"PhD students should not be afraid to aim high ..."

"PhD students should not be afraid to aim high ..."

Interview-Portrait of Mario Del Pero, Director of doctoral studies in History at Sciences Po
  • Mario Del Pero, director of studies in history at the Doctoral SchoolMario Del Pero, director of studies in history at the Doctoral School

Are you interested in pursuing a PhD in history? A key discipline taught at the college level, history is also one of the pillars of research at Sciences Po. What kind of research in history does Sciences Po do? How does one select a PhD topic in this discipline? Mario Del Pero, director of studies in history at the Doctoral School, Full professor in International History and History of International Relations, offers some advice and answers.   

Could you tell us about your career?

I studied history at the University of Bologna and did then my PhD in international history at the university of Milan (with a period of research at George Washington University). At the time I thought, quite naively, that studying modern and contemporary history could help me in pursuing a career in journalism. And I had a strong interest in the United States (where I had spent a year, when I was 17) and international relations. As it is often the case, meeting inspiring teachers and great scholars changed the trajectory of my life and I decided to apply for a doctoral program.  My dissertation (and my first book) was on the relationship between the United States and the Italian Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana) during the early years of the Cold War. I’ve then authored and co-authored other eight books and many articles. After my PhD, I was first a Fulbright Fellow at Columbia University and was then granted a postdoc fellowship at New York University. I returned to Italy in 2003 and I was hired at my first Alma Mater, Bologna, where I worked until 2013, although over the years I’ve frequently taught as Visiting Professor at both NYU and Columbia. SciencesPo came a bit out of the blue, to be honest, that I didn’t know French academia that well and I had never considered applying for a job here. But the time was ripe for a professional change, I gave it a shot and here I am. I have to say that applying for this job was by far one of the best decisions of my life…

What research activities do you conduct at the Sciences Po Center for History ?  What made you interested in this type of research ?

I am a historian of the United States and its foreign policy (we used to call it “US Diplomatic History”, but now we tend to refer to this sub-field of historical research as “The United States in the World”). I am currently writing a book for Cambridge University Press – a micro-history of the early Cold War – on a mission of Texan evangelicals in late 1940s/early 1950s’ Italy. It’s an attempt to examine the many, and indeed global reverberations, of a small story as this one, as well as to discuss how the Cold War acted as a driver of multiple processes of global integration. Furthermore, I am working on another research – which I hope will itself develop into a book project – on US foreign policy in the early 1990s. At the Centre d’Histoire I lead a seminar on XX Century International History co-organized with the Department of International History and the Center IDEAS of the London School of Economics. We issue two calls, one in the Spring and one in the Fall, select a group of speakers – junior (i.e.: doctoral and postdoc researchers) and senior – and have sessions in Paris and London. Every year, members of the Centre d’Histoire have the possibility to present their work in progress at LSE. 

You were appointed Director of Sciences Po doctoral studies in History at the beginning of the academic year. How is it to accompany the studies of doctoral students ?

It’s easy to be over-rhetoric on this point, but I think there is nothing more exciting and rewarding in our profession than working with good doctoral students. It is during the PhD that we see young students blossom into original researchers; it’s at the PhD level that some of the most innovative research takes place. Like it or not (and many of us – let’s be honest - do not like it that much), administration is a key component of our job, in addition to teaching and research. Having said that, I can hardly imagine a better administrative task than the one I have taken on once I accepted to be appointed “directeur des etudes doctorales”. 

In your opinion, what are the keys to a successful PhD ?

By all means the selection of the research topic (and therefore the careful, early guidance of the PhD supervisor) is vital. This choice must be informed by some very basic, and yet fundamental, criteria: a) a real passion in the research one intends to pursue. The doctoral experience is often a lonely experience, particularly for historians, who are asked to spend endless hours on the books and in the archives. One must absolutely choose a research topic he/she is passionate about; b) the originality of the research: doctoral students are “scholars in becoming”; they must not be afraid to aim high, because their research must leave a mark on the discipline; c) but – to balance the previous point – it must also be realistic and feasible (beginning with the certainty that primary sources are available). Too many times in my career I’ve seen doctoral students undertaking over-ambitious and unrealistic projects. Vital, therefore, is the task of the supervisor(s) as well as that of the committee which selects the students admitted to the program.

Why are doctoral students in History integrated within the Research Center ? What is the benefit for them ?

I think it is fundamental not just to integrate them, but to promote an effort to have them involved in the activities of the Center, as co-organisers of the seminars and through specific initiatives such as graduate conferences and workshops (the CHSP has now been issuing for quite some time an annual call for a “colloque junior” – i.e.: a graduate conference – financed by the Center). But students must make themselves an effort at being actively involved. As I said, the doctoral years can be quite taxing for history students; the risk is to become a bit apathetic and isolated: excessively self-centred and focused exclusively on one’s own research and sub-disciplinary field. We aim at training good and original scholars, it’s true; but also at forming historians capable to engage in a broader scientific conversation and teachers able to teach a variety of general courses, and not just monographic electives 

What advice would you give to students who want to undertake a PhD in History ?

To think about it thrice, that the immense intellectual privilege of doing research is balanced by professional (and economic) insecurity and careers that are invariably slow and bumpy; to do it only if they have a real passion for history; to work hard first and foremost in developing a vital historiographical awareness and sensibility, and avoid jumping in the archives on day one as sometimes happens: first you read (a lot); and then you go to the archives. And over time to understand that – as one very special colleague once told me – life is perhaps “too short to write a good book”, and therefore we must be able to understand that perfection is not of this world, and while we aim high we must also understand when a line must be drawn and the work concluded.

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