On early career research, the future, and focus (focus, focus)


It has been quite some time since I have written in this blog. There are a number of reasons for this but two stick out:

  • I was in 9 countries in the past two months: UK, US, Switzerland, Italy, UAE, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands.
  • I was unsure about the tone of some recent posts. They were not graceful. Neither is this one, but whatever.

I am still coming to terms with both of those issues but I can tell you, I am back in all the ways that matter.

Before I dive into illicit antiquities, art crime, or heritage content, I want to reflect a bit on some of the joys (and sorrows), triumphs (and trials), inspiration (and blocks) that have come with the past year and a half.

As many of you know the Leverhulme fellowship I received to develop my research into the illicit trafficking of Latin American cultural objects was my first postdoc. I did the PhD ceremony at Cambridge then drove straight up to Scotland to start my job the next week. I was extremely fortunate to receive this fellowship, especially after having spent about a year and a half in academic limbo, trying to not look unemployed, trying to do smart research things such as start this-here blog. I thank Pachamama every day for giving me this opportunity and, like most Early Career Researchers on fixed term fellowships, I am positively terrified that I won’t have a job at the end of it.

I am pretty good. All y’all should hire me…or tell my employer that you want to so THEY hire me.

My first fellowship year was dominated by two things: an explosion of idea development moving in a number of directions and the spectre of Bolivian fieldwork looming over me. The first was interesting and necessary but scattered. The second was complicated in every possible way from day one culminating in a truly absurd political incident the week I was flying in to La Paz (yes, ‘plane-gate’). Sure, I laugh now, but at the time I was seriously freaking out.

During the first few months of my second year (basically this September to December), I feel that I had trouble finding my footing. Again, more scattered ideas, some randomness with a traffic cone, but a general loss of focus. I fear that this focus loss was due to worries about job stability. As I pushed to do things that I thought might result in permanent academic employment I neglected, well, the things that would result in permanent academic appointment. I mean I got a snappy good first year performance review, but I know I wasn’t working up to my own standards. There was a lot of stress and very little development. Anxiety: not awesome.

I am very lucky to have some very wonderful friends.

So, yes, in January as I watched bouncing wallabies and pitted kilos of cherries in Tasmania, I did a lot of thinking. First, I realised that much of my scattered thinking and random researching is actually at an advanced stage: I can whip out some papers on these things super fast. So I am. This requires an extremely tight schedule every day with a massive amount of time set aside just for writing. In the coming year watch for papers on the realities of auction catalogue analysis, on (my old friend) the Bolivia Cultural Property MOU, on orchid smuggling, on historic Peruvian textile trafficking, on concepts of ‘value’ of nature, on historic networks in Maya artefact smuggling, and (maybe) on public response to the Glasgow cone. I am on it. Need a book chapter? Email me.

I also realized that I have not been availing myself to any of the various Early Career Researcher development opportunities that come my way. I am a solitary type when it comes to research. I sort of disappear for a while, spout what seems to be randomness and insanity, than pull it all together for a colossal finish as a paper. I look at networking and skills and training events and go “mehhh” at best or “that is my nightmare” at worst. I’m not going to do that anymore. I am going to go to all of them. All. Of. Them.

And, really, I am going to prioritize the things that both move me forward and that I enjoy. I liked leading a training workshop at UNODC in Vienna (they liked it too): I am up for more of such things. I liked giving guest lectures to the University of Cambridge Heritage MPhils and the Christies Art Law MScs, not to mention lecturing to our own group of cultural property trafficking students: I am open for business if you want a guest lecture so get in touch. I love having intense conversations with other researchers in far-flung fields and then saying “I think we just wrote a paper”, and actually writing the paper: if you will stick to it, you know where I am. I also like editing and review…go on, bring it on.

Now I am not going to say yes to everything, I just know that I can be a bit reclusive. That isn’t good for anyone. This is an exercise in being more academically open. That way I know I will have given this whole academia thing my best shot come what may in the future. I am feeling very effective. I like this a lot.

P.S. I am also going to read more, drink less, eat right, exercise, meditate, demand alone time, and get 8 hours of sleep each night. You laugh? Week 1 of it went okay.