In February 2023, the Royal Historical Society launched its ‘Mid-Career Conversations for Historians’ series. This initial series includes five themed events, hosted by Professor Julian Wright, the Society’s Secretary for Professional Engagement.
The series provides a small and confidential forum for historians to discuss topics of particular relevance to them at the mid-career stage. It allows historians to share their problems, interests, priorities and solutions, and to consider new avenues for developing their career and professional networks.
Two ‘Conversations’ have now been held, focusing on being a historian outside a History department and starting a new research project at mid-career. In this post Julian reflects on these initial discussions and what he’s learned from colleagues during these events. He highlights some challenges that historians have raised and, linking them with his own experience, proposes ways to address these.
The next in the ‘Mid-Career Conversations for Historians’ series takes place on Friday 16 June, when the topic is ‘becoming an academic mentor at mid-career’. Conversations are reserved for members of the Royal Historical Society and are limited to groups of 20 attendees per session.
We have held the first two of our ‘Mid-Career Conversations for Historians’ and are looking forward to the next one, on Friday 16 June. On each occasion, a warm and supportive group of some twenty or so historians has spent an hour and a half talking with and supporting one another. People have come from different kinds of institutions, and we’ve been joined by historians outside the UK as well.
Our first Conversation (24 February) focused specifically on the experience of working as a historian in a department which is not a history department. From the simple problem of being that person who is always left off circulation lists for history seminars, to the more difficult challenge of being appraised by a scientist, for whom five or six articles are normally published per year, we listened to one another and gave each other time to hear the complexity of these situations.
There is such a start-up cost to moving sideways or into other parts of the discipline … How do we gain the courage and determination to make those leaps?
As a former head of department, I found myself reflecting more than once that there is something the Society can do to share some of the key points from conversations like this at our periodic meetings with History Heads of Department. Hoping my very busy HoD colleagues don’t shoot the messenger, I did tentatively suggest that attendees ask the History HoD at their institution for 15 minutes to share some of their frustrations, and to see what opportunity there might be for interaction with the department — from seminars to joining an informal mentoring network, for example.
At our second Conversation (20 April) we explored the challenges of moving into new research areas in mid-career. At this point the scaffolding that was there when we developed our PhD projects has gone, to be replaced by an external scaffolding of huge complexity, from family and caring commitments to leadership responsibilities, never mind the teaching and marking. There is such a start-up cost to moving sideways or into other parts of the discipline (or to a more interdisciplinary space). How do we gain the courage and determination to make those leaps?
As academics, I think we’re quite good at giving ourselves priorities that may represent what we imagine being ‘good at our job’ is; often we need to be given a bit of confidence to make different choices.
At this session we also talked about isolation. The busier our lives get, the harder it is to find oneself ‘at the water cooler’, whether that is getting across town to a seminar that we used to have more time for, or to think about putting together proposals for conference papers. I know that my own fear of academic isolation when in leadership roles has been best dealt with by making myself accountable to a small group of other colleagues, in a volume of essays, or in a cluster developing a possible grant proposal. At one point in the pandemic, I managed to persuade three really warm and kind colleagues (in adjacent disciplines) to meet for a regular online coffee to share readings that we were enjoying. What a difference that made.
The theme of mentoring has rumbled at the back of my mind throughout both of these really supportive and powerful conversations. I’ve had people I can turn to at different points in my career, and for different tasks (from applying for a job to reading draft chapters or applying for a grant). As academics, I think we’re quite good at giving ourselves priorities that may represent what we imagine being ‘good at our job’ is; often we need to be given a bit of confidence to make different choices.
We are here to keep listening and sharing our problems and concerns, as well as our experiences when things have gone well.
But mentoring cultures – and workplace culture generally – can vary to a tremendous extent in academic life. We have a lot of autonomy in our work lives. The kind of ‘soft’ support networks that we need are almost never mandated or imposed from above. But that means it often falls to us to create a warmer culture for our development.
Ultimately, there may simply be times or places where we have to ask our senior colleagues more loudly for the support we need to build stronger networks; or to club together with others to put the question to people who will listen and take action. I hope that colleagues will feel there are historians on the Royal Historical Society’s Council who would be happy to help in this. We are here to keep listening and sharing our problems and concerns, as well as our experiences when things have gone well.
I look forward to meeting more historians at our next session, on Friday 16 June, where we hope to hear about colleagues’ experiences of being mentored and mentoring in turn. Mentoring is a role that grows in importance as we move through mid-career. But what does ‘good’ look like and how can we support each other to build good practice? It should be a really practical and interesting conversation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julian Wright is Professor of History at Northumbria University. Since 2021 he has been a member of the Royal Historical Society’s Council and the Society’s Secretary for Professional Engagement. In this role Julian is responsible for the Society’s work to support professional historians at all career stages. In 2023 he launched ‘Mid-Career Conversations for Historians’, a series of informal sessions for colleagues to consider aspects of the profession at this stage.
Julian is a historian of modern Europe, with research interests in the idea and experience of time in the present. With co-editor Allegra Fryxell, he recently published Time on a Human Scale: Experiencing the Present in Europe, 1860-1930 (Proceedings of the British Academy, 2021), which drew on cross-disciplinary perspectives to develop themes explored in his most recent monograph Socialism and the Experience of Time: Idealism and the Present in Modern France (OUP, 2017).
Julian’s new project on the experience of living ‘outside of time’ in the era of the Second World War asks how people tried to reconstruct ordinary temporal rhythms in difficult conditions, from those living under siege to prisoners in camps or people living in secrecy in occupied Europe.
RHS CONVERSATIONS FOR MID-CAREER HISTORIANS
This new series — ‘Mid-Career Conversations for Historians’ — is an opportunity for historians in UK HE, who are members of the RHS, to meet and discuss topics of particular relevance to them at mid-career.
The programme builds on the Society’s existing work for early career researchers, and follows a series of focus groups — held in 2022 — to consider how we also support colleagues further along in their professional lives. Meetings are for c.20 historians at mid-career and offer an informal and confidential session to discuss problems, concerns and solutions.
Hosted by Julian Wright – the Society’s Secretary for Professional Engagement – each Conversation also involves a contribution from several RHS Councillors with experience of the chosen subject. Attendees are invited in advance to submit topics and questions for discussion.
Post event, those attending receive a summary of the discussion, and membership of a private networking groups – set up by the Society – to enable them to continue the conversation if they wish to do so.
The next Conversation – on the topic of ‘Becoming a mentor for departmental colleagues’ – takes place on Friday 16 June. If you’d like to join this Conversation, please register here. If you’d like to join the Society to attend future Conversation, please see the Join Us pages on the Society’s website.