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PhD to Professor: In Conversation with Professor Mike Hulme

The final blog of our PhD to Professor series is an interview with Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge and Fellow in Geography at Pembroke.

Professor Hulme’s research focuses on the human element of climate change: how we engage with climate change as an idea; how the science intersects with social practice and policy. In the blog he reflects on the arguably unconventional decisions he made on his pathway from PhD to Professor, the importance of interdisciplinary networks, the challenges facing graduate students and academics today, and the value of a geographer’s approach to climate change.

"Geographers can add a layer of analysis and insight that is really valuable when thinking about how people and how policy responds to some of the challenges of climate change."

What is your research about?

Much of my earlier career was spent working on the physical science of climates and their change. I did a lot of work on global climate data, on the development of climate scenarios for policy applications. In the last 10-15 years I’ve become much more focused on the intersection of climate change with human actions, particularly how it works differently in different cultures, how it engages differently with different people, how it links with the human imagination. This often brings me into contact with environmental humanities people. Following how scientific knowledge claims about climate change intersect with other social practices, whether it’s politics or policy, popular discourse, or media.

So in a very broad sense I fit within human geography but in a very expansive way. A lot of my collaborations are beyond geography, with anthropology, with eco-criticism, with philosophy, history of philosophy of science, political science. I have a very multi-disciplinary network.

Did you plan to be here, doing this research?

"It took one step at a time, evolving interests, emerging opportunities, and I wasn’t thinking too far ahead"

For me it wasn’t any grand plan or strategy. I just followed my nose. As an undergraduate geography student I enjoyed studying geography, I got interested in climate, and I did reasonably well. I didn’t really know what to do next so I thought maybe there’s a chance to do a PhD somewhere. In those days you didn’t have to do a Masters; you could just go straight onto a PhD. I applied to get a scholarship which piqued my interest, on climate and water in Sudan. I was lucky enough to get that scholarship and spent three years in a geography department and doing fieldwork out in Sudan, which was a tremendous experience. After that I again didn’t really know what I was going to do next. I applied for a couple of temporary lectureships and a couple of permanent lectureships and was fortunate enough to get a permanent lectureship in physical geography at Salford.

But as I said, this wasn’t my lifelong ambition. It took one step at a time, evolving interests, emerging opportunities, and I wasn’t thinking too far ahead. I think if you’d said to me at any point in that process, even after I got the job at Salford, that I’d end up as a Professor of Human Geography, or a Professor at Cambridge, I would’ve laughed.

If you were doing it again, would you do anything differently?

"Be bold, be brave, and if there’s an opportunity that presents itself that’s really exciting, that you’re passionate about, go for it"

At one level of course the correct answer is to say no, this is the route I followed and it’s led me to where I am. I’ve had great opportunities and I’ve really enjoyed those opportunities at different universities. Also, the pathway for me has not been entirely conventional in that, having lectured at Salford for four years on a permanent position I quit it to take a temporary position. This seems absolutely crazy now, but at the time it seemed to make sense. I moved from Salford to the University of East Anglia to take up a two year postdoc because I really wanted to get more stuck in with research.

In the late 80s climate change was high profile area of science and also of public policy interest. I wanted to be where I thought the action was, and the most exciting place to do research in the UK on climate change was the University of East Anglia. I really liked the research I was doing at UEA even though it meant for the next ten years I was on short term contracts. At the end of that ten year period I got a permanent position at UEA. That’s certainly not conventional and I’m not sure I’d recommend it necessarily, but there’s one lesson I suppose from that, if there’s a lesson in any of this, to grasp any opportunity that presents itself to you that you’re passionate about. I was passionate about researching climate change, and I went for it. Even though other people may say it’s not the most sensible thing to do, with retrospect it was a brilliant move. Be bold, be brave, and if there’s an opportunity that presents itself that’s really exciting, that you’re passionate about, go for it. Sometimes taking those left field moves can really pay off.

What would you say is the main advantage of an academic position at the University of Cambridge?

"I can encounter people across the whole university in different disciplines who I can get inspiration from and work on interesting collaborations with"

I’ve been in Cambridge 15 months. Cambridge offers a really brilliant environment to pursue research. Firstly, in terms of the networks that Cambridge has internally and externally. There’s no doubt that there’s some really great people in the university doing amazing research. I can encounter people across the whole university in different disciplines who I can get inspiration from and work on interesting collaborations with. But also externally the networks that Cambridge opens up, either networks that pre-exist or simply the convening power of Cambridge as an institution, means that people are more willing to engage and participate with me at Cambridge than if I was at a different institution.

