Big life changes and mini milestones

November 18, 2005

Two years into their research, Michael North finds out how academia is treating the four PhD students whose progress The Times Higher is charting

A year is a long time in the life of a PhD student. The four postgraduates being tracked by The Times Higher have certainly had a hectic 12 months: one of them is expecting a baby, another has moved with her research team to Australia, while a third has split up with her fiance.

"PhDs are meant to destroy relationships. Luckily that has not happened with me," says mother-to-be Helen Taylor.

Taylor, 37, who is reading for a PhD at the University of East London, says the baby may delay the completion of her PhD by six months. "I'm not envisaging that I will abandon it," she says. She is hoping to draft as much as possible by April, when the baby is due. Taylor has been forging ahead with her thesis on the commitment of London Cypriot refugees to their lost home and the concept of return. The subject is close to her heart: her partner is a second-generation Turkish Cypriot and her mother's first husband was killed by Greek Cypriot extremists when the couple lived in Cyprus in the 1950s.

In the past year, Taylor has completed extensive fieldwork. She has interviewed 23 people from the Cypriot community in London, recording and transcribing their stories about the painful process of leaving their homeland during the intercommunal violence of the 1960s and the war of 1974. Many of the interviews were moving.

"One woman, my longest interviewee, said she had never spoken about her experience to anyone else. She had left her village too late when Turkish troops came in and she and her family were held. They were under threat. It was the trauma of what might happen. Girls were taken and raped, her uncle was shot, a lot of men on both sides were shot. A lot of people have told me about relatives being killed."

Taylor has been struck by the attachments to "home" shared by the exiled Cypriot community - the fruit trees planted in their London gardens that remind them of olive and lemon trees that were a symbol of economic wealth in Cyprus, and the Cypriot network of coffee shops and small businesses that mirrors the original community.

She says that she is still enjoying her research and has also had the opportunity to speak about it at conferences: in April she addressed a cultural studies conference, When away Becomes Home , in Turkey.

Foreign travel has also featured prominently in the past year for PhD student Lisa Willats. Not only has 24-year-old Willats attended conferences in Miami and Venice, she has also followed her research team from the Institute of Child Health at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London to the Brain Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Willats is appreciating the change of latitude: "I'm enjoying cycling to work in the sunshine rather than catching a stuffy Tube train. I used to try to avoid the rush hour in London, so I would start later and finish later. Here, I'm trying to start early and finish earlier to make the most of the end of the day."

Willats has been researching the brains of children who have suffered strokes. She has been investigating and improving mathematical techniques to analyse the Magnetic Resonance Imaging data from bolus tracking experiments (where a contrast agent is injected into the bloodstream and the flow is recorded).

"The aim of these investigations is to improve the quantification of the blood flow through the brain tissue," Willats says. "The modification I have made to a previously published technique has enabled a better interpretation of blood flow estimates, especially in regions of brain tissue affected by stroke or being fed by abnormal blood vessels."

Willats says she really enjoys the research, which she expects to last another year, but the writing up is a tougher challenge. "But this is intrinsic to any research job, so it's something I'll need to get used to," she concedes.

Willats's future, after what she calls a "15-month field trip" in Australia, looks promising. "There are potentially many avenues of research to pursue in the field of neuroimaging using MRI, developing both the scanning techniques and the analysis methods. I think I will continue in research after completing my PhD, at least for a while, although I'm still open to other callings."

Alisa Chukanova, 24, would love to continue her research into Spanish literary and cultural theory at Southampton University, but she fears the end of her PhD will necessitate a move back home to Russia.

She is pessimistic about her chances of a job in the UK as she does not fit well into any discipline: "My subject is quite tricky. I will have a PhD in Spanish and an MA in cultural studies, so who am I? Also it's not very likely because I'm Russian and there's a priority for European Union people." And she is doubtful she will find an academic post in Russia: "The problem is financial. I might have to switch to another field if I go back to Russia, like journalism, something culture-related. It would be a loss."

The last year has had its upheavals. Chukanova had been engaged to a Russian doctor of physics at Sheffield University, but the relationship is now over. "I think it was the result of living in different countries for a long time. It's not good for a relationship."

Chukanova says living abroad has taught her a great deal. "I think I have changed slightly. I have become a bit stronger because I had to and I know myself a little more. Being in another culture it's more difficult to do things; it gives you a lot of time to reflect on yourself."

Chukanova has forged strong friendships with other foreign students, and her funding and teaching hours enabled her to travel to Russia and Spain in September.

Her PhD in Spanish culture has focused on the writer Americo Castro and the impact of his terminology and philosophy in Spanish cultural studies. She has written "between 25,000 and 30,000 words", finalised the structure of her PhD and is pleased that it is shaping up to be an original piece of research. "I have introduced a new vision of Castro. What I say has not been written before. It is definitely new research."

Jane Suter is more circumspect about the results of her research on human resource management at Manchester Business School, although it has had its illuminating moments. "I started looking at employee involvement. I moved on to how line managers can interact in the workplace and how they can be leaders in human resources. I have altered my research to lead it in that direction."

After extensive testing of her methodology, the 28-year-old is about to start interviews with 24 managers and other key personnel of a UK hospitality company that runs hundreds of restaurants. "It has been difficult trying to pin people down, they are very mobile. I have had to be quite tenacious. You have to get a rapport. I have struck up a relationship with the HR director. Once I got her behind me it was easier to get the rest of the company as well."

Suter says her preliminary research into the hospitality industry had unexpected results. "Hospitality seems to be controlled a lot more by harsher management, yet job satisfaction seems to be high in comparison with other sectors."

The interviews, which form the core of Suter's research, come as a welcome relief after months of solitary reading. "It's much nicer to be in contact with people," she says. "A PhD is quite a solitary thing to take on. I have learnt it's not something I'd be prepared to do in future. I would only like to go into academia if it involves a mix of teamwork and working on my own."

Suter echoes the sentiments of the other PhD candidates when she talks about the key to getting through the three-year PhD marathon. "It's about keeping self-motivated, getting yourself into a routine, planning your day, and setting yourself mini-milestones so the amount of work you have left doesn't seem so vast. And you have to choose a topic that will hold your interest for three years."

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