The second project or: How I secretly dream of being a historian of Britain

by Valerie Deacon (NYU). Stepping from the PhD to post-doctoral status can be daunting: there are innumerable job applications, the viva might still be looming ahead or you are having sleepless nights over how you can turn your thesis into a book. But there is also another hurdle: the second project. How do you start a second research project when you are barely recovering from the first one?! Valerie Deacon, Elihu Rose Assistant Professor at NYU, shares her experience in developing a second project – which sounds as promising as her first one!

Coming up with a second project can be a real challenge for early career researchers. Often, you are asked to develop your second project before you are finished your first, which means you need to divide your attention between two, sometimes dramatically different, research plans. A second challenge is finding a balance between your own interests and what you think might be appealing to funding agencies, academic search committees, and university presses. Finally, for many of us, the development of a second project probably represents the first time such parameters are established without the deep guidance and input from our mentors, supervisors, or other academic “elders”.

My dissertation (and now forthcoming book) focused on the participation of the extreme right in the French Resistance. I looked at various conspiratorial, anti-republican, and anti-communist groups of the 1930s and followed the paths that certain members of these groups took into the resistance in 1940 and beyond. This project combined two of my academic loves: the complicated world of French politics in the twentieth century and the exciting world of resistance studies. And yet, as I drew near the end of my PhD, I knew already that I needed a second project that moved away from these topics. I was tired. Research in the French archives can, as we all know, be exhausting. This is especially true if, like me, you need access to archival collections that are still restricted. The process of getting the dérogation and the limitations that it imposes on your work can be hard to manage as a young researcher, before you have made any significant connections to archivists and other people who might be able to help you navigate these hurdles. I had also picked a topic that was controversial. When I began research, I was told in no uncertain terms by an archivist that I would never find anything about these people – surely, he suggested, I knew that the resistance was only undertaken by Gaullists and Communists?

In my final year of graduate school, I needed to write a proposal for a post-doc and I knew that I wanted a change, but it is hard to break out of what you know. My first proposal was still very much reflective of my background in political history and was fundamentally suggesting a meta-study about diplomatic relations, with a focus again on non-Gaullist resistances. My goal was to undertake a project that built on my previous work, but one that would allow me to move away from a strictly French perspective. In other words, I was secretly trying to find a way to do research in archives that were less restrictive. One of my doctoral fields had been in modern British history and I had heard so many nice things about the National Archives at Kew from my colleagues in the British field (including this rumour – true, as it turns out – that you could take photos of the materials, something I was never allowed to do working with restricted documents in France).

I knew that I didn’t want to move away from resistance studies, but shortly after starting my job at a university where I had considerable freedom to explore my interests, I realized that I had become far more interested in the social and cultural dynamics of resistance. Combining this with my desire to broaden my scope beyond France’s borders allowed me to develop the second project more fully: a study of the interactions between French civilians and downed Anglo-American aircrews during the war. The process of elaborating the outline of this second project did not happen overnight. It probably took about two years to come to a point where I felt that my research was properly focused. The time that it takes to refine the second project is obviously very much dependent on what other pressures an ECR is facing – finishing the PhD, getting the book published, securing some form of gainful employment, settling in to a new job, moving to a new city, and rediscovering life outside of graduate school are all things that will impact the process.

It seems to me that the most successful second projects are the ones that really inspire you. Starting an academic career is hard work and will only be made more so by having a project that isn’t really and truly your own. So, picking a topic that really makes you want to get going with the research is key. Bon courage!

Valerie Deacon is an Elihu Rose Assistant Professor at NYU. Her book The Extreme Right Goes to War: Rightists in the French Resistance, 1940-1944, will soon be published by Louisiana State University Press.


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