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Top Tips for PhD Students by Dr Alexandra Wilson

The first Opera Research Students’ Conference took place at Brookes on 17 June 2014. For a separate report on the conference, see here. The day concluded with a talk by Dr Alexandra Wilson on career development for PhD students and early career researchers. Alex has distilled her talk down into a list of ‘top tips’, which can be found below.

These are hard times for young academics. Realistically, there have probably never been enough academic jobs for everyone who wanted one, but things seem to be getting more difficult for each successive generation: there are, to put it bluntly, fewer and fewer jobs and more and more people with PhDs. To be in with a fighting chance of making it onto a shortlist, every student therefore needs to arm him- or herself with a sort of ‘tool kit’ of skills and experiences, either before finishing the PhD or shortly after.

First it is worth summarising the main types of employment Music PhDs typically enter after graduating:

  1. Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships. The holy grail of early career academics: three years with (in most cases) little or no teaching, in which to work on a new research project of your own choosing. These are fearsomely competitive: hundreds of people apply and you’re competing with applicants from around the world.
  2. British Academy and Leverhulme postdocs. These also give you a period of several years in which to undertake a new research project. For these awards you need to find an institution to ‘host’ you and you need to demonstrate that there’s a good fit between you and the institution in question. Again, they’re very competitive.
  3. Postdoctoral research assistant positions. These are often the result of a senior academic making a funding bid to a research council. Unlike with the above, the topic will be stipulated, so your specialism has to be the right fit.
  4. Short-term early career researcher posts in individual university departments. There were lots of these strategic appointments pre-REF but don’t expect to see many being advertised for the next few years.
  5. Short-term teaching posts covering senior academics’ research leave or maternity leave. A very common first job nowadays, this type of post is likely to be heavy on both teaching and administration. Nevertheless, this can be an extremely useful stepping stone to the next thing: you are essentially thrown in at the deep end and expected to prove your mettle.
  6. Freelance jobbing, picking up bits and pieces of teaching here and there: this is not a particularly desirable course but the reality for many people, and some are successful in eventually securing a permanent post.
  7. Finally, there must still be a few people who manage to walk into a permanent, full-time job straight out of a PhD but this route is now unusual.

Below I have outlined the main things an aspiring academic needs to get on their CV, while taking great care not to be distracted from the main task in hand: completing the PhD on time.

1. Have one good publication accepted (if not in press/print) before you graduate

Some supervisors will tell you that you should concentrate on your PhD and wait until after finishing it to write an article. I couldn’t disagree more. The REF pressure may be off (slightly) for a few years, but departments still want to see that you’re going to be able to produce a good return for the next one.

An early-career researcher, entering their first job, usually needs to submit only one article for the REF. This counts for as much as a more senior academic’s four items. Thus, an early-career researcher with an excellent article can be a very hot ticket for a department. But it has to have been published somewhere that is deemed to be good. For all the REF panel may say about an equality of media, there is still a firmly entrenched belief that where you publish counts: that certain journals score more highly and that peer-reviewed articles rank higher than chapters in edited books. It’s worth aiming to place your work in one of the more highly esteemed peer reviewed journal articles to be on the safe side.

The shrewd thing to do, time wise, is to adapt a PhD chapter, or to use some material you haven’t been able to fit in as the basis for an article, rather than writing something entirely new. And get someone to read your work before you send it off. Yes, this is daunting, but anonymous peer reviewers don’t know that you’re a graduate student and will not pull their punches, so it’s worth making use of the feedback of friendly academics to make your work as good as it can be before submitting it.

I’ve written more about the publishing process here.

2. Get some teaching experience

Teaching experience may be relatively unimportant for some of the JRF posts but the majority of first jobs are short term posts that involve covering somebody’s teaching and you need to be able to convince a committee that you can hit the ground running.

There are many different types of teaching and they all require different skills, so it’s worth doing a small amount of lots of different types rather than a lot of one. Tutorials on the Oxford model are quite different to giving large lectures, and seminars where you’re effectively supporting a more senior academic are different to devising your own module. I think departments ideally want to see that you’ve done a bit more than just assisting someone else with a few seminars so any evidence you can provide of having helped devise a course or assessment experience can be a very good thing. Any postgraduate teaching you can get (even just the odd class) can also mark you out from the crowd.

