“Run your own race!”

21. Juni 2022

You received your PhD from Nuffield College, Oxford and later on became Professor of Political Science and British Politics there. What made you decide to enter academia?

I considered a different path very seriously when it came to the end of my masters degree but I found it hard to get excited about options in PR/marketing/politics, which is where my experience had been and where the options seemed feasible. So it came down to funding. If I got a PhD studentship I’d do the PhD, and then it really just went from there. I did get funding, loved it, so continuing research was a no-brainer from thereon.

You are not only a professor, but also Director of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre and Westminster Bridge, Co-Director of the British Election Study, and President of the British Politics Group of the American Political Science Association, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and an editorial member of Comparative Political Studies. How do you handle all these different tasks?

Sometimes quite badly, at other times it’s a great opportunity to have a diverse role. The problem with having lots of commitments in academia is that you can’t easily control deadlines, especially for large team-based projects. We’re reliant on a big network of other people who are also juggling a huge amount. But I don’t think I’m well-suited to a narrow life in academia. I love getting my head down, doing research and most of all I love having time to think, but I also need a buzz, interaction, inspiration and some real-world connections in the media, academia and politics to stay grounded and in touch with what people are struggling to understand. And its really exciting to be able to build new things, generate new ideas and shape the discipline in my own small ways.

You are also very present and active outside of university, by serving as ITV News Election Analyst in the 2016 EU referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, the 2019 British general election and the 2020 US presidential election. In 2015, you received the Political Studies Association ‘Research Communicator of the Year’ award. Which role does public visibility and involvement outside of academia play?

Working with media is a brilliant thing when you get a chance to add value and when you can contribute in a meaningful way to public understanding of social science. We can do that by contributing to analysis and interpretation, both for the public directly but also by helping to steer the direction of news coverage and commentary in different ways. ITV are particularly good at being open to us shaping programmes and discussions in ways that follow crucial aspects, data or puzzles - and I’m very lucky in this respect. The key thing is to remember why you’re doing it. There’s a bit of reputational benefit for the university, a bit for you if you do it well, but I think it really shouldn’t be done as an advert for an institution, person or project. Its basically a way to take a teaching role that has a very broad audience, and a chance to learn more about communicating things clearly and effectively too. I’ve learned a huge amount from journalists who are very good at asking the right questions and seeing what really matters in a topic.

Publications are key in academia. Or how you do turn your ideas into a peer-reviewed journal article?

Most academics I know have many more ideas for publications than they do time. So the issue is never ‘what shall I do?’ nor is it ‘how will this be an article?’ The over-riding problem is almost always what *shouldn’t* I work on. There I think we need to have some pretty clear priorities; on quality over quantity, on doing things we think matter the most, make the greatest contribution to knowledge, advance understanding, and I also think we need to have an eye on not doing too much. In more practical terms, turning ideas into peer-reviewed articles is the bread and butter of being able to do good research. It gets easier with practice and with good role models.

You are also a mother of a son. How do you combine academia and family life?

I have one child. Being a working mum is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I also think I’d be a terrible (quite miserable) stay-at-home-mum. I’m more tired because any down-time is focused on someone else and there’s often a sense of guilt, especially when I need to be away for work (though those trips have made it more fun and manageable too). I couldn’t do it were it not for the help of my husband who works part-time and has taken on the lion’s share of the day-to-day things around school hours. I think people are lying if they say something doesn’t have to give. Its just a question of deciding what those things are. But of course, its totally worth it.

Which advice would you give to young female scholars striving for a career in academia?

First up, I would urge everyone to run their own race; do their best work, whatever that means for you. There’s a ton of comparison in academia, especially in the online world, and we need diversity, creativity, originality – not everyone trying to fulfil one ‘ideal type’. Think outside the box. This can be harder for women given many will already feel like an imposter given the male dominated disciplines and environments that still exist, and given that women often struggle with some very powerful stereotypes and expectations/pressures through social/educational socialisation. Second, have some really clear priorities and try to stick to them. In my experience it is often true that men manage to be more single-minded about doing what they really want to or need to. Virginia Woolf, in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, explained that women’s fiction historically suffered from the lack of resource given to women and the lack of freedom/space/lack of distractions. Frankly the same is too often still true now. Read her book and reflect on what it means for you. Third, I’d encourage you to have a more balanced life than people think is the norm in academia. It can feel like the only way to succeed is to work all the time. That may be well true for some – good for them – but for me there’s a win-win in being rested and being more creative and productive. Look after yourself and enjoy it. It should be enjoyable and rewarding, at least most of the time.