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.
Could you tell us a little about your PhD?
I earned my PhD from the University of Chicago in 2016. My dissertation looked at France’s simultaneous efforts to democratize its African empire and take the lead in the process of European integration after World War II. To overcome structures of colonial domination in the empire and national division in Europe, French politicians, educators and activists—in dialogue with francophone African and west European counterparts—proposed a surprisingly vast array of education reforms and youth programs in the hopes of stimulating European integration and imperial renewal from the bottom up. Their proposals included developing youth exchanges between France and Africa and between France and its European neighbors; rewriting European and African history textbooks; and building transnational European and Franco-African universities. Based on several years of archival research in France, Senegal, Italy and Belgium, my dissertation analyzed these entangled attempts to use youth and education policy to transform African subjects into French citizens and national citizenries in Europe into “Europeans” in the 1940s and 50s. I found that postwar education campaigns for European unity consolidated a vision of Europe as both white and raceless, secular and Christian, which provided a basis for future European unification but limited the scope and effectiveness of French youth and education reforms in Africa. The critical interplay between colonial and European youth initiatives is therefore key to explaining why, despite France’s efforts to strengthen ties with its African colonies in the 40s and 50s, France became both more French and more European during precisely those years.
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?
As a young person, I was an idealist, and early on I decided that to make the world a better place, one would have to know how it works. In college I dabbled in various social sciences to that end, but I ultimately decided that understanding the past was the best way to understand the present and so I became a history major. I started studying French history because I found the tensions in French political culture fascinating, but also, more practically, because I could read French. I then had the tremendous good fortune to work with Tony Judt as my undergraduate thesis adviser. He was an intimidating mentor but he was also very impressive and inspiring. I think it was working with him that I first seriously started to consider becoming an academic rather than going for some kind of policy degree. Either way, I knew I did not want to go straight to graduate school, so I worked for several years.
Right after college, I worked as a research assistant for a Latin Americanist who needed some research done in French; it was on that project that I first did serious research on the French empire. But for most of my time off I worked in a very different, more unsavory corner of academe – university fundraising. For more than three years I worked as a “prospect researcher,” meaning I identified new potential donors and researched the assets and inclinations of wealthy individuals who might one day make a major gift to our institution. It turned out to be a very pleasant, easy job, which I approached like a kind of scavenger hunt. I now see it as a kind of crash course on the inner-workings of contemporary capitalism and wealth inequality. That was in the mid-2000s—the beginning of the era of the billion-dollar fundraising campaign in American higher education, not for scholarships and hiring more faculty, but rather for building new luxury dorms and better sports facilities. You’d think that would have been enough to turn me away from academia entirely, but it actually made me more interested in spending a few years losing myself in the “life of the mind.”
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
My path to completion took a really unexpected turn. I had a handful of interviews my first year on the market in 2015-2016, but I went into that summer without a tenure-track offer. I decided to postpone my original plans to finish and defend the dissertation in spring in order to line up a full slate of teaching gigs for the following academic year. That took a lot of time and effort because I focused on getting appointments at area colleges and universities beyond my home institution, which I thought would better position myself to go back on the job market the following year. Then, in early July, completely out of the blue, I received an offer for a permanent post that I had been a finalist for in March. In the US, a tenure-track offer that late is virtually unheard of, so it was a total shock. The situation was so unusual that I was able to negotiate a January start date (also incredibly rare in the States). So I withdrew from the teaching commitments I had lined up for the fall and had a full six months to devote myself to finish writing, polish, defend, revise, and file the thesis. I had to move at such a rapid clip out of sheer necessity, but I am so thankful that I had to fast-track everything in the end. In my graduate program, many people, myself included, tend to delay, postpone, or slow ourselves down in a futile quest for the “perfect” thesis, when really the best thing can often be to just hurry up and finish and move on.
What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes?
Gosh, what part of the process isn’t challenging? Emotional well-being was definitely the most challenging aspect for me. I’ve always been a confident, self-assured person, and the academic job market rattled me in a way that I was totally unprepared for. And it really shouldn’t have, because ultimately the final outcome of my job search was totally beyond my control. Since I’ve been in the unusual position of having been the runner-up for a job that I desperately wanted, and then in a crazy twist ultimately got, I am living proof of the sheer randomness of the whole process. We all know that in our rational brains but emotionally and psychologically it is so hard to keep in perspective. I certainly didn’t. I took the initial rejection personally and felt terrible. And then a few months later, I had the job and everything changed. Except nothing had changed. I was the exact same person, the exact same candidate, only now I had the job.
What advice could you give to ECRs looking for academic and research jobs?
I’d emphasize my story as a reminder of the randomness and flukiness of it all, and that that can cut both ways. Although I don’t think there’s a magic formula to doing well on the job market, of course the more prepared you are for every step in the process, the better. I took advantage of all of the professional development programming my home institution had to offer, I workshopped dozens of cover letters and other job materials with colleagues, and I gave mock-job talks to my non-academic friends to make sure I could be clear and persuasive to a room full of people who had no idea what I was talking about. I did all of that and I both did and did not get a job. So yes, do all the work that needs to be done, but since that’s no guarantee, set aside some time for self-care. I had always rejected the notion that what one does for a living is the end-all, be-all of identity and self-worth, but the academic job market encourages that kind of thinking so intensely it’s easy to succumb to it. Escaping the hothouse environment of constant job-talk with peers, spending lots of time with non-academic friends, and delving deeper into hobbies and other interests can be really good for getting out of that mindset.