Welcome back to ‘Voices of Early Career Researchers’, a monthly feature on the French History Network blog. Each month we’ll post a short interview with an Early Career Researcher of French History, giving you an insight of the different paths that ECRs are following after their PhDs in and outside of academia: what do the lives of recently appointed lecturers, teaching assistants, post-doctoral researchers or teaching fellows etc. look like? How does one transition from PhD to the post-doctoral years? We invite our interviewees to share their experiences and we hope that the conversation carries on in universities, conferences and social media.
Laure Humbert is currently a lecturer in Modern History at the University of Manchester. In this interview, she tells us about her research, shares her experience with job applications, interviews and working towards the REF.
What did you do your PhD on? How did you come to this field (did you do something else before considering PhD/teaching) and has it affected you as a teacher and researcher?
My doctoral thesis was a study of French approaches to the problem of Eastern European Displaced Persons (DPs) in post-war Germany. I came to the field of refugees’ history thanks to Prof. Sharif Gemie and Dr. Fiona Reid (University of South Wales). Before undertaking my PhD at the University of Exeter, I worked as a Research assistant on a Leverhulme-funded project at the University of South Wales on the experiences of refugees and relief workers in the era of the Second World War. This work laid the groundwork for my decision to specialise in histories of humanitarianism and displacements.
My PhD explored the interactions between French diplomats, occupation officials and representatives of newly-created UN agencies, firstly the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and later the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). It illuminated the role of distinctive diplomatic strategies, economic requirements and cultural differences in shaping understandings and practices of refugee humanitarianism in the aftermath of the Second World War. Crucially, by examining the complex interrelationship between humanitarian relief efforts and French foreign policy, my PhD uncovers the way relief was understood by the French as a vehicle for pursuing international leadership and a means of restoring national prestige.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission/the viva? Did you apply to jobs/ work outside of academia after the end of your PHD?
I submitted my PhD in November 2013 and passed my viva in January 2014. In the months following submission, I taught as a history teacher for INTO (an organization which prepares international students for undergraduate study at the University of Exeter) and as an hourly paid lecturer for the History Department at Exeter. I had the opportunity to design and run my own Sources and Skills module on the history of Vichy France, taught a module on the history and memory of the United States in World War Two, and supervised Second-year research projects on various aspects of European History.
During this time, I also tried to work on my research and publication agendas. It was not always easy to find a balance between job applications, writing-up publications and working on new research projects. I developed a collaborative project with Dr. Alison Carrol (Brunel University) entitled ‘Entangled Memories & the Remaking of Europe: The Banatais & the Malgré-Nous (1945-1951)’ and worked on a post-doctoral proposal with Prof. Peter Jackson (Glasgow University). I did not apply to jobs outside of academia – but I did contemplate the idea of going back to France to prepare the agregation (). But I think this was more last resort than a serious plan B, as ideally I wanted to remain in the academic system.
How tricky and long was the application process until you landed in your first post-PhD job? Did you benefit from the support of your peers (senior colleagues or other ECRs) and how do you feel that impacted your job search.
At the time, it felt like a really long and disheartening process. I did a lot of running and travelling back to France, where my family and many of my friends were, to keep me motivated. Overall, the application period lasted a year and a half; I must have sent 40+ applications during that time. I had five job interviews (and was invited for a sixth when I found out I got the job in Manchester). But, when I think about it now, I know that I have actually been very lucky, as I got a permanent job relatively quickly. Many people helped me. I greatly benefited from the help of ECRs, such as Dr. Ludivine Bloch and Dr. Alison Carrol, peers at Exeter and also senior colleagues, including my PhD supervisor and external examiner, respectively Prof. Martin Thomas and Prof. Patricia Clavin, Dr. Rogelia Pastor-Castro and Prof. Peter Jackson.
I think this impacted on my job search in several ways. First and foremost, it helped me consolidate some of my research ideas and frame new ones. Intellectually, I did find this period immediately following the PhD very challenging. I also received useful advice regarding career plans and interview preparations. And, finally, it enabled me not to feel too isolated. When employed on short-term teaching contract, it is not always easy to be disciplined and to keep focusing on research outputs. (Actually, I was reading yesterday the recommendations of the Royal Historical Society for Employing Temporary Teaching Staff in History – and I think that these are well worth reading).
When, and why, did you apply for your current position at Manchester?
I applied in May 2015. It was the third time that I applied (and was interviewed) for a job in Manchester. I really admired the work of several historians at Manchester (working in the histories of humanitarianism, refugees and the consequences of the Holocaust). I also thought that it would be a very fertile intellectual environment to develop my book and next research projects. Manchester is a fantastic department, which has world-known strengths in French, German, and British history but also in the area of medical humanitarianism, population displacement and the history of the Holocaust. When I went to the job interview, I also found the department staff very friendly and welcoming. During my teaching presentation, the students were also great!
What tips would you give to anyone interested in applying for permanent jobs in the UK?
I found this question quite hard actually… The University of Exeter’s professional development seminars were very useful. So I would encourage anyone applying for jobs to try to make the most of these sessions, if they exist at your institutions. When I was a PhD student/hourly paid tutor, Exeter ran a series of career development seminars on how to structure CV, write cover letters, prepare for interviews or develop teaching module templates. It might be a truism but I think it is important to do some research and get in contact with the department to which you are applying to know what they are looking for. I also gathered a list of interview questions and I worked on giving very short and specific answers. Amongst the questions that I struggled the most was one about the challenges recruiting students for a French department (and ways of overcoming it).
How are you finding it so far?
I am loving it! I found the History department incredibly friendly, supportive and welcoming and I am getting to really like Manchester.
Would you do anything differently?
I think I would try to submit a REF-able article in the second year of my PhD.
To finish the interview, we thought we would end on three light-hearted questions:
Red or white wine?
I tend to prefer red but it depends of what I am eating.
Favourite French TV show?
I am not sure… Kamelott makes me laugh.
Love or hate Bienvenue chez les ch’tis?
I don’t think I have seen it.