Early Modern Post

Freelance research and the sixteenth century CV

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This blog has been the oft-ignored ugly sister to my ADD PhD, the latter always clamouring for more and more attention, and probably pulling the blog’s hair when it thought no-one was looking. Being busy with writing up said PhD, and teaching, and working on projects to make ends meet, was an unarguably excellent excuse for not writing more blog posts.

However, as I confessed in the last post over two months ago, I’ve now finished my PhD. And as you can see from the sub-clause, finishing it hasn’t led directly on to a whole lot of free time.

So, what happened? Like with any all-consuming project, I think you make a deal with yourself that in exchange for ridiculous working hours and vein-popping stress levels, once the project is over you will have free time and instant bliss. And like any promise you bribe yourself with, it never quite works out like that.

The bottom line is, I’ve finished my PhD, and whilst that’s brilliant, I’m now unemployed, and I find myself at the bottom of another mountain to climb. It can take a little while to get your head around that, whilst simultaneously dealing with the real-world demands of paying rent and feeding oneself.

That’s what I’ve been doing since finishing: meeting real-world demands and scoping a route up the mountain.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a bit of freelance work to help with both of these (researching the plague in early C17th London for an American academic – you’ll have to wait for his next book for that, though). That, thankfully, was straightforward paid work; it’s the other time-consuming occupation that I want to talk about today, the route planning and ground-laying for the next step in the academic career – planning that isn’t paid but that amounts to very real work and takes a heck of a lot of time.

To get an academic job, I’m going to have to publish an article or two, and maybe try to publish my thesis as a book, which will absorb a huge amount of work and time, but will not be (in the first instance) remunerated. I will have to keep giving papers at conferences, and review books, to keep my foot in the door and my face recognised. In the academic world, as far as I know, none of these activities are paid, but are rather expected aspects of your full-time, well-supported university post. If you have one.

At my level, the idea is that all this work will be for deferred favour, for an increased chance of a job in the future. And – because this is another mental side effect from doing a PhD – this made me think of one of my thesis chapters.

If you were of a reasonable background in the sixteenth century, an educated gentleman, say, then you might be looking at the church or the law for your livelihood. One possibility would be to get noticed by a patron, and move into politics and crown service. If you were really skilled and really lucky, this might open further opportunities and sinecures. One way of getting noticed was to travel abroad under the encouragement and approval of a patron (not least to get your passport for you), and to send them news and intelligence of foreign lands. In a pre-multimedia, even pre-newspaper, world, the access granted by travel and the skills of researching and writing were valuable, and could land you a job in the Elizabethan polity: to scale that mountain you needed both a patron, and to demonstrate your skills.

Demonstrating your skills and pitching for favour could be done in the form of transmitting regular news, and by writing reports and topographical accounts of the host court and country; like the Venetian relazioni (diplomatic reports), but without the diplomatic salary. Travel and information gathering by the gentleman and nobleman essentially acted as both training for the next generation of political figures, and as an ad hoc intelligence service for the crown, and the best thing was, the crown rarely paid for it.

The problem, for the aspirant at least, was needing to secure patronage in the first instance – they would need to move in circles where they could build such contacts – and of course needing to support oneself whilst essentially working for free, or for unreliable or irregular returns.

Your young gentleman abroad was either supported by well-off kin, or commissioned by a patron, like the earl of Essex supporting Francis Davison in his travels in Europe. If the ‘commission’ was encouragement and instruction, but no money – i.e. deferred favour – then the traveller would be at risk of slipping from information gatherer to intelligencer-for-hire, from gentleman abroad to prison spy. If there was no encouragement and no money, then movement, whether physical or social, was impossible. Elizabethan society was far from meritocratic, but there was sometimes space for accession if one had the right contacts, experience, brains, and luck.

I am certainly not saying that we’re in the same state now – in fact, I just got some freelance work from asking around on twitter (the ultimate example of a move from patronage and closed elites to widened access and opportunity). However, working for free – building and displaying your experience – is still expected if you want to enter certain careers, and no more so than in straitened times. There’s no shortage of recent news stories highlighting the unfairness and social disparity in requiring incomers to an ever increasing number of careers to work for free; you need that well-off kin or patron. Internships and doing unpaid work to benefit your CV is all very well if a) you have support from elsewhere, and b) there’s actually a job at the end of it. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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One thought on “Freelance research and the sixteenth century CV

  1. I am in a very similar position at the moment. Trying to figure out exactly how much free work I can do to make myself more employable post-PhD while still paying bills. I think a patron is an excellent idea…

    Good luck!

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