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.
Dan Callwood is a research Associate at the University of Strathclyde on the Wellcome Trust Seed Award project “Out on the Pitch”. Dan completed his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London in 2017. His AHRC-funded doctoral project examined the process of gay ‘liberation’ in France from May 1968 until the onset of the HIV-AIDS crisis in 1983.
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?
For my undergraduate degree, I read Modern History with French, so I was always interested in where the two met. As for my interest in queer history, as a young and impressionable second year I came across Renaud Camus’s Tricks in the college library, it’s an account of forty-something sexual encounters that Camus had with men in the 1970s. After all the trudging through the French canon we’d been doing, it was explosively exciting to read something like that. I think some of that initial enthusiasm has propelled me ever since.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I wanted to get out and move to London so I found a job in fashion marketing, then later moved to public sector communications. These jobs were interesting for a time but they didn’t scratch the sort of itch that Tricks did, so I went back into university. I’d like to think that I’ve brought some of what I learnt in the world of work about the importance of professionalism and effective messaging to my academic work though, they certainly weren’t wasted years.
Could you tell us what your PhD was about?
When I started out I wanted to write a history of gay liberation movements in France in the 1970s – I wanted to find out about the politics that I assumed had made Tricks possible. I soon realised though, that I wasn’t really doing history so much as repeating a political line about how gay liberation came about – how a small group of radicals, inspired by ’68 and Stonewall bravely broke down closet doors and led us to the equality we have today etc. When I looked more closely at the 1970s, and especially once I’d collected some life stories through oral history, I realised that the simple trajectories of oppression to liberation, shame to pride, were much more complicated. So I became much more interested in the experience of (cis-male) homosexuality at a time of great change, and I began to ask questions like: where did gay men meet? What porn were they watching? What books and magazines were they reading? What interactions did they have with the police? What did they call themselves and each other, and ultimately how did they construct their lives and their identities? What I ended up with was a cultural history of what it was like to be a man attracted to men in France in after 1968.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I submitted in March, and my partner and I had long planned a trip down the West Coast of the US afterwards. To make this possible though I took up a series of temp jobs nearly immediately after submitting – back in marketing, cold-calling for a double-glazing firm, tutoring etc. Back to earth with a bump, but the routine of a 9-5, office gossip and regular paydays was quite soothing after the stress of finishing off the thesis.
What challenges did you face when you first applied for jobs? What’s the trickiest question you’ve ever been asked in a job interview?
I still find everything about applying for jobs challenging! Working out what my strengths are, how to play to them, and overcoming a natural diffidence is an ongoing battle.
I find with interviews it’s sometimes the easy-sounding questions that throw me. I was once asked what I’d last read, a question that should have been a nice easy opportunity to show off a bit. But since the thesis submission I’d not touched any history books and I’d only been reading all the novels that I’d previously picked up and had no time for. I should have just been honest and made some clever-sounding comment about one of those books, but instead I totally fluffed it.
Could you tell us about your current job and how you are finding it so far?
At the moment, I’m a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde. I’m working on a Wellcome Trust-funded project about the changing relationship between sport and mental health for LGBT people since the 1970s – it’s called Out on the Pitch and there’s more information about it here. It has involved a lot of interviewing of LGBT people involved with sport at all levels, archival work on LGBT sports organisations in Europe and the US and analysis of sports autobiographies. It’s been a real pleasure to discover communities of LGBT people involved in playing and changing sport. On a professional level, the post has really helped me develop as a researcher and I’m enjoying the opportunity to become involved in areas of history and disciplines I previously knew little about – like sports history and the history of mental health.
What advice could you give to Phd students and ECRs looking for academic jobs?
I’m still in a precarious position, so I don’t think I’m a person that I’d go to for advice! I would share something that a friend told me recently that I’ve really tried to act on – try to take all the opportunities for feedback that you can get. I’ve been trying to pull in advice from a range people outside of the usual circle of people who read my work to try and make my writing and applications stronger.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I know everyone already knows this but sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s a great wide world out there outside of academia. It can be just as cruel and difficult but it can also be just as rewarding and worthwhile. Also, let’s not let the saturated state of the academic job market mean we let ourselves be exploited or put in situations that make us miserable. If this new project has taught me anything, it’s that mental health is as fragile as it is important!