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Interviews with New Generation Thinkers Katherine Cooper and Jules Evans

 

Katherine Cooper, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia and Jules Evans, Research Fellow at The Centre for the History of The Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London talk all things NGT in this interview, based around key questions and their careers since becoming NGTs.

What motivated you to apply to the scheme?

Katherine: I had always eyed it with interest but I wasn’t sure I’d get it. I put in because I had a background in journalism and had really wanted to be a sort of cultural editor for a big broadsheet and I thought it would help me to combine my academic interests with my media experience.

Jules: It sounded fun and I wanted to do more radio work. I applied on a whim, forgot about it, then was pleasantly surprised to get invited for the try-outs.

What were your thoughts about attending the workshops, media training and ultimately the Free Thinking Festival?

Katherine: I had an amazing time. The workshops were useful and fun - and brought back memories of my journalism training and the Free Thinking festival was fantastic. I’m from Newcastle so all my friends and family came and I even got to be in the Green Room with Terry Waite. Amazing!

I even got to be in the Green Room with Terry Waite. Amazing!

Jules: Great media training and workshops. The main thing the workshops and training taught me was being prepared to wing it on air! It’s got me in trouble occasionally - I once made a rather glib remark about Protestantism on Radio 4 and was flooded with angry emails from vicars. But on the whole it’s been wonderful, it’s given me the confidence to discuss everything from Theosophy to the Beatles on air. The Free Thinking Festival was the first place I ever discussed my research on ecstasy, which later turned into my second book.

How has being an NGT made a difference to your research and your career?

Katherine: Being an NGT has made me change the sort of academic I want to be - one that wrote books that were stocked in Waterstones and which people like my dad might get for Christmas. It also gave me to confidence (and the kudos, I think) to get my first research job. So it was a hell of a year. We’ll see what happens this year!

Jules: The BBC has been great to me over the last five years, and the NGT scheme helped strengthen the relationship and make me feel like I belonged there rather than being an imposter. It also helped me feel comfortable and relaxed on air. .

Do you feel it makes the world of research more interesting and engaging to the public? How have you made your specific topics (not that they are not worthy) - enjoyable and appealing?

Katherine: It’s changed the way I write and approach my work, for better or worse. It’s made me more interested in how I can communicate my work more widely and helped me too step outside the REF bubble a bit and think about other things that are important about our jobs, such as communicating our research and making it fun and interesting.

Jules:Yes. Free Thinking is an important show for getting academics on air and giving them a bit of space to discuss their ideas. I think my topics are interesting in themselves, but I guess the main thing is making them relevant to ordinary people’s lives - how people use ancient philosophy to flourish today, how people find ecstatic experiences today.

What’s the most unusual or odd thing that’s happened to you since becoming an NGT?

Jules: Becoming a philosophy coach at Saracens rugby club, presently champions of Europe!

Becoming a philosophy coach at Saracens Rugby Club, presently champions of Europe!

Katherine: My rugby-mad partner would be so jealous of that Julian!!! I wonder if he knows they have a philosophy coach, he knows everything else about them all! Not very many odd things have happened, yet, but I still get a huge buzz walking into the BBC building on Portland Place and thinking about all of the other people who have walked through there over the years!

How has AHRC and BBC Radio 3 helped you?

Jules: AHRC gave me my first grant. Radio 3’s Free Thinking was where I gave my first talk about my research into ecstasy, and they had me back when the book came out for a great panel discussion about ecstatic experiences. Rana Mitter is a very funny presenter.

Katherine: AHRC have always been hugely encouraging of me, giving me grants and financing my PhD. They have often seen fit to support my work when I was thinking of giving up on it. Meeting the people behind the AHRC through the scheme has been really great too - its nice to add faces to the name! Radio 3 have been fantastic and have supported me massively throughout my formative radio experiences. I have really enjoyed working with them all!

Would you recommend the scheme and why?

Jules: Absolutely. It gives you cred in your university and gives you confidence to communicate your research to a wider audience. And radio is fun!

It gives you cred in your university and gives you confidence to communicate your research to a wider audience. And radio is fun!

Katherine: Yes, I second that! It is great fun and it really helps you to re-focus on what you do and this is about what it means outside a university context.

Has your career and institution benefitted?

Jules: My career’s benefitted because it helped me do more radio work with the BBC. I think my Centre has benefitted because we do a lot of media work - Tiffany Watt-Smith, another NGT, also works there. The next step is getting commissioned to present a programme, then trying to present something on TV.

Katherine: My career has benefitted hugely because I think that the prestige of the scheme and the confidence it gave me gave me a huge boost just when I needed it (I was four years postdoc). It encouraged me to publish and to think of myself and my work differently. I have tried to encourage colleagues and ECRs at Newcastle and at UEA (where I work now) to apply and have definitely encouraged colleagues to think about publicising their work more widely and suggested some of them to producers for shows on their specific areas. I’ve basically been to key publicist for getting yourself on the radio, because I love it so much!

What advice would you give to researchers unsure whether to apply?

Jules: Academics are crippled by the fear of looking ridiculous to their peers. As a result, they stick very narrowly to their topic and are terrified of speaking off-topic. But the way to frame it, to my mind, is that academics are publicly funded and have a responsibility to try and share their research for the public’s interest and benefit. And if you start to develop a media career, it means you have an alternative strand to your career and aren’t so dependent on the academic greasy pole. So go for it. If you don’t get it, reassure yourself that the smartest person I know - UEA poetry critic Jeremy Noel-Todd - also didn’t get picked as an NGT, so even geniuses get overlooked sometimes.

academics are publicly funded and have a responsibility to try and share their research for the public’s interest and benefit

Katherine: Yes, it can also be pretty intimidating. I think you need to think about what you enjoy, you have to be a bit noisy and confident to be a NGT I think, as there is quite a lot of just getting up and saying stuff, off the cuff. If you are someone who likes to prepare and read off a sheet of paper and who is made very nervous by public speaking etc. it may not be for you. I mean, we all get nervous and we should all push ourselves out of our comfort zones but don’t make yourself do it if the idea fills you with horror! I would say for the most part, go for it! I wish I could do the year all over again!

Thanks again to Katherine and Jules for their time in the 1st NGT Interview. More to follow. For details of latest scheme and how to apply, please visit the website

Jules has recently launched a new book 'The Art of Losing Control.

You can follow Katherine at

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