Where PhDs and companies meet

Already registered?

New user?

A multitask historian

Fabrice Martin

Yann Harlaut holds a PhD in history from the University of Reims with a concentration in local history. Publishing, teaching, tourism... Yann accumulates activities that offer no permanent status. He's thinking about starting his own company.

1/ A history PhD who is neither a secondary school teacher or university professor is rather rare, isn't it?
I never wanted to become a teacher. I didn't get a research grant to do my thesis. I worked for the town of La Chapelle Saint-Luc in the Champagne region during the whole five years of my doctorate. I spent all my free time doing research on the Reims Cathedral in the inter-war period. I collected an enormous amount of documentation which I analyzed, summarized and problematized to determine how a monument such as the Reims Cathedral fit into the history of the nation. 776 pages later, I defended my thesis, giving particular attention to the public relations side. Before the defense, I compiled a press packet which I sent out to the local media. One local journalist came to interview me and admitted that in his entire 17-year career, he had covered only two thesis defenses from the University of Reims.

What's more, I had invited a long list of organization heads and local officials. Only one finally attended, but that enabled me to make myself known and begin to create a network.

2/ Now that’s is an attitude that contrasts with the stereotype of a bookworm historian!
I always knew that you had to communicate as effectively as possible and that that requires a bit of preparation. And besides, I sought to disseminate my research for my doctorate through publications and participation in conferences without confining myself to the strictly academic field. I didn't want to publish my whole thesis.

If I have a long list of publications, it's because I decided to publish sections of my thesis in different media, including corporate communication in the case of champagne or in a format more directed at the general public in the case of the Reims Cathedral. As a result, I have two publishing contracts for which I am to produce two books in 2007, one on the canton of Verzy to be published in September, and the other on the Smiling Angel to come out before the year-end holidays.

3/ Publishing makes up an essential portion of your professional activity. Is it enough to live on?
Once I got my PhD, I sat for a number of competitive exams, including the one for heritage preservation officer (category A of the territorial civil service) and the one for assistant heritage and library conservation officer (category B of the territorial civil service). I passed the one for an assistantship but you have to realize that for that kind of competitive exam, the time lapse between taking the exam and being offered a position can be very long. The average wait to be hired is one year. Meanwhile, you have to find something to keep busy! In any event, taking administrative exams can be an outlet for PhDs in the human sciences, but the recruitment requirements are getting tougher, so more and more PhDs are settling for category B exams, whereas they are looking for skills that are increasingly technical (i.e. knowledge of highly specific software), and which don't necessarily match the training through research we have received. Maybe it would be a good idea to offer career-oriented modules during the doctorate?

4/ Have you been able to market your doctorate?
As I explained, I sent parts of my thesis to publishers along with suggested projects. To my surprise, I was usually taken seriously. The title of Doctor in History was an added credential. An example. I was recently hired by the Henri Abelé champagne house to conduct historical research and draft a piece for their 250th anniversary. I contacted them when I was working on my Master’s to request use of their archives, but they refused to see me.

Alongside these publishing activities, I do substitute teaching in French, history and art history. This year I substituted in history for the Reims Board of Education. In the teaching field as well, I try to invent educational aids. In all areas I try to create a demand.

5/ All this is very interesting, but it's very unstable...
I don't regret my itinerary and if I had it to do all over again, I would delve into the delights of doctoral research again. On the other hand, I would plan for life after the thesis better and I would have better tailored my subject to the potential for dissemination.

In any case, I can't complain about my current work life. I organize my time the way I want to, and I'm very free. The flip side of the coin is that there's a certain financial instability, but I'm optimistic because there are lots of projects in the works.

6/ So why don't you go into business for yourself?
I was waiting to land my irst contract and now with the champagne makers, I have. Now I just have to take the plunge, and choose the right people to help me with the administrative aspects.

Interview conducted by Evelyne Jardin on January 12 and August 23, 2007.