Brent McDonnell is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Originally from New York, he received his Bachelor’s degree from Fordham University in 2014, double-majoring in Political Science and Italian Language and Literature, before completing a Master’s degree in the German and European Studies program at Georgetown in 2016. His current research project focuses on the far-right in Italy and West Germany from the late 1960s into the early 1980s.
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We asked Brent a few questions about his work and experience:
1. What are you currently studying and/or working on?
Currently, I am pursuing my PhD in History at Georgetown University. In order to conduct the archival research necessary for this project, I am in Germany and affiliated with the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam, thanks to a DAAD Long-Term Research Grant.
2. What sparked your interest in research abroad?
My parents were always very enthusiastic about traveling abroad when I was growing up, so they both deserve a good deal of credit for sparking my initial interest in the wider world. Of course, this interest has changed since I was a child, but it has dovetailed quite nicely with my interest in contemporary German and Italian history. Prior experiences I’ve had studying abroad in Rome and conducting archival research in the two aforementioned countries have only served to strengthen this interest.
3. How did you hear about the Long-Term Research Grant? Why did you decide to apply?
I first heard about the Long-Term Research Grant through faculty and staff at the BMW Center for German and European Studies, one of the seven Centers for German and European Studies recognized by the DAAD in North America. For the particular deadlines and requirements in the year I applied, the Georgetown Office of Fellowships was also a great resource.
Ultimately, the decision to submit an application was an easy one. The DAAD is a prestigious organization, and being able to secure a grant from them looks great on anyone’s CV. In addition, I found the grant terms quite generous.
4. What did the application process look like on your end? Any details or tips for future applicants?
The DAAD Long-Term Research Grant application was the first chance I had to write at length about my dissertation topic, as this was also my first application for a research grant related to the project. As such, I found it to be a more intellectually rewarding experience than I initially thought it would be. My DAAD statement of purpose has become a reference point for how I think about and frame my research.
My main piece of advice for future applicants would be to make sure that you have everything you need for the application well in advance of the deadline. Unfortunately, I did not follow my own advice, and I had to scramble a bit during the last few days of my application. All that does is cause undue stress.
5. Tell us a little bit about your research project. Where will you be and what will you be doing in Germany?
My dissertation project focuses on the far right in West Germany and Italy from the late 1960s into the early 1980s, with a particular focus on how these movements grappled with rapidly changing cultural and political norms from the late 1960s into the early 1980s, how they contended with postwar democratic societies through both parliamentary and extraparliamentary processes, particularly the use of violence, and how they perceived each other as part of a pan-European network of far right movements.
For the most part, I will be based in Potsdam and Berlin during my stay in Germany, although I will also take shorter research trips to Koblenz and Munich. My archival research consists of close analysis of both visual and textual primary sources pertaining to my topic. After either producing copies of these sources (when it is allowed) or taking detailed notes on them, I organize the documents along particular thematic lines which are of relevance to my dissertation.
6. What advice would you give to students who are thinking of choosing your field of study?
I would recommend that those considering the study of history remain as open-minded as possible at the early stages of their careers. Oftentimes, people can become fixated on studying very particular subjects too quickly, which leaves them with a kind of historical tunnel vision. Approaching a wide variety of topics with genuine curiosity when you first begin studying history exposes you to a greater cross-section of methods and debates within the discipline, which ultimately strengthens your work once you have settled on a particular research topic.
7. What advice would you give to North American students and researchers who are thinking of pursuing research abroad in Germany?
Do it! Of course, in cases like mine, research abroad is an essential component of one’s academic work. Even if it is not, however, I highly recommend spending time researching outside of the United States. You have the opportunity to build connections with scholars from your host country, and living abroad gives one a good perspective on life in the United States.
8. Can you cook a German dish without a recipe? If so, which one?
I don’t know if this exactly qualifies as a “dish,” but I can grill some good Würste.
9. Who has inspired you the most in your career and why?
My doctoral advisor, Professor Anna von der Goltz, has been the most influential person in my development as a historian. In both my Master’s and PhD programs at Georgetown, she has consistently played a positive role in shaping how I understand the past and how my research interests can be turned into feasible, insightful projects, and she has done so with a friendliness and patience that not every PhD student has the fortune to find in an advisor. Her work is a model for mine to emulate.
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