What did you do your PhD on?
I did my a DPhil (Oxford, 2010) on the political uses of the past in French-German border regions. I was interested in how, with each change of regime in the mid twentieth century, local histories and memories were reinterpreted and mobilised in support of rival national claims. Looking back, that seems a long way from my current job teaching British history in France!
What did you do after the PhD? And what motivated you to apply for postdoctoral positions in France?
For the first few years after my PhD, I was lucky enough to have research grants to do postdoctoral work in Freiburg, Mainz and Brussels on British and German soldiers’ “tourism” during the Second World War. During this time, I applied for several lectureships and early career research positions in the UK, but without success. My wife is French (and also a historian) and our aim was always to find two academic jobs in the same country. Although I’d always assumed that the French university system would be one of the hardest to get into from outside, that was what worked out for us in the end.
What was your first job in France?
My first job in France was a one-year position as an ATER (Attaché temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche) at the University of Valenciennes. These positions are usually held by French PhD students, but they are open to anyone from outside the French system with a doctorate and two years of research or teaching experience. I was working as a ‘civilisationniste’ in a German department, teaching German history along with a few language classes. I really enjoyed being able to combine history with language teaching but, as a native English speaker, I couldn’t necessarily picture myself teaching in German for the rest of my career. So, when my contract expired, I applied for equivalent ATER positions in English departments and was offered a job at the University of Angers.
How does the application process to become a maître de conférences work?
The French university system doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being easy to enter from the outside. In 2014, for example, only 7 % of newly appointed maîtres de conférences obtained their doctorates outside France, and this figure includes French citizens who did their doctoral work abroad. There are many possible explanations for this, but one of them is that the application process can seem very complicated to those unfamiliar with the French system. Before you can even apply for maître de conférences jobs, you have to apply for the ‘qualification’ in one or more of the subject areas defined by the Conseil national des universités (CNU). This involves sending copies of your CV and PhD (plus a 30-page summary of the PhD in French if it was written in another language) for evaluation by the relevant subject committee. Once all of this is done, however, the process is quite straightforward: the system is extremely centralised which means that all jobs are advertised at the same time of year (February-March), you apply to all jobs through the same website, and send the same application materials for every position. All interviews are held in May.
What was your experience of this application process?
I had been applying for maître de conférences jobs throughout my time as an ATER and was starting to wonder whether it would ever be possible to get an interview without having done a PhD in France or the agrégation. Fortunately, at the end of my first year as an ATER in Angers, a job came up in the English department with an emphasis on twentieth-century Britain. The interview was a very formal occasion, starting with 10-minute speech to the sixteen members of the panel about my research and teaching experience. Because of my rather unusual profile, the main challenge of the interview was to convince the committee that, despite having done doctoral work on French and German history, I was prepared to concentrate on Britain in my future teaching and research. Not having been educated in France, I was also asked to demonstrate that I knew what was expected in the French system (e.g. how to teach students to write the French-style, formal, three-part dissertation).
What tips would you give anyone applying for jobs in France?
As elsewhere, it certainly helps if some of the members of a recruitment panel are already familiar with your research, so publishing in French journals and presenting your work at conferences in France is an advantage. For the same reason, it might also be worth applying for the ‘qualification’ even if you are only looking for temporary positions, because at least this means that the members of the CNU committee (often professors and heads of department) are aware of your existence. If you already have one foot in the French system as an ATER or postdoctoral researcher, even better. Competition for jobs in history departments is extremely tough (you can see the details of every appointment on this website) so, depending on your specialism and language skills, you might also consider applying for jobs as a ‘civilisationniste’ in a language department. This seems to be a well-trodden path into the French system for non-French historians. Finally, even if your doctoral work focussed exclusively on France, it would probably increase your chances of recruitment if your postdoctoral research has a comparative or transnational perspective. Given that the French system produces so many high-quality PhDs on French history every year, an ability to work on other parts of the world and in other languages is probably one of the best ways for candidates from outside France to set themselves apart from the competition.
Tom Williams is currently a maître de conferences in British history at the University of Angers. He is currently working on a history of German and British soldiers’ ‘tourism’ of France during and after the Second World War.