Constructing a Sociological career: An eternally complex autobiographical practice

It wasn’t billed as an early careers master-class and pep talk, but from my personal perspective, this was precisely what the recent ‘Conversations with David Morgan and Friends’ event delivered, as well as interesting insights into current research at the Morgan Centre in Manchester, and a chance to network with Sociological colleagues from all stages of the career. I’d arrived at the event feeling quite self-conscious, a little bit anxious and somewhat of a charlatan. Having graduated in 2001, with a degree in Sociology and History, the last 13 years have been spent bobbing and weaving between arguably relevant short term employments and studies, with the lofty goal in mind of somehow, one day, becoming a ‘Sociologist’ and, hopefully, an established academic.

Through a combination of planning, cunning and luck, I have successfully managed to remain in the higher education milieu, gained a social science PhD, worked on some interesting research projects and I even have a couple of publications coming out this summer. In fact, not two summers ago, I narrowly missed out on landing a prestigious early career fellow grant, which would have meant three luxurious years of focussing entirely on my own research project, which I had designed myself without the aid of a mentor. However, despite making the short-list I didn’t get the grant, and there were no prizes for runners up. Additionally, my current contract was due to expire within the next six weeks, after which I would be doing – what exactly?

Given that the summer is an especially bad time to be looking for jobs in academia, and given that my teaching experience is limited, the most likely looking opportunities, though interesting and appealing to me, were outside of the academy. Whilst I had settled it with myself that some of these roles might enhance my sociological imagination and expand my horizons, I was nevertheless plagued with doubts about how they would fit on my otherwise reasonably consistent HE focussed CV.

I began to doubt the wisdom of my having attended. Was I sociological and/ or academic enough to be here? I pondered, whilst loitering around the registration table, cringing and feeling socially awkward. What were the criteria for ‘belonging’ at an event like this anyway? Qualifications? Publications in certain journals? Being successfully employed as a lecturer? This kind of ridiculous navel-gazing went on for far longer than I care to admit and was in danger of mushrooming into an existential crisis – who did I think I was anyway, booking myself onto this event, taking up the place of a more worthy delegate?

Thankfully I soon got chatting with some other ‘early career’ delegates, and as I dutifully recited the narrative ‘in a nutshell’ version of my CV, it didn’t sound anyway near as random or ‘unsociological’. In fact it wasn’t long before viva stories were being compared and we were exchanging hushed whispers regarding our career-related anxieties and bumps in the road in our persistent campaigns to get a foothold. After all, establishing an academic career, or indeed any career, was tricky these days wasn’t it? In today’s climate etc etc.

Feeling far more relaxed I entered to room for the final part if the conference, ready to celebrate the glittering careers and brilliance of the two established academics ‘in conversation’ – Professors Carol Smart and Jeffrey Weeks. However they surprised me by instead revealing the slightly more haphazard trajectories of their own careers – being ousted for being ‘too much trouble’ and working outside the academy in order to ‘survive’ (rather than strategically deciding to engage with political and community activities). I sat up in my seat, delighted, letting these precious revelations wash over me like a wave of reassurance. So it was okay to meander and drift – outside the academy if necessary, one’s career need not necessarily follow a nice, linear, progressive path. And it had always been so, it seemed, even for those destined to be highly influential, bone fide Sociologists!

Interestingly, a ‘further reading’ note emerged from the conference slot which saw Professors David Morgan and Sue Scott in conversation – an article about the construction of a CV. Following the conference I sought it out – and I am most glad that I did. In this splendid article, Professor Morgan and a colleague, Professor Nod Miller, explored the production of a CV as a form of autobiographical practice and ‘presentation of a self’ in a particular occupational context.

Miller and Morgan drew on guidelines for CV writing, anatomising the process and drawing on their own CVs as a source of data. They described their approach as ‘heterodox’, nodding to the inevitable relevance of a Foucaultian framework, but also using Goffman’s work to examine ‘the more processual details’. Drawing on Goffman’s eight elements of ‘performance’ analysis, they use the concept of ‘front’, for example, to examine the guidance regarding drawing particular attention to certain activities and achievements, such as academic invitations received to national or international occasions, over other more ‘trivial’ details, such as book reviews. However there is, the authors point out, a matter of balance here, because early career academics might include book reviews since they may be used to indicate the beginnings of the establishment of a reputation.

