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In Focus: Professor Jane Ohlmeyer on How to Get to the Top of your Research Career

Professor Jane OhlmeyerThose who know Professor Jane Ohlmeyer will know she’s a very busy woman. As Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Chair of the Irish Research Council and a successful historian and researcher at Trinity College Dublin, we were keen to hear how she manages her work, what it takes to be a successful academic and how women can progress in their careers.

Professor Ohlmeyer, MRIA, is Erasmus Smith's Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin and a passionate teacher and internationally established scholar of early modern Irish history. She was the founding Head of the School of Histories and Humanities and the first Vice-President for Global Relations (2011-14).  Now the Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, she was also a driving force behind the development of the Trinity Long Room Hub in its founding stages. Some of her own research projects include the 1641 Depositions Project (www.1641.tcd.ie) and she is the author or editor of 11 books, including Vol 2 of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Ireland.

You are the Erasmus Smith Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin, what led you to choose a career as a historian?

History was the only thing I liked doing – it was as simple as that. I left university as an undergraduate and was passionate about history and decided I would do a PhD. I didn’t do it thinking I was going to have a career in history but then one thing led to another. I did my undergraduate in St. Andrews, a masters in the University of Illinois and then I decided I wanted to do a PhD in seventeenth Century Irish history and that’s what brought me back to Trinity. This was the place to do a PhD in history. There was no grand plan it was just what I loved.

I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and I think I was fascinated by how events that had occurred hundreds of years previously could influence the mentality and identity of Northern Ireland and the people in Northern Ireland. I was trying to understand why. I saw the years 1500-1800 as a key transitionary period for Irish history; you had the roll out of the Protestant Reformation and very intense colonisation going on; it was out of that crucible that modern Ireland emerged.

You are among a minority of women in senior academic posts in Trinity, what can universities like Trinity can do to help women move forward in their academic careers?

I think every university (including Trinity) in Ireland needs to focus on how they support the career development of women. I think we should offer substantially more mentoring for women and I think we have to be much more family-friendly. I was extremely fortunate that I had, at the University of Aberdeen in particular, a Vice-Chancellor who went out of his way to support female staff. When the Vice-Chancellor is supporting women with dependent children and being very proactive in providing a very family friendly environment, the whole institution follows suit. I think Trinity needs to be more proactive in that regard.

A mediocre man is still better than an excellent womanI also think that institutionally we need to be trying to achieve balance. We need to be looking at every committee, at every department and asking if there is a gender balance.  If not, why not? What could we be doing to address that? The HEA produced a very important gender equality report recently. It’s a very extensive report about how woefully inadequate universities in Ireland are when it comes to matters of gender. It shows the disparity between male and female positions in academic professor posts where 81% of those posts are filled by men.  Progress should be based on excellence, but what I find is that a mediocre man is still doing better than an excellent woman. It is not a level playing field and that is still the case in Trinity and elsewhere in other Irish universities. That’s very frustrating.

Speaking from personal experience, what would you say to women seeking to build their careers as researchers?

It’s tough because I think women are less assertive and less confident sometimes. I think men will put themselves forward for promotion even if they are less competent than their female colleague. Women need to be more self-confident and more assertive. I don’t know if I was, but I had a lot of support and a lot of mentoring from good men and good women.

When it comes to publication women need to be very strategic. I was juggling two young children and I had a very busy academic career, you don’t want anybody to be short changed so you need to be very strategic and only publish in the best journals, and with the best publishing houses – don’t waste good research or precious family time. You have to be extremely focused and use your time wisely. I also think we should be creating the equivalent of support networks. Women should have someone to talk to who they feel they can trust – it might be a man or a woman. But everyone needs a mentor and I was very lucky I had very inspiring and strong mentors, both men and women.

The Trinity Long Room Hub hosts a number of Graduate Fellows who are completing their Doctoral and Post-Doctoral research projects. For young researchers who are nearing the end of the PhD studies and starting out a research career in the Arts and Humanities, what practical advice would you give them?

