In less than a month, I will start a new job. It’s my dream job: a permanent position at the Photographic History Research Centre (PHRC), DMU. For those who know my academic activities of the last years, this won’t be very surprising. Photography is my thing.
But it hasn’t always been like this.
Academia is all about planning. You’re supposed to always know what you’re doing next. But sometimes, things get in your way. Sometimes you have a plan, but you come across something unexpected…and you have to follow your guts. Academia is as much about planning as it is about instincts.
In 2002, I started my undergraduate studies in philosophy. I spent my early twenties reading Plato, Nietzsche, Kant and Foucault –and god, I LOVED it. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed struggling to understand Kant –and how awesome it felt when suddenly the texts made sense. I was the kind of nerd that actually enjoyed doing essays and even exams. But when I was so high on Ancient philosophy (and Kant), I had courses on Logics and the History of Science. These modules were completely different to what I thought philosophy was. I didn’t like them –at first. One day I suddenly discovered the wonderful world of formal language, and the philosophical problems of science. And I totally fell in love!
In 2007, I was deciding the topic of my MA dissertation. I wanted to do genealogy of death at war, or something like that. I was going to focus on the First World War. And my supervisor (the first to teach me history of science, by the way) suggested me: Why don’t you look at photographs?
As I said, my philosophical background was mainly history/philosophy of sciences, and logics. I loved Foucault (I still do), but his epistemological texts rather than the postmodern ones. I had deliberately skipped all modules on aesthetics/philosophy of art. I wasn’t interested in images AT ALL. My mind didn’t reason the way philosophers of art and aesthetics did. What did I know about photography in 2007? I tell you: nothing. Still, I accepted my supervisor’s suggestion.
It could have been a very wrong decision. Almost ten years later, I realise it was a very reckless thing to do.
Fortunately, it turned out to be the best decision ever. I don’t exactly remember why I accepted (probably because I didn’t know anything about photography, and that was enough reason for me at the time). I guess something in my guts told me that photographs were good material. I didn’t know why, or how. I just knew there were things to say –my task was, then, to discover those things.
Since then, many things have happened that have led me to where I am right now.
In 2011, I emailed Elizabeth Edwards to do a short stay with her, just when she moved to the PHRC as Director (yes, my first thought was: ugh, Leicester?) She was kind enough to reply to my email without knowing me or my supervisor or any in my network at all. I couldn’t finally do the stay with her, but they invited me to give a seminar. I knew then Kelley Wilder, we spent the evening talking about history of science and my guts told me that that had to be my place.
In 2013, I was applying for postdocs everywhere in Europe. It was an awful year of unemployment and a huge crisis of self-confidence. I contacted Elizabeth and Kelley with a proposal, and they supported me. They accepted to sponsor me, and helped me with the application. Elizabeth even sent me comments on my draft during a conference we were both attending.
The rest is history.
If I look back, I see hard work but also many random things, moments and persons without which this wouldn’t have happened. What if my amazing history of science professor wouldn’t have liked my first essay on the guillotine? What if I had refused to look at photographs? What if my email had got lost in the mailbox of Elizabeth, one of the busiest persons I know? What if I had been too shy or scare to even contact her?
I guess that what I want to say is that in academia, as in life, not everything is under your control. You cannot control everything that happens to you –and that’s good. Sometimes it’s frustrating and overwhelming, but other times randomness is the actual source of hope. Trust your guts and allow yourself to follow your intuitions. If you think there’s something there, go for it! Same thing goes regarding jobs. You never know where’s the opportunity –the amazing place that will allow you to blossom and be your best. Places that seem fancy can turn out to be a nightmare (trust me). Places where you first think “ugh” might become your home.
Embrace the randomness.