Do be wary of taking on too much teaching experience: the result may be that you drag your PhD out for an extra year.

3. Present your work at conferences

This is like asking for feedback on an article – it helps you to hone and refine your work (and your presentation skills) – and conferences are the best place to make valuable new contacts in the field. Conferences also look good on the CV and every graduating PhD student should make sure they’ve spoken at a couple: it’s a good idea to start out with a student conference and then try to get a paper accepted for a ‘grown up’ conference like the RMA, or one of the specialist conferences in your field. But again, don’t go so overboard with conferences that you get distracted from writing your PhD.

4. Consider taking on a small administrative role

Administration sounds dull but it’s certainly something every academic has to deal with these days. Having some administrative experience is probably going to be neither here nor there if you’re going for an Oxbridge JRF. However, if you’re up for a temporary teaching job, some administrative experience could give you the edge. You can pick up a certain amount of administrative experience as part and parcel of taking on teaching, or you might want to seek out some extra responsibility, such as serving on the RMA committee as a student rep.

5. Start thinking about sharing your research with the public

Impact matters these days and a willingness to engage with wider audiences is likely to be regarded as an asset by most departments. Activities like writing programme notes, talking on the radio or giving pre-concert talks can also help us to hone our academic skills, making us better lecturers and better writers. It’s also possible to talk about your research with a wider audience via blogs and social media but beware of giving away your actual research findings. I have written more about what impact is and how to get into it here.

6. Network, network, network.

You need to get to know senior academics early on in your career who are not your supervisor, who will be on your side as your career develops and whom you can ask to write references for you. A typical JRF application requires you to nominate three referees and they have to be senior academics from well-respected institutions. Having international referees can also be extremely valuable. Networking can be daunting but you can’t afford to be shy. Develop a network among your peers as well: friends made at this stage can be a vital source of support for years to come.

Armed with this tool kit of skills you should be able to approach the job market with a reasonable amount of confidence, but every aspiring academic, however brilliant, still needs to tick the last box on my list, which is: have a Plan B… and preferably a Plan C.

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Opera Research Students’ Conference Report by Anna Maria Barry and Corrina Connor

On Tuesday 17th June the inaugural Opera Research Students’ Conference was held at Oxford Brookes University, hosted by OBERTO. This conference, organised by OBERTO postgraduate students, attracted 14 speakers from the UK and beyond. The speakers spoke in 6 sessions, encompassing a diverse range of approaches, from economics and psychology to composition and archaeology.

Things kicked off with two parallel sessions, one of which was entitled ‘Performance Practices’. The first speaker in this session was Matteo Paoletti (University of Genoa), who spoke about the career of director Giorgio Strehler and his pursuit of a ‘lyrical theatre of art’. Strehler believed that for this ideal to be attained, singers had to be ‘theatrical animals.’ Strehler died during the rehearsals for his 1998 production of Così fan tutte and no one has ever studied his work. Paoletti’s fascinating paper was followed by one from Anna Koukoullis (Oxford Brookes University), who spoke passionately about the evolving role of acting on the operatic stage. She showed clips from different productions of Carmen to highlight the change from ‘presentational’ to ‘representational’ acting, and considered how acting is taught to young singers in conservatoires today.

Meanwhile, in the parallel session ‘Production and Creative Process’, we heard two more speakers. First up was Emma Higgins (NUI Maynooth), who spoke about the status of the mezzo-soprano in early Third Republic Paris. The truth seems to be that the ‘mezzo’ as a category did not exist in name at the Paris Opéra (although singers were expected to perform mezzo roles): the most prestigious female vocal categories were those of the soprano and contralto. Next, Simone Spagnolo (Trinity Laban) discussed Italian experimental opera in the second half of the twentieth century, using Berio’s Opera and Bussotti’s Passion Selon Sade as examples of alternative narrative forms which can mean many things (or nothing at all) according to the multiple interpretations of the audience. Spagnolo also discussed his own opera It Makes No Difference in the context of the ‘open work’. This paper, overall, demonstrated that the creation of an open work requires ingenious planning, and it was fascinating to see the difference intellectual processes which are necessary for creating a ‘convincing’ open work.

