Spirits rise as isolation ends

December 17, 2004

The third in our series tracking four PhD students sees how they are faring after their first year of study. Michael North and Chris Bunting report

The first year of their studies is over and our PhD students are entering the "why am I doing this?" phase before the final write-up begins.

But all seem upbeat about their research despite concerns about isolation.

Russian student Alisa Chukanova, 23, who is doing her PhD at Southampton University on the "mediate" culture of Spain - a culture that sees itself as neither Eastern nor Western - says that the specific nature of her research, which she has narrowed down to focusing on the work of two writers, makes it difficult to discuss it with anyone else. "I'm the only person who is doing this subject and it's almost impossible to find anyone interested in the same research question," she says. Also, conferences on related subjects are often held far away. But socially she is enjoying life in Britain, even if her environment is very international. In fact, she says she felt an "outsider" when she returned to Russia recently.

Helen Taylor, whose PhD at the University of East London is on the commitment of London Cypriots to their lost home and the concepts of return, has also felt a sense of isolation as a postgraduate, but says her contacts with other PhDs and her supervisors have kept her spirits up. The university is also building a PhD room near her home that will improve contact with other postgraduates.

And Jane Suter, doing a PhD at Manchester Business School on management-driven initiatives to communicate with staff and to involve them in increasing productivity, talks about being "a hermit". But she thinks that starting interviews with staff at a major hospitality company as part of a survey will get her out and about more. Eight months ago, she was having trouble motivating herself, but Suter says she is now in a routine and has learnt to be more disciplined. Even so, she says the hardest part of her PhD has been "staying focused" because of the sheer amount of literature on the subject. She is grateful for her supervisors' guidance that has kept her on track and also for the fact that she has had to produce a 28,000-word dissertation-cum-end-of-year-report to pass into the second year of her PhD.

Lisa Willats is perhaps the least isolated of the four. She is based in the Institute of Child Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London, and is working on a method for looking at magnetic resonance imaging data to improve the treatment of children who suffer strokes. She has already got into the conference circuit. Earlier in the year she attended a workshop in Venice and spoke to a few people doing similar research to her own, which she found "very useful". "You read through their papers, but you can get much more detailed information if you can talk face to face," she says.

Although it is not her forte, she realises the importance of networking.

"If you are applying for a grant, it is important to know what other people are researching," says the 23-year-old. She is also hoping to present her work at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine annual conference in Miami next year.

While some of the PhDs are writing up - Chukanova hopes to finish the first chapter of her thesis and produce a final plan in the next six months - Taylor has yet to start writing. "It's a bit unnerving," she admits, "but I felt I needed to immerse myself in the Cypriot community first." She has found some problems and surprises in her research. She says London-based Cypriots seem "more pragmatic" than she expected. "On the one hand, there is a desire to return home; on the other hand, if they have children in UK universities or if they have businesses, then the actuality of return is different." And many refugees hold British passports. "People feel grateful for the chances Britain has given them and the education that their children have had. They accept they have two homes."

Taylor, Chukanova and Suter all have teaching obligations that vie with their research time, although they provide much-needed cash. For Chukanova, teaching Spanish cultural studies to undergraduates also helps her to practise her English and to formulate her ideas more clearly. For Suter, taking seminars builds her confidence and keeps her up with the wider resource-management literature. And although sceptical when she started her PhD, it has whetted her appetite for a career in academe.

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