“Studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!”

Zambia-born Kasoka Kasoka, who describes himself as a very proud ‘Birkbeckian’ alma mater, reflects on his time working on a PhD in Law at Birkbeck and his achievements since graduating in 2018.

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Tell us about your education before Birkbeck

I am from Lusaka and Zambian. In 2007 I moved to the UK where I enrolled to study for a Bachelor`s degree through the University of London International Programmes. I obtained a Bachelor`s degree in Law in 2011. Upon the completion of my degree I was admitted to study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I studied for a Masters degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. I obtained my Master`s degree in 2013.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

Firstly, I decided to enrol here because of Birkbeck`s massive ranking as one of the best research universities in the World. And yes, it is! Secondly, I applied to study here because I was attracted to the College`s interdisciplinary research study approach. As a result, my research as a doctoral student cut across; law, human rights, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, bioethics, and public health. Engaging in an interdisciplinary research project afforded me a rare opportunity to become an interdisciplinary thinker, be open-minded, and embrace new ideas.

Thirdly, true to its name as a research-intensive university, Birkbeck comprises of academics and researchers who are renowned experts in their fields. Thus, my great former PhD supervisors, Professor Matthew Weait and Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, are very respected researchers and authorities in their various fields. They are exceedingly knowledgeable and  down to earth. And finally, but not exhaustively, I decided to study here due to the supportive student and staff community at Birkbeck. I indeed received a lot of support during my study from fellow PhD students, academic and research staff, and administrative staff members.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I loved the critical approach to study and work culture at Birkbeck. I found my fellow PhD students to be really smart, friendly and supportive – this was endearing. As if this was not enough,  both academic and non-academic staff were very approachable, attentive and supportive. I had a lot of academic staff who were not my PhD supervisors avail me with research insights and suggested various research material to read – as a goodwill gesture. This was priceless in my doctoral study journey!

Inevitably, I was sad to leave Birkbeck when my studies came to a conclusion,  to leave behind such a great community. Nonetheless, I am still happy that I have stayed in touch and maintained the various friendships and networks I had the privilege of forming while studying at Birkbeck. Indeed, “once a Birkbeckian forever a Birkbeckian”!

It was a great honour to forge  invaluable friendships and networks with students and staff members from diverse backgrounds. I consider Birkbeck to be one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Did you use any of Birkbeck’s additional support and activities?

I had the opportunity to intuitively avail myself to various societies and student clubs at the University, including various PhD students` social groups. Birkbeck has a lot of societies and social groups with various activities.  So, I was always happy to retire from my studies to unpack my mind by joining fellow students for some good fun. I especially enjoyed playing football! As they say “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”!

Can you tell us more about your research project?

The purpose of my research was to investigate and analyse the appropriateness of individual autonomy in the context of informed consent HIV testing requirements in Zambia, and sub-Saharan African countries by extension.

Tell us about your experience of living in the UK.

I really loved living in London. London is no doubt one of the greatest cities to live in. What I liked most about the city is the diversity of its population. Thus, I was privileged to meet many people from every part of the world who brought with them various rich cultures, including great cuisines! With such a profoundly rich experience I agreed with Robert Endleman (1963) who observed that human beings in terms of cultures “are vastly various and yet laughably alike”! I also loved English pub food! And the museums, wow! – museums were often my favourite place of respite whenever I needed to briefly divorce myself from the usual business of life and time-machine myself into the past to admire and converse with ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Africans, Americans, Europeans and Indians who had no internet! And behold, the British Museum is only about three minutes-walk from Birkbeck! London is also pregnant with breath-taking gothic cathedrals and other non-church buildings.

(I need to mention that there are much more things for one to see and enjoy in London than what I can enumerate – there is almost everything for everyone to see, smell, taste, hear, touch and enjoy. That`s the magic of London!)

However, living in London comes with its own downsides: especially the high costs of accommodation and transport. Food is surprisingly affordable!

Life after Birkbeck

Kasoka Kasoka at a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Session

It was sad saying goodbye to my community of friends and networks when my studies concluded. After completing my studies at Birkbeck, I was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland to study on an intensive postgraduate international human rights course at the Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University. Upon the completion of the course in Finland, I was an Intern at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Later I worked as a Legal Intern at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. The experiences and illuminations I gained from these intergovernmental organisations are invaluable! I am a strong believer, follower and advocate that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Currently, I am writing a research paper for journal publication, as I keenly continue to follow my career goals, and seek to contribute, no matter how tiny, to improving the wellbeing of our common humanity, without prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, as it has been said before as human beings, we are all as weak as the weakest link (other human being whose rights are not respected, protected and promoted) living among us in our society. My study at Birkbeck (through its critical review approach) and experience at the United Nations has made me see this reality clearer than never before.

