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.
Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis? How did you come to this field? Did you work outside academia before the start of your PhD and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?
The title of my PhD thesis is “The horrible noise of silence.” On the Politics of the Audible in the Works of Hermann Broch. It is about the semantics of the audible (noise, sounds, music, radio, voices etc.) in Hermann Broch’s (1886-1951) novels and essays and the extent to which these metaphors can be interpreted in a political sense. My thesis is situated at the crossroads between Literature, History and Political Theory. This aspect was important to me as I had always been against the understanding of philology as a discipline that looks exclusively at languages in written sources, rather than the whole world. That’s one of the reasons I chose to do my MA and the first two years of my PhD at EHESS in Paris, where Literature is considered a Social Science, and then finished my PhD at FU Berlin. I hadn’t worked outside academia before starting my PhD other than during internships or summer jobs, however I believe my research interest has been motivated by another rather intense extracurricular activity I have: music.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission/the viva?
I submitted the thesis in early 2015, the viva took place in October 2015. During that year I was first working for UNESCO, in the department for Media and Society on a project about Community Radio. This job connected very well to my PhD, because I had done a lot of research about radio in its early stages and its role in young democracies. In August 2015, shortly before the viva, I joined the team at the company I am still working for today, a Parisian start-up.
When and why did you start considering a career outside of academia?
Very early on actually. I knew I wanted to develop my research topic because nothing had been written about it before, but I also knew that important parts of how academia works and of how people inside academia work wasn’t what fitted best my ideas of a career. So I looked for a part-time job as early as the second year of my thesis in order to learn about a different environment and gain some professional experience. I was working as an editorial assistant for a big news magazine back then.
What fields (outside academia) looked the most appealing and why / how did you feel you would fit into them?
Media of course! J I have always been a news addict. Being able to process and condense a lot of complex information in a short time is definitely something you learn when you study literature. Since then, I have tried all kinds of aspects of media, from journalism to media development, and am very happy in communications today.
How tricky and long was the application process until you landed in your current position?
From the time I knew that I wanted to leave the public sector to move into the private sector until I had my current job took four months approximately, including 30+ applications, and many interviews and calls. But from the moment I applied for my current job until I signed, it was actually only a few weeks. That’s one of the big advantages of start-up culture: quick decisions, no red tape and direct contact with decision makers. But of course you still have to meet certain expectations, it’s just that “tricky and long application processes” are not one of them.
What were the challenges you faced during the application / interview process?
Typical questions about my career decisions, my former experience (the part time job I had during the PhD was a big plus at that point) and more specifically linguistic tests, as I was applying for a position that included fluency in foreign languages. And then there were a couple of other meetings with team members and the founders to see how we got along with each other and if we matched from a personal point of view. That is something you can hardly prepare for, but the more at ease you are with being yourself, the better of course!
Could you tell us a little about your current job? What are your main responsibilities? How does a typical week in this job look like?
In my current position as Outreach Ambassador, I am mainly writing texts and proposing content. I define and put into practice our editorial line, contribute to articles, presentations and documents that showcase or mention our company. I monitor the news and follow-up on interesting topics and maintain permanent contact with our press officers. I prep other team members and the founders for their public appearances and manage our social networks with my co-workers. So my job includes a lot of brainstorming, research, writing and getting projects done… all in all it’s so not that far from typical PhD techniques 😉
How has your training as an academic facilitated the transition to a job outside of academia?
I would definitely say that I have learned as much during one year and a half in a start-up as during three or more years of doctoral training. However, I consider that the ability to cope with massive amounts of information in different languages and to present them in an understandable manner to others is something that has helped me immensely in my current job. That and the reflex to get your hands on every piece of information imaginable about a given topic. And of course 10 years in literature and linguistics do help a great deal when it comes to formulating things the right way and explaining what effects wording has.
What advice can you give to graduate students considering a career outside academia?
Try and get as much experience as you can during internships or as a free-lancer during your PhD. It is easier than you imagine to get some first contacts. For example, write to the author of a blog you like and propose a contribution. Or follow people you find interesting on social networks and start a discussion with them. Don’t by shy, you have some huge assets as a PhD student, but also be prepared to think differently than you’re used to and to adapt quickly to the environment of private sector companies.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I love my current job but I also loved the three years I spent on my PhD and would definitely do it again. So don’t hesitate, even if you have to struggle for funding like I had to: otherwise you’ll never get the chance to spend all your time and intellectual energy on a research project you are passionate about.