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A PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences: a springboard for a non-academic career?

Clarisse Faria-Fortecoëf

After a joint PhD in History from the Universität des Saarlandes and the Université Paris-Sorbonne, Pierre Horn has successfully integrated the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM Lorraine) as Franco-German Project Manager, responsible for European projects, such as those intended for companies.

Franco-German experience and career perspective in university

During his History studies at the Nancy University in Lorraine (France), Pierre Horn, at the end of his Bachelor's degree, went to Germany: one year in Trier as part of an Erasmus exchange, then one year in Saarbrücken in the framework of an exchange agreement. These stays abroad will decisively shape his professional project.

If at the end of his Master, German labor market doors were open to him, this was not the case for those of French education competitions. The Master degree in the pocket, he decided thus to make a Franco-German PhD in modern and / or contemporary History.

In this decision, as he says « there is a part of dream and passion, as well as ambition and strategy. The Franco-German PhD was the promise of a great and exciting experience with a better monitoring thanks to a joint supervision, greater funding opportunities, good conditions to learn from two scientific cultures, the perspective of being able to acquire an academic German, and especially an easier employability because of the PhD's high valorization in Germany ». For Pierre, the Franco-German PhD meant then lay the foundation for a true professional project between France and Germany. At the same time, the degree of doubt and luck, as well as the progressive construction which are specific to each project, have to be taken into account. As the University of Lorraine refused a co-supervised thesis with the Saarland University, Pierre started in 2009 his research in a strictly German context until he met a professor from the Paris-Sorbonne University in 2010. This will enable him thereafter to get a doctoral contract and several other funding sources.

Thus, from 2009 to 2011, Pierre had for exclusive professional objective, the academic career. For this purpose, he accumulated teaching loads, published scientific papers, got several financing, multiplied conferences, etc. But from the end of 2011, he questioned this perspective: « the extraordinary competition in Germany around "Professuren" and the impossibility of an academic career in France in the History field without the "Agrégation" (highest teaching diploma in France ), led me to rethink my career. An approach which is not incompatible with the achievement of a research work welcomed by the scientific community ».

Professional project redefinition and alternative to the academic world

After getting a doctoral funding and being supervised by one of the greatest specialists of the Napoleonic period, Pierre experienced some disappointment: the impossibility to teach at Paris-Sorbonne, « a professional experience which would allow me to get a Lecturer job. I had then to think of a plan B which gradually will become my plan A: the management of European projects ».

Today, Pierre thinks that this situation has been rather very positive for him and his future namely, « off the linear and predictable paths of the academic career ».

As he points out, the redefinition of a professional project during the PhD was not easy, however, this is not related to the thesis' object or the discipline. According to him, there is some pessimism in Humanities and Social Sciences and which does not make sense. « I have friends graduated in computer science field who are struggling to get a job as project managers, friends engineers for whom, the transition from the technical sector to the commercial one, took several years and friends who make a thesis in physics and who are wondering what they are going to be able to do after the PhD ».

The difficulty lies in the reorientation of skills that characterizes the redefinition of each professional project and this is true whatever the discipline.

« The reorientation of skills previously defined through the prism of the academic criteria can not be done without a serious self-reflection. First of all, you must objectively identify your strengths and skills with the support for example, of the UFA/DFH (Franco-German University), ABG, or BAIPs (employability assistance offices). Then you have to identify a non-academic sector, then a job in which you could progress. Finally, you need to identify skills that you are lacking and work to acquire them. In this process, the most difficult is to get out of your "comfort zone" and gradually build a less academic professional network ».

For Pierre, the PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences is a professional experience allowing, to acquire and develop skills with high added value which fully meet the market needs. At the same time, it implies that the potential offered by the academic sector was fully used. « Writing a thesis is not enough: you must assume various missions, propose and organize lessons, publish and disseminate, organize events, do translations, manage a team, and so on. And as financial resources are rarely available, be able to find new solutions such as the fundraising is another great experience ».

All these skills can explain his successful professional mobility to the non-academic sector.

Doctoral experience and professional mobility

In October 2013, Pierre Horn has been recruited by the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Cnam) particularly thanks to his extra-academic professional network. Responsible for the educational center of Forbach, he coordinates various training programs developed in Paris and Nancy. At the head of the crossborder training center, it also organizes Franco-German events, and manages several European projects including one aimed at very small companies, SMEs and SMIs. New functions which allow Pierre to deploy the essential of his skills, to constantly acquire new responsibilities and to be proactive. During both recruitment interviews were evaluated: his linguistic and cultural knowledge; his ability to switch between work in complete autonomy and teamwork; his experience in project and budget management; finally, his personal values. All of this offset his lack, a priori, of experience in terms of European projects.

After a special effort during the first months (many new elements to integrate...), Pierre did not encounter major difficulties. « Overall, there are nothing I did not know already do. From there, my deep conviction that the PhD remains an excellent training which can serve a real career plan, in all disciplines including Humanities and Social Sciences ». The « winning formula » for him, is to have a clear strategy with a professional well-defined goal. However, an enough flexible strategy allowing to seize opportunities that may arise here and there.

In conclusion of this testimony, Pierre reminds that the doctorate is undoubtedly a high quality training. « This is therefore a unique personal professional project, partly due to the strategy which is specific to each individual and the luck dimension which can not be predicted. This is also, the taste of the unknown, the risk and the avant-garde ».

Pierre regularly transmits this message to doctoral students and to PhDs during events organized by ABG-UFA and the Pôle France of the Saarland University.
In fine, the PhD, is the door open to everything - and therefore also to the non-academic career, off the beaten tracks of the university system ».

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  • To facilitate the transition of PhDs (whatever their field and seniority) from academia to the private sector;
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