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“You need luck to make it in academia”

“You need luck to make it in academia” “You need luck to make it in academia”

University College Maastricht alumnus Jan Machielsen

It’s 9.00 a.m. on a Monday morning in mid-December. Jan Machielsen (35), senior lecturer in history at Cardiff University in Wales, is still in his Paris hotel. After our telephone interview, he’ll head for the library to continue working on his research. “On foot. There’s another strike going on. Public transport, including the metro, has been crippled. Ah, well. It’ll be good for me to walk for forty minutes, or else I’d just be sitting all day,” he reasons. He’s quite used to this happening in the French capital. “When I was studying in Paris for three months during my master’s degree, my university was affected by strikes for a month.”

He currently lives in the United Kingdom and has spent time in Australia, Rome, and Princeton, New Jersey. None of this could’ve been predicted by his eighteen-year-old self, he chuckles. “I was a small-town boy from Zundert, Brabant, the first person in my family to go to university. I didn’t dare leave the south of the Netherlands to do so. It didn’t even occur to me that studying abroad was an option. Going to Maastricht already felt like an adventure.”

Machielsen was in the first cohort of University College Maastricht students back in 2002. “It was exciting to be part of something new. I already loved history, but as a first-generation student I thought it’d be better to pursue a ‘useful’ degree that would get me a job. Something technical – I took science subjects in secondary school – or something business related. UCM’s liberal arts and sciences programme would allow me to study all those subjects.” But history won Machielsen’s heart, especially when he went to Australia in his third year and took a course on the history of witchcraft. He subsequently earned a master’s degree from Leiden-Paris-Oxford, followed by another master’s degree in history from Oxford, where he also obtained his PhD, worked as a postdoc and held a teaching post. Since 2015, he has a permanent position at Cardiff. “I specialise in the 16th and 17th centuries, also known as the early modern period. I’m currently on a two-year sabbatical, supported by several grants, and I’m working on what will be my second and last book on the history of witchcraft. I want my next subject to be something more cheerful, with less torture.”


He’s been very lucky, he says matter-of-factly. “I always tell my students there are two types of scholars: the ones who think you have to be good to make it, and the ones who know you also need luck. I don’t come from an academic family. As a student, I had no concept of a career in academia. I didn’t know how to go about doing a PhD or how to become a professional historian. I didn’t fully realise all this until I was in Siena, Italy, with a friend and her mother, an art historian. There was a Latin inscription on the city gate. My friend’s mother translated it on the spot: ‘Siena opens its heart wider than its doors’. I was perplexed. It was mind-blowing. I still remember that moment.

“I took everything one step at a time. I first got a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Oxford, which was wonderful, and then another one for my PhD. I was good, of course, but I was also lucky. I’m even more aware of this now that I’m on assessment committees for research proposals myself. There have to be enough members on the committee who happen to be interested in your research area.”

More self-confident

Sometimes he has to remind himself that he isn’t married to his work, he says with a laugh. “I find it difficult to let go of my work. I’m trying to take more time for myself. I just spent three weeks on holiday in Australia, for example.” He spent six months studying there when he was twenty years old. Australia is the country where he could “be who I was for the first time”. He made friends in no time, visiting New Zealand and travelling through Australia with them. And, last but not least, he finally felt comfortable telling people he was gay. “I returned to Maastricht a different person.” His colleagues at Observant noticed this, too: when he walked back into the office, Machielsen seemed more self-confident, cheerful and frank.

He feels blessed to have the friends he does, but he’s not currently in a romantic relationship. It isn’t easy, he says, building a network in a new city – especially when your work takes up almost all your time. “People with children meet people at their children’s schools. A friend of mine joined a lesbian choir. I sound like a walrus when I sing, though.” Speaking of children, he’s got two cute nephews he adores. But becoming a father himself is not on his mind right now.

Half marathon

He still does things he never thought he would. “I picked up running in Cardiff and recently ran a half marathon. My secondary-school PE teacher would be amazed to hear it.” He also started learning Italian, developing a real passion for the language. And he writes book reviews (“a link back to my time at Observant, where I wrote about films, but also kept a diary during my time in Australia and my first master’s degree”) for the Times Literary Supplement. “My first scholarly book sold approximately 250 copies. At the TLS, my readership consists of about 30 to 40 thousand readers.”

Did they come true, the dreams he had for his future when he was a student? “I’m a different person from the one with those dreams. I think a better question to ask is: would eighteen-year-old Jan be happy with his 35-year-old self? The answer to that question is yes. Although there’s always room for improvement.”

(Un)fulfilled dreams

In 2003 we interviewed UM students about their dreams for the future. Now, in this academic year, it’s time to check in with them and see where they’re at. Did their dreams come true? We’re using this special year (Observant turned 40 in 2019-2020) as an opportunity to find out. Former student journalist Niels van der Laan, who wrote the majority of the interview articles in 2003, is writing a fair share of this year’s articles as well. In addition to the previously interviewed alumni, we’re interviewing former Observant student journalists about their fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams.



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