My IKEA Career, or, Where Did I Put The Allen Key?

This year (2015) I was approached at the International Medieval Congress by Dr Dave Wyatt* to discuss applying for a big pot of devolved money from the ESRC.

*Dr Wyatt is a senior lecturer in Early Medieval History at Cardiff University, responsible for public engagement for the School of History, Archaeology and Religion [SHARE], director of the widening access project SHARE with Schools and co-director of the CAER Heritage Project.

The plan is to expand the remit of the present widening access project, SHARE With Schools, by creating a new, paid position – a Facilitator – to bring academics into the project and enable them to turn their research into workshops for KS3. Academics will then be able to turn their research into impact case studies, submittable to the REF 2020, the project itself can be entered under the academic as well as environment bit of the REF, and the target schools benefit hugely from additional curriculum support. The widening access project aims to break down barriers between these target schools and Higher Education, and that will certainly be achieved. 

  
The Facilitator (me) will not only be identifying and contacting the academics in the department, but will then work alongside them, the teachers of the target schools and the existing project’s team of Postgraduate Coordinators and Undergraduate volunteers to develop the workshops and deliver them.

 

I was a Postgraduate Coordinator of SHARE with Schools for three years. I developed a few of the Medieval activities, the first being in the summer of 2013, and led a team of UG volunteers to develop the existing Medieval Society workshop, which has been successfully delivered to many classes of Years 7-8 in the six Cardiff and Cynon Valley schools we work with.

Target Practice

 

I am very excited by the idea of developing the project further and I passionately support the aim to bring Higher Education into the consciousness of able pupils, otherwise barred from this experience and education by their background and associated aspiration issues. I’m also a big believer in vocational courses and apprenticeships: these should be on a par with academic courses and degrees, but that’s a rant for another time. 

As an advocate for widening access in HE, I would love to see a more joined up approach to education across the board. With this project, current research will be disseminated straight into the High School curriculum, expanding the understanding of the students and developing their skills, and giving them a greater awareness of what it is we do in our Ivory Towers. Greater understanding of how research works and associated analytical thinking skills can then be a part of the standard education process, and that can only be a good thing in the next generation. 

It feeds into my work on the Welsh Bacc project, where students in Wales have to develop their independent research skills to complete the course. While this Facilitator role will (hopefully) be funded by the ESRC’s Accelerator Fund, the Welsh Bacc project is funded by ESSE. These are potential sources of funding that perhaps Humanities PhDs/ECRs overlook when considering short-term projects and roles. Often I’ve heard people say that they have had no opportunities to engage in impact activities, and the support and emphasis placed on the development of these activities is patchy across the institutions. This, despite the fact that across the board, impact activities are worth as much as a published monograph in the REF (although they are counted differently). 

Actually transmitting your research publicly is a challenge, especially for us as Medievalists. Before I had the SHARE with Schools opportunity, I joked that I couldn’t joust, so public engagement was out. I mean, what exactly do you do with a family study? But actually, it’s possible to think a bit wider. 

Research in Translation runs workshops to help you with this, and the Public Medievalist discussions are also really valuable. If your department or even Centre of xxx Studies doesn’t already have a widening access project, how can you set something up? Who would you need to get on board? Who can you link up with in another department or project to expand their existing remit? If there are pedagogical, social or other such elements to its outcomes, you aren’t restricted by Humanities-only pots of funding. It may be a one-off community activity surrounding a local event, historical personality, landmark or anniversary, an interactive showcase for schools, or setting up a long-term relationship with target High or Primary Schools in your area. 

Time is obviously a factor, so something will have to be shelved in favour of the project. In my case, my research plan and articles are on hold, while my monograph and co-edited volume(s) take precedence for the time being. There’s less to do there at the moment and I can share out the work with one and take my time with the other. I’m certainly not going to try and do everything. 

What am I Building Here?

The pot of money for this job creation is held at University level, and before you can properly apply for it, you need to submit an Expression of Interest. Then you go over the next few hurdles, should the EoI be accepted. As an ECR, I’m not in a position to really deliver impact activities myself, although they count for as much as, if not more than, a monograph for the REF. I have the widening access project on my CV, and public engagement work from the CAER Heritage Project (I was lucky enough to get that off the back of SHARE with Schools), but I do need to be keeping up with things. More, more, more. Always more.

 Now, I self-funded my PhD. No shame in that – a lot of us have. The Times Higher Ed caused some debate about this earlier this year, but actually the only downside I have really experienced is that because my applications for AHRC funding etc were not successful (close, but no cigar) I have had very little experience in writing successful grant applications. Small ones, yes. What would, in terms of funds, be considered pocket money. And here I am now, writing an application that will set me up with a part-time fixed term job for what I consider to be a more substantial sum. The costing includes my salary for an eighteen-month term, as well as project expenses. 

I had a meeting with Dr Wyatt and left with a wad of paper, which included the Expression of Interest form itself, and a long list of FAQs, Dos and Don’ts, and What We Fund information. I read it all through, then sat down to have a proper look at the form.

 I felt a bit like I was staring at a flatpack wardrobe that hadn’t come with any instructions. Then I realised that it was only the Expression of Interest. And that was like being told to assemble the wardrobe (including all the drawers, shelves and fiddly bits) without the instructions, but that actually it’s not even the real wardrobe that you ordered, and your eptitude in its assembly will determine if the real, actual wardrobe gets shipped to you or not. 

Oh dear, I thought. We’re back to Being A Unicorn again. 

Dr Wyatt and I contacted the man in charge of the devolved money and set up a meeting before the Expression of Interest deadline, and arranged another meeting between ourselves ahead of that one to discuss the sections of the form, what needed to be included, and how I could sell the project to the best of my ability. When in doubt, call a meeting…

 

Anybody Got A Diagram?

  
My consideration of the form got me thinking:

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I got some interesting responses on Twitter and Facebook, and Thom Gobbitt @booksoflaw was kind enough to send me his successful postdoc application to look through. I know there is no magic formula that constitutes a successful funding application, but it’s very helpful to get context and get an idea of the anatomy of a successful application. I’m a big fan of honing skills. 

The concept of some collective, sharing platform where those willing to share their successful applications can do so in an Open Access manner is something I’m interested in pursuing. Is there something like this already? Perhaps with a forum or message board to leave tips, answer questions, and offer general support. 

I’d really like to find firsthand stories of “IKEA Careers” archived in one place with practical tips for those starting out, perhaps reblogged from other sources etc. I’m beyond fortunate to have a hugely supportive department, but I’m aware that sadly not everyone is in that position. Perhaps something like the new Lone Medievalist site, launched recently to support those who find themselves being the only Medievalist in their history department, but for those of us who are DIY career ECRs. 


Comments welcome!

 

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