On a hot June day in 2013, my friend Clementine walked with me through the infamous red doors of Cambridge’s Board of Graduate Studies to hand over my PhD thesis. While this celebratory photo is saved on my computer as “happy day,” I can still taste my anxiety. Having just dedicated three years of my life to a single project, what would come next? Beyond the frame of this photo are bags stored in various friends’ living rooms. I was days away from leaving a place where my roots grew deep. In this moment, I recall wondering where next? Would anywhere ever feel the same?
Fast forward eight months and I’ve arrived on what feels like the moon. I’ve driven 2000 miles away from my family (again), west along Lake Superior and through the prairies. After a term of sessional lecturing in Ontario, I landed myself a postdoctoral fellowship in the Institute for Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge in southern Alberta. As I celebrated my accomplishment that morning in Cambridge, I wish I’d known that I would plant seeds in a new place, and come to love it in equal measure.
My transition from graduate student to postdoc has made several things clear about the world of academia. I hope that sharing my experiences here will offer comfort and advice to students who are about to walk through those big red doors.
Build and maintain communities: never underestimate the power of who you know. I arrived in Lethbridge with very few North American academic networks. Over the past three years, with the help of many mentors, I have fostered relationships across the country. While conferencing is expensive, and undoubtedly stressful, it’s imperative to make yourself known within the field. This process can be especially difficult for introverts, as Robin Bernstein so eloquently describes here. While focusing on building new relationships in Canada, I’ve continued to maintain connections with my UK academic networks. These wide-reaching communities have opened numerous doors for me, and have moved my work in exciting new directions.
Publish or perish: as both Cora and Selena have shared, publishing is vital. While I did publish during my PhD, I likely should have started earlier. My research-centred postdoc has provided me with the space and time to write numerous articles and chapters, without the additional demands of being a graduate student. While I had work that was sent out shortly after finishing my PhD, some of those articles are only now appearing in print. Take into consideration that everything takes a really long time in the publishing world. To offset the time it takes, I’ve started disseminating my work publically, for example through guest blog posts, Twitter, a website, and community lectures. This also ensures that my work reaches audiences beyond the academy, which is essential for the kind of work that I do.
Start a new project: When I finished at Cambridge I was tired of my project, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. The idea of starting something from scratch was daunting. I had wonderful mentors at Cambridge and wondered what it would be like to write, read, and research without their supervision. As a postdoc, I have had the time to conceptualize, implement, and begin disseminating new research, while still working with my doctoral data. I’ve applied for and received several small grants. I have wonderful new mentors, and I’m frequently in touch with my supervisors. The opportunity to begin a new project has been invaluable, as most academic job applications explicitly require work beyond the doctoral dissertation. My new project has also given me the confidence to envision myself as a scholar within the field (something that’s hard to do as a student). Even if you don’t do a postdoc, make sure you have other ideas percolating in your mind as you prepare for the job market. Have a five-year plan.
Do collaborative work: I have had the privilege of being part of an trans-disciplinary, community-driven project here at the U of L. You can read more about it here and here. The collaborative nature of this project has allowed me to engage tangibly with new cultures, communities, disciplines, methods, and theoretical approaches. Research can often feel isolating and lonely. In my experience, working and writing with other people is rejuvenating. Additionally, doing community-led research reminds me that there is a world beyond the academy, and this keeps me grounded. I recognize that this piece of advice might be discipline specific, but I think we can always find ways of engaging with other scholars and community members.
Teach in new ways: the nature of teaching at Cambridge is quite specific. While I supervised numerous courses as a graduate student, I left having never designed my own syllabus. Most academic job applications in North America require the inclusion of teaching syllabi and course evaluations. I had neither when I graduated. As a postdoc, cross-disciplinary teaching has been encouraged and made possible by my institution. I have designed and taught five different courses in three departments across campus. Working with colleagues and students in varying departments has required ongoing reflection and flexibility. These experiences have not only strengthened my approaches to teaching, but have prepared me to design courses beyond my immediate field of study.
Here I am on my first day of lecturing. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I figured it out:
Prepare for uncertainty and talk about rejection: as a graduate student, I was not prepared for the reality of how hard the job market would be. Since leaving Cambridge, I have been blessed to have continuous employment, albeit precarious. My current postdoc is ending, and several new opportunities are on the horizon. The questions I had on submission day have not be quelled. I still ask myself, almost daily, what next? Where next? Which opportunity will lead me in the right direction? There is, inevitably, never a clear answer. Like most of us, I also have a wicked sense of imposter syndrome. But having these questions and self-doubt is why networks are so important. My mentors and colleagues are the people I turn to for emotional support when the rejections come (because they do, in all different shapes and sizes). They are also the first ones I share my successes with (and those come, too).
I suppose my final piece of advice would be: don’t be afraid of what’s beyond the red doors. In January, I returned to Cambridge with one of my current supervisors, Dr. Kristine Alexander. We visited the Faculty of Education and guest lectured to an audience of familiar faces. As I shared my Cambridge with her, it was not a strange place that I’d left behind, but rather one of the myriad of homes that continue to define who I am. I’d like to think there is now a little piece of Cambridge inside of her; that I’ve begun to nurture her sense of community, as she has so carefully done mine.
On the prairie, some roots grow laterally, like sweet grass or wild mint. Whatever comes next, I’ll continue to grow sideways — across and between places — accumulating experiences, people, and ideas at each interval, while also letting myself grow deep.
Erin Spring is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge. She completed her PhD in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge in 2014. Erin’s interdisciplinary research employs a range of qualitative approaches, such as photo-elicitation, journaling, map-making, and reading discussion groups, to understand the ways in which young people make sense of their contexts, cultures, histories, and identities through the reading process. Partly funded by IBBY Canada’s Frances E. Russell Grant, and a Children’s Literature Association Diversity Grant, she is currently working with Blackfoot readers who live and attend school on a reserve in southern Alberta, Canada. Erin has published widely, including in Bookbird, Children’s Geographies, Children’s Literature in Education, Education 3-13, and Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, as well as in a range of edited collections. To learn more about her research and teaching, you can visit Erin’s website, or follow her on Twitter.