to academics themselves taking a more pro-active role, in the face of dirigiste government. Professor Gagnier concluded with the hope that the conference delegates could form a caucus to consider and promote the concerns of graduate students. This could be facilitated by making Postgraduate Futures an annual event.

Meanwhile at Exeter Professor Gagnier has already begun the professionalisation of postgraduate English studies with the introduction of the Teaching Assistantships scheme. In the first year of a postgraduate’s participation in the scheme, s/he regularly attends the seminars of an experienced staff member. The postgraduate marks 50% of the undergraduate’s coursework, under the experienced teacher’s supervision. In the second and third years, the postgraduate leads her/his own seminars, and is responsible for 100% of the marking, although this will be reviewed by the supervisor periodically. The postgraduate can compile a portfolio of this experience, leading to a qualification as an Associate Teacher in Higher Education.

The desirability of wider implementation of such schemes was indicated when a show of hands revealed that while two-thirds of the conference delegates taught in their own departments, few would achieve any professional qualification as a result.

Session on Getting Published (Led by Dr. John Mullan)

Dr John Mullan, a Senior Lecturer at University College London, who has written about and edited many works of eighteenth-century literature and is a reviewer for the Guardian, LRB and TLS, led the second session on how to get published. His advice covered four areas: monographs, articles in academic journals, editing and reviewing.

Monographs

Why publish? A PhD is a kind of academic driving licence, but there are many more people on the roads now. In the past it may have been regarded as a bonus which would guarantee employment, but now it is expected as the first in a number of achievements. Everyone has a good teaching reference, so employers, thinking of the next RAE, will look to a candidate’s record of publications instead. All postgraduates should consider this from the moment that their PhD subject is conceived, and take advice at an early stage as to whether their work is potentially publishable.

But is there still a market for monographs when for publishers commerce is the issue? Yes, a core university library market exists which allows, for instance, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press (companies which have charitable status) to make a profit (although not for you as author). Other publishers, however, have moved away from the monograph.

What makes a thesis attractive to a publisher? Firstly, while a good doctoral thesis usually has a narrow focus, a publisher will demand the opposite in a book; breadth. To make a thesis appeal to a publisher, the subject often needs to be broadened, giving historical context and making it relevant to a whole period. Secondly, publishers like to categorise texts and to do so according to courses and modules – Shakespeare, Romantics, Victorians, Modernists etc. Niches still matter; look at the existing catalogues of publishers to find yours. Thirdly, is your subject/title ‘sexy’? Can you make it ‘sexier’?

How should I choose a publisher? Again, consider the catalogues and your own knowledge of a publisher’s specialisms; who publishes the best texts in your area? Don’t be random in your application.

How should I approach a publisher? Don’t do it blind. Firstly, get the name of a commissioning editor in the right department. Secondly, try and get a patron to send a recommendation prior to your own applications. Although they may deny it matters, publishers will listen to the opinions of academics they already know – perhaps approach a company who have published the work of your supervisor or examiner. Then you can submit your own proposal.

What should I include in my proposal? The publishing company may have their own guide on writing proposals. However, a few principles will generally apply. Again, think commercial. It is important to define your market; to outline the competition, the other books in your area, and suggest why they are inferior! Explain what your thesis does better – giving a synopsis – and above all, what changes you will make to it. The most common criticism expressed by academic readers, to whom your book will be sent, is that it is still a thesis.

Articles

Some points to consider:

  • There are real opportunities for the publication of articles – it is estimated that as many as one in three articles which are submitted are accepted. However, they can take almost as long as a book to get published.
  • Academic journals are very important for theses which will not easily be published by books.
  • Whilst it is important to consider articles as you are writing your thesis, you must also ensure that they stand alone.
  • Again, target your articles to specialised journals and try and get a patron to introduce you.

Editing

Why edit?
Editing can be a satisfying and concentrated project which enable you to influence readers. Furthermore, unlike the publication of your own work you will be paid to edit someone else’s.

