PhDs Outside Academia: In Discussion with Dr. Eleanor Davey (HCRI, University of Manchester)

PhDs Outside Academia looks to learn more about pursuing non-academic careers after the PhD. Here, we enter in discussion with Dr Eleanor Davey (British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in History of Humanitarianism at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), University of Manchester) who went to work for a think-tank in London after her PhD. Follow Eleanor’s blog.

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What did you do your PhD on?

My PhD was on the relationship between tiers-mondisme, or third-worldism, and sans-frontiérisme, the latter rising as the former declined. Sans-frontiérisme is the term I prefer to describe the version of humanitarianism that emerged in France from the 1970s onwards – it’s important to remember that it is only one version amongst many, both in the past and now – and which takes its name from the archetypal organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The study covered a period from the mid-1950s until the late 1980s, though unevenly: the key phase for the relationship between the two sets of ideas is really from the late 1960s onwards. It looked at different ways of understanding and responding to injustice and suffering, and evolving attitudes to political violence in France. An important goal was to consider how we might understand the relationship between tiers-mondisme and sans-frontiérisme as something other than a relationship of backlash or disillusionment.

One of the ways to describe my PhD is as a contribution to the field so well explored by scholars such as Sunil Khilnani and Julian Bourg, which looks at the political and ideological transformations that took place in France in the 1970s; my work focused on how ideas about the third world influence those evolutions. Another way of describing it is a way of understanding the emergence and early history of MSF. Of course, MSF is only one of a cohort of humanitarian organisations active at this time in France, and its members do not by any means have (or claim!) a monopoly on ideas about humanitarianism. But several leaders of MSF have played an active role in public debates, and between this prominence and the commanding operational position MSF has come to occupy, it was important that the study devote attention to the MSF movement and individuals associated with it.

Whilst doing your PhD, did you want to stay in academia? Did you always have a ‘plan B’?

I don’t think I ever had a plan B. But then again, I was never convinced that I would stay in academia either. When I was doing applications, a PhD seemed like a logical next step – though not a route to any one thing in particular. I felt sure that the training in research and writing would be of benefit to all of my interests – academia, yes, but also journalism, publishing, the public service, international affairs. I found vocational courses in those areas of interest to be too narrow given I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, and a brief investigation into applying for the Australian diplomatic service left me thinking I would benefit from more experience after my completing my BA degree.

I remember doing my PhD as a contradictory time: both inspirational and confusing, full of exciting discoveries and conversations passionnantes, but also characterised by uncertainty – about the work itself and about whatever pathway it might have represented. I decided I didn’t want to apply immediately for postdoctoral awards or lecturing positions. A large part of that was the desire to enter a different set of discussions: not necessarily to get away from ideas, but to seek out ideas that were more connected to current concerns and action in the present.

What did you do after your PhD, and how did you apply your skills to a non-academic job?

I had the great privilege to work in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a think-tank based in London. I started off working as a research assistant, then eventually moved into a position as researcher there, working on a range of topics. The single largest part of my time, however, went into a project that considered the use of history for humanitarian practice and policy-making.

That project meant a lot of learning for me individually as well as – and I hope they won’t mind me saying this – for my colleagues at HPG. The project was genuinely innovative and original in its field, trying to create a demand for historical perspectives in humanitarian sector circles where one had not existed much before. It was also advocating very strongly for engaging with histories beyond the European and North American cases, which is an area where huge gaps in historiography remain even though there is great work being done at the moment. So it was new territory in many ways. In conversations with my colleagues I learned a lot about what new kinds of questions come up when trying to think from a historical perspective. And also about some of the obstacles to doing so. On top of that, personally I had not thought in much detail about the distinctiveness of history or the benefits and pitfalls of trying to apply its insights. I also had to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground in terms of periods and geographies I hadn’t worked on before.

Did you maintain any links with academia during this time?

One of the great pleasures of my work at HPG was that it allowed connections with all sorts of different people who were all committed to the need to better understand, and in many cases better undertake, humanitarian action. That included academics who were part of the ongoing policy dialogue about humanitarian and development practice. It also included a lot of historians working on different aspects of the history of relief and caring for others, in different parts of the world. ODI researchers are often invited to be part of conferences or to present research to academic audiences. But we were also often in touch with researchers based in universities to make use of their expertise, find speakers for events, get feedback on our own thinking, suggestions of others to reach out to, and so on. This allowed me to make connections with a lot of people working on different aspects of humanitarian history whom I hadn’t previously met. I also presented a couple of papers drawing from my PhD research, which was demanding in terms of having to prepare them after hours, but allowed me to reflect on the links between what I had done during my doctorate and the ideas I was encountering at the ODI.

Why did you decide to return to academia, and how have your new skills helped in making the transition?


For me the appeal of returning to academia lay in the extraordinary intellectual freedom that the university environment affords its researchers. As a friend once said to me, control of your own research is addictive. I don’t mean to idealise the current academic environment, in which there are numerous incentives to push research in particular directions, and of course many other demands on time as well – including teaching, which can be extremely rewarding in its own right. But I think that privilege of being able to craft an individual research agenda and pursue its unexpected avenues, or simply to go where curiosity takes you, was a key influence in that decision.

Nonetheless, I think it’s important to say that the ‘return’ felt very different from the departure. Because the experience of working at HPG has had a huge impact on the way I think about my research and teaching. The question at the heart of my current research was derived from problems we were thinking about at HPG. And the way of working – the desire to have my work be in dialogue with contemporary concerns – is fundamentally different. I’m glad to be in a workplace where, as in HPG, links between academic and applied research, and between research and practice, are very much valued. Though I’m not sure I achieve it all the time, I also learned better ways of talking about historical research to those who haven’t made it their day job, and I think that helps in discussions across different disciplines in a university environment as well in getting beyond academia.

Any advice for PHDs/ECRs?

I would probably give the advice I try to give myself (if only I would listen). Be more confident, but be more patient. Be willing to take risks and explore new ground. Publish small things early but take your time on the things that are longer or that really matter to you. Follow topics that you personally find meaningful and exciting, and collaborate as much as you can with people whose work you admire and whose company you enjoy.


Eleanor Davey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in History of Humanitarianism at the University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI). Her book Idealism beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954-1988 was published in December 2015 by Cambridge University Press. She recently completed a special issue of Disasters journal (October 2015) on the history of humanitarian action, co-edited with Kim Scriven of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. Before joining HCRI, she was a researcher in the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, where she led a multi-year project entitled ‘A Global History of Modern Humanitarian Action’, promoting engagement with historical analysis in practice and policy-making. Her current research investigates the relationship between humanitarianism and ideas and organisations of national liberation.


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