I woke up this morning to a twitter thread initiated by the lovely Raul Pacheco-Vega asking for recommendations of women in urban studies/geography who are early career researchers (ECR). Prachi very kindly suggested my name with the caveat that I was no longer an ECR. Apart from seeing something I knew was true and suddenly realizing how many years it has actually been since I received my PhD, it also sparked memories (bitter and sweet) of my time as a PhD student and my struggles as an ECR in the early 2000s.
I should start with saying that I do not consider my struggles as more significant than those that current ECRs face. Not at all. I was very lucky to be employed straight after my PhD into a tenure track position. I never had to face the precarious conditions of zero hours work or fixed term appointments where I would have been constantly stressed about what would happen next year. These are very real struggles that current ECRs face that I never had to face.
Becoming a Mongrel
My struggle was (and still is) mainly about fitting in as a mongrel of sorts. I entered academia from three years of professional practice as a RIBA chartered architect. I was disillusioned by architecture practice and took up an offer of studying for a PhD in ‘Passive cooling of buildings in the global south’, in Arizona State University. It was here that I got introduced to women’s studies, feminist geography and international development. As a result, I completely reworked my thesis topic to ‘Gender, Space and Power in Social Housing’. My supervisor, an architect, was a very well-meaning supportive scholar, but he found it challenging to understand what a PhD on cities and buildings had to do with gender. And to be fair to him, it wasn’t his expertise anyway – he had agreed to advise me on passive cooling. I look back now to see that I was lost. I did not know ‘Theory’. I knew how to design, but that had not trained me how to make bigger links. I did not know ‘Methods’. I knew architecture practice, but that had not trained me to write research questions and use tools to answer them in any structured way. In short, I would now never accept someone like me as a PhD student.
To add to the PhD struggles, my supervisor lost his battle with cancer a few months before I was due to submit my final thesis. Not before he became a total convert into feminist geography and had read and commented on all my chapters. Despite the trauma of losing a fantastic supervisor, I graduated in three years because of an extremely supportive thesis committee. But this was when the ‘real’ struggles started. I returned to the UK to be with family. But I had no academic contacts or networks, I had no supervisor to give me glowing references or co-author papers with me, and I had no understanding of academic work culture in the UK. I had unlearnt the ‘truths’ I had built my identity around as an architect. I had learnt new concepts, theories, methods and practices and conducted fieldwork across three continents. But my first article submission in a refereed geography journal was rejected outright with reviewer feedback that made me consider giving up the pursuit of an academic career and returning to architecture practice.
I applied for over 60 positions before I was called for an interview to what became my first tenure track position. Since then, I have been a lecturer in a department of architecture and then in a department of sociology, and now in geography. Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, there are very few institutional and intellectual spaces that actually support interdisciplinary work. My ex-line manager once suggested that I change the title of my publications to reflect the department’s primary discipline, so I could fit in better. It took me nine years of post-PhD research and writing in human geography to be appointed in a geography department. I still speak from the edges in every discipline and department I have worked in.
My struggles to fit in informs my support of ECRs, because it is the support of senior scholars that has helped me along the way. Below are some of the things I did when I was a freshly graduated PhD.
- Don’t feel afraid to write emails to scholars out of the blue. I did this continuously as I struggled to find a job in UK. I wrote to those whose work I admired, asking to meet and discuss possibilities of working together. If they met me, I discussed their work and how I felt my work fitted in. If they were interested, they included me in some very interesting conversations and networks.
- Don’t feel awkward in approaching senior scholars (male and female) to help you. I did this, especially when I was struggling with the loss of my supervisor, and also when I wanted to get my first paper published. I requested scholars I knew in feminist and urban geography to help with concepts, methods, literature and so on.
- If you have research funds, spend it all in attending conferences where scholars whose work you admire will be there: This was not just to present and disseminate my work, but I also made myself known to senior academics, made sure I presented in sessions organized by them, and kept in touch afterwards. When they got to know my work better, I even requested their support in academic references or tenure applications.
- Reach out for mentoring: I have been rewarded both by short conversations in conferences, as well as longer engagements with formal and informal mentors, who have given me stellar advice, and most importantly have been my strongest supporters in academia. Although academic life feels like a never-ending marathon, it’s the support of amazing scholars who have been both peers and mentors along the way that has enhanced my profile.
- Start with publishing in journals sympathetic to ECRs: One of the mistakes I made with my first paper was to send it to a high impact journal, which rejected it and made me lose confidence. Start with smaller journals, preferably open access and with an online presence.
- Create your own readers: I cannot stress this highly enough. Once you have a publication, please circulate it to your networks, and to scholars who you have referenced in the paper. It’s amazing how my papers have built my networks.
- Write blogs and get active on social media: I began this much later in my career, but if blogging and social media was available when I was an ECR, several challenges would have been smoothed out sooner. There is so much online support out there now particularly for ECRs, that if you are not visible online, you really miss out. To me, although I started online as a mid-career scholar, this has been an absolutely indispensable space for research and engagement.