What advice would you give other people thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I highly recommend Birkbeck, University of London! You will study at a university that is known for research excellence with renowned academics; you will study in a supportive environment, with quality teaching; at the end of your studies you will graduate with a prestigious University of London qualification, and not forgetting you will become a Birbeckian; and at the end of your studies you will not look at the world the same way!

As for me, studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, and I am a very proud Birbeckian alma mater.

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Lillian Penson: the first PhD in the University of London

Lillian Margery Penson was the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD. In this blog, Joanna Bourke discusses the life and achievements of Penson. This blog is part of a series that celebrate 200 years since Birkbeck was established and International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

Lillian Margery Penson

Lillian Margery Penson_© Royal Holloway College, RHC-BC.PH, 1.1, Archives-Royal Holloway University of London

Lillian Margery Penson (1896-1963) was an outstanding scholar and university administrator. She was the first person (of any sex) in the University of London to be awarded a PhD; she was the first woman to become a Professor of History at any British university; and she was the first woman in the UK and Commonwealth to become a vice-chancellor of a university, at the age of only 52. She owed her undergraduate and doctoral education to the History Department at Birkbeck.

Opinions about her were divided. Was she the “foremost woman in the academic life of our day” (The Scotsman), a “remarkable woman” (The Times), and someone who exuded “charm, tolerance, and a sense of humour”? Or was she an “imperious grande dame”, “très autoritaire”, and “too trenchant”? The answer is probably “a mixture”. Although Penson “could on occasion be brusque and even intimidating”, she “had a happy knack of getting to know people quickly”, was “an excellent judge of wine and loved good company”, and projected “a wealth of genuine kindness”. In other words, Penson was probably trapped in that familiar double-bind experienced by powerful women in male-dominated fields: she was admired for her intellect and determination, yet disparaged as a woman for possessing those same traits. One newspaper report on the achievements of “the professor” even referred to Penson using the masculine pronoun: “he”.

Who was Penson? She was born in Islington on 18 July 1896. Her father worked as a wholesale dairy manager and her family were of the Plymouth Brethren persuasion. Indeed, one colleague observed that the “marks of a puritanical upbringing were never effaced” and her “belief in work and duty” meant that she was always made uncomfortable by “flippant talk”. She never married.

From her youth, Penson was intrigued by diplomatic history, colonial policy, and foreign affairs. Her intellectual talents were obvious. In 1917, at the age of 21 years, she graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History (first class). The war was at its height, so she joined the Ministry of National Service as a junior administrative officer (1917-18) before moving to the war trade intelligence department (1918-19). At the end of the war, Penson returned to her studies of history at Birkbeck and became, in 1921, the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD.

Penson’s achievement was even more remarkable because of her gender. After all, throughout the period from 1921 to 1990, only one-fifth of PhD students in history were female. Penson was also young. The average age for history students to complete their doctorates was their mid-30s; Penson was only 25 years old. Birkbeck immediately offered her a job as a part-time lecturer, during which time she also taught part-time at the East London Technical College, now Queen Mary University of London. In 1925, she was given a full-time lecturing post at Birkbeck.

More notably, she was the first female Vice-Chancellor of a university in the UK and the Commonwealth. Indeed, the second female vice-chancellor would not be appointed for another 27 years (this was Dr Alice Rosemary Murray who was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1975). Then, in 1948, the University of Cambridge agreed to award degrees to women. The last time they had tried this (in 1897), there had been a riot. In 1948, however, the Queen, Myra Hess, and Penson became the first women to be awarded honorary Cambridge degrees (in Penson’s case, a LL.D or Doctor of Laws). The Scotsman decreed Penson’s academic and administrative talents to be “unsurpassed even in the annals of that great institution”.

Many of the values that Penson promoted were those at the heart of the Birkbeck mission. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers”, with no restriction based on religion, race, or sex. She was keen to insist that the job of the university teacher was to “do something more than impose upon the memories of our students masses of detailed information”.

As with many powerful women, she has largely been forgot. After her death, a University of London Dame Lillian Penson fund was established to provide travel money between scholars engaged in research in one of the universities of the Commonwealth, especially Khartoum, Malta, the West Indies, and new universities in African countries. This seems to have disappeared. All that remains is a bricks-and-mortar legacy in the shape of the Lillian Penson Hall, which still exists next to Paddington Station in Talbot Square, providing accommodation for over 300 students.

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The Bonnart Trust PhD Scholarship

Zehra Miah is a Bonnart Scholar who is currently undertaking a PhD on the experiences of Turkish immigrants in London from 1971 to 1991. In this blog, she shares what it was like applying for the scholarship and how it has allowed her to pursue her project full-time.

