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Russell - finishing up and moving on
Name: Russell
PhD discipline: History
Area(s) of work: BBC archives; university teaching
Year of graduation: 1998
Date of Interview: 02/06/2008

Now Playing: Russell - finishing up and moving on
Russell revisits the stress of the final year of his PhD, when time and money were running out. He also recalls the manoeuvring he had to do for several years afterwards in order to secure academic work.

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I'm really interested in a transition period so that's the last year of your PhD and into the year that followed the PhD. Can you talk me through that in some detail? 

Yeah, the last year, that's and that is quite, that's quite a scary one because your finishing point is suddenly well within sight. You've got, well certainly it would be even more worrying if you didn't have the information that you think you'll need, come the end. But you're writing up, you've got so many different things on your mind because on the one hand what you're most focussed on is finishing your PhD and getting all this research you've done into a coherent and readable form but you're also worrying about what comes next. You've got the kind of ongoing worries about finance and all that kind of stuff and so it's quite a daunting period. Like I say, I think I kind of closed down and thought 'right I'm just going to make sure I pass because if I pass that's that obstacle out of the way'.

If I had my time again, like I say, I might have thought about saying, almost if I'd taken another two months to finish the PhD, [if I'd] spent those two months writing an article and getting it sent off it might have been a better use of my time but I was very aware that money would run out once I'd finished my PhD and all of those kind of material concerns. So, the final year, yeah it's a very daunting one and again, and I think everyone goes through it, you do, you have another one of those intellectual crises at the end, well just when it all finishes and you're thinking this isn't, this isn't any good, what am I doing? And again, I think almost everyone I've ever spoken to has said they felt that. So it's difficult, it's a difficult thing to do, it's enjoyable doing a PhD but it's hard and that third year's probably the hardest because it's about to end. So I had my target, it had to be in by I think July 1998 and I had that as my target, my money ran out I think at the end of September, I wanted it submitted and to have passed by the time my money stopped because I had this idea that then I'd just evolve into another job which kind of isn't how it worked.

So, I hit my deadline, finished the PhD and another thing, my supervisor said, he said, the PhD as it stands when you finish is not the book that's going to come out so don't worry about it being the book, make sure it's a good PhD and turn it into a book later which I think was good advice. So I kind of made sure it was a good PhD, did what it had to do, put it in, at the end of July and then had, well I had to go up to the university and had my, what's it called, a viva. Where a chap came down from another university and they all seemed to go off for lunch and leave me sweating in the department and they all came back and before I went in, I probably shouldn't say this but before I went in the room my supervisor said 'oh congratulations, everything's ok' so I went in and they said 'yep you've got it, that's fine, interesting and good', they asked me a few questions and there we go. I think I had a very easy ride with the viva. I know of other people and it's a lot more difficult And, then, so once I'd got that so I had a day of thinking, 'fantastic, I can now call myself doctor and isn't that wonderful' and then reality hit and the more you think right, ok, now, I need to get a job. And that was when my supervisor was good again, he said what I've done, well there'll definitely be teaching for you in the next two terms but what we need to do now is start sending out job applications and keeping our eyes open for openings at other places and so I kind of, from then on really I spent half my time doing application forms and half my time writing up articles in between doing these little bits of teaching and send it. And it was about then, no it was then exactly actually, October '98, just as I finished, sent off the spec letters off to all the universities in my area saying here's my CV, here's what I can teach and what I have done, just let me know if anything comes up. So I sent out about thirty five letters of which I got umm three opportunities out of them, most came back saying we haven't got anything at the moment but three, like where I am now, my letter landed on the desk literally the day somebody walked into the office and said I've got a job somewhere else, so it's pure luck. And at the end of each term I did it as well so I sent them all off in September and then all off again in December to the same places and all off again in March again saying I've, since I last wrote I've done this that and the other but I'm still interested and over time I kind of built up bits of experience at different universities doing teaching and always had enough just to keep me ticking over.

How long is it between being viva-ed and getting your first bit of work?

That was, that happened to be seamless because the bit of work was at the same institution so there was no gap. The only ever gap I've had in my employment was in March '93 where the Easter term finished and the summer term started at the end of April and I had managed to get something sorted out but I had about six weeks with no work or no income so I had to get a sort of part-time job through a friend and did a bit of work then but I did know that I was going to go back and do some teaching at where I am now actually. But the irony there is that the part-time job paid me more money than I earned here until recently I think because it just made you realise, kind of, there are other jobs out there that do earn more money but I hated doing it. I worked in a solicitor's offices helping out in the secretary's office basically, it was awful, it was horrible but I earned more money doing it than I did do for quite a long time in academia.

So the three institutions that get back to you to offer you teaching, do they all fit together to enable you to work at them simultaneously?

Let me see, how did it work out? Come out of where I was at, did my PhD and I taught there and then in January I worked at three different places. There were two different places in January to March, of my first year after my PhD, then between April and the summer I worked in three different places. The job at where I was for my PhD was gone and so then I did have three different institutions where I'd go in on different days and do different courses. One of those institutions, the one I'm at now also had a continuing education department and I did a bit of night-time teaching there as well, some courses, people doing access courses so I did a bit of work there. So I was literally doing these potted bits all over the country so at one point I was travelling, you know, to different parts of the country to do teaching and it was eating into how much money I earned but I thought it's got to be worth it just to build up the experience, to meet people and to make sure I just hung in there. Because what scared me most was that lying about the, not having the headed note paper to apply for jobs (laughter) but, you know, I must always have my foot in some door or somewhere while I was applying.

