Oliver Harris

Dr. Oliver Harris/credit: University of Leicester

“…post-docs could do without so much stress

Associate Professor of Archaeology, University of Leicester

Interview originally published in TEA 65

How long did it take you to obtain a permanent academic job from the end of your PhD?

Five years.

Where did you do your PhD? Have you moved to another institution, country or discipline in order to pursue a career in archaeology?

I submitted my PhD at Cardiff University in 2006, and went straight to commercial archaeology for one year. Then I moved to Cambridge, Newcastle and finally to Leicester, where I got my permanent position in June 2011. I have not changed discipline along the way.

Tell us about your post-doc experience. How many post-doc positions have you held? Do you ever miss being a post-doc?

I completed two post-docs. The first was at Cambridge, where my research was integrated in a large project with several other postdoctoral researchers. This was a fantastic experience, especially because it opened up new horizons – the topic and period were different from that of my PhD. The second post-doc was in Newcastle, where I conducted research on my own grant (Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship). There I had a chance to explore topics directly related to my own interest – Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. In both post-doc projects I had very supportive mentors, who significantly impacted on my academic career.

Do I miss being a post-doc? Unlike permanent positions which involve a lot of teaching, post-docs afford time to focus on research full-time; I sometimes miss that. On the other hand, there were stressful times, and also upsetting moments on the route to permanent employment. I think that post-docs could do without so much stress. I would not go back.

Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan, Scotland, the setting of Oliver’s field project (credit: Oliver Harris)

Do you have any advice for new PhD graduates who wish to pursue a career in academia?

I find mobility very important, if not crucial in an academic career, although that can be very hard depending on your private circumstances. I would also recommend that you work on your publications strategically and focus on high quality work, because that is sometimes far more important than having a high number of publications, especially in terms of how people are judged in the UK currently. To some extent, one should aim high. Think carefully how and organise your time. Try to find the right balance between publishing and teaching. Another piece of advice is that when applying for jobs, try to convince others that your work is more than just solid or good. Even if, in some cases, you cannot demonstrate that your work will re-write history, you should try to show the impact of your research on the broader field, which is again knowing how to properly “sell” your work.

Is there a typical career path in academia, have you noticed if this has changed over the years?

I have the impression that it is even more difficult to find jobs today than when I graduated. I can only speak from the British academic perspective. Here getting a permanent job involves moving from your PhD to your first post-doc, or teaching position, and then to second, third etc. postdoc/teaching position, until finally obtaining permanent employment. Some 30-40 years ago maybe there was more possibility to land a permanent position straight after PhD, but that does not seem to be the case anymore. Some people still do, but in general it is hard to compete with people who were appointed to teach, have had post-doc experiences, their own grants, and a number of publications for three-four years.

Retrospectively, would you make any different choices in your academic career path?

No, I think I was very fortunate in my career. I did my PhD on exactly the topic that interested me the most, and I am very happy with my post-doc projects and what I have learned by working on them. If I could change anything, it would be publications, and I think I could have been more serious with starting to publish journal articles earlier than I did.

Is there anything you want to add?

Try to find your own circles, and people that you could write with. These do not necessarily need to be senior researchers, but those that you can work with on the same level, and develop ideas that can influence your career positively.