From PhD to Postdoc: An Interview with Rachel Murray

Gareth Mills, University of Reading

Dr Rachel Murray was recently appointed a Postdoctoral Prize Fellow at Loughborough University. She completed her SWWDTP AHRC funded PhD at the University of Bristol in 2018, her thesis looking at the role played by popular entomology in the formal experimentation of Wyndham Lewis, H.D., D.H. Lawrence and Samuel Beckett. We recently interviewed her to find out more about her new role and to provide some insight for current PhD students and Early Career Researchers who may be seeking a similar position in the near future.

MR: Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Rachel, and congratulations on your new post. Could you tell us a little about the job?

RM: Thanks. The Postdoctoral Prize Fellow position at Loughborough was one of ten offered by the University as a whole, across all Schools. As far as I’m aware I was the only successful candidate from the English department. It’s a research position during which I’ll complete my first monograph, which grew from my thesis, and is under review with Edinburgh University Press with the title The Modernist Exoskeleton: Insects, War, Literary Form. I’ll also be making progress on my second project and will produce at least one journal article based on the new research, as well as attend conferences. I feel like within the two years of the contract it’s reasonable and will help me move towards a permanent position in academia.

MR: What’s the new research project?

RM: It’s a wide-ranging survey of modernist writers interested in underwater worlds and marine life forms. I’m interested in early modernist’s interest in the ocean as an environment – writers like Lawrence and Marianne Moore. The project is still being sketched out. The good thing is I’m supported by another academic, Oliver Tearle as a mentor at Loughborough.

MR: A major concern for ECRs is often having to move to a different part of the country to find the right kind of position for their discipline, especially when opportunities are uncommon. How did this play a role in seeking and accepting the post?

RM: It had to be a research post to make sense for me geographically, as I’m living in Bristol. At the moment I’m commuting up – which means buying a car – but I’m aware that I’m fortunate in not having any children or health problems which would make the set up much more difficult. I of course don’t want to be more than two-three hours away from my partner! It might not have been possible for me to accept the post if it wasn’t predominately research.

MR: How are you finding it at Loughborough in the short time you’ve been there?

RM: The department is small in a good way, in that it is a really warm and friendly environment. In fact just before my interview I bumped into the Vice-Chancellor who stayed and chatted about the department and changes they had planned. There are a lot of modernists here, including my mentor, Claire Warden, Wim Van Mierlo, and Lise Jaillant and I’m looking forward to starting some new networks at the first research cluster meeting. I’m also really pleased to be somewhere new where I don’t have any preconceptions about how things work – no baggage!

MR: Before we go on to ask about how the application and interview went, and what advice you might have for candidates down the road, I’d like to ask about alternative careers post-PhD. The ratio of careers to new graduates being what it is, this has become increasingly discussed in the last few years. Did you ever consider a non-academic job before making your applications?

RM: I’ve been quite set on following my education up with an academic job since at least my MA (Sussex 2014) and I interviewed for four academic positions before Loughborough. That said, I did develop some other skills during my PhD which would have been helpful if I did have to explore that option, notably a placement at Bristol Museum moving between modern art and natural history curating positions. However I was primarily focused on the academic job.

MR: Thanks for your honesty. It’s good to know though that even though you’ve been successful with this post you can see synergy with alternatives stemming from the PhD. Moving on to the interview, can you tell us based on your experience seemed to matter most in getting the position, and how you went about beforehand making sure you had a profile that fit?

RM: Based on the interviews, publications were the most important. The interviewers all drew attention to the fact I had a relatively high number of publications – five – in peer reviewed journals. After my presentation, several of the questions I was asked were directed at these. I was also asked extensively about my thesis in a way which was similar to a viva. This line of questioning was quite similar at all the interviews which I attended, and seems to reflect the nature of a research post. Some of my publications were in single author journals, such as The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies and The Henry James Review, and others in interdisciplinary journals like The Journal of Literature and Science, and they were treated fairly equally by the panel. It also made a big difference that my thesis was under consideration to become a monograph.

MR: Five publications just coming out of a PhD is certainly on the high end of the scale – how did you go about it?

RM: When I first started my PhD I submitted parts of my thesis to journals relatively soon, based on work from my MA. Looking back, I remember that at the time I had little fear of rejection or of being over-awed by impressive publications, and simply submitted the pieces when I felt they were ready. I actually feel more self-conscious about my publications now than I did then! Postgraduate training has improved a lot since I started my PhD in 2014 but a side effect has been to make students aware of what seems to be high stakes a lot earlier. I wasn’t so self-aware and felt freer to submit my work where it made sense to me.

MR: That seems like an important observation given some of the career anxiety being expressed in the community. I take it that your own experience and method shouldn’t be taken as prescriptive then?

RM: Absolutely not. I have friends and colleagues who have been equally fortunate to get permanent posts who did not publish during their PhD timeline at all, especially those engaged in archival work. A friend who recently got a job waited until their PhD had been handed in before sending off the individual chapters as publications. This was partly so they could finish in good time, and partly because the originality of their empirical work made that the best way.

MR: Great. So apart from publications, what else came up as pivotal for the interview?

RM: Interdisciplinarity and having a plan for moving forward. Unusually, I was interviewed completely by non-specialists, including the Pro VC for research and an aeronautical engineer about my future engagement with the University. This wasn’t the case at my other interviews, and seemed to reflect the particular post, but it is important to show that your research has potential for wider future engagement everywhere. Following up from a conference I ran called Marine Transgressions, which was an interdisciplinary event composed of literary figures and scientists, I was able to position my future monograph research as something that would be embedded across different schools. I can’t stress the importance of planning this in advance enough, and of having a concrete, feasible project that suits the role you’re applying for. Planning for the interview is everything – all the successful candidates I know rehearsed responses to common questions thoroughly, some even recording their answers and replaying them over and over. I also memorised my ten-minute presentation beforehand on the advice of a senior academic. Be aware, too, that the although interview itself can be a strange and even life-changing experience, temporary mental blanks happen to everyone and aren’t catastrophic!

MR: So far we’ve got publications, interdisciplinarity, networking and forward planning. What about teaching?

RM: I wasn’t asked much about teaching for the Loughborough Post as it is research only, but I was for the two lectureships I interviewed for, which treated it seriously. I was asked a range of teaching questions, including on module design, innovative methods, responsibilities and scenario questions where I was confronted with a difficult situation and had to indicate what I’d do.

MR: It’s good to establish that ECRS applying for lectureships should prepare for this too. Before we finish, is there anything you’d like to say to people currently applying for similar posts, or who will be doing so in future?

RM: Find your own way of doing things. We’re inundated with input and checklists and workshops that advise us what to do. Follow your instincts when it comes to how you work and research, and don’t be afraid to approach publishers when you think your research is ready. Everybody’s profile is different and by focusing on your work and putting it out there opportunities will arise you can take advantage of. There are certain things you do need to do to give yourself a chance, but how, when and why you do them is up to you.

MR: Thanks so much for the interview Rachel. Good luck with your new post from all of us.

Interview was conducted by Gareth Mills, University of Reading. Rachel has generously agreed to offer advice to anyone currently preparing for an interview and can be contacted at R.E.Murray@lboro.ac.uk. Follow her on Twitter: @murrayrachel89

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