ECR interview: How Early Career Research funding can help broaden your area of expertise

Steve Ashby

Dr Steve Ashby - Medieval Archaeologist with specialism in the archaeology of portable material culture and technology

“I am now viewed a little differently both within my specialist peer group, and in my academic department” says Dr Steve Ashby is a Medieval Archaeologist with specialism in the archaeology of portable material culture and technology.

He believes HCR funding helped him broaden his expertise and boost his profile.

1. What AHRC ECR funding have you recieved? And when?

I received an AHRC Early Career Researcher (ECR) research grant for the project Melting Pot: Food and Identity in the Age of Vikings (awarded 2015, and running 2016-18). This is a project to investigate the age-old questions of regionality, ethnicity, urbanism, and culture contact through the medium of cuisine. We know lots about what people ate in the Viking Age, but relatively little about how they prepared or consumed it.

This project allowed me to work with archaeological scientists using leading-edge biomolecular techniques to answer these old questions in a new, high-resolution way.

2. How did the funding help you professionally? How did it help you develop your research / career?

Prior to winning this grant, I had a strong reputation in a fairly restricted field: the study of bone objects from Viking-Age Britain and Scandinavia. I wanted to move beyond this, using diverse materials to answer a range of big social and economic questions through the integration of scientific techniques and archaeological theory.

This work allowed me to do that, by looking at a new form of object (ceramics), in a way analogous to my approach with bone objects. This has in turn helped me to develop further, writing on metalwork, for example, and publishing more synthetic, agenda-setting work. I have a sense that I am now viewed a little differently both within my specialist peer group, and in my academic department, and I am invited to speak at a much broader range of events.

3. Was there anything you would have been unable to do without it?

The project would have been impossible without the funding. The biomolecular techniques we are applying are dependent on specialist equipment and experienced technicians. So the AHRC allowed work to happen that ordinarily would not have been possible. Similar projects have been undertaken for prehistoric material, but are rare in the early-medieval period.

4. What do you think are the main challenges facing ECRs?

Career progression is difficult. I have been lucky enough to be in a full-time, permanent academic post, but nonetheless I did find myself in something of a rut.  For a few years after the completion of my PhD, I was publishing research related directly or indirectly to my thesis. For the next few years, I found myself in demand as a specialist on other projects, as a result of this work. This was in itself very enjoyable and fulfilling, but the next step - broadening my portfolio - proved difficult.

In particular, finding myself a role as someone who directly identified and addressed the big research questions, rather than contributing to those goals, seemed impossible within the constraints of day-to-day work. This had implications for my own self-confidence as well as perceptions of my work.

Another issue for those in full academic-teaching posts is finding the time to think. With the ever increasing pressures of administration, it is relatively easy to find time to publish solid research with which you are comfortable, but  much more challenging to find the time and space to carve out an entirely new research agenda, method, or approach.

5. Did the AHRC Early Career Researcher funding help you address these challenges?

The process of application was in itself illuminating - researching a topic that was relatively new to me forced me to think in interesting ways, until I was pretty comfortable in this new field, and began to incorporate this into my teaching.

The award of the grant was a great confidence-booster, in that it affirmed not only that I could write successful applications, but that a panel of expert reviewers had confidence in me to take this leap. The award also gave me time (2 days a week) to spend on the project, and made me prioritise this over easier, more familiar work.

Together, this increased my confidence in the field, and enabled me to think about new areas to research. The idea of exploring new areas is now much less intimidating than it once was.

6. Looking back, what advice do you have for ECRs looking to develop their careers? 

Be ambitious, take advice from your colleagues, and accept that this is a learning curve. The transition from being a researcher to becoming a research manager is a difficult one logistically, politically, and emotionally, and you won't get it right first time. The associated administrative load is considerable, so take advice from more experienced colleagues, seek support and training where helpful, but just keep at it.

Running this grant is the first experience in which I have really forced myself to work in entirely new ways since I got my first job post-PhD. Challenging yourself is important; you can almost feel the synapses firing with every new logistical problem you have to resolve. 

7. Tell us something about your future plans - how do you intend to develop your achievements as an ECR?

I have plans for work directly related to this project: from complementary lab work in new contexts, to impact work for schools. I am also working on a number of collaborative applications which are not directly related, but which constitute further new areas of research.

This would not have been possible without the Melting Pot grant, as the idea would have been too far-removed from my recognised expertise. The project has allowed me to style myself more as a Viking-Age researcher interested in asking questions of material culture than as a specialist in one particular form of artefact.

Finally, I have enjoyed the opportunity to direct a small team of colleagues, and one of the joys of the work has been seeing the progression and development of my postdoctoral research assistants. I am looking forward to building a larger research team over the next few years.

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