The Greeks used to speak of Tantalus, who after upsetting Zeus was forever made to stand in a pool of water with a fruit tree over his head. When he reached for a piece of fruit, the branches bent just beyond his grasp; when he stooped for a drink of water, the pool receded. Kind of like being an early career academic: you can see what career-nourishing activities are necessary, but reaching a critical mass of them is tantalizingly always just beyond your fingertips.
Gemma Sou, an early career academic at the University of Manchester’s School of Environment, Education and Development, experienced that. “I was looking at Academia.edu, and in filling out my profile I started thinking I don’t have as many publications, I don’t have as much experience and really my profile didn’t really look that good up there,” she recalled. Unlike Tantalus, she wasn’t fated to stand still, and Sou started thinking about what sort of tool she could use to remedy the situation that dogged so many of her friends and colleagues.
Her answer was her voice, and that of her peers. On June 21, she debuted Viva Voce Podcasts, a free platform for early career social scientists to jump start their careers by posting short recordings of them talking about their own work. “You talk about your research, your research interests, your experiences,” Sou explains. “It’s like the elevator pitch in less than five minutes.”
She offers her own devastatingly effective elevator pitch for the whole project: “The podcasts idea came to me because it’s focused on what you do. As I say, it’s what you do, not what you’ve done.
“I’m really passionate about the idea – I‘m an early career researcher myself. It can be daunting and quite a nerve-wracking thing to try and break into research, into academia, especially at this stage where it’s how many people you know or how many events you go to. A lot of early career researchers don’t have the resources or the time or the network.”
So what do you do, at least as far as Viva Voce goes? Besides the podcast – Sou variously implores her subjects to make the recordings accessible, short and sweet, engaging, and “not painful to listen to”—your post includes links to two of your publications, your own website, Twitter ID and email contact.
From the start of “just playing” with the technology platform, her effort has received encouragement. After showing her idea to friends, Sou showed it to her department supervisor. “She was really in favor of it. She made me send it to the dean of humanities even before it launched. It made me think there’s something in this.”
Sou’s elevator pitch is fleshed out on the nascent site’s ‘About’ page, which explains how Viva Voce aims to level the playing field by offering a “taster”:
[Viva Voce Podcasts] is a new platform that supports the dissemination and impact of social science research by PhD students, post-docs and early careers researchers (academic and non-academic). Researchers are constantly told to get their research ‘out there’ and to have ‘impact’ with the wider society; however, unlike other social media sites, Viva Voce is more interested in the topic of your research (‘what you do’) than how many publications or years of experience you have (‘how much you have done’).
In the future, Sou hopes to add interdisciplinary conversations on topics that various disciplines study in blissful ignorance of other disciplines’ similar scholarship, and interviews with researchers (“a bit like Social Science Bites,” she suggests).
Meanwhile, she’s been upgrading her own technical prowess. “I’ve had to Google everything… I had someone from Germany email and ask, ‘Can I subscribe via an RSS feed?’ and I had to Google RSS feed – I didn’t know what he was talking about.” It’s not beyond Sou’s ken to add new features—she did set up Viva Voce herself on the Wix.com platform—but is beyond her comfort zone and she’s seeking help. “Website design is just not my thing,” she says. After all, at this point Viva Voce is an army of one.
What is her thing is the study of disasters. Sou is from St Helens, located between Liverpool and Manchester, and she took her undergrad degree at Sheffield with a one-year exchange at Virginia Tech in the United States. She earned a master’s in urban planning the Manchester, then spent a year as a research assistant before starting her Ph.D. at Manchester.
Sou is just as interested in gathering new podcasts—she had 20 when we spoke—and publicizing the site as she is mucking around with code. This also means all the costs of the site have so far come out of Sou’s pocket, which explains why she’s knocking on a few doors seeking some angels.
Right now though, her quest is for ambitious young social scientists to create podcasts. She’s been evangelizing among her Manchester colleagues, but the online door is open to any early careerist in social science anywhere on the globe. In these early days, she muses, “I think one of the problems is, and I’m not an expert, if you’re in anthropology, and you click on ‘Anthropology’ and there’s nothing there, you don’t want to stick your neck out” by being the first to do so. “It needs a bit of credibility I think.”
And as a good social scientist with a theory but insufficient data, she adds, “I’m assuming that.”