Saturday, August 30, 2014

Play with the big kids. End.

Graduation Caps by John Walker
This blog was started as part of a digital history class I took back in 2007. In the 7 years since I set it up, I've completed a masters degree in public history at the University of Western Ontario, and have handed in my PhD in history at King's College London.

I am one of a very early group of academics for which our scholarly development is plain to see for future readers. For the rest of my life, my students will be able to go back and read what I thought when I was a masters or PhD student. That's never really happened before. I have no idea what my PhD supervisor was like when he was a student, because his experience was ephemeral and distinctly offline.

On Monday I'll be starting a new chapter, as a lecturer of digital history at the University of Hertfordshire. I'm very grateful for the opportunity and looking forward to it immensely. Since my graduate student days are now at an end, I think it is fitting that I close this blog today, and leave it where it can act as a record to those future students who feel so inclined to see how much brighter they are than I.

But before I go, and because I'm one of the lucky ones who has found my way into an academic job, I thought I'd reflect on the one thing I learned about succeeding as a postgraduate student:

Don't forget to play with the big kids.

All of the people I worried about when I was applying for jobs (the ones I was pretty sure were better than me), were the ones I saw confidently drinking a pint in the midst of a group of senior academics at the pub. The ones sitting at the table of fellow students didn't concern me.

Fellow students can be a great source of friendships. Perhaps even life-long friendships. It's wonderful to make friends your age and I would encourage everyone to do it. But in the short term, there's only so much career advice they can offer.

The student laughing and telling stories in the middle of a group of seniors academics is learning how the academy works from the inside. He or she is picking up tips, learning what selection panels, peer reviewers, editors, examiners, and audience members are looking for. He or she is making connections with scholars at a range of schools who may become collaborators, or who may think of them when a promising student down the line is looking for a supervisor. They'll come to mind when a chapter in an edited collection needs writing, or a third speaker is needed for a panel. They'll have many experienced people to turn to that they can ask: 'would you mind reading this over and giving me your thoughts?' Or: 'What do you know about department X's teaching needs?' And they too are building friendships. Perhaps even life-long friendships.

Those relationships are not merely parasitic. They go both ways. The senior academics too learn from the student, who brings new ideas to the field, or renewed enthusiasm for old ideas. They can challenge the senior scholar to keep up to date with new methods, or to work together on projects of mutual interest. And they too are building friendships. Perhaps even life-long friendships.

Just a few days into my MA programme back in 2007, a man I'd never met named Roy Rosenzweig passed away. He had been the director of the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University. I first heard of Roy through a very thoughtful obituary written by Dan Cohen. In it, Dan commented on Roy's ability to bring people together:

I know of no one with as large an address book and as many friends as Roy. But he didn’t just collect these acquaintances superficially, for show or for his own career ends like so many people do on Facebook or LinkedIn. As his social histories of the United States also emphasize, he viewed every human being as a special resource who brings unique talents and ideas into the world, and he liked nothing more than to connect people with each other.
You may not feel that you're the type who can connect others, but you owe it to yourself to build your address book and your circle of friends. Don't let a gap in age between you and those more experienced than you keep you apart. Meet lots of people. Whenever you can. Learn from them. Listen to them. Teach them a thing or two.

Most of them are willing to talk to you, and if they're not, they're probably just jerks.

You will always not yet know the right people. So next time you're at the pub after a seminar or conference, grab your pint, walk over to the big kids' table, and say confidently, 'So, what did you think of the speaker?'

It might just land you a job, and make new a new friend.

Good luck. And thanks to all my readers over the years. It's been fun growing with you.


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