Teaching, Thinking about Research, Voices of ECRs

Voices of Early Career Researchers: Célia Keren

Welcome 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 (ECR) 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, at conferences and through social medias.


Our first interKEREN_CELIA_photoviewee is Célia Keren who conducted her PhD at the EHESS in Paris and wrote a thesis on the evacuation of Spanish children from wartime Republican Spain and their reception and care in France (1936-1940). She tells us about her first academic job as an Attachée temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche at the University of Aix-Marseille, her post-PhD life and ECR experiences.



Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis and your current research? How did you come to this field (did you do something else before considering PhD/teaching) and has it affected you as a teacher and researcher?

My PhD thesis recounts the birth, the brief success and the disappearance of a humanitarian and anti-fascist cause of the end of the 1930s: the evacuation of Spanish children from wartime Republican Spain and their reception and care in France. This evacuation programme saw 10,000 Spanish boys and girls fostered in French families or housed in children’s colonies between 1936 and 1940, often at the request of their own parents in Spain. The thesis identifies the groups which carried out this project, the reasons for their commitment, the means they used and, finally, their achievements and failures. Through a transnational analysis of the French help committees and the Spanish State institutions involved, of their collaboration and dissensions, this research successively delves into different political universes: French left-wing parties and trade unions of the Popular Front alliance, French Catholics and the Vatican hierarchy, as well as the Spanish and Basque states.

One of the contribution of this thesis was to uncover a long-lived tradition of children’s displacement and fostering in trade union practices, from which the Spanish evacuation programmes drew. This is the subject of my new research project, which looks at the “children’s exoduses” organised by trade unions in times of strike over a half-century period. This practice consisted in supporting workers who couldn’t provide for their families during long strikes by temporarily fostering their children with other working-class families. Though the memory of these children’s exoduses seems to have been lost, they were then far from uncommon: from the 1906 textile strike in Verviers, Belgium, to the 1948 general miners’ strike in France, thousands of children from working-class families went into “exodus” for between a few weeks and a few months, in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the United States. My project will focus on the role played by the mobility of these children in the building of transnational labor networks, and in creating feelings of solidarity between biological and foster parents, thus contributing to the subjective process of working-class formation.

Before going into academia, I did consider other careers (especially in international politics) and, in fact, I worked at the European Commission for a year. I do think this has made me more aware of, and more interested in power structures and relations between and within institutions (be they governments, ministries or trade unions) than I would have been otherwise. I went back to school after a year because of looming intellectual boredom, but also because, as a former student of the Ecole normale supérieure, my position in academia was a privileged one and I was almost guaranteed PhD funding.

When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission and the viva?

I handed in my thesis on October 15th 2014, and defended it on December 8th. I had a lot of work immediately after submission, since my position as an Attachée temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche (ATER) at Aix-Marseille University had already started: I had to move from Paris to Marseille and catch up on lesson plans, etc. But I also remember this phase of my life as an intense rediscovery of the pleasure of doing nothing (or nothing “useful”). I deliberately spent lots of time sitting on the couch and watching uninteresting reality TV shows about cooking or baking. I extensively watched Desperate Housewives and Friends re-runs. I was consciously on what I saw as “a work withdrawal programme”.

I feel that it’s easy to get into a habit of work frenzy during your PhD (I did), and it may be hard to drop it afterwards, especially when you’re looking for a permanent position. Working as much as possible (thus reinforcing your CV) gives you a feeling of control. But I think it’s crucial to take a step back and that is what I tried to do in the months following my submission and viva.

Your first ECR position…

I have been an Attachée temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche (ATER) at Aix-Marseille University since I’ve handed in my PhD; I’ve just started my second year there now. ATER positions, which are one-year teaching jobs, are available both to PhD students and postdocs. As an ATER, one teaches 200 hours a year – the same as maîtres de conférences, though the salary is lower. Another difference is that, as workers on temporary contracts and at the bottom of the academic ladder, ATER are often used as fill-in teachers. They often teach different classes every year or they teach classes that tenured professors are less interested in.

ATER jobs can be renewed up to three times, depending on whether or not one holds a civil service position (in practice, this means that agrégés and certifiés can be ATER for up to four years – which is my case -, while other PhD students or doctors can only have ATER jobs for up to two years).

Did you apply to jobs/ work outside of academia after the end of your PHD?

I have not until now.

How tricky and long was the application process until you landed in your first academic job(s)? Did you benefit from the support of your peers (senior colleagues or other ECRs) and how do you feel that impacted your job search.

The ATER recruitment campaign is done at the national level, so I applied to about 40 Universities across France. I first landed my position at Aix-Marseille as I was finishing my PhD, with the help of a senior colleague interested in my research, so I would say that this personal support clearly impacted on my job search. My contract was then renewed with the support of my colleagues at the department.

Last year, I also started applying for post-doc positions and I’ve found that the international post-doc job market is clearly nothing like an ideal job market with perfect transparency and flow of information. Exchange of information and solidarity on a global scale among post-doc applicants is needed!

Finally, last year was also my first recruitment campaign for maître de conférences positions. I greatly benefited from the help of fellow candidates and from senior colleagues. We exchanged insider information as much as we could; I had my written application proofread and revised many times, and for every job interview, I did mock interviews (“auditions blanches”) with colleagues and friends. In many ways, my application was the result of a collective effort, which had some success: I landed six interviews and was ranked second four times.

What are your main responsibilities?

As an ATER, I spend most of my time teaching students (from first years to MA level). On the one hand, I teach first years a lot – methodology and 19th century France and Europe. On the other hand, I teach Master’s students preparing for primary (CRPE) and secondary (CAPES and agrégation) school teacher entry examinations.

What is a typical week in your current role?

On Mondays and Tuesdays, I usually prepare for my classes – especially CAPES and agrégation classes, which are a lot of work. I teach on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I also try to find some time for “research” (not real research in the archives, but writing book reviews, conference papers, post-doc and tenured job applications, and the like).

Has the post-PhD life enabled you to devote more time to academic related activities (societies, public engagement, and social media etc.)?

Hem!… Defending my PhD has mostly enabled me to devote more time to non-academic related activities: dance, yoga, going to the beach (one of the perks of working at Aix-Marseille University) and going out.

There has recently been a debate on ECRs (see some of the posts on History Today and on the History Lab website) – would you like to share any thoughts on this?

What strikes me is how global the problem is. I find that the situation in France is not different from that described by Mathew Lyons for Great Britain – yet our academic systems are so different on so many levels. I feel that denying that the situation has changed and is rapidly changing for young researchers is not only false – it is adding insult to injury.

It’s hard to keep one’s motivation in this situation, especially since, as we are looking for a position, we are forced to adopt a very utilitarian attitude towards research: instead of doing what we love to do because we love to do it, we can only think of strengthening our CVs at any cost (including one’s private and family life). Everywhere I hear the same advice: “you need to start to think/publish/work strategically”. The worst bit is that those who finally land a tenured job are so burnt out by years of applying that they find it hard to start researching again. Whatever orthodox economics tell us, I think this is a case where fierce competition does not lead to overall better results.

To finish the interview, we thought we would end on three light-hearted questions:

Red or white wine?

Definitely red.

Favourite French TV show?

Hem!… Les guignols de l’info?

Love or hate Bienvenue chez les ch’tis?

I actually didn’t (want to) go.

Many thanks to Célia who agreed to be our first interviewee. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.

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