After a short break, delegates came together for a three-paper session entitled ‘The Business of Opera’. Alessandra Palidda (Cardiff University) got things started with a highly amusing paper on La Scala in Napoleonic Milan. Just one of the republican-flavoured works that was performed during this period was the ballet Il general Colli in Roma which featured a dancing Pope on stage and became known as ‘the Pope’s ballet’. Next, Matthew Elliot (Emmanuel College, Cambridge) brought the finances of French Grand Opera alive, with a look at the finances and funding of the Paris Opéra. The amounts of money it took to keep the art form alive were staggering, and losses were abundant; not helped by the bizarre condition that stage sets could not be re-used for subsequent productions. The last speaker in this session was Annabelle Lee (RHUL), who offered a fascinating insight into the Metropolitan Opera’s social media strategy. Lee ultimately concluded that we should be rather wary of claims that social media strategy is able to bring new audiences to the opera house. Some of her figures were surprising; for example, audiences over 55 are more likely to experience opera via digital media.

Following lunch was another session of three papers, entitled ‘Cross-cultural reception’. The first speaker was Corrina Connor (Oxford Brookes), who gave a colourful account of the 1876 arrival of Die Fledermaus in London. Particularly interesting was the way in which social and political events had an impact on the reception of this opera, and its subsequent revival in 1895. Next, Zara Barlas (Heidelberg University) gave a fascinating account of Edward Soloman’s operetta The Nautch Girl. This opera reflected colonial anxieties about Indian dancers, who were erroneously seen as prostitutes. Barlas demonstrated how this opera might be viewed through a colonial lens, offering new perspective on transculturality during this period. The final speaker in this session, Catherine Hutchinson (Goldsmiths), spoke of the lavish 1860 production of Sémiramis at the Paris Opéra. Particularly fascinating was Hutchinson’s description of how recent archaeological finds from Assyria, displayed at the Louvre during this period, were reflected in the sets of the production.

After another short break, delegates split for two more parallel sessions. One of these was entitled ‘Psychology and Listening.’ First up, David John Baker (Goldsmiths) shared the fascinating research he is undertaking as part of the ‘Transforming Musicology’ project. Baker has been working with many listeners, testing which factors affect their recognition of Wagner’s Leitmotifs. This study has so far yielded some surprising results, and Baker’s paper offered some intriguing insights into how the brain processes music. The last speaker in this session was Sebastian Bolz (LMU Munich), who offered an examination of the operatic chorus in Germany around 1900. This understudied area, Bolz argued, can offer a new perspective as a medium for group dynamics.

The final parallel session was entitled ‘British Literary Adaptations’. The first speaker, Russell Burdekin (Oxford Brookes), illustrated the lurid origins of Loder’s opera Raymond and Agnes, which was derived from the sensational Gothic romance The Monk (c. 1795) by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Burdekin explained that as theatre productions were subject to censorship in the early nineteenth century, it was necessary for stage adaptations of The Monk to tone some of the most scandalous aspects of this book which also had a plot too convoluted to be easily enacted on stage. Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden was also derived from an earlier literary source, in this case Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Michael Graham’s (RHUL) paper focussed less on Tippett’s adaptation of the story than it did on the significance of ‘Der liebe Farbe’ – a song from Schubert’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin –which two of the opera’s characters (Flora and Dov) sing in Act II. Graham discussed the significance of the song for the ideas of gender mutability which pervade The Knot Garden.

The conference finished with a brilliant keynote from OBERTO’s Dr. Alexandra Wilson who offered much practical career advice for opera studies students, as well as sharing her own experiences and top tips. Alex began her talk by saying how pleased she was to see so many diverse and imaginative approaches being taken to opera studies and by noting that ‘The field is clearly in good health!’ Students found it especially useful to be able to ask questions and discuss topical issues such as public engagement and the REF. Please see Dr Wilson’s seperate blog post about this talk, where she shares her ‘top tips’. Delegates then held a short discussion about the future of the Opera Students’ Network, and many suggestions were made including regular social events, a new blog and website, and collaboration with singers and opera houses. We will be meeting shortly to discuss how to take some of these ideas forward – watch this space!

After the conference everyone headed to a local pub, where mutual areas of interest were discussed and new friendships were forged. It was extremely valuable to bring opera research students from around Europe together to discuss their research, as people working in disparate areas were able to come together share their work and ideas in a fun and dynamic environment. We eagerly look forward to next year’s conference!