In a post the other day, Josephine Crawley Quinn wrote that for PhD students aspiring to more research-focused academic jobs, the CV points for public engagement were marginal. As a person with an academic career in public history, you might be surprised to learn that I largely agree. This post is about the exceptions: the situations when a good public engagement profile can give applicants an edge in a fiendishly difficult academic job market for early career researchers. It relates mainly to history, because that’s the subject I know best, but I suspect at least some of it translates to other disciplines and I’d be interested to hear comments on that.
I hope it goes without saying that no-one gets a lectureship on the basis of public engagement without teaching experience and REF-able publications, but other things being equal I think in certain circumstances it can make a difference. I’d also like to make clear that I don’t endorse the values at work in some of the examples below! Apologies in advance if I sound cynical about the way that universities operate.
First exception: the new job market in public history. There is a small but significant number of posts now in public history/heritage/history with public engagement where by definition universities are looking to employ people who are specialists in this field. Some of these posts go to people who research heritage topics: others go to people with practical experience of public engagement with history. An impressive track record in public engagement work can make you a candidate for these jobs as well as for those in your particular research specialism.
Second exception: your public engagement work is sufficiently high-profile that it has potential to add value to the University’s brand. (I can’t quite believe I just wrote that but believe me there are whole teams in universities these days whose job it is to look after this stuff.) Realistically, this means you are someone in a position to get positive national media coverage for the institution (which they hope will pay off in student recruitment: it only takes a few more £9k students to cover your salary).
PR people have various metrics that put a figure on the value of media coverage to the organisation. They can be crude, but if you can show that your media coverage was valued at the equivalent of say £35k (a modest estimate for a couple of decent-sized national newspaper articles about your work) and your lectureship starting salary is £30k, you can see why that might be attractive to an institution. If you have this sort of coverage, and are applying for a job, find someone in PR who can help you work out these figures and put them in your application.
Third exception: your public engagement work makes money. Universities like applicants who bring money. It’s very unlikely you will earn enough as an early career researcher to buy yourself out of many academic responsibilities, but if (for example) you can cover a good chunk of your own research expenses from consultancy income it’s well worth saying so, particularly if there’s potential to expand this in future. At the very least this shows that you are conscious of the need to raise your own cash. (That said, in the humanities commercial income will almost never match the value of an AHRC grant, so make sure you have some plausible grant application ideas too.)
Four and five are more about potential:
Fourth exception: your public engagement track record demonstrates your potential to produce an outstanding impact case-study for a future REF. Universities can only submit impact case-studies based on research done in their own departments, but if your track record means you’re in a position to deliver something impressive (perhaps you collaborated with a theatre company in the past, and they want to work with you to produce something around your new project) then that should work to your advantage.
Fifth exception: your public engagement work has potential to translate to teaching. For example, if you work extensively with museums might you co-ordinate a heritage work placement module? Could your project be a basis for some innovative teaching that might attract students? My experience is that there’s a lot more of this outside the Russell Group than within it: if you’re a PhD student or ECR in a Russell Group institution find out how the rest of the sector operates. It may not be what you expect.