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Profile: Professor Karen O’Brien

Profile: Professor Karen O'Brien

Head of Humanities Division, Professor of English Literature at Oxford, and a Professorial Fellow of the College (1983, English)

Professor Karen O’Brien (1983, English) is Head of the Humanities Division and a Professor of English Literature at the University as well as Professorial Fellow of the College. Her research explores Enlightenment and eighteenth-century literature, particularly the historical writing and fiction of the period.

What was your time at Univ as an undergraduate like?
I had a wonderful time as an undergraduate under the benign but demanding tutorship of Roy Park and Helen Cooper. Univ was top of the Norrington Table when I matriculated, and we were left in no doubt that we had to do our bit to keep in there! We worked hard, but we didn’t worry as much as today’s students about our future career prospects, just assumed they would take care of themselves.

What sparked your interest in the Enlightenment?
Roy Park. He made me read first Thomas Carlyle, then, as an antidote, lots of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. I was entranced by the spirit of tolerant scepticism and the cautiously hopeful, international outlook that came from one of the most brilliant epochs in intellectual history.

Do you have any advice for current students?
Our students need no advice but I do hope that they can worry less and enjoy more, because the student years pass so quickly.

How do you find combining your roles as Head of Humanities and Professor of English Literature?
My current job goes on all year-round, except for holidays, and doesn’t include vacations as such. So I hardly notice when terms begin and end. I continue to research, give papers and to communicate my work to broader audiences, but the big book (on Thomas Robert Malthus) is going to have to wait!

Profile: Professor Karen O'BrienHave you faced any challenges pursuing a career in academia? 
The biggest challenge in academia is crossing the difficult bridge from PhD to first job, and then to permanent employment. I was quite lucky in securing a research fellowship at Cambridge before I finished my PhD, but I left this post far too early for the first permanent academic job that came along, and I wish I could have that time back. It was tough keeping afloat while my children were small without compromising on the time spent with them, but my employer was very enlightened and supportive. I have seen others have to struggle with work/life balance issues far more than I did, and I hope we can do more at Oxford to make a good balance a reality for everyone.

How do you feel about the celebration of 40 years of women at Univ?
It is a huge personal privilege to be part of this celebration as a fellow, given that I was an undergraduate student at Univ while memories of the men-only college still lingered. There is so much to celebrate, but still much to do as well. I am especially happy that we are celebrating that landmark moment 40 years ago at a time when the College has a rising reputation for its innovative and forward-thinking spirit.

woman at Univ logoWomen at Univ 2019. Celebrating 40 years of achievement by women students, academics and staff, and recovering the history of women in the College from 1249 to the present day.

Published: 23 September 2019

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