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.
Juliette Reboul is a postgraduate researcher at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen in the Netherlands. After completed her PhD at the University of Leeds, she has now published her first monograph: French Emigration to Great Britain in response to the French Revolution (Palgrave: 2017).
Could you tell us what your PhD was about?
Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, hundreds of thousands of French men and women left their home country to find haven in Europe. This migration started in 1789, and for a few individuals, continued long after the Bourbon Restoration in 1815. Many reached the British shores, where they were often welcomed by charities and the Pittite government. My work started as an attempt to find cultural transfers between the Emigration (the collective name for the group I studied) and their British hosts, however it quickly became apparent that the daily encounters between these political migrants and their hosts was a relatively unreported topic. Therefore it ended up as an essay on connected history. Unearthing mundane proofs of the émigrés’s lives in legislation, advertisements, diaries, and even insurance statements, highlighted the great social and cultural diversity of the Emigration. These data and their subsequent analysis formed the basis of my PhD, later converted into a book. I refer you to a review on the text, available on H-France.
How did you come to the field of history and French/European history?
As a lycéenne in Clermont-Ferrand, I found myself driven to the study of History, Geography and English. During my masters, I spent a year at Warwick University as an Erasmus student. My thesis reported on three generations of a Franco-Irish family, from the mid-1740s to 1848. It led me to (re)-consider the definition and identification of borders – national and disciplinary. This interest in the circulation of ideas and in trans-border cultures has since adopted a political agenda as the study of connections gained urgency with the recent and global rise of nationalist ideologies.
Have you ever worked outside academia and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?
A summer spent as an au pair in London and several stints as an English private tutor in France have certainly played a role in the development of my taste for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. While in London, I spent my time off visiting as many museums as possible. Until I reached Yorkshire to commence my PhD, my idea of the British Isles was a very romantic one. In Leeds, the main inspiration for my research arose while volunteering with Student Action for Refugees for a couple of years. The discussions I had there with both volunteers and asylum seekers helped my comprehension of the hopes and fears of the populations I had begun to study. It became obvious that the public discourse of and on political migrants hid individual stories where the private boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ were actually quite fluid. My volunteer work certainly influenced the manner in which I approach this topic and has driven my quest for sources offering an alternative view on a very controversial displacement.
What did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I immediately applied for a few jobs in and out of academia, and additionally sent a manuscript based on my PhD thesis to a publisher. As I awaited responses, I took on embroidery, but, unlike Penelope, didn’t have to languish endlessly for a positive outcome. Within a couple of months, I had my first (failed) interview for a post-doctoral position and a book contract with Palgrave. The same week, I was offered a position with Simon Burrows’s groundbreaking project, the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, where I was tasked with the transcription and interpretation of several manuscripts of Parisian book stock auctions. I also worked as a translator for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. While these jobs were not at all permanent, they did help me to demonstrate my work ethic and kept me connected to my network, which together contributed to securing my current post-doctoral position.
Could you tell us about your current job and how you are finding it so far?
A year and a half ago, I decided to try my luck abroad and applied for an ERC post-doctoral position in the Netherlands with Pr. Alicia Montoya. Starting in 2017 and following through to 2020, I shall stay part of an amazing team of seven researchers working on readers and book owners in Europe in the long eighteenth century (mediate18.nl). As part of our pilot project, we are developing two open-access databases in order to identify and study eighteenth-century best-sellers and their owners. The first database is a simple repository of all known catalogues of private libraries in four European countries. The second allows us to connect the titles and authors mentioned in approximately 2500 catalogues of fairly small libraries. As part of a project in Digital Humanities, I felt it necessary to acquire new skills such as database development and the design of interfaces. Never did I imagine that it would be such a challenging yet exciting endeavour! A year has passed now and I feel confident in saying that this move to the Netherlands was one of my best decisions.
What were the challenges you faced during the application and interview processes? What’s the trickiest question you’ve ever been asked in a job interview?
As most are familiar with the desperation of finding employment, I found myself applying for positions that were not particularly exciting. It clearly showed in my writing. On the contrary, when an attractive advertisement showed up, the process of writing the application, preparing for interviews, and dreaming a bit, was thoroughly enjoyable. These were opportunities to learn new theories or skills and get familiar with new sources in the hopes of impressing the panel. For instance, in preparation for the interview that secured this job, I took a crash course in relational databases and database management, and it worked!
I might be lucky, well prepared, or both, but no question seemed tricky in all the interviews I had been to. In my (limited) experience, unless interviewers already have a candidate in mind, they can be quite helpful and forgiving when the answer to a question eludes you. Of course, interviews and preparation for the same are a chance to dig into what it’s like working within the target team, something crucial from the perspective of job satisfaction.
What advice could you give to Phd students and ECRs looking for academic and research jobs?
A few weeks ago, I went for a conference in Paris where many young European researchers asked this very question. While chance does play a role (you never know who else will be applying for the position you covet), it is absolutely crucial to do your due-diligence. Research the institution, the faculty, and the team you want to join; consider learning new skills and investigating new topics in preparation for the interview: there are several excellent crash courses online. Make good use of your network and let them know you are looking for an academic position. If you still use social media, ensure your public profile is clean! (Article 17 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) should help with those seeking to gain control over their online presence). Embracing the prospect of relocation improves your chances significantly; for this, an understanding and adventurous partner is always a plus. While on this topic, my final piece of advice is to remember that statistics play heavily on the outcomes, so be consistent and regular in your efforts.