Interview with Jess Beck: Cambridge postdoc life, applications & blogging

  1. Hi Jess, you are new in Cambridge. What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge now and why?Cycling! I was never taught how to cycle as a child, and so was forced to learn two weeks before arriving in Cambridge. I live a few miles away from the McDonald Institute, and the efficiency of bike transit has given me an opportunity to see more of the city and to live in a neighbourhood outside of the student bubble. It also emphasizes the frantic, kinetic nature of this city. Like most Americans, I think I moved here with the expectation that Cambridge would be ancient and somber, full of exquisite architecture and pensive, solemn students immersed in their scholarship. Instead, I arrived to find a bustling town packed with students, tourists, buses, cars, and cyclists, with everyone in constant movement. Cycling thus represents the fast-paced nature of daily life in this city.

 

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Source here
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Photo Jess Beck
  1. Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests?

 I earned my PhD in anthropology at the University of Michigan in 2016, and spent the 2016-2017 academic year at the University of Pittsburgh as the Visiting Scholar in their Center for Comparative Archaeology.

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Photo Jess Beck

My dissertation research focused on analysing human skeletal remains from three different mortuary areas at the Copper Age (c. 3250-2200 cal BC) site of Marroquíes Bajos in Jaén, Spain. At 113 hectares, Marroquíes is one of the earliest large-scale villages in Iberia, so evaluating the social organization that underlay its emergence has important implications for understanding human aggregations and increasing social complexity. In my analysis, I drew together bioarchaeological data, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium isotopic evidence of diet and mobility, radiocarbon dating, and material culture to investigate who was being buried in communal or commingled depositions, and whether this collective treatment masked unequal access to resources. I found that individuals from Marroquíes showed limited evidence for differential access to subsistence resources or exotic or well-crafted material culture, and that strontium and oxygen analyses of human remains identified few non-local migrants. These results were intriguing because studies of the other villages of this size in Copper Age Iberia show either differential access to grave goods, a high proportion of non-local immigrants, or variability in diet related to mortuary treatment. This suggests that large-scale villages in Iberia emerged along a variety of different trajectories.

I am now at Cambridge as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoc, working on a second project that also focuses on bioarchaeological approaches to social complexity and inequality in Late Prehistoric Europe. MARBAL (Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape) examines populations from one of the richest gold and copper procurement zones in Europe. Starting this summer, we will excavate a multi-tomb cemetery in the Apuseni mountains of southwestern Transylvania in order to understand the impact of valuable and widely-traded local resources on mortuary practices, lived experience (e.g. health, diet, mobility), and the emergence of inequality in the region.

 

  1. What was your path to the Marie Curie postdoc? (what would you say was the ‘success’ strategy to get a postdoc experience/teaching/networking/publications/ something else?)

This was my first application for a Marie Curie position, but over the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years I applied for roughly fourteen post-docs or visiting scholar positions, two of which were at Cambridge. I held the position of Visiting Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016-2017, and received the MSCA-EF for 2017-2019, so my success rate for this period is 2/13 (15%) (as I turned down one interview after receiving the Pitt Visiting Scholar position). I was applying for tenure-track jobs at the same time, so much of my time and energy during these two years was devoted to applications of some ilk.

All of the things listed in this question are potentially important strategies for helping you get a postdoc. What is key is being aware of what the department is looking for and framing your materials accordingly. If it’s a teaching post-doc, emphasize any pedagogical experience you have, show that you can integrate students into your research, and describe the ways in which you’ve previously mentored students. Networking is useful not for the nepotistic reasons that most people assume, but instead because knowing people at the department you’re applying to means that you can reach out to ask about what they’re looking for in an ideal candidate. In some instances, this may actually lead you to to abandon the application. While counter-intuitive, abandoning an application can actually be helpful because you won’t waste your time perfecting your materials for a job you have no shot at. Publications are key for everything in academia; even if you have a close colleague or mentor in the department you’re applying to, they likely won’t be able to sell you to the rest of the committee without tangible evidence that you’re doing serious research. If a job asks for sample publications, always be cognizant of what the ad is asking for, and submit your work that best matches those parameters.

My final piece of admittedly cheesy advice is to simply be yourself. What I mean is that you should not misrepresent what you do or what your research interests are in an acrobatic attempt to fit the parameters of a particular postdoc. Emphasize the aspects of your work that align with the job ad, but don’t entirely re-frame your research in an attempt to sway a search committee. If you aren’t a good fit for the position, they will find out relatively rapidly during the interview stage, so it’s not worth it in the long run. Even if only certain aspects of your work align with the call, you may still be a good fit for reasons that aren’t evident in the position ad.

 

  1. You have been an active blogger, now 2 blogs- can you tell us a little about them, your aims etc. Also why blogging, and what did you learn since blogging? Do you feel it helped career/personal wise?