What are the opportunities?
Currently the publishing world is engaged in something of a trade war with the ‘classics’ list of various companies under continual expansion and improvement. Such publishers look to academics to undertake this work. If your research is opening up a neglected area or author you are particularly likely to find editing work. Here again, patronage is very important.

Reviewing

Why do it? Reviewing can advance your career, but more significantly is a rigorous exercise which will improve your reading and writing skills.

Reviewing for academic journals:
Most journals are hungry for reliable reviewers: introducing yourself to editors (by email) may reap dividends. If you maintain a familiarity with catalogues and adverts in order to volunteer for particular tasks you will probably be more successful. However, as with all kinds of reviewing, personal contact with an editor will work best.

Commercial Reviewing:

There isn’t much to say about this except that it’s all about getting your foot in the door. It’s worth considering in the long term however, not least as a supplement to an academic salary!

Discussion on Rewriting a Thesis of Submission, Preparing for a Viva (Led by Professor Dame Gillian Beer)

Professor Dame Gillian Beer, President of Clare Hall, Cambridge, who has published widely on the interactions of literature and scientific writing, and supervised and examined many theses, was invited to lead discussion on the processes of editing and rewriting a thesis for submission and how to prepare for a viva.

Professor Beer introduced her session with an anecdote as to how she was advised to structure her time as a PhD student: the first term of the nine to be spent on postgraduate study should be spent writing an introduction to the thesis, followed by chapter one in term two, chapter two in the third and so on until six chapters and a conclusion were written, leaving one term in which to revise and submit. If only the writing of a thesis could be like this! Of course, it can’t and I have summarised the more constructive advice that Professor Beer offered.

  • Introductions always need to be written last (even if an earlier version has been drafted); first chapters have a habit of turning into third or fourth chapters. The roman road imagined takes some nasty turns askew!
  • In the third year of research, coming towards the end of funded time and, you hope, of your dissertation, you will have chosen your fundamental organisation: perhaps chronological, perhaps thematic, perhaps driven by a particular theoretical reading, but you still need to be flexible – to move materials around, to compress, cut or expand. What you will have is a mass of archaeological material, essay chapters written years ago or last week. The question you must ask is, taking account of the pattern of chronology, how can you make them cohere?
  • The threat of banality: it all seems so obvious now – why should anyone want to read it? You have worked on it so long it’s hard to distinguish the recondite from the familiar; this is where the figure of the reader becomes crucial. First drafts are exploratory and introspective; the final draft is extroverted, pointed out towards the reader. Your supervisor as the first reader will help you with that process, but it’s your responsibility above all – by now your supervisor is also very familiar with your argument, so;
  • Imagine the intelligent reader: help and encourage them. Provide an enjoyable, accessible opening (beware of the anecdote, which only very learned new historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt do well, because the jump from the single instance to the general can be misleading).
  • Read again, revise all openings and closings of chapters. Make sure there are strong links developed between one chapter and the next, but also a sense of completion within each unit.
  • Accuracy: check your quotations; use early or standard editions and check back to the originals of quotations from secondary sources (this should have been done earlier: remember context is revealing). Check your references, making sure they are consistent with the form franchised by your university. Leave twice as much time as you foresee needing for checking, plus a further twelve hours for those elusive lost references, the breakdown of your printer etc.
  • How do you know when it’s finished? Discuss with your supervisor, consider the range of evidence you’ve used. This is not a life work; what can reasonably be accomplished in three years? Remember Henry James’ insight that relations stop nowhere and it’s the work of the artist to draw a circle round a particular area. Be scrupulous but not constipated!
  • You are responsible for finding out about timing – when do the committees take place which assign examiners (after early July there may none until October). Remember examiners need time to read, and to arrange meeting dates.
  • Examiners will start with an interest in your topic (they wouldn’t have accepted the task of reading it otherwise). They want to learn from you; ideally they hope to be excited by what you’ve done. Certainly they expect a contribution to knowledge: it may be chiefly fresh archive work; a new slant on known material; a fresh set of relations. Originality can be a bugbear. The whole dissertation must be manifestly thought through by you. It might not have turned up completely unknown evidence but it needs to make the different kinds of evidence used shed light on each other. You need to acknowledge other’s work – placing yourself in a community but disengaging your argument from what has gone before so that it doesn’t vanish in allusions.
  • Discuss the viva in advance – think of likely issues.
  • In the viva: listen to what’s been asked and respond. Don’t rush into long statements but sustain your position without too much compliance. Show your knowledge of context as the opportunity arises but be selective; don’t wave to everyone – sentences with three theorists in them are suspect. Some examiners will tell you the outcome of the viva; some will not. Seek their advice on publication.

