Research Whisperer Tseen Khoo has been a big fan of the Australian Historical Association’s Early Career Researcher blog since it started in October 2016. She jumped at a recent opportunity to invite the blog editors, Carolyn Holbrook and Margaret Hutchison, to write for Research Whisperer about why they do it and how. In a contemporary context where many Early Career Researchers are encouraged to only do things that benefit themselves, we love boosting those who are generous sharers and stage-setters for their peers. The Australian Historical Association’s Early Career Researcher blog, and how its content gets shared, demonstrates the kind of community-building that can happen within disciplines and with the support of an established academic society. More power to these kinds of initiatives!
How did the Australian Historical Association’s ECR Blog get started?
This is a question that requires an origin story — just what we history types love! It’s quite simple really. We started the blog as a way to spark discussion among Early Career Researchers in history, and to highlight the particular challenges we face.
When we considered the best means of promoting awareness of ECR issues, we came up with the idea of asking people to tell their personal stories.
We thought that these stories could serve several purposes: they could put a powerful, personal face on the challenges faced by ECRs (for example, long hours, low pay, precarity, relationship and mental health breakdowns); create a sense of community and solidarity among ECRs; provide ECRs with practical experience of writing succinctly about themselves and their research; and enhance the profile of emerging scholars among the wider community of historians.
Our blog has grown from that original idea. We now have a Q&A series with senior historians, a series in which historians describe a book, or article, or object, that has inspired their career, and a ‘How To’ series (featuring a very popular post by you, Tseen!), in which experts describe how to do such things as write a book proposal, do a radio interview or write a job application. Our most popular series is about Emerging Historians, featuring profiles of ECRs and their research.
What does the blog hope to achieve?
While it is fascinating to read about other historians and their research, at the end of the day, we want to create a forum for frank, informed and constructive discussion about how to improve the employment conditions of ECRs.
We have other aspirations, too.
There is less support for ECRs compared with the well-established support systems and forums for postgraduates. One of the reasons for this is quite simply that the ECR experience is so diverse.
Once you’re kicked out of the PhD nest, there are so many different places to land. You might be lucky enough to get a lecturing job but be smashed under a huge teaching load once you start. More often these days, you might piece together bitsy research or teaching contracts. You might be employed by your alma mater or you might have to move to a new city, state or even country to get a position. But one thing most of us have in common is the brutal job market. Everyone is competing against each other and, in Australia, it’s usually against your mates because history is such a small pond. To counter this bruising experience, we seek to create a sense of community in which frustrations can be voiced and experiences shared.
It has been very satisfying to see that our Emerging Historians series has been the most read and shared series on the blog. We take that to be a sign that ECRs are supporting each other and that their voices are being heard!
We also try through our blog content to direct ECRs’ gaze outside the academy, given the paucity of jobs. We have featured interviews with historians working in the museum and education sectors. At the Australian Historical Association conference in Canberra this July, we are hosting a panel about careers outside the academy.
What would be your advice, as the blog managers, to others who may be wanting to do similar things?
Our blog has been live for over a year now, and we’ve learnt loads. Here are a few tips we’ve picked up along the way:
- Have a strong theme. There’s no substitute for passion and enthusiasm! If you’re inspired and fired up about your blog and have a clear vision about what you want to say and who you want to say it to, that will be reflected in readers’ responses.
- Plan ahead. In the early days we posted about once per month in a rather haphazard fashion. We brainstormed ideas about expanding the content of the blog – this is where having two people (or more) to bounce ideas around is very helpful. We then went on a bit of a talent hunt and scoured our contacts (as well as cold-emailing a few people) and gradually built up four different series. We’ve now got a few pieces ready to go weeks beforehand so that there’s always content and it’s a lot less stressful!
- Content really is the key. You need to post new and strong content regularly. Readers are discerning and a bad experience might leave them with a poor impression that’s hard to shift.
- Publicise as widely as you can. It obviously works to have complementary social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, which can publicise your stories and link back to your blog. It pays to think beyond that, too – how do you reach an audience that doesn’t use social media (gasp)? We’ve found that an old-fashioned email newsletter works wonders. If your blog has content that relates to, or might interest, particular associations or institutions, get your new blog posts listed on an association’s website or in their regular email blast.
Dr Carolyn Holbrook is an Alfred Deakin Research Fellow at Deakin University. She is writing a history of Australians’ attitudes towards their federal system of government, and co-authoring with Professor James Walter a history of policy-making in Australia. Carolyn is the author of the award-winning book, Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography, about the history of how Australians have remembered the First World War. She tweets from @sigmundmarx.
Dr Margaret Hutchison is a Lecturer in History in the National School of Arts at the Australian Catholic University. Her research interests include the First World War, war art, memory studies and cultural history.
She tweets from @meggiehutchison.