Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Going for Gold

Will she make it?
Photo from Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games

Earlier in the week, BBC 3 broadcast a programme called Girl Power: Going forGold, which over 9 months followed three athletes as they fought to get selected for Team GB’s Olympic Women’s Weightlifting squad. Weightlifting is not a world I’m particularly familiar with, but it was compelling watching Zoe from London, Helen from Devon and Hannah from Birmingham settling into life at the national training camp in Leeds. It was interestingly difficult to predict who would win those coveted Team GB places – whether natural talent, ability to perform under pressure, single-mindedness or simple number of hours spent in the gym would win out. But what I kept muttering to myself as I sat in front of the TV was: “why an earth are you doing this?” Why would you sacrifice everything else (e.g. your A-levels), move far from home, devote 3/5/10 years of your life and train 6-10 hours a day, when the odds of getting an Olympic team place are poor? Six contenders, two places.

But, of course, academia is exactly the same, and in some respects worse. You invest 4-5 years of your life doing a Masters and a Phd/D.Phil, possibly struggling to find the money to pay for this, working long hours, often abroad and far from home… and when the thesis is done, you hope to be selected for a postdoctoral position. The classic, coveted Oxbridge post-doc is the JRF (Junior Research Fellowship), and these can easily attract 300 applicants for each advertised post. For even a one-year temporary History lectureship, you’re typically looking at 1 winner out of 60+ applicants. Like trying to break into top-level international sport, academia is high risk and high reward. Up-and-coming weightlifters and historians alike do it because they are passionate about their work, and believe (rightly or wrongly) they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to get the chance to compete at London 2012, or to join the Senior Common Room of an Oxford college. Winner takes all – it’s a great system if you’re one of the winners, a pitiless one if you’re not.

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