‘The pursuit of knowledge has value in and of itself’

My Career Path: English literature grad Dr Maurice J Casey received a Fulbright student award to study at Stanford

Dr Maurice J Casey: ‘Many of us emerge from the experience of writing a PhD with uncertainty about the so-called ‘real world value’ of our dissertation. The challenging job market compounds the situation.’

Dr Maurice J Casey: ‘Many of us emerge from the experience of writing a PhD with uncertainty about the so-called ‘real world value’ of our dissertation. The challenging job market compounds the situation.’

 

What did you study and where?
I went to secondary school at Coláiste Dún Iascaigh in Cahir, Tipperary. My university education began in Trinity College Dublin in 2011, where I studied English Literature and History. From 2015-2016, I studied for an MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge University. I studied for a PhD in History at Oxford University from 2016-2020. During my PhD, I also received a Fulbright Student Award to study at Stanford University from 2018-2019.

What attracted you to your current role?
My mum is a retired history teacher and had a huge influence on my path to becoming a historian, partly through filling our home with history books.

I decided to pursue a career as a professional historian in the final year of my undergrad. Research for undergrad essays led me to the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives. I was amazed that I could actually hold the letters and diaries written by historical figures. The excitement of my first archival adventures led me on to further study.

My PhD research at Oxford traced the international connections of Irish radical women in the 1920s and 1930s. Receiving a Fulbright Student Award in 2018 allowed me to follow the archival trail all the way to the west coast of the US.

The Fulbright experience transformed my work, but it also shaped me personally too. I arrived in the Bay Area in 2018 during a catastrophic wildfire season. Later, on a trip to Oregon, I was caught in a once-in-a-generation snow storm. My Fulbright experience viscerally underlined for me the reality of the climate crisis. Since then, I have become increasingly interested in researching activists who lived through and confronted historical moments of global crisis.

The most challenging thing about the working world?
I briefly worked as a freelance researcher for podcasts after graduating. Since June 2020, I have worked as the Historian in Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

There were interesting challenges in the move to working with larger teams in the heritage and public history sector. My PhD was written with a handful of people in mind: my supervisors, examiners and researchers in my highly-specific area. Suddenly, I needed to research and develop public history for a potentially limitless audience. Working as part of a museum team has helped me learn more about pitching the past to everyone: from engaged primary school students to people who have lived through the moments and movements that I research.

The most valuable thing you have learned since you joined the workforce?
Compared to the experience of studying Irish History in the UK, working as a historian in Ireland has taught me how enormously fortunate we are to have a historically-engaged public who actively engage in critical and nuanced conversations about our past. It’s something we should foster and celebrate throughout the Irish education system.

Do you have any mentors in your workplace?
Throughout my career, I have always benefited from the support of established academics who use their position to create opportunities for those in a more precarious place. To highlight someone who has been personally supportive: my supervisor at Oxford, Senia Paseta, guided my PhD and created opportunities for me.

The late Nora Bartlett, of the University of St Andrews, was the first mentor who ever gave me the confidence to pursue researching and writing about the things that interest me most as a career. I am deeply sorry that I never took the chance to tell her about how much she influenced me before she died.

In a sense, the people I research are also my mentors. For many historians the people we find in the archives can feel like a living presence. Much of my research traces activists who imagined and fought for a more equal society than the one they lived in. I learn from their example.

How has Covid-19 affected your start in the workplace?
Although I am privileged to be able to work safely from home, closures of libraries and archives have made my work more difficult. However, working from home has also allowed my research to reach larger audiences than ever before. Most public history talks have become open to all due to the ubiquity of live-streaming. This has been an important development for a museum of Irish emigration. Now the diaspora can attend our events.

One piece of advice for new graduates?
Many of us emerge from the experience of writing a PhD with uncertainty about the so-called ‘real world value’ of our dissertation. The challenging job market compounds the situation. One of the most valuable legacies of my Fulbright experience was the sense it gave me that other people were interested in what I was researching. Learning about the interesting work of other Fulbrighters and hearing about their interest in my work was a validating experience. The pursuit of knowledge has value in and of itself. Whether or not you stay in academia, remember that your graduate work has value. They wouldn’t have given you the degree if it didn’t.

- Jenna Clarke-Molloy