Pictured: Idris Sinmaz (Zehra’s grandfather) came to London from Istanbul in 1971 to work in the restaurant of his landlord’s son. His two sons and wife joined him in 1973, his married daughter stayed in Turkey. This image was taken in 1980, by which time Idris had opened his own restaurant, Abant on Kingsland High Street in Dalston. Abant is a lake in his hometown of Bolu, Turkey.

Freddie Bonnart-Braunthal founded the Bonnart Trust to fund research aimed at tackling the causes and consequences of intolerance. Largely inspired by his own experiences leaving Vienna in 1935 and being branded an enemy alien and interred in the UK, he wanted to provide funding for scholars, such as myself, to explore these topics and to use their findings to help make a more tolerant and equal world.

When considering embarking on a PhD one of the main hurdles, once you have written your proposal, met with a supervisor, perhaps even had an interview and secured a place is – how to pay for it! My own story, is that I had returned to study as a mature student with three young children and a full-time job as an Executive Assistant. I had studied for my BA and MA at Birkbeck part-time and decided that if I was going to do a PhD then I wanted it to be all or nothing, so I applied for a full-time place. Starting the PhD meant not only the loss of my salary for me but also for my family, even cobbling together the fees would have been a struggle.  In short, without the Bonnart Trust seeing value in my research and awarding me the scholarship, I would, best case scenario perhaps, be pushing through a part-time PhD or, more likely have made the decision to take a different career path.

As a prospective student, you will already know from the institutions that you have applied to that whilst there is not an awful lot of funding about, it is a different offer with every university having vastly different application processes. If you have chosen to study at Birkbeck, or you are considering it and your research area fits within the remit of the Trust, namely addresses diversity and inclusivity or social justice and equality, then I would urge you to consider applying for this fantastic scholarship.

My research considers whether ethnic, religious and racial labels have helped or hindered the Turkish speaking minorities in London between 1971-1999.  When I read the guidelines and spoke to my supervisors (Professor David Feldman and Dr Julia Laite) it was clear that the Bonnart Trust Scholarship was most closely aligned with my research interests.  I have previously held a fees scholarship for my Master’s at Birkbeck and one thing I was not aware of at the time is quite how many people I would meet, collaborate with and the opportunities to present that come along when you hold a scholarship.

These opportunities are worth just as much, as the funding,which is full fees, an annual stipend, and a research allowance of up to £1,000.  The scholarship is open to the entire School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy so it is competitive, but I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed the process. The form had very specific questions (as do all funding applications, and helpfully they all ask different things with different word counts).  For the Bonnart Trust Scholarship I had to succinctly answer a number of questions about my research in general, , why it was important, what sort of influence outside of academia I hoped for and the possibilities it might offer to help address some of the Trust’s aims; no section allowed more than 250 words.

I am naturally a ‘better in the room’ sort of person so when I was shortlisted and invited to interview I knew that this was my opportunity to demonstrate just how important I felt my research was.  I can understand though, that interviews can be a bit daunting and my interview for the scholarship involved a panel comprising a linguist, two historians and a political scientist (one of whom was a past Bonnart Scholar).  I had lots of great advice, but there are two key points I want to share; firstly, you are the expert and you love your project, but spend some time considering what could go wrong and what the challenges might be and secondly, be ready to address every member of the panel even if they are outside your discipline, find one thing to engage with them on within your research.  They aren’t there to catch you out; they simply want to hear that you have thought through your ideas.

I was in Prague Castle when I got the email informing me that I had been successful and I am so grateful that the funding is allowing me to carry out this work. Since starting my PhD I have had numerous opportunities to meet Bonnart Scholars working in other disciplines. Next term there is the annual Bonnart Trust research seminarwhich will, I hope, be a great forum to meet more people interested in what I do and doing interesting things; they are now my peers, colleagues and maybe even my future employers!

I would urge anyone who feels that their research aligns with the Trust’s mission to take a look at the website, have a read of the current and previous projects and see where you fit – and then apply!

Applications are now open for the Bonnart Trust PhD Scholarship and will close on 31 January 2020.

Further information:

 

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Why I did a PhD in my 70s

The rewards of taking on a major research project are enormous at any age. Dr Mairi McDonald discusses completing her PhD in Iberian and Latin American Studies at 72, which she is now turning into a book.

2018 was the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo which seems to me to be the appropriate year to finish a PhD relating the artist’s paintings and their relationship with discourses on poverty in seventeenth-century Seville.

What use is a PhD to a seventy-two-year-old? Not much, you might think. However, the rewards are great: meeting the challenge of adding something new to a particular subject, the satisfaction of joining an academic community dedicated to the subject you are studying and also a huge amount of fun.

