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.
Itay Lotem is a cultural historian of memory, race and immigration in Britain and France. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in French Studies at the University of Westminster.
Could you tell us a little about your PhD?
My PhD, which was awarded by Queen Mary University of London, was a comparative project that examined the memory of colonialism in Britain and France between the 1960s and 2015. To put it slightly more simply, I asked why colonial history had become so heavily politicised in France (just think of the latest presidential election campaign, when suddenly the definition of colonialism as a ‘crime against humanity’ became an electoral issue), and why a comparable degree of politicisation has never emerged in Britain (again, think the Brexit referendum with thinly veiled imperial references to ‘greatness’, but which never really amounted to anything more than a couple of blogs talking about nostalgia). For my PhD, I looked at actors, or the people who would incite a public debate about colonial history: activists, journalists, politicians, historians and others. Because of the contemporaneity of the topic, it was heavily based on publications, oral history interviews and material my interviewees kindly agreed to give me.
How did you come to the field of history and French/European 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?
My path into academia was not straightforward. I worked in the non-academic world for about four years – for a German ministry and then in publishing – before taking the jump into a PhD. I have always been interested in European history, as I left Britain after a few years of university to study and live in France and then Germany. A comparative ‘European’ subject (rather than just the examination of a single national context) felt appropriate. At the same time, I was not entirely sure France was the country I wanted to focus on. This was more the result of my interest in memory, which I had developed in Berlin and Warsaw. Over there, memory felt like a part of everyday life in a way I had never experienced growing up in Britain, but after a few years of thinking hard about the Second World War, I felt mentally drained and exhausted. This happened precisely at the time I was supposed to come up with a subject for an MA dissertation, and I discovered France was coming to terms with its colonial past in ways that made sense to someone living in Germany. I then examined memory debates in France and found them fascinating. When the time came to think about a PhD, I thought it could be a good idea to continue along the same lines.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I submitted my PhD a few days after starting a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Westminster. I was lucky enough to transition directly into a junior academic job.
Could you tell us about your current job and how you are finding it so far?
I am a research and teaching fellow in French studies at the University of Westminster. It feels very much like a lecturer’s job, as it combines research, teaching, student support and admin. It has been quite a fascinating start into academic life, as I joined Westminster just as the university was implementing a change in its curricula. It meant I have been able to design modules in ways I would not have been able to do otherwise. It is the kind of workload nobody prepares you for during your PhD, but it is also extremely rewarding. Otherwise, I am grateful to be working with very supportive colleagues.
What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes?
I was not mentally prepared for the cliff edge of academic applications. Sure, the PhD is stressful and often feels like wading through a tunnel with no light at the end. I had developed this obsession with submission as a moment of liberation. I had a submission song all prepared and thought submission will mean a blissful kind of existence. But the PhD is also a clear project with a lot of support from senior academics and peers alike. From my experience, people genuinely want to nurture you as a PhD student. The problem is that this support network does not survive the viva, when you suddenly face the mammoth task of applying for a very small pool of academic jobs. The uncertainty that surrounds the entire process can be dispiriting at times.
What advice could you give to ECRs looking for academic and research jobs?
It is important to start learning academic vocabulary and getting an idea of the hiring situation in the field in the final year of the PhD. Partly, it just requires publications, but it is also good to research what the REF means, or what kind of funding opportunities exist for early career researchers. Another important thing is to get a good support network. Fellow PhD students are often fantastic and forging friendships helps overcome the darker hours of the job search. And yet, the most important thing is to remember what you really enjoy doing, both in and outside academia. What made you get into this in the first place? Is it the research, the teaching, the wine at conferences? What do you enjoy doing that has nothing to do with French history? At some point I needed to take time off and got into Malaysian cooking. It helped. Never let the endless demands of academia grind you down.