From PhD to Postdoc: An Interview with Freya Gowrley

Dr Freya Gowrley is a Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Postdoctoral Fellow and a Visiting Lecturer in the University of Edinburgh’s History of Art department. Her research focuses on visual and material culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and North America. Her monograph, Domestic Space in Britain, c.1750-1840: Materiality, Sociability & Emotion is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic, and she has had articles published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction and Journal 18. She has held fellowships at Yale Centre for British Art, the Winterthur Museum, the Huntington Library, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. We recently interviewed her to find out more about her journey after completing the PhD.

MR: Could you tell us about your journey post-PhD?

FG: I think my journey post-PhD has been fairly typical in that it has been quite piecemeal and made up of short-term contracts: I had a year of intense teaching on a number of fractional contracts in the first year following submission, which was followed by a couple of short-term research fellowships at institutions in the United States. I was then lucky enough to secure a 10-month postdoctoral fellowship at Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), during which time I also took up two more short-term fellowships. That position ended this past September, and between then and now I’ve been doing some teaching hours, and will start my six-month Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art postdoctoral fellowship in February 2019. As for all ECRs (and academics more generally, but I think this is something most keenly felt by ECRs), this has been a time of balancing roles and responsibilities, so dividing time between teaching, writing for publication, some really exciting curatorial work, and of course writing applications.

MR: Congratulations on your new post. What will it entail?

FG: Thank you! As I mentioned earlier, it’s a six-month postdoctoral fellowship at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, which is part of Yale University but based in London. It’s a small research institution, so the fellowship is non-residential. It was awarded for my postdoctoral project, which examines the production of collage before modernism. I’ll be conducting research and writing two articles for this project, which will hopefully form the basis of a book proposal for my second monograph.

MR: It seems like you have managed to stay relatively geographically centred after completing the PhD. What has this meant for you?

FG: Yes this is very true, and something that I am extremely grateful for, although it certainly has drawbacks. I was able to continue teaching at my PhD-granting institution; then my IASH fellowship was also based within the University of Edinburgh; and finally my latest fellowship is also non-residential, so can be taken anywhere, so I will also stay in Edinburgh for that. Staying in one place certainly has huge benefits – I have a large and supportive network of friends and colleagues; I haven’t had to undertake an expensive and exhausting move. However, I am also aware that this means that I have a more limited institutional experience, and am actively looking to get more experience at different HEAs as I think about next year.

MR: Have you got any advice for PhDs who might be looking / applying for postdoc positions / funding?

FG: There are so many things that could be worth mentioning here, but probably the main thing I would stress is perseverance. It is so demoralising to be rejected again and again for jobs, fellowships, and funding, but reapplying has been a key strategy to any success I’ve had – I applied more than once for both postdoctoral fellowships I’ve held, and this experience has really encouraged me to not give up and completely discount x or y fellowship or funding body in the future, because of an earlier rejection. Of course, perseverance is something predicated on being in the privileged position of being able to reapply, which requires financial security, and this is something I’m also painfully aware of.

MR: How have you found tackling interviews? What were the main issues that arose?

FG: I’ve had several interviews for a range of jobs since completing my PhD. Initially I was incredibly nervous, and completely inexperienced, but I think that each time you do one, you improve. Interviews are also that difficult sort of thing in that you can only really get better at them by doing interviews, and given that it’s quite hard to get shortlisted, your chances at improving by doing them can be quite limited. Issues in my first interviews were more to do with lack of experience and knowledge of the process (e.g. presentation style), but in the last two interviews I’ve had I’ve been the second choice candidate for reasons of experience, (less teaching experience than the other candidate, or less publications already out) rather than performance in the interview. Although this is incredibly frustrating, it’s also encouraging as it gives you clear guidance on what you need to do going forward, whilst also telling you that you’re becoming more practiced at interviews themselves.

MR: What experience do you think PhDs should be trying to build during their time as a PGR?

FG: First, I just want to express some concern over the expectations of what PhD students should do in terms of professionalization alongside their academic studies, which seem to be ever rising. However, the reality is of course that academia is incredibly competitive and in order to be a viable candidate for even entry level academic positions experience outwith the writing process is expected. The key areas I would stress for PhD students looking to go into an academic career are publishing (but also getting a sense of key issues around publishing, e.g. how REF works) and teaching experience. Other things like event organisation, winning funding, committee and/or service work (e.g. reviewing for journals) are obviously really important, but its publications and teaching that are the core skills, and if something has to give, I’d personally say it should be those other, less central skills first.

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