PhDs Outside Academia, Voices of ECRs

Voices of ECRs: interview with Louisa Zanoun, head of the Research Development department of INALCO.

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.

This academic year, Voices of ECRs focuses on PhD holders who are now working outside academia. Our third interviewee is Louisa Zanoun who currently works as Head of the Research Development department of INALCO, the French National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations. Following a career in IT in London, she completed her PhD in French political history at the LSE in 2009. She then went on to teach in higher education in Britain and Canada before moving back to France in 2011 where she has been working for a non-profit organisation and in the higher education sector.

 

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Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis? How did you come to this field?

My PhD was a study of the Popular Front in the Moselle department in eastern France. The thesis had two aims. First, it sought to explore the relationship between the left and the right within the context of what were particularly turbulent times in 20th century France. The second aim was to examine politics by looking at the complex interactions between the periphery and the centre in a region that had changed national sovereignty three times between 1871 and 1918. A study of language and culture are key in understanding those interactions. I will cite one particularly telling example: local communist leaders, who had come of age in the German socialist party (SPD) when the Moselle was under German sovereignty, struggled to understand and apply the directives of the party’s headquarters in Paris in the 1920s and 10930s. This was due in part to a difference in political culture between Paris and the Moselle, but due also to the fact that local Communists communicated in German and the French party did not have the means or the will to pay for translators.

I studied the Moselle and the Popular front almost naturally. I was born in the Moselle and I have had an interest in politics for a long time. I think it started in May 1981, when socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected President of the French Republic. I was too young to grasp the concepts of left and right, nonetheless, I was impressed by the public demonstrations of joy and happiness I witnessed around me and on television. My primary school teacher, a staunch socialist, told us what a momentous and glorious day this was for the people of France. I was not sure what he meant then, but I certainly do now.

History has also been a passion of mine since primary school. My history teachers at the Lycée encouraged me to study history at university. But I also had a passion for English literature and culture, and so left the Moselle after my Baccalauréat to become an au-pair in the UK for one year. After that, I studied for a Licence in English and a Maitrise in U.S. history.

 

Did you work outside academia before the start of your PhD and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?

Before the PhD, I worked in IT in London for eight years. I got into IT by accident in the late 1990s. I had just finished a Maitrise as an Erasmus student in the UK, the Internet was booming and technology companies were keen to hire young graduates who could learn on the fly. I started at the bottom on a helpdesk and, eight years later, ended my career as European IT manager for a financial services company in the City. Although my job did not influence my research interests, it pushed me in the direction of the PhD. I really enjoyed IT, the fast-paced environment and the people I worked with, but after a while, I felt something was missing in my life. I was in my late 20s, and after a discussion with a friend who told me how she regretted not completing her PhD, and with the support of my partner, I decided to leave a well-paid job for the risky and precarious life of a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

 

When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?

I submitted my thesis in June 2009 and had my viva the following October. The first thing I did after submitting was going on a trip to Crete… without any history books and without my thesis. I needed to reconnect with the world, see blue skies, the sunshine, and escape the confined environment I had locked myself into during the PhD.

Immediately after the viva, I taught a French history course at the University of Westminster and continued working on my own research. By then, I knew I still wanted to pursue a career in academia, but about 8 months after the viva, I left the UK to move to Montreal where my partner’s company had transferred him. There, I got a teaching position at a higher education college and was affiliated to Concordia University with the help of Noman Ingram, to whom I was and still am very thankful. While in Montreal, I published articles and attended conferences, but somehow my heart was not in it any longer.

 

When and why did you start considering a career outside academia?

It was in Montreal, in 2011, less than two years after the viva, that I began to realise that academia was perhaps not for me, or rather, that I was not made for academia. To begin with, I am not a patient person and I like to see the work I do to have an immediate impact. What is more, though I enjoyed the solitary nature of the academic life, I am also a very sociable person and prefer to work as part of a team.

 

What fields (outside academia) looked the most appealing and why / how did you feel you would fit into them?

I did not have a very clear idea of what job I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do a meaningful job, the type of job where I could contribute to societal and/or cultural change. I am not saying that academia and academic research do not do that. Academic research plays an essential role in society. But from where I stood at the time, I thought that academia was too disconnected from society and the real world, at least the world I lived in. Attending conferences, meeting fellow scholars and publishing articles in academic journals was very rewarding, at least personally, but I sensed I wanted to give more to society, to give back in a more meaningful manner.

In 2011, I had a moment of revelation, a real epiphany, while watching the TV series The Wire. In Season 4, one of the main stories focuses on a research programme led by a sociologist in an inner-city middle school in Baltimore. The aim of the research is to study and reduce violent behaviour in young offenders. The study is co-led by a retired police officer who knows the subject well for having dealt with young offenders throughout his career. When the school decides to terminate the research programme prematurely, the reaction of the police officer and the sociologist are completely different: while the former is disappointed and regrets all the effort put in the research for nothing, the sociologist is very excited about the attention he will receive in academic circles. As I sympathised with the police officer, I realised that, really, I did not belong in academia.

 

What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes?

Just as I started considering my options, I met an old friend who told me about an exciting job opportunity in Paris. I had lived abroad a long time (mainly in London) and had thought about returning to France for a while. I missed my home country, my friends and family, and I wanted my daughter, who was almost four, to attend school in France.

The job was in a non-profit working on the history immigration and promoting migrants’ rights through scientific and cultural activities. Though my academic training was highly relevant to the position, I was also hired for the management and project management experience I had gained in the private sector. I left Montreal in November 2011 and, in January 2012, joined the organisation as head of research and cultural affairs. I stayed there for four years, until February 2016.

I did not face any particular challenges or difficulties during the job interview process. I knew the person who interviewed me. He was interested in my professional experience as much as my academic background. Though the primary function of the job was not research in the academic sense, I spent most of my time working on short-term and long-term projects with academics, in France and in Europe. It was a fascinating experience: I curated exhibitions (some of them still are available online), was editor the organisation’s journal (Migrance), coordinated dozens of projects, organised and participated in conferences and seminars, met deputies and senators, high-level government representatives, and small association leaders in banlieues

 

Could you tell us a little about your non-academic career so far and your current job? What are your main responsibilities?

Today, I work at Inalco, the French National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations, the equivalent of SOAS in the UK. I joined the Institute in early October 2016. I am in charge of Research Development. I help academics disseminate their work, apply for EU funding (ERC, H2020…), and transfer their research to the cultural, social and economic sector.  I also help them identify networks and/or partners for collaborative research projects.

 

How does a typical week in this job look like?

Every week is different. I work on different projects all the time, and because my work involves a lot of development, I also spend a lot of time in meetings talking with new and existing partners within and without my institution.

 

How has your training as an academic facilitated the transition to a job outside academia?

My PhD years were very formative. I learned a lot about my discipline but also personally and professionally. I learnt how to question things, how and where to find answers. I also learnt valuable skills such as writing, debating and public-speaking. Thanks to the PhD, I have also become much more rigorous.

 

What advice can you give to graduate students considering a career outside academia?

Most PhDs, at least in the humanities, hope to pursue a career in academia. It is only logical. I would say to them: like anything in life, try not to be blinkered by set ideas and principles, and if academia seems out of reach (too many qualified applicants for too few jobs, or loss of interest in the profession), look elsewhere. Working outside academia is not a failure, try to capitalise on the great skills you have developed during the PhD, and reconsider your options.

 


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