Third Contemporary Women’s Writing Skills Workshops

by 

Megan Henesy

FWSA Book with tree

This week the third of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Skills Workshops was held at Leeds Metropolitan University.  The theme of the event, ‘Careers and Employability’, allowed for the discussion of our future as postgraduate students and early career researchers in the Humanities.  We were given advice, support, and a chance to discuss issues that concern us when it comes to promoting ourselves in the competitive academic world, and improving our chances of employment.

The first workshop of the day was led by Dr Rachel Carroll (University of Teeside) on ‘Maximising Your CV’.  As a principal lecturer and head of department, Dr Carroll has had significant experience of shortlisting and interviewing for research and teaching staff, and the main points of advice, which were supported by the other experienced academics present, were as follows:

–        Maintain a resource document which is updated with achievements and new skills as required, but adapt the content and format of your final CV for each application, taking into account the specific context of the role. If the CV is in addition to the application form for an advertised position, then it should work as a footnote or supporting evidence to the application, containing simple to read bullet pointed lists. If, however, the CV is being used as an on-spec application for a position, such as a Visiting Lecturer, then it should include annotations and descriptive content to make up for the lack of a discursive application form.

–        Make your CV factual and transparent.  While it should be obvious that you shouldn’t lie on your CV, you should also make the level of experience you have, or stage that you are at in a process, as clear as possible.  Any confusion could affect your chances of being picked for interview or could be seen as a reason for dismissal later on.  If you are in the process of completing something but haven’t finished yet, give an indication of your current status, for example ‘PhD thesis submitted, viva confirmed for 1/6/14’.  If you are discussing your teaching experience, clarify if you designed the module or just delivered it, if you were hired on a temporary or permanent contract.

–        Make the presentation clear and easy to read by using bullet points and bold lettering for highlighting key words and phrases.  The hiring panel will have possibly hundreds of CVs to look through, so making yours simple to read could help you get onto the shortlist.

–        Title the content correctly, especially when it comes to publications.  If the work is fully published and eligible for submission to the REF, then list it under ‘Publications’.  If it is not published and in the public domain yet, then clarify the stage it is at (work in progress/submitted to publisher/accepted/subject to contract, and so on).  If it is published but not eligible for the REF (like blogs, book reviews, magazine articles), then title it under another section, such as ‘Other Publications’.  This will allow you to include everything that you have worked on or are currently working on, but it will avoid misleading the interview panel or seeming like you don’t know the difference between a journal article and a blog.

–        If you have work experience that was non-academic and doesn’t automatically feel like ‘relevant work experience’, such as administration or customer service, then brainstorm the skills that you developed in that role and use these buzz words to describe the job.  Did it involve leadership, teamwork, autonomy, networking, collaboration, external partnerships, or particular training that could be transferable to the academic role you are applying for?

–        Research the department and the institution that you are applying for, look at their mission statements and agendas and tailor your CV accordingly.

–         Always submit a CV if it is an option as they can help with shortlisting.  There is no hard and fast rule on how long the CV should be, just be sure that you make yourself competitive; use the CV to make an impact.

The second session of the day, ‘Self-promotion beyond the academy – engaging with the media’, was presented by Dr Helen Davies (University of Teeside).  Dr Davies has had experience in TV and radio work, having appeared on The One Show to discuss her work on ventriloquism.

Dr Davies began with the question; ‘why bother with media work?’  While TV and radio work doesn’t help towards the REF, it can help promote many transferrable skills such as public engagement and communication skills, networking, and it can help to make you noticeable and recognisable to other academics and potential employers.  Blogging and writing newspaper or magazine articles can count as forms of ‘other’ publication, helping the institution with advertising and promotion, as well as helping you promote the worthiness of your research.  The negatives related to media work include a lack of control over the final edit and some academics seeing it as ‘dumbing down’ your research, but the positives can outweigh these aspects with it being an excellent experience which can help you think dynamically about your research.

The advice that Dr Davies gave for those who might want to engage with the media was as follows:

–        Describe your work in a concise, clear and snappy way on your University, LinkedIn or other social media profiles, and include a statement along the lines of ‘I welcome enquiries about this area of my research’.

–        Get to know the PR and Marketing people within your institution.  What is marketable about your research?  If there is an event which links to your research, such as a writer you have specialized in having an anniversary or winning a prize, approach the institution’s PR to see if they want you to write an article about it.  PR and the media in general are not usually concerned with hierarchies of department, and often welcome a ‘sound bite’ from a PhD student as readily as one from a Professor.

–        If you are successful in your self-promotion and are invited for an interview, either on TV or radio, make sure you keep your comments interesting and simple.  TV is generally pre-recorded and radio live, so prepare accordingly and make sure you take notes and listen to advice from the producer.   Be clear if expenses are paid, and be wary of how the interview may be edited (you may speak for an hour and find that it is edited down to 30 seconds!)

–         Don’t take yourself too seriously, believe in the worth of it, and enjoy it.  It isn’t for everyone, but if it is something that interests you, go for it!

The third session of the day, ‘“The new Academic” – Academia, Careers and Social Media’, presented by Dr Nadine Muller (Liverpool John Moores University), was a discussion about her website, ‘The New Academic’, which she designed to promote discussion and support for postgraduate students and early career researchers.

The main aim of the website was to create a source for students and researchers who were unsure on points that more experienced academics assume we know, such as how to submit a paper, how to start publishing, how to start teaching, and how to deal with feedback.  These are points that we can sometimes be afraid to ask about, but with a lack of time for trial and error they need to be understood quickly.  Dr Muller’s website provides that support, taking a grassroots approach by acting as a portal for blogs and opinion pieces from people who have experienced what it is like to struggle in academia with finding jobs, applying for funding and publishing for the first time.