The first thing is don’t do a PhD expecting an academic job because the reality is that not everybody gets one. It’s always about excellence so whatever you are doing always make sure that you are achieving excellence in whatever that area is; publish with the best journals and publish with the best presses. The other thing that’s important is to consider how you are communicating what you are doing. For example, I worked on seventeenth Century Ireland and I realised from the very outset that the number of people interested in the seventeenth Century was very small. I had to communicate what I was doing in a way that the Anglo-American establishment would find it interesting and accessible.

I worked in the U.S for nearly a decade, I worked in the UK for nearly a decade. To begin with I was teaching the history of western civilisation - not Irish history - so you have to be really willing to do whatever to get on that ladder. Take whatever opportunities that come your way while never loosing site of what really matters: publication in peer review journals or with high quality publishers.  How you create interest around your research is very important, especially how you relate your research to the bigger picture. All of us – both men and women – could do this more effectively. You have to explain to people why what you’re doing matters and why you’re good at it; people have to blow their own trumpet a bit, but there has to be substance. Communicating the impact of our research is something we all need to work on.

How has the research environment changed over the last number of years in the Arts and Humanities and what do you perceive the immediate challenges to be for researchers in Europe?

Photos from ERC event with Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Michael D Higgins, Mary Elizabeth DalyI think the research environment has changed significantly from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s now a much more collegial and collaborative environment amd there’s a lot more support. Before, historians effectively worked alone in the archives and you may have gone to a seminar. Now you see a much more integrated and supportive group. You also see much more funding even if it doesn’t seem that way. There are more funding opportunities; the foundation of the Irish Research Council transformed the whole landscape in the Arts and Humanities and that’s just over a decade ago. There’s still never enough but there’s an awful lot more than there was. But it’s still tough out there so if people really want to stay in an academic environment – it’s publish or be damned. It’s about networking and it’s about really communicating what you’re doing and making it interesting and relevant.

Over the coming years some of the biggest changes will be as a result of technology. At the moment there is still a very traditional way of evaluating the research, that hasn’t changed that much. I think we are going to start to become more progressive in how we evaluate research to include high quality digital outputs. I also think the emphasis on inter and multi-disciplinarity is going to increase and if people can be receptive to that earlier in their careers that’s going to be to their advantage. I like to think that’s one of the advantages of being based here in the Hub -  from the second you walk through that door you’re exposed to that multi and inter-disciplinary environment.

What have been some of the most enjoyable projects you’ve worked on and why?

There’s very rarely something that I do that I don’t really enjoy. I really enjoyed being the Vice-Provost for Global Relations, I’m really enjoying chairing the Irish Research Council and being Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub. Partly because the variety, but also doing these roles for relatively short periods of time means you can really focus on it and while it’s very intense – it’s great fun and you meet amazing people. There’s nothing more rewarding than going on a reading party with a group of students and seeing those students blossom or working with a graduate student over the course of a year and just thinking ‘that’s a great piece of work.’ Obviously there are downsides and I wouldn’t be a fan of marking 200 essays but that is far outweighed by the energy I get from interacting with the brightest and the best students. We are very privileged to do what we do.

You are also Chair of the Irish Research Council, how do you balance the demands of such a busy career and what keeps you motivated?

I think balance is the right word. The roles are very complementary and one reinforces the other. That said, the IRC is much more than the Arts and Humanities. We fund over 70 different disciplines and I’m as committed to supporting the physicists as I am the philosophers. I enjoy the interaction and promoting Ireland within Europe. In terms of administrative and leadership roles within Trinity - it’s very important that senior academics do that - but at the end of the day you’re only as good as your last book or your last article so for me it’s all about teaching and research too; I love the engagement with the undergraduates and the postgraduates. I think they’re the life blood of any institution. The second you’re not interacting with them you’ve lost the plot.

Also, you have to be constantly thinking about your research and seeking grant funding. I’ve just finished editing Volume 2 of the Cambridge History of Ireland and I would have three other major research projects that are ongoing. When am I doing it? 6 o’clock in the morning, weekends and when I have annual and sabbatical leave.  You have to use whatever time you have. A great way to keep focused is having regular publication deadlines but also regularly giving papers. We’re research led teachers so teaching actually allows me to discuss my research with the graduate students, with the undergraduates but also to refine it. I see these roles as mutually reinforcing.


Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895