Workshop on Job Applications (led by Professor Judy Simons)

Professor Judy Simons, Dean of Humanities at De Montfort University and member of the Arts and Humanities Research Board, lead a workshop on job applications. Before offering advice on writing a CV and interview skills she began her session by affirming the qualitities of the English postgraduate, urging delegates to:

Know your strengths!

You are:

  • Highly educated
  • Enthusiastic
  • Committed
  • Motivated to find a job

You possess these skills:

  • High level literacy skills
  • Subject knowledge which is both specialised and general
  • Advanced analytical skills
  • Experience of the academic environment/teaching skills
  • Research skills
  • Creative thinking
  • Communication skills – debate, oral and aural
  • Ability to synthesise complex arguments and ideas

Your CV should not:

  • be longer than two sides of A4
  • be handwritten
  • contain details of irrelevant qualifications (500metres breastroke)
  • contain details of irrelevant work experience (the underwear counter at Next)

Your CV should:

  • contain details of relevant qualifications (degrees, Higher Education teaching qualifications)
  • contain details of relevant skills (foreign languages, word processing etc.)
  • contain details of awards: grants; university studentships; prizes; travel grants
  • give the names and addresses of two referees
  • contain a section on Publications:
  • give title, place and date of publication, with a separate section for forthcoming articles/books etc.
  • books (with extra brownie points if with a reputable publisher)
  • articles in scholarly journals (e.g. Critical Survey, Critical Quarterly)
  • reviews in scholarly journals
  • or well known literary magazines (e.g. Stand, Granta)
  • conference papers

Your supporting statement should not:

  • contain a synopsis of your thesis
  • be overpowering in your use of jargon
  • make claims you cannot support or justify
  • be too enthusiastic about the institution to which you are applying

Your supporting statement should:

  • explain the topic of your thesis clearly and succinctly
  • say why your academic skills and interests fit their job
  • be snappy!
  • expand on three key points, for example: your research interests; teaching experience; how you want to develop

Frequently asked interview questions:

  • why do you want this job?
  • why do you think you are suitable for this job? (i.e. why should we appoint you?)
  • research questions
  • research future: what next after the thesis? What’s your big idea?
  • teaching questions
  • (civil service questions): strengths and weaknesses; where do you see yourself in 5/10 years time?

GOOD LUCK!

Conclusion

To any delegate who still perceived academic life as a bed of roses, the first Postgraduate Futures must have been dispiriting. Yet the energy throughout the day actually felt buoyant. As Professor Simons reminded us, we all possess considerable valuable qualities, which have enabled us to get to this stage. The sound advice offered during the day should enable us utilise these qualities in rising to the considerable challenges which the current circumstances present. Perhaps even more importantly, there was a very exciting sense that the conference was initiating a process by which isolated voices of frustration could be transformed into a powerful chorus, providing mutual support while inputting forcefully into political debate concerning the future of English higher education and research.

Following the success of Postgraduate Futures and many delegate’s strongly expressed desire to form a national caucus of postgraduate English students, the organisers at APU have decided to hold the conference again next year on Saturday 8 July 2000. For details please contact Dr Tory Young or Rychard Carrington at the address below. We would also like to hear from anyone with suggestions of topics for the agenda:

eng-conferences@anglia.ac.uk

Dr Tory Young / Rychard Carrington
Department of English
Anglia Polytechnic University
East Road
Cambridge
CB1 1PT

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