Training the next generation of historians is a serious business
Historians typically take months to write an article and years to write a book, but a Director of Graduate Training doesn’t have this luxury writes Dr Renaud Morieux, a University Senior Lecturer in British History and a Fellow of Jesus College.
As I type, I am emerging from what has perhaps been an even busier period than usual for me. In October, I was delighted to attend a conference in Germany on ‘Markets and Morals’, which gave me the opportunity to engage with historians, anthropologists and geographers. I also finished a book manuscript, on the history of war and incarceration in the 18th century, which has occupied me for several years.
And, as the current Director of Graduate Training and Admissions at the Faculty of History, I have spent much of this term thinking about and working with our graduate students and overseeing admissions to the MPhil and PhD programme. The crunch period is December and early January, when most applications arrive. It is a cliché, but for an academic, there is something weirdly fulfilling about ticking things off a list at the end of the day. Historians typically take months to write an article, and years to write a book. I don’t have this luxury in my job as a ‘DGT’ – not always a bad thing.
Of course, once students get here, we want them to succeed. Cambridge can be a strange place, and one that no one can claim to understand completely. So, at the beginning of Michaelmas, I organised a series of talks for our new PhD students, including one designed to help those who come from outside Cambridge to begin to understand the customs of our weird tribe – which has its own language, rituals and idiosyncrasies. A couple of our more advanced PhD students talked about their own experiences: it is always reassuring for graduates to hear from their peers that it is normal, daunting and also exciting to feel that their research is taking them in unexpected directions.
One of the dimensions of the role that I enjoy the most regards graduate training. I really like engaging in a conversation on equal terms with the grads, giving them tips and sharing with them some lessons, good and bad, I’ve learnt over the years.
Last year, I initiated a new series of seminars aimed at PhD students, entitled ‘Building Your Academic Career’. The speakers, from different backgrounds and at different stages in their careers, come ready to speak candidly about their experiences, the challenges they have faced and even their failures – not just the polished version that we usually present in research seminars.
So far, we’ve had sessions on the virtues of moving between institutions, and the rewards of interdisciplinarity. This year, we’ll have a session on pedagogy, another on how to be competitive in the US job market, and one on how to navigate competition – and collegiality – as a graduate student. The format is very informal, and the speakers are explicitly asked to talk about their personal and professional experience rather than their intellectual trajectory.
Although I would love all our students to go on to become professional historians, my role is to ensure that they leave Cambridge equipped for their future careers – and, increasingly, an academic job is not the only professional prospect for students with a PhD in History.
In conversation with other colleagues in the Faculty, we are planning another series of sessions. Contributors from other professions – for example journalists, curators, HR managers, lawyers or software developers – would do much to open the eyes of young historians to alternative careers, which they often know very little about.
In between my own research, supervisions and managing the grad programme, Michaelmas term is when we make final decisions on who will join our undergraduate programme in the next academic year. I have just finished interviewing 48 candidates, all of whom applied to study History at Jesus next year – a sign, I hope, of our popularity, and of the enduring appeal of History!
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