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 medias.
This month’s interviewee is David Lees, a teaching fellow in French at the University of Warwick.
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 was on the documentary film produced by the Vichy regime under German Occupation in World War II. It focussed above all on the portrayal of everyday life in these films, demonstrating a more consensual, less divisive side to the regime. My current research is building on the PhD; I’m working on a study of film and the French extreme-right from Vichy to the current day and I’m also looking at the representations of the LGBT and disabled community in Vichy propaganda.
I certainly never wanted to go into academia but ended up staying for a PhD at Warwick thanks largely to the great working relationship I enjoyed with my supervisor. I think the fact that I didn’t really want to undertake further study has meant that I perhaps enjoy my new research projects more than my PhD. I certainly enjoy teaching because it offers a break from research–I find certain aspects of the research process to be very isolating.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission/the viva?
I submitted my thesis in November 2014. In the months following submission I tried not to think too much about the thesis but then I spent about three weeks before the viva reading through the thesis and trying to spot spelling mistakes or typos. I then had a very intense mock viva which revealed I needed to do more work on terminology that cropped up in the thesis. I’m glad I did that (my supervisors pretended, bizarrely, that they didn’t know me and they were just examiners) because the areas they identified came up in the real viva. That was intense as well–just over two and a half hours.
Did you apply to jobs/ work outside of academia after the end of your PHD?
I was in the strange position that I had started my post as Teaching Fellow before I submitted my PhD. It wasn’t an essential attribute for the job but instead I found that I had lots of relevant experience in teaching at undergraduate level which really helped me to secure the role. Before the full-time Teaching Fellowship I did a bit of teaching at Newcastle and at Bath and I worked on recruitment and Widening Participation at Warwick.
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 application process was quite arduous before I got this job, mainly, I think, because I hadn’t finished the thesis. I went for a similar role at Leicester and colleagues there were really helpful with their feedback. I was also lucky to gain some experience elsewhere (at Bath and Newcastle) and I certainly had a lot of support from friends and colleagues in shaping applications. Colleagues from the ASMCF have always been really supportive.
What are your main responsibilities as a teaching fellow?
I’m responsible for the Year Abroad in French which is quite a lot of responsibility, though I really enjoy it. I teach about 15 hours per week (though this varies from term to term) and also have other administrative responsibilities like being personal tutor and the webmaster for the department.
How did a typical week in this job look like?
I think that most people say that there is not really a typical week in a job in academia. Apart from the teaching (which often throws up surprises of its own), I will spend most of my working week with students either as their personal tutor or talking about essays or other course issues. We have regular staff meetings and when I’m not responding to emails, monitoring our social media accounts, updating the website or meeting students I try to keep up with my research. In term time, that’s pretty much impossible but I nevertheless make an effort to keep up with my two projects.
Has the post-PhD life enabled you to devote more time to academic related activities (societies, public engagement, and social media etc.)?
I think that there is actually a lot of freedom after the PhD. When you are doing the thesis, that is the main priority and everyone (friends, families, colleagues, supervisors, administrators) want you to get it finished. After the PhD there is chance for you to work on what you want, not on what you thought you wanted to work on three or four years earlier. The autonomy to get involved in different things is great, but I’ve found that I still ask for lots of advice from colleagues and am very lucky to have a very supportive Director of Research in my department, a great head of department and a great head of School.
Life as an ECR is not great. There’s lots of pressure to do more research and the overall climate is competitive. However, I think I’ve been very lucky to obtain a post which is decently-paid, which I really enjoy and which gives me time to do things that interest me. I was lucky enough to do my undergraduate degree before the ‘top-up’ fees were introduced and I think that compared with today’s undergraduates I have much less debt. However, I think that the ECR generation is nevertheless far worse off than the senior layer of academics in French Studies or History, for example, who were able to get jobs without necessarily having a PhD and without publications in some cases. Conversely, I sometimes feel that these colleagues are actually the most supportive of our ECR generation and while they perhaps had life a bit better they try to do their best to help us out. Ultimately, I think the rebalance between research and teaching currently proposed with the Teaching Excellence Framework will help to free up posts for ECRs in academia. Or at least that’s what I hope!
To finish the interview, we thought we would end on three light-hearted questions:
Red or white wine?
Both: I spent my year abroad in the Loire valley some years ago and gained a taste for good white and red wine. But really I prefer beer (controversial I know)
Favourite French TV show?
The recent series of Witnesses (Témoins) was brilliant.
Love or hate Bienvenue chez les ch’tis?
I LOVE Bienvenue chez les ch’tis. It’s one of my favourite films and I recently tried to reconstruct the opening sequence in Cassis, with mixed effects.