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Supporting early-career academics in the humanities

Photo of Dr Imaobong Umoren

'I remember seeing the post being advertised and thinking it would be perfect for me,' says Dr Imaobong Umoren, the joint Pembroke-TORCH Career Development Fellow in Women in the Humanities. Having completed her DPhil at Oxford in 2015, she was eager to find a postdoctoral placement that would enable her to continue with her research, but was acutely aware how competitive the field can be. 'I was actually considering going into other careers, because I just didn't think there would be the opportunity to continue,' she explains.

Finding funding in the current higher education landscape can be extremely challenging for early-career academics. 'It's a concern for so many people – the vulnerability of "what next" after the DPhil,' says Dr Umoren. 'The pool of people who can enter into academia is getting smaller and smaller because of the financial restraints. And it's not just an issue for humanities, but for social sciences and the sciences too I think.'

Having external funding like this makes all the difference – without it I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now.

Luckily for Dr Umoren, a benefactor generously supports the post she now occupies. 'I'm so grateful to the donor,' she says. 'Having external funding like this makes all the difference – without it I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now.'

Dr Umoren is now in the second year of her three-year placement, which is run jointly by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and Pembroke College. The post was established to support those embarking on an academic career in the area of 'Women in the Humanities' – one of TORCH's headline research programmes, which draws together researchers from across the humanities division and beyond to explore issues related to gender, the body and sexuality.

Dr Umoren's own research focuses on the history of women, gender and race across the nineteenth and twentieth century global African diaspora. Inspired by the content of her DPhil thesis, she is now writing her first book about the international travels of a group of African American and Caribbean women intellectuals and activists, exploring how their movement around the world shaped their politics and their everyday lives. 'I'm learning about different writing styles and how to present these women,' she says, 'which I hope will be accessible to the general public.'

During her first year in post, Dr Umoren also helped to run seminars, organise conferences and workshops, and teach undergraduate students. 'I co-teach with a colleague at Pembroke College on a paper called "Race, Religion and Resistance in the US, from Jim Crow to Civil Rights", which looks at the link between the rise of religion and the rise of racism,' she explains. 'It ties into my research in many ways, but I also get to think about the idea of religion, which I had never really considered before – it's a great way of getting outside of my research, and to learn and draw on other themes.'

Oxford has done a really good job of trying to preserve the humanities and build interdisciplinary links between subjects.

Dr Umoren has found the collaborative, cross-disciplinary nature of the fellowship programme extremely inspiring. 'It's been a great community to be part of,' she says. 'Oxford has done a really good job of trying to preserve the humanities and build interdisciplinary links between subjects. It's been of real added benefit to be able to talk to people outside of my faculty – from Classics, from English, from geography or anthropology – and I hope that having these networks will help me to write a much more richly interdisciplinary book.'

This piece was written for Oxford Thinking and can be viewed here.