The first blog I started in May 2013 is called Bone Broke, and I began it as a repository for all of the tips on siding, orientation, and identification that I assembled when starting to take human osteology courses. It quickly grew into a forum in which I could shake off some of the formal constraints of academic writing and practice tailoring pieces for the general public. As a British woman told me recently, “Your blog is so clearly AMERICAN,” which I think is English for “hugely and possibly inappropriately informal in tone,” and that’s one of the things I thoroughly enjoy about writing it.

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My second blog is called MARBAL (which stands for “Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeţ Bronze Age Landscape”), and is a collaborative attempt at detailing the project I am co-directing in the highlands of southwestern Transylvania. Our long-term aim is to provide people an opportunity to experience some of the day-to-day life of an active archaeological and bioarchaeological project through documentation, photos, stories, etc. Over time we hope to incorporate posts from co-directors, visitors, students, and local collaborators in order to provide multiple perspectives on fieldwork.

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I have always enjoyed writing, so I found blogging a natural medium. It allowed me to unleash my sense of humor in a way that was not always possible in grad school seminars, an also enabled me to explore my developing specialty of bioarchaeology. At the time, I was the only bioarchaeologist at the University of Michigan, and through blogging I was able to forge virtual connections with people like Kristina Killgrove (Powered by Osteons, Forbes), Katy Meyers-Emery (Bones Don’t Lie), and David Mennear (These Bones of Mine), all of whom I have since met in person. I also interacted with Cambridge postdoc Alexandra Ion through her blog Bodies & Academia before I first met her at the McDonald Institute.

I don’t know how much it has helped with my career – in the four years I’ve been blogging I’ve never received an email with the header JUST READ YOUR AWESOME BLOG – WOULD YOU LIKE A TENURE-TRACK JOB? However, there’s something to be said for controlling your own online narrative, and I have had members of search committees tell me that the blog provides positive insight into my teaching, personality, and research interests*. It’s also a very visible form of accessible outreach, which is an undertaking that is increasingly being used to assess impact, and something that I can write about in external grants and letters.

* It should probably be noted that these search committee members were all American, and hence unfazed by the uncouth nature and inappropriate tone of my posts.

 

  1. What would be your tips for someone looking into starting a successful blog?

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First you need to be able to answer the question “why do I want to write a blog”? In my case, it was because I wasn’t able to teach an osteology class when I was in grad school, and I wanted to share all of the fun and ridiculous identification and siding tricks I was learning. Whatever your driver, – whether doing outreach, publicizing your research, or exploring new literature – it will shape the structure, content, and tone of your blog. If you know that you want to write a blog but are struggling to answer that question, spend a few months following academic bloggers that you enjoy and dissect what it is they do.

In terms of logistics, I recommend generating the blog layout and the first few posts in a private mode, so that you can get everything set up the way you want before it becomes public. When you’re first starting out, I suggest setting a posting schedule for yourself that you stick to for the first few months, whether it’s twice a week or once a month. This will help you to generate content, develop a reader base, and habituate yourself to writing frequently.

postsperyearWhat I’ve seen happen many times is a multi-stage process in which someone (1) gets excited about blogging; (2) starts a new blog with lots of fanfare, (3) posts repeatedly for one to two months, and then (4) never returns to the blog again. Committing to blogging for at least six months helps it to become a habit. In 2013, when I started Bone Broke, I aimed to post about once a week. This rate has dropped off significantly over time, and now I really only blog when I feel like it, because I want blogging to be something that’s fun rather than a chore. One misconception that I struggled with at the beginning was that all posts had to be beautifully crafted long-form essays. Blogging is actually a great opportunity to practice writing pithy, 300-word posts instead of 10,000 word articles. Accordingly, if you find yourself struggling with content at the beginning, set yourself a word limit!

 

  1. What does a postdoc do in their spare time?

 

Go to the pub! However, to balance out all of the time spent at the pub, I also exercise frequently, which is a great way for me to relieve work-related stress. Over the past year I’ve become very addicted to CrossFit and weightlifting, and am currently training at CrossFit Cambridgeshire. Really intense workouts force me to focus on something other than my research, and give me time to clear my head and use my body and brain in very different ways than when I’m doing academic work. In my very limited remaining spare time I am trying to learn how to knit, though I’ve spent two months on one hat, so I don’t know how successful that is as a new hobby.

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Most of the balanced postdocs I know devote time to a hobby outside doing research – whether it’s dance, horseback riding, yoga, or some form of crafting. Whatever your professional stage of academia, I heartily recommend giving yourself time to mentally regroup by doing something other than your work.
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Follow Jess on her blogs  BoneBroke and Marbal , or on twitter @BoneBroke9.

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. JB says:

    Reblogged this on Bone Broke and commented:
    In which I am interviewed by the formidable Alexandra Ion for the new University of Cambridge archaeology postdocs blog (https://archaeologypostdocsucam.wordpress.com/):

    Liked by 1 person

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