“The pursuit of knowledge has a value in itself”

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

What attracted you to your current role?
My mother is a retired history teacher and had a huge influence on my journey to become a historian, in part by filling our home with history books.

I decided to pursue a career as a professional historian in the last year of my first cycle. The search for undergraduate essays led me to the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives. I was amazed to be able to keep the letters and diaries written by historical figures. The excitement of my first archival adventures drove me to continue my studies.

My doctoral research at Oxford traced the international relations of Irish radical women in the 1920s and 1930s. Receiving a Fulbright Student Award in 2018 allowed me to follow the trail of archives to the west coast of the United States.

The Fulbright experience has transformed my work, but it has also shaped me personally. I arrived in the Bay Area in 2018 during a catastrophic wildfire season. Later, on a trip to Oregon, I was caught in a snowstorm once in a generation. My Fulbright experience viscerally underscored for me the reality of the climate crisis. Since then, I have become increasingly interested in finding activists who have lived and faced historic moments of global crisis.

The hardest thing in the world of work?
I briefly worked as a freelance researcher for podcasts after graduation. Since June 2020, I have been working as a historian in residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There were some interesting challenges in moving 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 very specific field. So I needed to research and develop public history for a potentially unlimited audience. Working as part of a museum team has allowed me to learn more about how to tell the past to everyone: from engaged elementary students to people who have experienced the moments and movements that I seek.

The most valuable thing you’ve learned since joining the workforce?
Compared to the experience of studying Irish history in the UK, working as a historian in Ireland has taught me how extremely fortunate we are to have a historically engaged audience that actively engages in critical conversations. and nuanced on our past. This is something we should be encouraging and celebrating throughout the Irish education system.

Do you have mentors in your workplace?
Throughout my career, I have always enjoyed the support of senior academics who use their position to create opportunities for the most vulnerable. To highlight someone who personally supported me: my supervisor at Oxford, Senia Paseta, guided my PhD and created opportunities for me.

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

In a sense, the people I’m looking for 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 egalitarian society than the one in which they lived. I learn from their example.

How has Covid-19 affected your entry into the world of work?
While I have the privilege of being able to work safely from home, library and archive closures have made my job more difficult. However, working from home has also allowed my research to reach a wider audience than ever before. Most public history lectures have become open to anyone due to the ubiquity of live broadcasting. This was an important development for a museum of Irish emigration. Now the diaspora can attend our events.

Any advice for new graduates?
Many of us come out of the PhD writing experience with uncertainty about the so-called “real value” of our thesis. The difficult job market is making matters worse. One of the most valuable legacies of my Fulbright experience was the feeling it gave me that other people were interested in my research. Discovering the interesting work of other Fulbrighters and hearing their interest in my work has been a validating experience. The pursuit of knowledge has value in itself. Whether you stay in academia or not, remember that your graduate studies are valuable. They wouldn’t have given you the diploma if they weren’t.

– Jenna Clarke Molloy

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