My Classics Career: Prof. Helen King


I’m retiring in January. I’ve managed (and that word suggests more of a conscious process than it should!) my academic career without a single day of unemployment. But this doesn’t mean it’s all been a bed of roses, and I’m writing this to share my experiences of uncertainty and to tell people how it was in my past, and how I coped, from starting my PhD in 1980. While some things were easier, getting a permanent job in academia wasn’t one of them.

How PhDs worked…

Doing a PhD wasn’t inevitable! Actually, neither was going to university; I’d worked in a bookshop for a year after leaving school, as I wasn’t sure university was for me. I never intended to do a PhD – I didn’t know what one was, or what it involved. I went straight from a combined honours BA in Ancient History/Social Anthropology at UCL to PhD work there, simply because further study had started to appeal, and because I got the funding from the Department for Education. There was no interview: I assume funding was allocated by degree result and references. I’d only had to write about 15 lines on my topic, ‘Ancient Greek concepts of time’, in contrast to today where it seems you need to have pretty well written the PhD thesis in order to persuade anyone to fund you. I’d have been stretched writing more than 15 lines!

Hurdle no.1 safely over, I had six months of not having a clue what I was supposed to be doing. I hadn’t written a dissertation as part of my BA, and here I was contemplating 100,000 words on… well, something. The MA as PhD preparation didn’t yet exist. I eventually got stuck into an analysis of Hesiod’s myth of the 5 ages/races, went along to seminars at the ICS, and started to realise I was interested in ‘time’ in the sense of the female life cycle. I had just one supervisor, Sally Humphreys, chosen because she had started up the combined honours degree I had taken, and therefore knew where I was coming from. I worked with her on editorial work for Mortality and Immortality: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Death (1981) which taught me something about academic writing. There were no skills seminars for postgrads. Essentially, I felt lost all the time.

Sally felt I needed a change of scene and persuaded the funders to let me go to France for 5 months to sit at the feet of the Paris structuralists. I had a great time (how long have you got??) at seminars and lectures and going to the cinema and at the end of it felt sufficiently guilty about the lack of any real research to offer a paper to a new series the ICS was about to put on. This made me buckle down to serious work on my return. I sent the resulting paper, ‘Bound to bleed’, to the Journal of Hellenic Studies, which rejected it in a not particularly sensitive manner, but then the paper was solicited for the collection Images of Women in Antiquity. Not only in Paris, but in the UK I attended lots of conferences, started to network, and found people who would become my referees. At conferences, Sally would always prod me and insist ‘Ask a question!!’ She was right: I began to become visible.

And then??

‘B2B’ came out in 1983: hurdle no.2, a publication (a very short one). Even before it appeared in print, as my sole output it became my ‘research fellowship piece’ when, encouraged by Sally, I did the rounds of the Oxford and Cambridge JRFs. Most people were submitting as their ‘piece’ a draft of their thesis! Supported by a reference from Geoffrey Lloyd, to whom Sally had introduced me, and by supportive UCL staff, I had many interviews and many rejections. I was often the only woman being interviewed, usually the only person not to come from Oxbridge, and certainly the only person working on bodily fluids. It was dispiriting in the extreme. Because what was being tested wasn’t just your work, but your fit with the college, rejection extended further into the psyche than it normally does. And then Newnham offered me a JRF… Hurdle no.3 safely overcome.

Looking for jobs

I still didn’t feel that an academic career was inevitable. I didn’t finish the PhD thesis until a year or more into the JRF. I gained teaching experience giving occasional lectures on other people’s courses. I did more research. But there were no ‘proper jobs’. I remember sitting down at a conference with a fellow London PhD graduate, analysing the pedigrees of nearly all those with permanent Classics jobs in the UK. All from Oxbridge: we seemed to have no chance at all, but in any case the market was stagnant. In some desperation, as my three JRF years drew to a close, I tried and failed with the Civil Service and the prison service, while applying for more research fellowships, in the US, Rome and Newcastle.

Helen at her PhD graduation

Helen at her PhD graduation

I thought the Newcastle interview went well but I heard nothing from them. Meanwhile I was offered one-year fellowships in the US and in Rome. But one year isn’t very long, and Newcastle was a two-year post, so after a week of waiting I phoned Newcastle and they were surprised I hadn’t received the letter offering me the post… Yes, that does happen.

