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When I started my PhD in medieval archaeology the reason was simple. There was a very clear gap in the understanding of medieval castles I wanted to address and formalising it as a piece of research seemed the next sensible step. So here I am researching why castles were demolished in the Middle Ages and what that looks like archaeologically. (Hopefully!) the results will carry weight and might change how people think about the subject.
As I’m approaching the end of my project, I’m thinking about what I might do afterwards. I would love to stay involved in academia but don’t know if there’s space. It’s a competitive field and, while I love the research and the teaching, it may prove very difficult to land that permanent academic post. What I do know is that I’d like to stay involved with discussions around castles and medieval archaeology – and becoming a university lecturer isn’t the only way to do that.
Voluntary work is a one way to keep a foothold in the field. Two years ago I joined the board of the Castle Studies Trust. We’re a small charity with no staff and a budget of around £15,000. We fund research projects into castles with a limit of £7,500 per grant. The Trust doesn’t get directly involved in the fieldwork or interpretation, but we do get to choose which projects we support, which, in turn, helps to shape current research in this area. What happens is that groups interested in carrying out research on particular castles apply to the Trust with projects that have been fully planned and costed. We then send these applications to a panel of castle experts who assess them and provide recommendations for funding. Finally, the board of trustees decide which projects to support, based on these recommendations. For those interested in applying for a grant, the application process opens in September and closes on 15 December. The Trust will confirm awards in February.
Regardless of what happens to me next, I have found volunteering with a heritage organisation a very useful experience. I’ve talked to archaeologists working in the field about their projects and have been able to pick their brains about my own research questions. I’ve learnt much more about castles and how they worked, and have broadened my perspective on the topic. My work at the Trust also shows that I am passionate about heritage: I’ve made the effort to do outreach, I’ve gained practical knowledge of the challenges of preservation, and I’ve been forced to consider the public benefit of projects submitted to the Trust. I’ve also gained a much stronger understanding of the funding process. By assessing applications and giving critical feedback, I’ve learnt what makes a strong application – and will be able to apply these lessons when I go on to make grant applications of my own. It’s also been a useful opportunity to build my professional network.
Importantly, it’s also given me transferable skills which will be useful outside the context of medieval archaeology. Becoming a trustee, even of a small charity, requires you to be an active volunteer and to take on some major responsibilities. You have legal duties, such as scrutinising accounts and doing your bit to ensure funds are spent in line with your organisation’s objectives. You also gain experience of governance, i.e. being in charge of an organisation. Finally, with the Castle Studies Trust I’m also specialising in communicating the results of our work, so I have demonstrable experience of communicating with different audiences and developing skills I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do so otherwise.
Being a trustee has been a really rewarding experience and it’s something that I would encourage others to do, particularly early in your career. Although, according to Young Charity Trustees, the average age of trustees in England and Wales is 57, don’t be put off – many charities are looking for younger members to join their boards. They want the new experiences and points of view that you can bring to the organisation. If you’re interested and want further information, the Young Charity Trustees group has some useful materials here.
Volunteering with heritage groups is a great way to contribute to an area you care about and to gain experience for your CV. I’ve found that in small organisation, such as the Castle Studies Trust, one person can make a colossal difference. But most important of all, I’ve found volunteering to be fun. So if there’s an organisation whose values match your own, offer to help them out. And if you want to know more about the Castle Studies Trust in particular, check out the video below.
Richard Nevell, PhD student in Archaeology