I started taking a variety of Open University courses in the history of art while I worked part-time at Channel 4 after leaving my full-time post there, then progressed to an MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck. A friend had strongly recommended this course and I was attracted by the range of subjects on offer, including the chance to pursue a module on Power and Control in Spanish Golden Age Art. My dissertation for the MA made me want to continue investigating the topic of seventeenth-century Spanish painting further and keep my brain functioning in old age. Since I had retired by then, and with the support of Dr Carmen Fracchia who had supervised my MA dissertation, I enrolled as a part-time PhD at Birkbeck in what was then the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies. As a student of Early Modern Spanish art, I was the exception in a department where most PhD students were studying contemporary topics, but I found their enthusiasm and dedication stimulating. I also loved Birkbeck for the impressively wide range of students studying there and the fact that there were even a handful of people around my age. There were workshops to assist me at every phase of the PhD, from the initial stages of how to plan your work through to coping with the Viva. Above all, I received invaluable help and encouragement from my supervisor throughout.

The most difficult aspect of this work was not the research, or the writing up of my findings but learning Spanish from scratch. Learning a new language in my sixties was a tough proposition. Without Spanish, I could not read the seventeenth-century documents relevant to the PhD, such as sermons of the period, discourses on poverty, seventeenth-century chronicles on Seville as well as the writings of current Spanish scholars, none of which were available in English. Through courses at the Instituto Cervantes in London and some perseverance, I eventually attained a workable reading knowledge of Spanish.

Since surviving the viva and graduating at Birkbeck, I was invited to present a paper on Murillo and poverty at a prestigious symposium Murillo in Perspective which was held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London earlier this year and am working on converting my PhD into a book, amazing opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old!

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Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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Thoughts on the recent UN climate meeting in Poland

This post was contributed by Marit Marsh Stromberg,  a PhD student from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. Her scholarship is funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

One might have hoped for strong words and swift implementation from world leaders following the latest round of international climate change talks. The evidence and reality point towards the need for action. Firstly, the high likelihood that temperature rise has been caused by humans was emphasised in the Fifth Assessment Report on climate change, which was released recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Secondly, typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this month, has killed more than 5,000 people. Despite these facts, there was no new strongly-phrased climate agreement at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference from 11-22 November.

As usual, things move slowly and are more complex than that.

The gathering of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Polish capital, also known as Conference of the Parties (COP) 19, was part of a series of conferences to create a new Kyoto protocol ready to be signed in Paris in 2015. This time the hope is to get every country on board as the last treaty didn’t include major players like the US and China.

The host of the conference, Poland, has been criticised by environmental groups for hosting, at the same time, the Coal and Climate Summit (18-19 November) with the World Coal Association. While this choice to host climate change talks and a coal industry meeting simultaneously could be seen as hypocritical, I say it was a good choice. If it was not held in Poland, that coal conference would have taken place in some other country. The coincidence of the apparently mutually exclusive conferences taking place at the same time sheds lights on the current status of things: while governments all over the world may invest in renewable energies and energy efficiency measures, at the same time they allow business-as-usual in the fossil fuel sector; while the Arctic is melting, new fossil fuel extraction opportunities are revealed and explored. I am sure it is not only Poland that could be accused of hypocrisy and caught red-handed.

Now, how about the outcome of the UN climate conference? It has been reported as limited, but some small steps are still considered to have been made. As one-fifth of the CO2 emissions are related to deforestation the creation of a fund helping developing countries to keep their forests is considered as one of the more substantial outcomes. Another step forward have been the decisions taken regarding the compensation of loss and damage in relation to climate change for developing countries.

As regards the important question of assigning specific CO2 emission reduction targets, it was decided that countries should be able to present their proposed contributions (the exact word was a result of some longer negotiations and chosen instead of commitments) in early 2015 to allow time for the combined efforts to be evaluated before the final meeting later the same year.

The phrasing can apparently now be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, from the perspective of some developed nations (e.g. the US) it is clear that all countries need to make some actual reduction commitments, resting on the the argument that it is necessary that we target those countries that will be emitting the most in the future. Secondly, from the perspective of some developing nations (e.g. China, India) it is clear that developed countries need to take more action since they have the historical responsibility for the current state of affairs. I appreciate both arguments: the current emission trends need to be addressed, but we can’t forget the socioeconomic divisions that exists between (and within) countries and how history brought us here in the first place.

While the world leaders and the UN now have the delicate task of trying to reach a far-reaching and shared platform by the end of 2015, I will continue my own journey in a field related to climate change. This autumn I have started a PhD in Geography at Birkbeck. I will be looking into the characteristics of spatial and temporal variability of intermittent renewable energies, such as wind and solar energy, in the UK and how these characteristics can be used for finding a suitable renewable energy mix for a future reliable and greener electric power system. My studies are funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

I will update you on my progress via a termly blog on these pages. I can’t wait to contribute to research to help reduce CO2  emissions. After all, time is running out.

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