Saturday, 23 March 2013

10 things I wish I knew about academia sooner...

In the second year of my undergrad degree I decided I wanted to go on into a career in higher education and research.  The only problem was I didn't really know much about how to make that happen, beyond that the next step was to get a Masters degree.  After that you did a PhD, and then after that a career magicked itself up and you were hired on as a junior lecturer and a successful career of teaching and research followed.  Right?

I remember coming to London to study for my Masters in palaeoanthropology and palaeolithic archaeology at UCL in 2008/9.  I had minored in archaeology, but still felt like a linguist crashing an archaeology club.  But I really wanted to do well, even though I barely knew what a dissertation was, beyond an extra long essay.  Most of the people on my course had done a dissertation for their undergraduate degree, so I really felt inexperienced in an alien discipline.  

Four years later, I feel I know a lot more about getting into an academic career, and the long and unstable path leading to job security and a regular paycheck.  So even though I was naieve, and I can't imagine I was alone in feeling a bit ignorant about things, it worked out ok.  

I do think though, that I could have benefited from a bit more support offered at undergraduate and Masters level when it comes to what actually goes in to building an academic career, and how best to make yourself the best candidate for acheiving that next step.  For instance, maybe I would have geared my dissertation to be a bit more empirically focussed - I feel I am at a disadvantage both for funding opportunities and later employability because I don't have any technical or analytical projects under my belt.  I've read lots of books and thought about them and that's about it...

Maybe if there was some sort of undergraduate or even graduate level module or lecture series that covered these sorts of topics, where people wanting to pursue research as a career could learn a number of things.  For instance, 
  • what the common career stages in academia?
  • what are the ways you can build up your CV as a young academic?
  • how does a research project get started?
  • what features in a project make it attractive for funding?
  • what does a funding application look like? 
  • what goes into preparing a paper to submit to a journal?
  • how does the peer review process work?
  • how do you review a paper?
  • how do funding bodies work?
  • how is a conference organised?

I still don't know anything about a lot of these questions, but thankfully it's a lot more than I did four years ago.  I imagine I'll have a lot of opportunity during my PhD to learn all of this, but I still think it would have been helpful information earlier on to know about.  I'm not sure what difference it would have made, but perhaps it would make students a bit more savvy and make better informed decisions about preparing for their highly competative and slow to get off the ground career.

What about you?  What do you wish you had known a bit earlier on, or are wondering about now?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Hurrah, hurrah, it's a PhD!

I'm even happier than this here guy!
I started this blog a few years ago to keep myself motivated and in the academic mindset, as I finished my Masters and anticipated a bit of struggle to get to the PhD stage.  It'll have taken 4 years, but I'm VERY happy to say I've been accepted to start a PhD at the University of Southampton!!!

I'm extremely pleased, as it's such a renowned university for Palaeolithic studies and there are so many amazing people that work, study, or have worked or studied there in the past.  I'll be very humbled to be among them!  And I don't know how, but somehow I've interested [b]Clive Gamble[/b] to be my supervisor!  Well I do know how, he has done amazing work and research that has influenced me and my ideas for years, and my project is related to his interests... but what luck!  Well, not luck... just amazingness!  And a bit of timeliness?  The Lucy to Language project has wrapped up and some of that work I'll be drawing on for my own project.

My own project... I've kept my project ideas a bit mum on this page, as at first they were changing so quickly, and then once I got really excited about them I didn't want to do something such as !!post them!! - and see them crumble!  But I'm really excited about the project I put forth, and while there are weaknesses, I think the support I'm likely to get at Southampton and the absolute MOST I'm going to give this, will hopefully produce something really valuable to both Palaeolithic archaeology and language evolution disciplines, and take me on the next step in an eventual career path!

I haven't heard about funding just yet, but I'm crossing my fingers in hope.  I'll be commuting from Oxford, and funding will mean I can spend more time at the department... and eat more!  Without funding I can barely make it work, with a bit of part time work here and there along with my jewellery business, but I've been wanting to do this for so long that I'm just happy to jump in however many nights of rice and beans I have to go through.

I'll post soon about my project idea as it is, and then run and hide... it scares me because I like it!!

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Why does human cultural achievement mean Neanderthal demise?

Again and again, science news publish articles headlining things such as "Humans were genius sexy amazeballs, Neanderthals died of jealousy", or, "Humans wore shoes, Neanderthal extinction due to Osteoarthritis?"

Alright those are fake, but they aren't that much of an exaggeration.

This could have been the very skill that allowed humans
to bound across the European landscape,
ejecting Neanderthals from their cave...
Such as this article in Scientific American entitled "Oldest Arrowheads Hint at How Modern Humans Overtook Neandertals", or this article from National Geographic Daily News published yesterday, "Failure to Hunt Rabbits Part of Neanderthals' Demise?"

The first article I point to is a good example of why I'm not quite following the logic - it is about early projectiles from South Africa, a continent away from any possible human-Neanderthal interaction/competition.  These projectiles would have been a nice fancy cultural innovation for hunting strategy.  And Neanderthals just couldn't cope with their inferior spears... extinction naturally followed.

Sorry, what exactly did the impact of these tools have?  Underlying these articles is just an implicit assumption that life is a boxing ring, and the fighter with the fancier shorts wins (ie doesn't extinct themselves).

Any cultural detail different between our two species seems to be taken immediately to be a marker of why one is here today and the other isn't.  Because, for some reason I can't quite figure out, humans being better at life eradicates other life around it.

But species go extinct all the time.  Why does this one deserve so much attention?  At least that question is easier to understand - our obsession with the demise of the Neanderthals is fascinating, and that fascination leads to endless "what ifs" and fanciful speculations based on little or no evidence.  Neanderthals are us but not us, close cousins that resemble human groups in some ways, but not in others.  They are fascinating.  They are so similar, but they failed.  And we see our differences, our Nectar Points and jet packs, as the reason we have won... something.  Life I guess.  Although, we don't go on about our triumph over the Australopithecines (Husband, pers. comm.)

It's a fascination with different cultural groups that led 19th century anthropologists to come to so many conclusions as to why the 'savage races' were inferior to their own amazing mustachioed culture.

Modern humans have undoubtedly impacted most (all?) species on the planet alive today.  And we seem to extend this impact right back into the Palaeolithic - I can't say whether or not there is a grain of truth in that, and that we did make an impact on our landscapes, but we do have to look at our own species, small in number, without Nectar points or jet packs back then, and maybe have a bit more humility.
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