I was particularly interested in this discussion regarding the value of book reviews, which has often been a source of personal dilemma. Recently I was informed that my book review essay on ‘Deafhood’ has been sent for print and will appear in ‘Sociology’ (journal of the British sociological Association) in August of this year. Whilst in the wider context of a fledgling academic career a book review essay will be viewed as ‘trivia’, this particular contribution is, in my opinion, as insightful as many academic articles and certainly required as much time, effort, thought and perhaps even skill. In presenting my nutshell, narrative CV to colleagues at the Morgan Centre event, I had chosen to mention it since it will be my first publication in this prestigious journal of our discipline and I am very proud of it. However, even as I did so I found myself apologising “I know it’s only a book review essay but…”, however I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction I received. One fellow early career colleague commented that I had always been good at ‘getting myself out there’, which reflected my reasoning for undertaking the review, since it would connect my name with the field of Deaf studies – a new research direction for me.

Another interesting aspect of the CV article related to Goffman’s heading of ‘misrepresentation’, under which the authors discuss the fine line between outright dishonesty and economies with the truth. For example one author included on their CV not only the number of post-graduates supervised but also listed those who had successfully completed; the other author, meanwhile, felt that this was overdoing the honesty. In this section there are some amusing comments regarding the authors inviting each other to ‘spot the whopper’ in each other’s CVs and having been given the informal advice ‘what you need is some whopper training’.

Whilst the overall themes of this article on CVs are comparable with the present day, the article was written in 1993 and thus many additional elements must now be considered. The advance of the internet has revolutionised the ways in which we discover, read and publish Sociology. Social media such as provide new ways in which we can present our biographies. Meanwhile the importance of the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and establishment of the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) make it vital that we develop a plethora of skills and publish prolifically, whilst promoting these appropriately through having ORCID and Scopus accounts. It is worth considering, therefore, this variety of activities and outlets when constructing our biographies, careers, and our CVs to present ourselves. ‘The Sociological Imagination’ is one such forum and I have finally set up a twitter account for the purposes of joining the online Sociological sphere.

Reflecting on the moral of this tale, Aesop-style, I would say that I am now feeling far less anxious and rigid about constructing my Sociological career during the next few years. In fact, with my recent discovery of autoethnography as a genre, and adopting a reflexive approach to addressing the domains of the RDF, I am excited about exploring a diversity of experiences, and about tackling this eternally complex autobiographical practice.

Sara Louise Wheeler is a Research Assistant at the University of Liverpool and a Visiting Research Fellow at Glyndŵr University. Her research interests include autoethnography, health, disability, plural identities and belonging. She is currently seeking funding for an ethnographic study on Deaf Welsh identity and belonging. She tweets at @SerenSiwenna

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3 replies »

  1. Great piece. You might like my 2006 ‘Research Identities’ article in Sociological Research Online and ‘Women’s Studies’ in Qualitative Inquiry, same year. While I’m coming to the end of my research career, I’d like to think they’d give you just a little bit more power to your elbow. You go girl!

  2. Great piece. You might like my 2006 ‘Research Identities’ article in Sociological Research Online and ‘Women’s Studies’ in Qualitative Inquiry, same year. While I’m coming to the end of my research career, I’d like to think they’d give you just a little bit more power to your elbow. You go girl!

    • Hi Jackie,
      Thank you for your kind words, I’ve been truly surprised and delighted by the positive response I have received to this little piece; it has been re-tweeted and many have commented on how relatable it is. Your Qualitative Inquiry article is very moving and powerful, I very much enjoyed reading it; I actually have my own little piece in Qualitative Inquiry this month, it’s called: Tinnitus: a Deafhearing phenomenon and it is a performance autoethnography with my cousin (which I have since discovered is either a collaborative autoethnography or a duoethnography, depending on your point of view?) Your ‘Research Identities’ article looks interesting and will undoubtedly be a good starting point for my future articles about the early career trajectory.
      Thanks again

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