I don’t count Newcastle as hurdle no.4, because in an important way it made me even less employable. The terms of the fellowship meant I could only give about one lecture a year, and I did no marking or examining. While at Newcastle, I applied for every Classics job going, and some Anthropology jobs, with depressing results. Interviewers would ask ‘Wouldn’t you be happier in a research institute?’ I wanted to shout no, no, a thousand times no: I want to have a proper job like you’ve got! One of the jobs I went for was at Liverpool Institute of Higher Education: the job spec was to teach Roman Britain, in a History department. I had never studied Roman Britain, had hardly ever taught anything, and all the others being interviewed were archaeologists specialising in it. So, no chance. But I got the job. Why? Partly because it was a Church foundation and I was on the Church of England’s General Synod at the time – some on the panel thought I would be useful if their funding climate got tough. Partly because the HoD wanted to expand the ancient side of things, so I soon found myself teaching Greek history, Roman republic, Roman Empire, religion and women. You never know what is going on behind the scenes of the department to which you apply.


Liverpool was where I learned to teach, thus meaning I’d crossed hurdle no.4. Many colleagues were from school-teaching backgrounds and around half our students were on the B.Ed programme. The library was full of books on how to teach and, as in a school, staff took breaks at the same time and could share ideas and information. 30% of the students were mature, which was challenging and enjoyable, as they were really enthusiastic about the chance they’d been given to study history. In that first year I was barely one lecture ahead of my students, preparing lectures every night. I was also a resident tutor, which meant gaining experience of pastoral care, often at 3 a.m.

After 8 years at LIHE, a change of senior management gave a sense of vulnerability to an ancient historian, and I began looking around. The Wellcome Trust was starting its University Awards: five years of gradually reducing funding from the Trust with the host university putting in more and then guaranteeing a proper job at the end. I approached one university, which didn’t want me. I then tried Reading, where the then-Head of History could see the scope for a joint appointment with Classics, factoring in probable retirements over the next five years, and he set up interviews and negotiated with the Trust. So I was back in the ‘university sector’ again. That meant becoming an employer rather than a candidate, and in 2007 I wrote some advice to job applicants from that point of view.

I moved from Reading to the OU for a range of reasons; not least of them, that the (excellent) Classics department were all put at risk of redundancy, in a cynical move about which I should probably say no more here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professor, with a strong REF entry, and all the other things we’re supposed to have: the process of writing a 2-page document on ‘What I can offer Reading in the next 5 years’, as a way to save your job, gives you a strong urge to say ‘I can offer my resignation…’ Coincidentally, the OU advertised for a professor at the time I was writing this document. I’d applied to the OU maybe 20 years earlier (where haven’t I applied, over the decades?) and was turned down after interview. This time, I made it successfully through two days of interviews, to a job which I described then as ‘going as far as you can in UK HE without falling off the edge’.

Is it worse now?

What do I conclude from all this? That, yes, some things are worse now. You’re supposed to have pretty well written the PhD before you’re offered any funding to do it. You’re supposed to have the publications, the teaching experience, the big grant, the experience of outreach and the possible impact case, even before you have a proper job. And there are so many more people with PhDs, and the squeaky new PhD with a thesis that is likely to become a monograph within the next two years will always look attractive for the REF. But some things are better. One of the side effects of the grant culture, and of proper maternity leave (and more women in permanent jobs!) is that temporary posts are even more common, although the pattern of moving from one of these on to another, with completely different teaching to prepare each time, is demoralising and not conducive to research. The presence of more women in the academy means that it’s more common for the long-hours culture to be challenged and meetings to be held within the working day. I didn’t have children and didn’t marry until my forties, so I often worked on Saturdays: I don’t expect any of my colleagues to do this now.

Looking back, my advice would be to network. Attend conferences. Ask questions. Acquire possible referees, treat them well (no last-minute requests for a reference) and if you have any suspicions that they are just churning out the same generic reference rather than targeting it to the person spec, get new ones. Write the book: don’t get side-tracked by any other writing until you’ve done that (I ignored that advice – I couldn’t have got away with it today). Live with your imposter syndrome: most of us have it, and you just need to do what you do as well as you can. And, as I said at the WCC pedagogy event, make sure you do something else, whether it’s caring for a family, growing vegetables, helping in your community, devoting energy to your hobby – the inevitable disappointments and rejections hurt more if what is rejected is all that you are.

Finally, the best piece of advice I ever received, from a colleague at LIHE: ‘Be yourself – only more so.’


By Prof. Helen King @fluff35

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