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Elaine Tierney - Teaching and Training Co-ordinator at Victoria and Albert Research Institute

Elaine Tierney

Elaine Tierney - Project Manager of the BBC4 series “Handmade in Britain”.
Credit: Richard Baxter

Dr Elaine Tierney’s doctoral project, ‘Strategies for Celebration: Realising the Ideal Celebratory City in London and Paris, 1660-1775’, was fully funded by an AHRC collaborative doctoral award and jointly affiliated with the Art History Department at Sussex and the V&A’s Research Department.

One of the things that appealed to Elaine about undertaking the CDA was that she “could become someone who could move seamlessly between museums and university”. She adds: “This was one of my primary divers”. Although moving between sectors hasn’t always been easy, she firmly believes that this mobility will become a more pronounced feature of research jobs in the future - with CDAs ideally placed to take full advantage.

Elaine finished her PhD and immediately went into working at the V&A, helping to organise an international research event about design and risk. She then secured another role at the museum, becoming the researcher and project manager for the BBC4 series “Handmade in Britain”.

Since then, Elaine has enjoyed different roles including a teaching post at the University of Manchester, before heading back to the V&A taking up a position as a teaching and training coordinator for the V&A Research Institute. She’s been in the role for two and a half years, and leads on the strategic development of the V&A’s relationships with Higher Education, including curricula development.

The AHRC studentship appealed to Elaine as the project allowed her to “take the work that she completed during her Master’s, a step further. It was as much the opportunity to work on a project, rather than undertaking a ‘straight’ PhD that was what really appealed to me.”

Elaine’s students benefit from her experience moving between research and practitioner settings. After speaking to students, she understands that many of them appreciate the advice that she can give them, as she has experience both in and out of the university setting. She is able, she says, to provide guidance to students on the potential next steps of their careers, even if that lies outside academia.

In her teaching, Elaine uses objects and the built environment in a much more integrated way. She explained that the emphasis in museums is on communication with a range of audiences and how important that is to remember when teaching.

This method allows Elaine to frame discussions for a particular audience, whether that be an undergraduate group who have no sense of what material cultural history looks like, or those who have dropped into a public session at the museum. Her repertoire of communication styles is something students have commented on positively in feedback.

Part of her current job description was that there is a stated need for someone with a research profile which is relevant to the museum’s collections and she takes great satisfaction when producing a significant piece of research: “The process of scoping the research landscape, identifying the gaps and then framing your own research questions, the business of doing research was ‘fundamental.’ Having that process under my belt and having published from my thesis is something I draw upon on a daily basis”.

A gap Elaine found herself increasingly filling at the V&A was a role in developing and mentoring others in their research skills, and she now convenes the Museum’s in-house research training programme. In particular, she’s become a point of contact for early career researchers across the museum’s sizeable research community. “These people want to know how to do research,” she says, “especially in a way that can be measured by the criteria for scholarly research: originality, rigour, significance and critical thinking. Without having the doctorate, I wouldn’t be able to do that to the same degree.”

For Elaine, the positives of working in a collaborative environment are clear: “It’s a bit like work really; it’s great preparation for whatever you decide to do. A university department is also a collaborative environment with huge expectations of administration, especially as you become more senior. Even for students who want that straight academic career the collaborative aspect and partnership development aspect of a CDA is also critical to developing that and pursuing that career path”.

The benefits for those employing CDA students are clear as well: “It’s bringing new life into our research community. You have fantastic doctoral researchers who are at the cutting edge in their fields who make us think about the collections in ways perhaps we haven’t before. In my experience in working with our PhD students and having been one myself; they have the headspace or bandwidth to think about the V&A differently”.

Finally, Elaine shares some advice she would give current doctoral students: “Think about what you want from the day-to-day of work. This is a good starting point to scope out what you may want to do for a broader career sense. Quite often we think about the big headlines of what we want to be in the future, however, focusing on the day-to-day can be just as valuable”.

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