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 History, giving you an insight of the different paths that recent PhD holders are following in and outside academia. 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 university departments. Our eighth interviewee is Claire Trévien who submitted her PhD in 2012 at the University of Warwick. She’s subsequently held positions at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Oxford Brookes and the Voltaire Foundation. Claire is also a poet- you can check her website here. Her involvement in social media led her to a marketing career and she is now now the Head of Content Marketing for a startup. She tweets @CTrevien
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?
My PhD was titled ‘Revolutionary Prints as Spectacle’ and it looked at theatrical influences in prints (etchings, engravings, etc) of the French Revolution (in its narrow definition of 1789-95). It was an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award in collaboration with Waddesdon Manor, and involved co-cataloguing the 500+ prints in their collection, as well as co-curating an exhibition. I came across the PhD whilst working on my MA on Translation, Writing, and Cultural Difference – I had never really considered doing a doctorate before but I had enjoyed the MA immensely and the PhD’s topic intrigued me, particularly the mix of hands-on and research. I was a classic candidate in that I hadn’t had a break from academia at that point, but less classic in the sense that each part occurred in a different department (English, Italian – as they hosted that MA that year, and then French).
That’s not to say I didn’t have a life outside of academia – I was very active during my undergraduate years in theatrical and poetry endeavours, and the latter in particular played an increasing role in my life as the PhD evolved. I’ve always had a tendency to throw myself into large creative projects and burn the candle at both ends – which in the end was surprisingly helpful when it came to transitioning out of academia.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I submitted my thesis in the Spring of 2012, and moved out the same day from the grotty room I was renting. June was pretty busy as I launched a collaborative project between perfumers and poets in London, complete with a pamphlet, but I gave myself a real holiday after that by returning home to Brittany for a glorious two months of reading, and writing poems for my first collection The Shipwrecked House. Then in September I started a new job at the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford – I took a day off for my viva of course.
When and why did you start considering a career outside academia?
Money was the decider, I had a tough decision to make after my PhD, between accepting an IAS Fellowship, which gave a small stipend but restricted the amounts of hours I could earn money beyond that, or the security of a full-time position at the Voltaire Foundation. My funding had run out in the last stretch of the PhD and it was a rather miserable time as a result, so I seized the way out.
While the Voltaire Foundation is a research centre, a lot of my work involved improving other academics’ work rather than creating my own original research. It became clear that working full-time put me at a disadvantage when it came to pursuing an academic career. I still persisted, and published a few articles, and eventually went part-time when my contract was nearing its end, to also teach at Oxford Brookes.
Unfortunately, once the Voltaire Foundation contract ended, there was no way I could survive on the money earned teaching at Oxford Brookes – it barely covered my travel expenses, and my mental health deteriorated. I had been interviewed for all sorts of permanent academic positions over those 2-3 years but was never the bride! One of the problems really is that entry-level positions in French Departments all require that you teach French, and teaching grammar has never been my forte, not least as I hadn’t had any training in how to do so! My passion lied in teaching literature and history but it became clear that I had done my PhD in the wrong department if I wanted to do this in the short-term. While my doctorate had been interdisciplinary, I found when job hunting that we were still supposed to stick to our narrow department lanes, and that was frustrating.
The other big issue is that poetry had by then expanded to take an even larger place in my life – I don’t even mean the writing of it, but the organizing of various projects and awards, editing, performing, and so forth. If I was going to be a ‘good’ academic, the time I spent on those activities I really should have been spending on research.
What fields (outside academia) looked the most appealing and why / how did you feel you would fit into them?
There was a loose year in 2014, when I concentrated on transforming my thesis into a book, while touring my one-woman poetry show (for which I received Arts Council funding, a saviour!), and that’s when I decided to take a hard look at my life. It was clear to me that poetry would always be a large part of my life and that I’d have to find something compatible with it, a job I could mostly leave at work as it were. Academia was clearly not it. It was not an easy decision to make, as I felt passionate about my research, and loved transmitting it to others too.
Next, I looked at my skills, and I realized that social media had been a constant presence in all my different careers – I was managing multiple Twitter accounts at this point for various projects, social media had been at the heart of a reviews website I’d founded several years back, and, well, importantly, I enjoyed it. It was always my favourite aspect of working at the Voltaire Foundation, particularly when it came to developing their blog and Facebook page. Marketing didn’t drain me, it energised me. So I decided I would look into getting work that would involve social media marketing.
What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes?
It was definitely a learning process – and I thought I’d be at a disadvantage having not done a degree in marketing, or not earned formal qualifications such as the CIM ones. There were a lot of ignored job applications and one or two awkward interviews, in which I realized I needed to find better ways of translating my transferable experiences. In the end I received an interview to be the Social Media Manager at a new technology startup called Passle. I made it to the second round, and then they called me (on my birthday!) to tell me I hadn’t got it. Two months later, they called me back, and offered it to me, and I accepted!
Could you tell us a little about your non-academic career so far and your current job?
I’ve been at Passle for a little over two years now, and I’m now the Head of Content Marketing. It was quite a steep learning curve to familiarize myself with the B2B (business to business) market, so it was really heartening to get some early recognition for my work (I was shortlisted for Marketer of the Year at the CIM Marketing Excellence Awards 2016). Working in the B2B world sounds boring to a lot of my creative friends, but because you have to market something intangible (a service/concept rather than a product), you have to be incredibly creative. My work can involve writing a formal report of the state of content marketing in the legal sector just as much as it can arranging different playmobile figures together to create a stop-motion advert.
How has your training as an academic facilitated the transition to a job outside academia?
Working in a startup is at the polar opposite of working for an academic institution – you can get things done quickly, without having to jump through several hoops. There’s a culture of ‘giving things a go’, and learning as you work, which is wonderful. I think the flexibility in startups is much more compatible with an academic mentality than more traditional 9-5’ers, so I would recommend it to graduate students.
All of my lecturing and tutoring has come in handy too, as I’ve been increasingly called upon to give talks at trade shows, conferences and events. In the last week (at the time of writing), I’ve given talks at a PM Forum event at PwC’s Manchester Office, and to insurance startups at Startup Bootcamp, while next week I am speaking at a marketing in the recruitment sector event, just to give you a flavour of the variety.
What advice can you give to graduate students considering a career outside academia?
Evaluate which activities drain you and which ones energise you. Focus on the latter and work out what kind of jobs involve them.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I finally published my thesis last year with Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, so I feel I can close the door on that chapter at last!