How did you manage that with the travelling and having to produce courses for these three different places?

It was hard but it's, it gives you work at three different places not three full-time jobs so they were like three part-time jobs really so I did have time. I think one of the courses at two of the places was probably quite similar to each other as well so that you can do. And also once your courses are kind of done, they're done in but in the basis of them so once, they're, some of them were being written while I was doing my PhD more or less so I could then transfer them and tweak them to fit in with the next institution I was moving on to. But at one point, it was, you know, I would get up on a Tuesday and I was like right where am I going today and I'd go get a tube and a train and a bus and be somewhere out in the middle of Hertfordshire and the next day I'd be in another county and that was, there wasn't, I look back on it now and it seems quite fun but at the time it was quite hard, it was quite hard and I was very relieved that once I kind of got, I kind of went from being part-time work to a short-term one year contract at the place where I'm at now, that felt really quite a relief because it meant right, now I can concentrate on this one, this is the play for – I'm in and I'm doing a full-time job it's just on a short-term contract.

And did they interview you for all of these part-time jobs?

Yeah, every single one I kind of went in and had a chat with the head of department and they talked to me about what I'd done, it wasn't like a formal interview with other people but it was, you know, they didn't just say, you know turn up on a certain date and do it, I kind of came and talked to them about it.

Can you remember the kind of questions they asked you?

It was quite straight forward really. If we needed you to teach a course on so and so, could you do it? Have you taught anything like that before? What kind of thing would you do if you had to organise a two hour seminar on this topic? How would you go about doing it? Then it just went onto, did you know so and so who was at university you were at before? (laughter) So it was quite kind of straight forward really in that kind of instance, it's obvious very different to an interview you'd get if you were actually going for a job, a proper full-time job somewhere.

Can you pick up the story then from, the institution you're at now, you were at teaching part-time then what happened?

I was teaching part-time for essentially a year and a half and while I was doing that and this is definitely a good thing for people to do, is I applied for funding from a funding body, the Leverhulme trust, or how you say it, Leverhulme. In order to do a pilot research project and in order to do, I mean basically I asked them for a wage essentially or certainly half my wage for a year and I said to the institution I was at, I said right I'll get half my wage here and have a bit of teaching as well to make up the other half of the wage and they'll both be a full year instead. And so I put in to Leverhulme project was successful so I got my twelve and a half thousand pounds research money for my, to pay me to be a researcher for half of my time and I think the other half of that, another twelve thousand pounds approximately was paid me for doing half a load of teaching for the year. And I got kudos which is very important nowadays of having research money and so that kind of, when I look back on it now possibly people would disagree, the powers that be here would disagree but that's how I felt I got properly in to the department. I no longer felt like a temp kind of coming in every now and again doing bits and bobs, I felt like someone who properly integrates themselves in the department and moves properly onto the next project, research project, in a proper sense.

And after that year, that kind of went well and at the end of that year somebody else in the department had a year's leave to do research and so there was another year's contract opened up so because it had gone well and I'd got a couple of publications out of what I'd done, I got offered that year's teaching and in that year I wrote another couple of papers and put the base together for another book. And at the end of that year, I had kind of got into the situation where I had probably published quite a lot of stuff, they didn't have a job here but I was kind of so far in to the department and it would be difficult to get rid, I had students who wanted to do my courses, I was, you know, my publications meant that I wasn't just a complete rookie, I was somebody who could, you know, at least, kind of, what's the right word, expect to have some work. And again somebody was on research leave and so I filled that space again and while I did that I put in for a big funding bid at the AHRC for a big project and got that so by the end of the year I was on another short-term contract, I suddenly got a two year grant basically from the AHRC and as a result of that I was given a full-time contract partly because the department was expanding again at the time and so opportunities were coming up and basically they had someone on their doorstep who, I would like to think at the time, fell into a job at that point having got the AHRC money so they employed me. And once that project finished, that's when I got the readership so that's kind of how it went. 

How long was it between finishing the PhD and getting a permanent contract?

Erm, let's see, eight years. Yeah.

And then, how many years after that did you get the readership?

Just now, so two.

And what does it mean to have a readership and who do you get it from?

To get, when I got my permanent contract, one of the professors in the department said 'right now put in for the readership' he said 'because just how it had been with me', he said 'what you've got on your CV is better than most people have as a readership or a senior lecturer so put in for it straight away' and so I did. And what it basically means as a readership is kind of parallel with a senior lecturer so it, if you look at it in a simple way, it's the stage in between being a lecturer and a professor, so it's kind of the next stage up, that's how I saw it anyway and it means the reader's distinct from the, in terms of, the emphasis is on the research rather than on administrative, I'm not pining to be head of department or at another university, I'm one of those ones who wants to carry on doing the books and the research and stuff like that.

So does that mean that you're heading towards the professorship?

It'd be nice in the future, I'm not particularly precious about these titles as long as I can, what means most to be is having flexibility with my time to do things I'm interested in but that's the career trajectory I suppose.

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