As told to Brandon Pedersen, WorkStory Ambassador
I suppose that I could argue that my life as a historian has been far from linear. I began my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Western Ontario in September of 2005 with the full intentions of finishing my degree, entering law school, and practicing law for the remainder of my career. The problem was, I didn’t know why I wanted to practice law; heck, I didn’t even know what type of law I wanted to practice. All I knew was that some lawyers made a lot of money, they got to wear fancy dress clothes, and they held a position of power in society. So, like most individuals that aspire to go to law school, I took the advice of my guidance counsellors and I enrolled in a program that I was interested in, and I knew I would excel in. Luckily for me, the program was History.
From a young age, I have been interested in the past. My grandparents were my first history teachers and at the age of eighty-seven, my lone remaining grandmother is still my oldest history teacher. Growing up, I was inundated with a broad range of historical stories ranging from life in rural Ontario during the Great Depression, to the legendary stories of the Portuguese discovery of India in the late fifteenth century. However, at the time, these were just stories from the past, not a possible lifelong career.
I guess that you could say that the cliché of “finding yourself” at university applies to me. By the time that I had completed my third year of my undergraduate degree, I knew that I no longer wanted to become a lawyer (Side note: Spending a bit too much time with my friends, instead of studying for my LSAT, may have played a role in this decisions but I think that things like this happen for a reason). However, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I enjoyed studying history and I enjoyed interacting with fellow students but I still didn’t think that studying history was a realistic or viable career goal.
I really enjoyed my undergraduate years at Western, so when I was faced with the decision of either coming back and doing my Masters or entering a job market that had recently been hit by the recession of 2008, it was a no brainer for me. Essentially, I was forced to ask myself, “Let me get this straight, you’re going to pay me to study history and I get to teach undergraduate students in a tutorial setting, where do I sign?” Little did I know, conducting my Masters research at the University of Western Ontario was going to introduce me to several influential people that were willing to show me that a career as a historian was both a realistic and a viable career that I could excel in.
I guess that brings us to today. Presently, I am a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario. Under the supervision of Professor Frank Schumacher, my dissertation examines American perceptions of Spain and the Spanish Empire from 1776 to 1914 (For more information, check out my website http://greggfrench.wordpress.com/). Sound like a bunch of theory and historical jargon? Well, to a certain degree, it is. However, at the root of the narrative is a story about the past. Historians are story tellers, and it is important for us all to remember that.
At the moment, I just returned from three months in Washington, DC, where, on behalf of a Doctoral Research Fellowship from the German Historical Institute and a Harris Steele Travel Fund Award from the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario, I was conducting research at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress. Currently, I am working on a body chapter of my dissertation, applying for future fellowships, working on a few publications, and preparing to teach my first course during the Winter Semester of 2015. So life is busy but that keeps things exciting.
I hope to finish my dissertation by the Fall of 2015 and at that time, I hope to either acquire a post-doctoral fellowship or be teaching at a post-secondary institution. My career goal is to acquire a tenured position at a post-secondary institution that will allow me to continue to conduct research, as well as continue to teach university students.
Advice for an individual that is interested in becoming a historian?
Surround yourself with a strong support group. Friends, family, and mentors help with the long hours of solitary work.
If you intend to do a Ph.D., be prepared that your friends will be getting married, buying houses, having children, and making more money than you until you finish your dissertation, and perhaps for several years after.
Block out the noise. Not a day goes by where I don’t see an article where a Ph.D. candidate or a recent graduate is writing about his/her difficulties in finding gainful employment. Yes, I feel for these individuals; heck, I’m in the same boat as them but reading too many of those articles will often cloud you mind with negative thoughts. My advice is keep your head down, get your own work done, help other people as much as you can, and remember that you volunteered for this. Dr. Christopher Stuart Taylor gave me that advice when I started my Ph.D. work and now I’m passing it on.
Be organized and focused.
Remember that every day is not going to be filled with sunshine and roses. Sometimes, you’re going to have a lecture that doesn’t go well or you’re going to have a day where you can’t find what you’re looking for in the archives. Don’t block those days out, learn from them. Also, make sure to remember the day when you saw that light bulb go off over one of your student’s heads or remember the day when you found exactly what you were looking for in the archives. Those days keep me going; hopefully they will keep you going too.