From Student to Research Assistant

In the fifth and last of a series of guest blogs, recent Cardiff University graduate (and now MA student), Jacob Deacon, writes about the transition from student to research assistant.

Working as a Research Assistant isn’t how you’d expect it to be. Despite being called an ‘assistant’, nothing could be further from the truth. In this job you’re effectively your own boss. Admittedly, all the resources are provided for you, but when left to your own devices it can be a very daunting prospect. You have to decide when to work, how to structure your research (no module handbooks here for a quick answer!), and make up your mind whether or not something is relevant to your lecturer’s needs.

For the last month I have been researching Anglo-Saxon diplomacy, with the end goal being to produce a database of every diplomatic event mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. At first this may sound like a lot of time to carry out one task, but as with any other bit of university work it can soon spiral out of control. I quickly found myself wanting to make sure this research was perfect, and started comparing the accounts of diplomatic encounters from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to several other sources. Before I knew it my notes started to get out of hand…I’m fairly sure Jenny didn’t anticipate the final result comprising of a document nearly 20,000 words in length.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, detailing the genealogy of the kings of Wessex, who had several diplomatic encounters with Danish raiders. BL MS Additional 34652, f.2

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, detailing the genealogy of the kings of Wessex, who had several diplomatic encounters with Danish raiders.
BL MS Additional 34652, f.2

But don’t let the hard work put you off. Being a Research Assistant has proven to be incredibly rewarding. Whereas most work you carry out at university will perhaps stay between you and your professor, working as a research assistant gives you a confidence that the research you are carrying out will go on to help other students in their work. Having spent my third year studying the Anglo-Saxons I can say I wish I’d had access to this document to help keep track of the diplomatic situation in Britain…especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries. There are also times that you’ll come across something both exciting and mysterious in equal measure, leading to a new desire to start researching another fascinating topic. For example, whilst on my placement one thing which kept cropping up again and again was the exchange of hostages to ensure that both sides remained faithful to the terms of an agreement. I found myself wondering what sort of individuals would have been selected for this role, what sort of conditions would they have lived in as part of their new life, and what their fate would have been if their king broke the agreement (this sort of thing tended to happen a lot – being an Anglo-Saxon hostage can’t have been an easy life). As I continued to work on Anglo-Saxon and then later Norman diplomatic encounters another thing that struck me was the almost complete lack of evidence for written documents being part of the two sides making peace. Unfortunately this was an area I did not have time to go in to, but given how written documents were certainly being produced for other reasons at the time, it makes their omission from the historical record even more puzzling.

The genealogy of King Cnut, a man with a reputation for mutilating hostages once an agreement was broken. BL MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 4

The genealogy of King Cnut, a man with a reputation for mutilating hostages once an agreement was broken. BL MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 4

Ultimately, working as a Historical Research Assistant gave me a fascinating insight in to what it truly means to be a professional historian, and I’d like to thank Jenny for giving me this opportunity. For anyone interesting in pursuing a career in academia, I can fully recommend pursuing a similar summertime position. No, working as a Research Assistant isn’t how you’d expect it to be; its so much better.

 

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