Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

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Introducing Birkbeck’s 2020 Chevening cohort

This year Birkbeck is delighted to welcome 30 new Chevening scholars, hailing from all corners of the world. The prestigious Chevening scholarship is offered each year by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promising students, chosen for their leadership potential and academic promise.

Once again Chevening students from a number of countries opted to join Birkbeck, attracted by its reputation, the possibility it offers to study alongside London’s professionals.

Meet our 2020 Chevening cohort.

Nozipho Nomzana “Zana” Mziyako, Eswatini, MSc Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability

Nozipho Mziyako, Etiswani

Nozipho Mziyako, Etiswani

“I applied for the Chevening scholarship because it presents a big opportunity for individuals like me who envision themselves as key contributors to society’s positive development, to learn through academics, forged networks and international experiences.  I love travelling, hiking, adventures, meeting people as well as experiencing different cultures. Through this Chevening experience, I look forward to the exposure and growth and most importantly ploughing back to society.”

 

Joan Santani Santanasam, Malaysia, MA Journalism

Joan Santani Santansam, Malaysia

Joan Santani Santansam, Malaysia

“I’m a business journalist working with Malaysia’s National News Agency, Bernama. I have been working in the journalism industry for eight years now covering a range of news on business, finance, commodities, stock market and politics.

The Chevening Scholarship is really the gateway for me to enhance my knowledge, broaden my worldview and hone my leadership and social skills. These are essential skills to further enhance my career as a journalist.”

 

 

 

Bongani Njalo, South Africa, MA Arts Policy & Management

Bongani Njalo, South Africa

Bongani Njalo, South Africa

Bongani Njalo is an award-winning South African artist whose work in drawing, performance, installation and traditional bead-making explores themes in culture, collective and individual identity. Njalo was a recipient of the David Koloane Award (2014), he was named one of the Top 200 Young South Africans by the Mail & Guardian (2016) and went on to become a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2017, a programme lead by the Department of State for Young African Leaders.

 

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt, Cuba, MSc Marketing Communications

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt

“As a communication specialist and marketing enthusiast, I’ve been able to work and gain experience on different scenarios; from large public companies to private small businesses in Cuba, and they all could benefit from accurate and up-to-date marketing tools.

For me, to deserve this opportunity means one of the greatest challenges that I’ll ever have, I’ve always found British culture and history fascinating, and being able to experience it in person is a unique privilege; especially for a woman like me that coming from a working-class family I’ve always felt driven to exceed expectations”.

 

Zeina Ramadan, Palestine, MSc Creative Industries

Zeina Ramadan

Zeina Ramadan, Palestine

“Being a professional in the creative industry in my home country and observing the sector first hand on the ground led me to choose this major. Through working on various projects and different institutions within filmmaking, animation, TV, content editing as well as the audio publishing industry, I gained a deeper insight into the needs and the hole in the wall which need to be filled not only in my home country but in the region as a whole and the potential it has to grow. This heightened my passion and consequently led me to Chevening as it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity for me to be able to make a difference. Here I am! About to start a life-changing experience whilst simultaneously gaining knowledge and connections in the field I am most passionate about.”

 

Chiranthi Senanayake, Sri Lanka, LLM International Economic Law, Justice andDevelopment

Chiranthi Senanayake

Chiranthi Senanayake

A youth empowerment advocate specializing in the niche area of Youth Empowerment Incubation (YEI) Chiranti Seneneyake is the Founder and President of Hype Sri Lanka which is the country’s first youth empowerment incubator. She is also the Founding President of the Young Legal Professionals Association of Sri Lanka.

She was appointed as the United Nations Youth Delegate for Sri Lanka in 2016 in recognition of her community service. In this capacity she has worked as a Youth Focal Point to the National Youth Services Council and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs. Chiranthi also served as the Global Ambassador for Sri Lanka for Youth Opportunities in 2018. She is a Women Deliver Young Leader of 2020 and the recipient of The Diana Award 2020.

 

Presely Gitari, Kenya, MSc Climate Change

Presley Gitari

Presley Gitari, Kenya

“I’m a conservation biologist from Kenya, who works with the country’s Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government in helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society by using environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic empowerment.