A large aspect of the website is also about raising a breaking taboos and encouraging the academic world to see that there is a lack of support out there for students.  Dr Muller has included blogs which deal with what it is like to study while coping with disability, sickness, anxiety and mental illness from academics who have had personal experience of these issues.  There are also pieces related to problems faced with self-funding, learning part-time or long distance, and as Dr Muller has said herself, she has deliberately asked people who have dealt with these issues to talk about them, as there is little point in reading a generic piece from someone who hasn’t been there themselves.

Dr Muller explained that the bonuses of setting up your own website or blog are that it can help with self-promotion and exposure, and in cases like hers where lots of people contribute, there is a strong collaborative element.  Negatives can include people not liking your comments, or feeling that the subjects under discussion may reduce the respect that students feel for you as their lecturer, but that is something that we face as academics in any form of social media or public speaking.  In her opinion, the positives outweigh the negatives, and even those with limited technological knowledge can set up a wordpress blog relatively easily and cheaply.  Her main piece of advice; ‘make these things work for you!’ If you just want to blog, then blog, if you want an elaborate website then learn how to set one up and do it, but only do what you feel comfortable and confident with doing.

The fourth session of the day, ‘Early-Career Researchers and Public Engagement’ was presented by Dr Claire Chambers (University of York).

As a useful starting point, Dr Chambers helped define the terms so often used but not always understood; ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’.  As she explained, public engagement is presenting to, or working with, non-academic audiences – schools, community groups, festivals and even speaking in a market to the general public count as public engagement.  Impact, an idea which is much harder to prove and/or quantify, is literally the impact of your research, either in your own field or in the public.  Some areas are easily to prove than others, for example if your research is scientific and you  have invented a device or drug or cure for something then that has an obvious impact; in humanities the impact could be the amount you are cited on a paper, how many books you have sold, or the further research that a project has prompted.  Dr Chambers did suggest that questionnaires and focus groups can be a good way to “impact capture”, especially if they are performed directly after the event and then a few months later to see if the impact has been genuine and long term.

Areas for public engagement can be split into 5 groups: Government and Public Policy, Media and Corporate, Cultural Organizations, Industry, Communities and Voluntary Bodies, and Museums and Galleries.  In humanities we would be more likely to deal with Cultural Organizations, Communities and Voluntary Bodies and Museums and Galleries but there is scope for working within the other groups also.  Ideas for public engagement include working with schools, organizing literary festivals, interviews, podcasts, collaborative papers, creative writing workshops, reading groups or creating books with community groups.

Dr Chambers mentioned that aspects of the REF are dependent on impact, and this is worth considering for anyone looking for a career in academia.  All grant applications are interested in pathways to impact, and universities are increasingly interested in opening up to the public, establishing trust and appearing more approachable and less elitist.  Her advice: call someone in an organization you are interested in collaborating with, and have a chat.  In many cases community groups and schools are enthusiastic about forging a link with academics and universities, so approach them and give it a go.

The final talk of the day, ‘My Career in the Academy’, was given by Prof Susan Bassnett (University of Warwick), Professor of Comparative Literature at Warwick and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  Prof Bassnett used the session to describe her experiences as a founding scholar in Translation studies, and as the first female Pro Vice-Chancellors of a Russell Group University who also managed to raise four children while writing countless books, articles and journal papers.

Prof Bassnett explained how different it was to be an academic when she began her career compared to now.  There were less pressures to produce publications which made forging an academic career easier; you could write about what interested you rather than what would create the most impact.  On the other hand we are more fortunate now with the tools, such as social media, which allow us to network on a global scale, and as female academics we have the freedom of being able to work in a less explicitly sexist environment than she experienced through much of her career.  Her book Translation Studies, published in 1980, is now on its 4th edition and has more impact now than it did when it was first released; a point, she explained, which proves that some changes and developments in academia can take decades to come about, and that what at first people dismiss as uninteresting can develop into a whole field of research. Change, she argued, comes from the margins.

Prof Bassnett gave a few very useful pieces of advice on creating an academic career as a woman.  To balance a career and family, if that is what you want, you cannot waste time, and so time management is key.  Universities are still not overtly child friendly in the planning of timetables or in providing support through childcare, so you must be adept at managing your personal and professional life side by side.  Bartering can help; if you help others they can help you in return with swapping responsibilities, so be willing to negotiate with colleagues. Be as generous as possible to the next generation; succeeding in academia is getting harder, so we should pass on our good fortunes where we can.  Give praise where it is due; this happens rarely in the academic world and the importance of it is greatly underestimated.  Read everything carefully, and question what you are not sure of.  Network on a macro scale, internationally if possible, and on a micro scale within your own department.  Try not to lose your temper, or you will become known as ‘that hysterical woman’.  Have a sense of humour.  Don’t use children as an excuse; even if they are use something else, or it will be held against you.  Try new things, even menial tasks, as you don’t know where they will lead.  Be bold, be confident, be organized, and be generous.  Coming from someone who has so successfully balanced a career and family life beyond what many of us could dream of, this all seemed like sound guidance.

Megan Henesy

Megan Henesy  is a PhD student at the University of Southampton studying English Literature, and she has previously completed a BA degree in Fine Art at The Arts Institute Bournemouth, and a Masters in Classical Studies through The Open University.  Her main area of research is contemporary women’s writing, in particular the work of Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith.