PhDone! With Dr. Blanche Plaquevent

In the latest in this new series, we talk to Dr. Blanche Plaquevent about her doctorate, recently completed in the department.

After studying in Paris, Blanche Plaquevent received funding from the SWW DTP to do her PhD at the University of Bristol. She passed her viva in July 2021 and will be working as a lecturer in history of gender and sexuality at the University of Glasgow from September.


Hi, Blanche! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

My thesis explores how the idea of sexual revolution got constructed as a political concept in France between 1945 and 1970. Historians have debated on whether a sexual revolution really took place in Europe and North America in the sixties-seventies. My research sheds a new light on this debate by approaching the term of ‘sexual revolution’ literally, as a political concept used at the time to articulate revolutionary politics and sexuality. I explore how revolutionary sexual politics emerged and circulated nationally and transnationally. Relying on published sources about sex and politics from the period 1945-1970 (books, magazines, journals), testimonies, private archives from activists and intellectuals, leaflets, billboards, university and police archives and newspapers, my research traces the emergence of the idea that the personal is political before its widespread advent in the seventies.

Portrait image of Blanche Plaquevent, standing in front of a canal

What did you enjoy most about your project?

For the period that I was studying (1945-1970) and the type of sources I used, very few documents were digitised. It meant that I travelled a lot to access my sources and I really enjoyed it. Although it required a lot of work and organisation, I discovered many different archival centres and visited various cities, such as Paris, Dijon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Caen, and even Amsterdam. It made research really fun and exciting. I guess I was lucky that it was all before the pandemic!


Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?

Don’t overprepare!

I read my PhD once (and worryingly realised I had already forgotten full passages!), and then re-read a few key passages like the introduction and the conclusion. If you can, get one or two friends/colleagues/family members to ask you questions. It can be useful even if they are not really familiar with your research. Being asked very general questions forces you to take a step back and consider your research from a different perspective. Finally, be honest with yourself and acknowledge the potential issues you can identify in your research, and try to articulate why you have made these choices, or even what you would have liked to do differently. I found that being aware of my own shortcomings and trying to understand them (without defending my past choices at all costs) helped me to consider my work confidently before the viva.

Black and white photo shows the wreckage of a car in the foreground and graffiti in the background reading 'je sevis dans les pavés'

Photography by Jo Snapp, published in Walter Lewino, L’Imagination au pouvoir (Paris: Allia, 2018). Available online:

How did you manage the submission of your PhD and job applications in the last year?

Following the advice of my supervisors, I began to formulate a postdoc proposal in the middle of my third year and it came in very handy when I had to start applying for jobs during the 4th year of my PhD. I started applying to grants and academic jobs at the end of 2020, and it intensified between March and July 2021 as more jobs were advertised. I submitted my PhD for examination at the end of April and then had more time to prepare my applications. I must say that receiving waves of job rejections just after submitting the PhD was sometimes challenging. It was hard not to let it cast a shadow on the achievement that is finishing a thesis!


What’s next for you? Where can we find your research and/or writing now?

I am joining the University of Glasgow as a lecturer in the history of gender and sexuality. I’ll be teaching undergraduates and postgraduates students and I will be in charge of the International History Summer School.

To find out more about my research, if you speak French, you can read an article I published in Ethnologie Française in 2019 to introduce my research. I am currently working on an article in English which aims at exploring the specificity of postwar French sexual politics in comparison with other forms of sexual politics we are more familiar with today. I hope to submit it soon and I will also shortly start working on the publication of my monograph.

PhDone! With Dr. Xiao Liu

In the second of a new series, we talk to recent doctoral graduate Dr. Xiao Liu about his  research project, viva, and plans for the future.

Xiao (Shawn) Liu just completed his PhD in History in the University of Bristol, studying with Prof. Robert Bickers and Dr Adrian Howkins. His research interest is modern Chinese history, especially the development of science during the period of the Republic of China.

Portrait picture of Dr. Xiao Liu

Q: Hi Xiao. First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

My PhD project is about ‘Meteorology and Politics in Republican China, 1912-1949’, which aims to understand how science was applied by the Chinese Republican State to serve its state-building ambitions. As meteorology achieved a certain development during the Republican era, my thesis demonstrates meteorological achievements as well as explains aspects benefited from meteorological progress. This project intends to advance discussion of the relationship between science and the state, arguing that emerging nations in what we would now call the ‘global south’ also accorded strategic importance to science in national development, including both economic development and their challenge of imperialism. As a soft power tool, boosting national science became a means to contest foreign power in early twentieth century, thus with focusing on the case of the Chinese Republican State, my thesis provides some insight into understanding history of science in others countries as well.


Q: How did you become interested in the history of meteorology in China?

I always have a strong interest in history, especially Chinese history. Although my undergraduate major was not related to history, I did attend several courses from the Department of History, which laid a solid foundation for my future research.

In recent years, the history of Chinese science has received more attention than before, and I became curious about scientific development in China. I chose to focus on the period of the Republic of China. After I started my PhD project, I found that meteorological factors were involved in many historical events, so it motivated me to further study it through my research.

Black and white photograph shows esuit-made instruments at the Imperial Observatory in 1945

Unknown photographer. Image courtesy of Stanfield Family, University of Bristol (

Q: What surprised you most doing this research?

Regarding my research, what surprised me most was that there were a huge number of materials relating to my project, much more than I expected.

I did make research on the archives I planned to consult but was a little worried about it because their online websites did not include much useful information for my own project. But when I visited the archives in China, they did store rich materials to support my research. Thus, basing on my experience, it is really important to do field research or archival trips.


Q: Any top tips for lunch spots near the Bristol University campus… or the archives you visited?

As my flat is very close to the campus of University of Bristol, I have rich time to walk around our campus and to explore it more comprehensively. There is a small garden behind the building on the Priory Road which is a very nice place, so it is quite convenient for people of our department to go for a walk there when they want to have some relax.

Regarding archives, most archives in China do not have café, so it is better to bring some food in case there is not any restaurant near the archives.


Q: Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?

I highly recommend the examinees to read their PhD thesis again before attending the viva. Do not take ready-made answers because the examiners may ask questions from the high-level conceptual to the detailed ones, so there are always some questions you do not prepare. If you have enough time, maybe read the work of the examiners in advance. When you attend the viva, be confidence with yourself, because it is your thesis, you are the expert on it.


Q: What’s next for you? Where can we find your research and/or writing now?

I just participated the 26th International Congress of History of Science and Technology on 30th July, during which I presented my paper about the ‘Application of Meteorology by the Republic of China in the Development of Rural Areas’.

I will return to China in the autumn and will pursue a post-doc.


PhDone! with Dr. Thomas M. Larkin

In the first of a new series, we talk to recent doctoral graduate Dr. Thomas Larkin about his  research project, viva, and plans for the future.

Thomas M. Larkin is the Augustine Heard Fellow at the University of Bristol, and a member of the Hong Kong History Project. His current research concerns nineteenth-century Anglo-American and Sino-American social and cultural interactions in China, and the application of global-microhistorical and transimperial methodologies.

Picture shows a portrait of Thomas Larkin

Q: Hi Thomas. First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

My doctoral research focused on the American firm Augustine Heard & Company, active in China and throughout East Asia in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I used the case study of the firm and its leading partners to argue that the American merchant community active in Hong Kong and China’s treaty ports selectively adapted to British colonial society and culture to advance their personal and commercial position in China, and that in the process they helped consolidate and entrench the racial and socio-cultural hierarchies developing in these ports.

The project was also designed to play with scale and to provide a framework with which global and microhistorical methodologies could be combined. The case study of the firm was analysed within increasingly broad geographic and temporal contexts to better understand how it fit in with the histories of China, Britain, and the United States.


Q: How did you become interested in Augustine Heard & Co?

I had originally applied to Bristol with the intention of studying Western indigents in Shanghai’s International Settlement. My early interests were in the relationship between race and class in China, the ways foreigners structured their society to uphold barriers between themselves and the Chinese, and how Chinese observers viewed these potentially embarrassing lower-class Whites. A study of the elite partners of Augustine Heard & Co., with its prominent position amongst the Western firms, seemed a rather dramatic step in the opposite direction. But when I started doing early research into the project and what might be done with it, I found that many of the themes I was interested in remained accessible through the company records – if from a different perspective. Perhaps more significantly, the Heard brothers seemed almost omnipresent in the history of nineteenth-century Sino-Western contact. At least one of the brothers at some point or another bore first-hand witness to the major developments that shaped Sino-Western commerce and politics. I had always wanted to write a global micro-history, and the ubiquity of the Heards made it an increasingly tangible possibility.

Black and white photograph depicts St John's Cathedral and the Augustine Heard & Company house.

St John’s Cathedral and the Augustine Heard & Company house, see, vh03-29

Q: What did you enjoy most about your project?

I think the most gratifying aspect of the project was deep-diving into the Heard archive and sharing my discoveries with the project’s benefactor, George Cautherley. George is a descendant of the Heard family, and as a tangential product of this research we have been able to confirm many of the particulars of his relationship with his ancestors and with Hong Kong, including the direct line that connects him to one of the firm’s earliest partners, John Heard. It has been fantastic getting to share some of the more significant discoveries with George, and he has been both open to learning more of the family and forthcoming with his own thoughts, advice, introductions, and input. While there were always significant academic contributions that I intended to make with my project, I have also greatly enjoyed these informal exchanges.


Q: Any top tips for lunch spots near your archives / libraries / museum collections?


I am currently based out of Richmond, within walking distance of the National Archives, and I can’t recommend highly enough escaping the archives on a sunny day and doing your readings by the riverside. At Harvard’s Baker Library I kept to the school cafeteria which is, admittedly, excellent, and has the added bonus of only requiring two minutes of outdoor travel to reach on frigid February mornings. Anything further afield was risky, as while I am Canadian, four years in the UK has ruined my tolerance to the cold.

I’ve a bad habit of forgetting lunch when working, but I do love a good coffeeshop. My preferred café-turned-workspace in Boston, Explorateur, seems to have not survived the pandemic, but if a seat can be found the Tatte Café on Charles Street or the Thinking Cup on Newbury are both good spaces. Classified on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong eased the completion of both a journal article and a chapter, as did Café Libero in Da’an, Taipei (although neither is particularly close to an archive).


Q: Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?

The best advice I received from Robert Bickers and that I would pass on to anyone else is not to over-prepare. I’m not suggesting slacking off, but there is truly no sense in trying to guess what the examiners are going to ask. Both my examiners had excellent questions and insight, but almost none of it was anything I had anticipated beforehand. Reread the thesis a few days before, relax the night of, and treat the viva as a very productive opportunity to get some targeted feedback that will, ideally, make the eventual manuscript a much stronger piece of research.


Q: What’s next for you? Where can we find your research and/or writing now?

At the time of writing, I am currently preparing to move to Bristol in September, as I have continued on with the university as Augustine Heard Fellow. I have been remote for the last three and a half years of study, and its about time to do away with the tedious commute from London. I’m in the process of revising an article and working on developing the manuscript to pitch to publishers. I’ve got a couple other projects in the works and am solidifying a plan for the next big research undertaking, but have mostly been enjoying the chance to dig deeper and write about some of the topics that I didn’t get to explore much in the thesis.