“I’m also an Associate Fellow with the Royal Commonwealth Society and I am passionate about improving the lives and prospects of citizens of the Commonwealth.

“I applied for Chevening because it represents purpose beyond academic progression, as it inculcates a mindset focused on leadership and fostering networks to positively impact the lives of others. ”

 

 

 

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What’s the best way to raise funds for a startup?

Alexander Flint Mitchell, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship alumnus and founder of Blind Cupid shares his experience of raising capital for his business venture.

Picture of business man launching into the air.

Like most first-time entrepreneurs, Alexander was a total novice when it came to funding startups before setting up his own business.

Having now secured £175,000 to launch, with the prospect of completing fundraising over the next six weeks, he shares his experience of raising capital for a startup.

Angels and venture capital

When Alexander began fundraising for Blind Cupid, a matchmaking app that uses systematic philosophy and artificial intelligence to match users based on their fundamental values, he took a traditional route of approaching angels (high net worth individuals who provide financial backing for startups) and venture capital firms.

“We contacted many venture capital companies and had some very successful conversations with them,” explains Alexander. “These companies are usually specialists in a certain field and it’s common to be asked to deliver as many as five or six presentations to secure funding. While we would obviously spend some of this time talking about the business idea, the key thing to get right was the financial information.”

The downside of this method of fundraising? Time.

“Venture capital funders are demanding and even getting a response from them, never mind retaining their interest, requires a lot of time and effort,” explains Alexander. “There’s a lot of back and forth, often with your whole team needing to attend calls or presentations, which can feel never-ending when you’re in it.

“We also faced difficulties with our product not fitting neatly into a specialist area. The app we’re developing combines matchmaking with brand new artificial intelligence that has never been built before, and so there are no investors currently specialising in it. Given the amount of money that venture capital funds invest, it’s understandable that they would prefer to go with something tried and tested. We raised around half the funds we needed through this method, but I began to look for alternatives to speed things up.”

Gaining crowd appeal

Many different methods of fundraising are covered in the Entrepreneurial Venture Creation module taught at Birkbeck, among them crowdfunding.

Alexander admits to being sceptical to this approach: “I had the impression when I started that crowdfunding was on a smaller scale and more about conventional ideas than disruptive new businesses – I had no idea that companies do their series A and series B rounds on crowdfunding.”

While individual investment amounts can be much smaller, as little as £10, on crowdfunding sites, Alexander now sees this as an opportunity:

“Compared to venture capital, crowdfunding is a really quick and innovative way to finance startups,” he says. “The main difference is that our investors through crowdfunding are likely to also be our users, which is really exciting. Even if they only invest a tiny amount, they will benefit from a future IPO – it’s similar to holding shares in the stock market.”

The personal touch is also something that appeals to Alexander and the ethos of Blind Cupid:

“We aren’t just trying to match people together; we really want to make sure that these matches are accurate and that once you meet someone you will stay together. We’ve done it for 80% of our beta test users, and now we want to do it throughout the rest of the UK and world. It’s an unusual business concept in a way, because we don’t want people to come back – we want people to find the person that’s right for them.

“Our business model is very different from other players in this market because of this — and other reasons. We offer a premium service which gives our users access to podcasts, blogs and more written by experts that advise them on every aspect of their lives. Topics include how to discover who you really are, what self esteem is and how to build it, how to nurture a healthy relationship and more.”

Blind Cupid have now launched their crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube. For Alexander, it will be a relief to move to the next stage:

“When you’re looking for funding, it feels like it’s never-ending, but I know that when it’s complete I‘ll forget the months that it took. Many things in life are a learning curve and you find what suits you best. It’s great to finally see it all come to life.”

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Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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A guide to mentoring PhD students

What constitutes a good PhD mentor and mentee? In this blog, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication shares his thoughts on how to navigate PhD supervision for both students and supervisors.

Two women chatting

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

I was recently invited to contribute a chapter on the supervision of doctoral students and one the delicate management of the supervisor–supervisee relationship from the first contact to the post-graduation goodbye (Dewaele, 2020).  Having led 26 Birkbeck students to their PhD as first supervisor allowed me to reflect on the uniqueness of each relationship and on the commonalities.  I realise that my perceptions might help current PhD students in handling their relationship with their supervisor(s) and their fellow students.

