Alexandra Bourguignon-Lonero

Latin and ancient Greek teacher in a secondary school and project manager in a higher education institution, Belgium.

Former research staff in ancient languages at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Research staff experience

I was a research fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles for four years. I specialised in Greek, Latin, and Semitic languages; specifically, linguistic contacts between ancient civilisations, particularly lexical borrowings and the alphabet. During this period I worked on my doctoral thesis on Semitic loanwords in ancient Greek. In addition to writing papers and presenting at conferences, I helped to create a multidisciplinary research unit on the Mediterranean world and organised a workshop for the unit. 

I loved my subject, and the intellectual stimulation of writing papers and attending conferences. But there was much about my life as a researcher that I was not so happy about.

I often wished I could get immediate results from what I’d written or prepared: after submitting papers for publication, you can wait months for a reply, and with your thesis, you have to wait years before knowing the impact of your research.

The research career is a very lonely one, and even if you have colleagues, you always feel somewhat alone.

Unless you get a very comfortable grant (in Belgium, from FNRS the National Fund for Scientific Research), or a permanent position, a research career means looking every day for new grants and spending lots of time applying for them (so many forms to fill in, always with the same information!).

Although classical philology is a very interesting research field, it’s not as highly valued as the hard sciences or economics and so, it is difficult to get grants. Research is becoming an exclusively economic matter; you have to get financial results. We are a long way from the view of science as the progress of knowledge.

Transition to new career

When my FNRS grant ended in autumn 2011 I was unemployed for almost a year, although I still had my thesis to present, which I did in spring 2012. 

This period gave me some time to think. I took some classes in Dutch and English, and applied for many vacancies in different fields – museums, publishing, administration – and received many disappointing responses. 

In the end, I reconsidered the possibility of becoming a secondary school teacher. I had first excluded this option, because I felt that giving lessons to young people was not interesting (I’d had a negative experience of teaching in the past.) But, for a number of reasons, I thought again. First, I needed some money(!), but I also wanted a real job – being unemployed was making me really unhappy. I wanted to feel useful to society and to be proud of myself. But also, I couldn’t imagine never using Latin and Greek again in my work. And so, the only possibility, apart from research, was school teaching. 

The problem was that I did not consider teaching enough of a challenge, considering I had a doctorate. I felt I needed to add another dimension. I decided to look for a part-time teaching job and a second post that would use my academic background to advantage. I was very fortunate: at the same time as getting my teaching job, I secured a second role, one which is  more administrative, but at a prestigious specialist higher education institution in Brussels, where I manage the research projects of my colleagues. In addition, my second job has very flexible hours that I can fit round my teaching post. 

Current jobs

In my secondary school job I teach Latin and ancient Greek 17 hours a week (8/10th full time equivalent) to pupils between 12 and 18 years old. I have a lot of independence; I’m the only Latin and Greek teacher in my school, except for a colleague who teaches the first year pupils. So, most of the time, I do not have to follow the ‘good advice’ of other, senior colleagues; I prepare my lessons on my own. But having my colleague is great if I want to collaborate on a project or arrange a visit for all of our pupils.

I thoroughly enjoy my job. Personally, I don’t experience ‘lows’ as a teacher. I do regret that many teachers seem to lack ambition. Teachers who do not look for challenges, who choose teaching just because it fits in with family life, are poor advertisements for the profession.

The highs of teaching for me lie in the many challenges at school: we have to educate young people, to help them to grow up and become adults. In the field of Latin and Greek, the challenge is even bigger, because more and more people consider these languages dead, and I have to prove the opposite to my pupils (and sometimes to my colleagues and to my director). But I am very passionate about these languages and it seems I can transmit my passion to my pupils: at the end of the summer term I received some lovely gifts and thank you notes. Pupils, when they are enthusiastic (which, fortunately, is often the case with mine), are the gift of this job.

In my project management role at the specialist higher education institution I work 13 hours a week (1/3rd full time equivalent). I manage the research projects of my team of about ten people and I assist with some research projects. I work in a very prestigious and pleasant context. There are always new projects and my tasks are varied. The research fields of my colleagues are psychology and engineering. I’ve enjoyed taking on the challenge of working in new discipline areas.

Competencies old and new

In my project management role, my knowledge of the research world helps me a lot: to organise academic meetings and visits, to manage budgets, to write reports... 

In school, obviously I’m using my Latin and Greek constantly. Moreover, I think that my previous experience as a researcher has a strong influence. I think (I hope...) I am more precise, objective and proactive than many of my colleagues. I don’t let myself be pushed around by my colleagues or my director. And, to my surprise, I am more patient and indulgent with my pupils (yes, they do not know many things, but that’s normal, I am there to teach them these things).

Teaching has taught me to be less shy in front of an audience and to organise my lessons and presentations better: if you are not precise when you are speaking to young people, they will not understand anything: unlike an educated audience, they cannot compensate for your inconsistencies. 

Reflecting on my career path

I do not regret anything. I am very happy with my current situation and I wouldn’t change anything in my past career.

The only thing I missed was writing high level papers (even though I love my pupils, the level at school is not the same, of course, as at university), having discussions and meeting interesting people at international conferences. But I have found a way to achieve this: at the end of my first year of teaching, in June 2013, I was missing the challenges of academic work and so I decided to contact former colleagues. My aim was to re-enter, but at my own rhythm. I did not want to do research full-time, but as a ‘hobby’: I do not want to lose the plus points that my teaching career brings.

Now, I’m involved at the Université libre de Bruxelles again, with the hope of eventually getting a course to teach. Last year, I organised a workshop in Classics and called my postgraduate and postdoctoral friends to present their current research (as did I). Recently, at the invitation of a colleague, I gave a lecture on the Greek language in the Roman era. And I am planning another, more international, workshop. I don’t want to become a full-time professor, just to have my own class, two hours a week, for example. It is the final thing I miss.


Keep possibilities other than research in mind. Yes, it is not easy to find the prestige of the university outside higher education, but in the end, your job is what you make of it.