International Women’s Day – Professor Emma Borg

Today is #InternationalWomensDay. To celebrate we are speaking to Professor of Philosophy, Emma Borg about her work in the philosophy of mind, language and pain. Join in the conversation using #UoRWomen.
Research/teaching specialisation
Philosophy of mind and language – in particular the difference between literal meaning and communicated meaning, and what you might have in your mind/brain which makes language understanding possible. I also specialise in the philosophy of pain, and recently I’ve been working on behaviour and ethical practice in the workplace (particularly with respect to the financial services sector).
What inspired you to work in academia in this area?
Initially I went to King’s College London to study English, but I found didn’t like it at all – there didn’t really seem to be any wrong answers, rather it seemed to be just a matter of opinion. So then I thought about trying Art History but was told I’d need to study German and Italian in the first year and I didn’t fancy that. The only other A-level I had taken was Ethics and Religious Studies, so finally I went to the King’s College London Philosophy Department and asked if I could try Philosophy. They said yes, and as soon as I began I fell in love with the subject. It was just the right combination of the creativity and essay writing of an arts subject, with the rigour and objectivity of a science, where you get to try to ask and answer the most fundamental questions possible. So I’ve stuck with it ever since.
Was there a moment when you realised that you had become a successful academic?
It always still surprises me when I meet someone at a conference and introduce myself and they already know who I am or have read something I’ve written! That always makes me feel pretty successful. Also when you get the sense that people are taking your views seriously in meetings, that’s a kind of academic success too.
What advice would you give to prospective students wanting to become involved in this area of research, or to embark on an academic career?
First, be resilient. It is commonplace for early career academics now to have a succession of short-term contracts before finally landing a tenured job (if they’re lucky) and that lack of security, and the need for mobility, is obviously really hard. As is the need to perform on all fronts (publication, teaching, admin) when you don’t necessarily know where you’ll be from year to year. So you need to be pretty strong to cope with what the academic job market is likely to throw at you.
Second, preserve your passion. It can be easy to lose track of why you’re doing what you’re doing, and get swallowed up by aspects of the job that aren’t so rewarding (like admin). So finding time to focus on why you actually want an academic job, and what it is that you love doing, can help.
Who inspired you to get to where you are now?
Not a very original answer, but my Mum. I grew up in a single-parent family and she always instilled in me the belief that it was fine to have a go at things even if you didn’t know how they’d turn out. Whether it was becoming a motorcycle courier (my first job) or a philosopher, she always made me feel I could do anything I wanted to.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I’d like to do more research carrying over my views in philosophy of language to more applied areas (like the study of law and regulation). And if we could manage to deliver some answers from the collaborative project I am working on in the philosophy of pain – which actually succeeded in helping those who are suffering from pain (particularly chronic pain) – even just a bit, that would be pretty wonderful.
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