Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Blog CXXIII (123): Eight Questions: Economic History

Siobhan Talbott is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, having previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, after receiving her Ph.D. from the University of St Andrews in 2010. Talbott specialises in early modern British and European economic and social history, and is currently preparing her first monograph for publication entitled Conflict and Commerce: Franco-Scottish Relations, 1560-1713.  This study explores the effect of domestic and international upheaval, which characterised the seventeenth century, on Franco-Scottish (and -British) economic, social and political relationships. Her work has won several prizes, including the IHR’s Pollard Prize in 2011 and the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland’s research essay prize in 2009.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Economic history is undergoing something of a revival. After a period when the significance of the topicparticularly British/Scottish economic historyhas been questioned, the field is enjoying resurgence and a new vitality. This is due largely to the emergence of new methodologiesin my own work I integrate social approaches to economic topics, primarily using private source material including merchants’ account books, letter-books and correspondence to supplement what can be learned from conventional methodologies, which have focused on official records; on customs figures, port books, and government legislation. I think one of the greatest strengths of this field, and the history profession more widely, is its ability to adapt and to explore things in new ways, continually developing our understanding of the past.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
At the moment, funding is of course a major issue in all fields. It is becoming increasingly difficult to win money from research councils, whether at a junior or senior faculty levelyet universities are placing more and more emphasis on bringing in international funding. The lack of academic posts is also an issue, particularly for young scholarsthough I believe that if institutions can weather the storm, the increased competition will make the profession stronger in the long-term. In my own field, there has been something of a reluctance among some scholars to accept emerging methodologies as validpersonally, I think that the benefits gained from these approaches and the more nuanced view we have of topics where these methodologies have been applied should mitigate these concerns.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
For me, the most interesting work currently being undertaken is precisely this; the integration of different approaches to economic topics. Rather than taking a traditional, purely economic approach, many scholars are considering political, social and cultural aspects of economic topicsincluding, for example, investigating the formation of commercial communities and networks, or exploring the effect of migration patterns and settlement on economic development. As an economic and social historian, the development of qualitative approaches to subjects that have traditionally been quantitative is work that particularly interests me. I also believe that this approach is resulting in higher levels of student engagement with ‘economic history’, something which has been in decline in many institutions.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
This depends a little on the precise career path you follow, but teaching is an essential part of traditional academic development. In terms of being awarded academic posts, research remains crucial, but teaching experience is also importantincreasingly important in the UK as tuition fees have increased so much in recent years. For personal development too, teaching and designing modules based on your own research can be invaluable in shaping and clarifying your own ideas. In addition, those we teach are going to become the historians of the futureso it is essential to provide high-quality and varied instruction.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Primarily, be aware that whatever goes into print will be around for the rest of your career! As a young academic, evidence of a strong publication record is essential, but quantity should not necessarily be pursued at the expense of quality. It is important to publish articles in high-quality journals and books with academic presses who have a good reputationbut in terms of getting your work (and your name) known, publication in edited collections and conference proceedings is also useful. My advice would be to say yes to as much as you can, but don’t be pushed into publishing anything you are not happy with, and try to ensure that what you say yes to will be respected academically. Seek advice from established scholarsincluding your doctoral supervisor, but also others, both within and outwith your field. Advice from relatively newly-established scholars (maybe someone who has been in a permanent post for a couple of years) can be invaluablethough in my experience, everyone’s advice is different and in the end you should do what you feel is best! Remember also that there are a number of different outlets. More public-oriented publications, such as historical magazines, are a good way of demonstrating public engagement, which is becoming increasingly important.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
In my opinion, the issue most affecting career development is family pressures. I think it’s an unfortunate truth that academia is, in many ways, best suited to single individuals who are free to move aroundboth for jobs and for research. If you are serious about developing an academic career, you need to be prepared to move to where the best jobs are, which may not always be possible if you have a family. The popularity of the field is an issue, but can work both positively and negativelyif you are in a field which is very popular, there will be more people competing for jobs in that field; on the other hand, there are likely to be more jobs to apply forparticularly if there is high student demand for modules on those topics. The reputation of your institution is very importantbut you must also make sure that you are at an institution that has the expertise necessary for your particular field, and a research culture that will help your career to develop. In terms of resources held at your institution, I think that the growth of the internet and the increasing availability of online resources makes this less important than it might once have beenthough it is likely that an institution with expertise in your field will also have relevant resources.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
To think extremely carefully about the reasons you are pursuing a Ph.D, to be informed about what it entails, and to be realistic about how you will fund it. I believe it is a responsibility of academic staff to ensure that prospective Ph.D. students are fully aware of the realities of pursuing a doctorate, and to make sure they are aware that gaining a Ph.D. is not an automatic route into academic (or any other kind of) employment. Pursuing a Ph.D., particularly in a subject like history, can be very isolated. It is likely to involve prolonged periods of archival research away from home, and travelling to attend conferences and seminars. You will need a high level of personal motivationit is up to you, and you alone, to ensure that you are being productive. Your supervisor may push you, but you will not be clocking in and out, so you must be sure that you can handle independent study. However, if you are fully informed and sure that this is an avenue you want to pursue, work hard and the rewards can be fantastic.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
First, it is never to early to start considering the future, so I would advise all Ph.D. students to begin thinking about their career progression right from the start of their studies. If you wish to pursue a career in academia, gaining teaching experience, presenting work at conferences, networking and publishing during your Ph.D. will all enhance your employability by the time you have submitted (though a word of cautionthese things should not be undertaken at the expense of actually getting your thesis written!). You must be patient, and be prepared for periods of unemployment, or of having to undertake part-time work (such as part-time teaching) while continuing to research and publish in your own time. Do not compare your ‘life progression’ with your non-academic friendsthey’ll be buying houses, getting married and having children, and you’ll be scraping money together for research trips. Stick at it if you can, though, because those hard years will shape your career.

In these difficult times, it is getting increasingly difficult for young academics to find traditional academic employment. Remember that there are many other avenues where you can use your researchbe this teaching at school level, working with museums, or working for academic publishers. It may be that you find an avenue that suits you better than working within a history department. Be open-minded.

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