As a corollary link to that, Cambridge is very well resourced. In my mind there’s no question of that. Whichever way you want to measure resource, in pure financial terms, or in terms of facilities, or in terms of research-teaching balance, in terms of resource availability Cambridge is a really good institution. And then you overlay that with the role of the College. I’m now a Fellow at Pembroke and I can now see from the inside the value of this strange binary system of Colleges and departments, can see why that has advantages. For me moving here was a great opportunity, and also a return to geography, although as a Professor of Human geography. Geography is a very good space to convene the type of research that I am doing because it covers natural science, social science, and humanities.

What are some of the challenges in academia, and are they different now to when you started out?

Comparing and contrasting the challenges of being an academic now compared to 20 or 30 years ago, things have certainly changed. The academy is under much more scrutiny than it ever used to be, and that’s very specifically through various types of audits – the REF (Research Excellence Framework), the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), and the KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework). That clearly puts pressure on the whole system from above, it comes down through the structures into departments, and it rests on the individual academics in the end. That sort of pressure never existed when I started my career. Everyone feels that in different ways, this constant sense of being audited and under scrutiny. Certain universities I think protect academics a little bit more from that but everyone feels that pressure. Whether you’re a junior academic or a senior academic you feel that pressure.

I think also the academy is under scrutiny, certainly here in the UK, in terms of its public standing, or public questioning of the social contract between government and universities. What are universities for? How do they justify charging £9000 fees per year for students, and what do they do with that money? Are they agents for good in terms of social mobility and knowledge creation? That public questioning of universities is a mood that I don’t recognise from earlier in my career. It’s partly linked to austerity in the UK, partly to a wider cultural move to a less deferential society, the questioning of experts, the questioning of authority, the role of social media. We have to work harder to justify what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.

Is it different for your graduate students today compared to when you were studying?

At one obvious level over 35 years the number of students going through the academy has hugely increased. It’s more competitive. Then that intersects with some of the other pressures I’ve mentioned for early career academics and even PhD students.  If they’re aspiring to an academic career, almost from day one they’ve got to be thinking about how they’re developing their academic profile, the way in which they’re developing their networks, how their CV will look in three years’ time, their social media presence, and of course doing the PhD which is a tremendously demanding. It’s one of the most demanding things you’ll do in your career; to set out on a three year project on your own. It’s a tremendous challenge for an early career academic.

When I was doing my PhD we had a little bit of coaching around developing your CV, but the pressure was nothing like what it is now. Certainly here at Cambridge I’ve got students in doctoral training centres and these centres provide more support than we ever had. There is more support, more advice available to help develop your academic profile, but I still think the pressures are greater than they were. On the other hand there are new opportunities through digital communications. You can communicate about your research is a broader set of fora then we ever did. I don’t think I wrote anything about what I was doing until I reached the end of it. There was no sense of engaging with a public audience. Now there are opportunities like science cafes, blogging, writing for a media platform, and Twitter of course, although I still wonder about the pros and cons of whether Twitter really helps early career academics or not.

Does working on climate change ever become difficult or frustrating because of the scale of the problem?

"I continue to see the value of the type of research, the type of insights that geographers can bring to debates like this."

My career has grown through climate change, so I’ve always felt that the value of my research has been self-evident, that when I was working on the physical science that knowledge was valuable in revealing the extent of changes and how humans were beginning to alter these climate parameters. In more latter years I was interacting with different types of policy networks, or more generally just with opening up questions of values and ethics which to me lie at the very centre of climate change. It’s not just about producing more scientific knowledge; that’s not going to help us. My argument is that it’s about values and ethics, and it’s about contested values and contested ethics. I see my work as valuable in opening up those questions to different audiences and different academic disciplines, so that we can see more explicitly what is at stake here with climate change, why different policy preferences emerge from different constituencies.

In that sense I don’t get frustrated, I continue to see the value of the type of research, the type of insights that geographers can bring to debates like this. Thinking about geography in particularly, geographers have always gone on about scale, and about place, as some of our iconic contributions to how we think about the world. Place and scale are really important to understanding climate change. If you’re dealing with this on a global scale that raises one set of questions. If you’re thinking about local scales, and how policies might work and bring benefits at local scales those are very different types of conversations. Trying to confuse the two or muddling between the two can be not very helpful. The way you talk about climate change in global spaces might be very different to how you talk about it with your city authority, or with a community group, or a religious group, or an NGO. Geographers’ sense of scale can be very valuable.

With regard to place, how people know their environments is very much connected with their sense of place and being connected historically and emotionally. Yet quite often these big scientific reports are place-less. People then filter that according to their place-based knowledge, their situated knowledge. That’s a natural thing for people to do. I think geographers can draw that out in terms of what these big scientific reports mean when they’re filtered through the human experience of living in particular places, and the sort of things that matter to people in particular places. My broader point is that geographers can add a layer of analysis and insight that is really valuable when thinking about how people and how policy responds to some of the challenges of climate change.


The other blogs in the PhD to Professor series can be found on the links below: