by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Deborah Toner is in the final stages of finishing her PhD and wants to go into university lecturing. Below she describes her academic journey from student to jobseeker and explains how she manages to remain positive in the face of stiff career challenges.
What was your educational background/qualifications before doing a PhD?
I had done a BA in History and an MA in the History of Race in the Americas at the University of Warwick in the four years immediately preceding the start of my PhD
What is your research area/dissertation title?
My doctoral research examines representations of alcohol in 19th century Mexican fiction and relates these representations to contemporary nation-building discourses. Within this research I look at constructions of masculinity and femininity, portraits of drunken bodies that teach about values of citizenship and morality, the depiction of popular cultural spaces as both “authentically” Mexican and socially deviant, and the increasing medicalisation of knowledge regarding social problems, such as alcohol abuse and related crimes.
What attracted you to this topic?
As part of my BA undergraduate degree, I completed a dissertation on representations of alcohol in 1950s American literature. As well as immensely enjoying the research process for this project, it also led me to appreciate the value of fictional sources as texts. In the course of my MA studies, which included a study of alcohol use in colonial Mexico, I also came to appreciate the cultural and historical importance of alcohol to many societies. As such, I wanted to put these two interests together to examine the 19th century in Mexico, since this was a formative period in the construction of national identity.
Could you describe the application process for getting your PhD funding?
I applied to the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) in 2005, the final year of my undergraduate degree, for their 1 + 3 award to fund my MA and doctoral studies. Staff from the history department of the University of Warwick encouraged me to do so and offered support in shaping my application.
What are the main challenges you faced while doing the PhD?
Initially, I struggled to achieve a high enough level of Spanish language proficiency to appreciate the literary nuances of the texts I studied and to converse during research trips in Mexico. Although language training was provided during my undergraduate degree, and I took evening classes since then, the former was heavily geared towards translation, while the latter dealt with more basic conversational skills. I have been able to build on my initial studies to achieve a high degree of proficiency in reading and translation, but I still find conversing difficult.
Finding a balance between the historical and literary in my thesis has also been tricky, and this also makes it difficult to find appropriate conferences in which to disseminate my research. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is a popular word in academia these days, but there are still a lot of obstacles facing those who try to put it into practice.
Looking to the future, what will you be doing immediately after your PhD?
I have been awarded a 6-month part-time Early Career Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick. This involves putting together a few workshops for the benefit of postgraduates and fellow postdoctoral students, and trying to raise my academic profile with publications and conference papers. Having taught during the last two years of my doctoral studies, I will also continue to teach seminars and some lectures as a part-time tutor at the University of Warwick. This year I’ll be teaching Introduction to North American literature, Introduction to Latin American literature and Themes and Problems in Latin American and Caribbean history. I will also be teaching seminars on the Economic and Social History of Latin America, with Dr Paulo Drinot at the University of Manchester, who my supervisor put me into contact with
Was this your first choice/did you apply for a number of other things?
I applied for a number of lectureships but I wasn’t really optimistic about my chances, as I had yet to submit my thesis. There were also a few fellowships on offer that I let slip by without applying because I was focused on finishing the thesis and I couldn’t really afford to invest the time formulating a research proposal, when I wasn’t confident I would have much of a chance. I rather expected to be teaching as a part-time tutor and I was really pleased to get the Early Career Fellowship as the competition was pretty stiff and it takes the immediate post-thesis pressure off a little.
What’s your own perception of the academic job market at the moment?
I’ve seen several new posts being created in Latin American history and cultural studies as well as some replacement positions. There have been quite a few more jobs on offer this year generally than I would have expected. Still, it’s quite daunting to know that people spend years on the job market before getting a permanent position and that they will be competing with me. I feel that in a year’s time, with a publication or two under my belt, and some more organisation and teaching experience, I’ll stand a better chance.
Looking in the longer-term, where would you like to be in five years’ time?
In an ideal world, I’d have a tenure-track position somewhere in North America but I’d settle for a lectureship in the UK.
How will you achieve that (i.e. new skills, more experience, different qualifications)?
As many Latin American history/literature jobs tend to be based in Modern Language departments, I’m aiming to really work on my Spanish, as most of those jobs require junior lecturers to teach language classes. Publications are obviously key as well, so I have a couple of chapters under consideration in edited books at the moment, and plan to get a journal article and a book proposal out within a year. The more flexibility in teaching you can demonstrate the better as well, so hopefully my teaching both literature and history will help in that regard. I plan to complete a teaching training qualification this year as well, since I’ve heard that universities are going to be moving in that direction soon and I’ll work on shaping a couple of undergraduate modules around my research interests as well.
Would you recommend doing a PhD to a friend?
I have fully enjoyed doing my PhD and I don’t mind waiting a few years in career limbo, or moving around to find a job, so I’d recommend it to similarly-minded people. So many people hate their jobs and I love mine – the research, the writing, the conferencing, the travelling, and even, to my own great surprise, the teaching. It’s a really varied, interesting, and relatively stress-free world.
However, you do need to be willing to compromise on some things. A lot of people wouldn’t be happy about the amount of time you need to invest: I’ll be 26 when I become a Dr, and many other PhD students are older when they finish, but I’ll probably be 30 (or more) by the time I get the job I actually want. And, although lectureships etc are well-paid, part-time tutoring is not, so you need to be prepared to live quite frugally well into your twenties. So, I would recommend it to people who don’t mind suspending things like buying a house, having children or settling down, and who like to work independently. I would also recommend choosing a topic you can personally get a lot of joy out of and to get involved in departmental/university life as much as possible, as otherwise you can find yourself getting lonely and even depressed.
Have a look at Deborah’s e-portfolio
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