University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Part of an academic’s life: helping new scholars

In this post, Dr Mike Esbester, Senior Lecturer in History, thinks about how we help PhD students and Early Career Researchers as they immerse themselves in the academic research community. Mike’s research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, particularly on the cultural history of safety, risk and accident prevention, and on the history of mobility. He has been working on the ‘Railway, Life & Death‘ project in conjunction with the National Railway Museum. A database that details the stories of nearly 4,000 individuals who were killed or injured at work, is available online

There’s been some discussion recently on Twitter about how established academics treat our up-and-coming colleagues – particularly PhD students and early career researchers. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never experienced or seen the sorts of the things that were described, particularly overly-aggressive questioning at conference or seminar papers. Here at Portsmouth creating an inclusive and welcoming environment has always been a core part of what we do, regardless of where you are in your career: from undergraduate, through postgrad and early career status, to professorial.

This doesn’t mean we’re not critical, of course: that’s an essential part of academic life. But being critical doesn’t mean being unpleasant. In my time I’ve received some scathing reviews – on a few rare occasions with unnecessary force, which made the whole experience unsavoury. This has helped shape my outlook and practice in positive ways, though, so when reviewing articles I always write my reports as if I were receiving them: how would I feel reading this? Would I want to be treated in this way? These reports may be anonymous, but real people are involved.

Related, one of the nice tasks that has recently fallen to me has been to judge the John Scholes Prize for Transport History – and I’ve carried our supportive ethos into that work. The Prize is awarded annually to the author of a publishable paper based on original research into any aspect of the history of transport and mobility. It’s named in memory of the first Curator of Historical Relics at the British Transport Commission, and administered by the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility. It’s aimed at PhD students and early career researchers, and is judged by more senior colleagues in the field – it’s a great way of encouraging and supporting them (something I can say from personal experience, as a past winner of the Prize!).

It was really exciting to read through the entries and see what other people are working on – and this year it was a really tough field, with a big increase in the number of submissions over previous years – a sign of the vitality and promise of our field. We had entrants covering the early modern to the present, geographically reaching from Britain and Ireland, via Italy to Eurasia, and modes from automobile, train and foot to elephant!

When judging the entrants we were looking for all of the sorts of things we do when reviewing work for publication: criteria like originality, thoroughness and excellence of argument, source use, composition and illustration. Whilst critical, the discussion across the Prize Committee was also supportive, recognising that the submissions involved a big commitment of time and energy on the part of the applicants. This was also something we’ve kept in mind when preparing comments for feedback.

Several of the submissions were close to publication standard, but the outstanding entry – and winner – was Luca Zenobi, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, for his paper ‘Borders as Sites of Mobility: Crossing the Frontier between Venice and Milan in the Renaissance’. It was excellently crafted, a polished and engaging piece, with a fresh approach to border spaces and the fluidity of mobility, forcing us to rethink ideas about barriers to movement. Luca also made interesting use of previously overlooked sources. All in all, it was a fascinating look at an unusual topic, helping push transport and mobility history forward, and we’ve encouraged Luca to submit his winning piece to the Journal of Transport History for full peer review and hopefully publication.

Working on the Prize Committee, what was noticeable was the time and energy that we all willingly gave to the task. Everyone on the Committee is very busy, but we all wanted to do this as it’s so worthwhile – and of course, it benefits us, too, as we get to read exciting new research and think about new ways of approaching our field. With one winner, there are inevitably disappointed scholars who don’t win, so we’ve tried to be as helpful as possible when we’ve discussed their submissions – indeed, in many cases the authors were close to publication and we’ve encouraged them to submit their work, following feedback, for consideration for publication through the usual peer review process.

So, that means the 2017 prize is done and we’re already on to next year: the prize competition for 2018 is now open. You can download further details here. All PhD students and early career researchers are encouraged to submit a piece, safe in the knowledge that they will be assessed in a critical but supportive way. If you’re interested, feel free to contact me for further details or to enquire – I’ll be delighted to hear from you. (mike.esbester@port.ac.uk)


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