The most crucial aspect is the establishment of a relationship of trust and mutual respect, where constructive criticism is appreciated, where the scientific creativity and independence of the student is encouraged and where the student’s expectations are handled appropriately.

As in any relationship, there may be moments of strain and crisis and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to deal with this in a professional manner. Good supervisors are close to their students but not too close and the distance can change over time. In their book about the supervision of MA students, Harwood and Petrić (2017) explain that “different supervisees need supervisors to occupy different roles at different times” (p. 9).

I realise that as a PhD supervisor I am typically more directive at the beginning of the research project and allow more freedom and flexibility later on.  It is not unlike relationships parents have with their children, allowing them gradually more independence until they reach adulthood.

Metaphors are particularly useful in grasping abstract concepts. In the satire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759), Voltaire famously wrote in the conclusion “il faut cultiver son jardin”, meaning “that we must take care of our garden”, away from the hustle and bustle. It is good to visualise a PhD research project as a private garden, to which the student can retreat to tend it, to plant flowers, to prune the trees lovingly, and to wonder where to install that water feature or statue. Spending some time in the garden is good for the garden and for the gardener’s soul, though digging can cause blisters to appear.  Conversations with fellow students allows a useful comparison of gardens. It helps understand that bigger is not necessarily better and that gardens can come in all colors, shapes and sizes.

I have had some interesting exchanges with students about the PhD being a transformative experience because it forces one to do a lot of thinking.  And because it is so long and so intense it can -and should- trigger cognitive and emotional restructuring. Students come out of this as more resilient, independent and confident (and sometimes also humbler) people.

It is also crucial to understand that comparisons with other (former or current) students can only be superficial and that having more or less of this can only refer to a very small part of a much bigger hidden picture.  My colleagues and myself love all our PhD students who work hard.  They are all bright and the fact that one can jump higher, or run faster, or cook better should be of no concern to the others.  Being unique individuals means they all have unique strengths and weaknesses.  They all face unique challenges that may sometimes stop them from reaching their full potential (like long-standing family or work issues, or a momentary problem like a numbing migraine at the viva).  And that is OK too, because each student gives it their all – professional, family and health situation permitting.

This reminds me of karate where it is also crucial not to compare oneself too much with fellow karate-ka.  Some are great at kumite (fighting), others are great at kata (choreographed patterns of 20 to 70 moves, with stepping and turning, that have to be executed while attempting to maintain perfect form), others might not excel at either but have great resilience, attitude and humility.  The standard for the black belt varies slightly according to age and health.  Being 18 or 70 makes a difference, and yet both are able to get the black belt if they can show that they have mastered the techniques and the spirit of karate, and that they are as fit as they can be and can take a solid kick in the stomach.

It is the same for getting a PhD. Supervisors make sure that students reach the threshold but how far they go above it is not really crucial. If they can, of course, they should.  That’s also why I’m so happy that no grade is awarded for a British PhD.  It either Pass or not Pass, like a driving test. If former students later end up winning prizes for their work, everybody will be proud of them, but if they don’t, they won’t be loved any less!

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2020). Supervising doctoral students and managing the supervisor-supervisee relationship. In L. Plonsky (Ed.), Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early-career faculty. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 153-163.  https://doi.org/10.1075/z.229.11dew

Harwood, N., & Petrić, B. (2017). Experiencing Master’s supervision. Perspectives of international students and their supervisors. London: Routledge.

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“It’s crazy to think that an idea I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Alexander Flint Mitchell took home the prize for Best Business Pitch in June’s Pioneer awards. He reflects on a life-changing year of building his business, Blind Cupid.

Picture of Alexander Flint Mitchell

When Alexander Flint Mitchell enrolled onto Birkbeck’s MSc Business Innovation last September, it was with a view to changing career direction and developing the business idea that had been on his mind for the last five years.

Handing in his notice just one month later, you could say things had moved a little faster than expected. “Looking back on it, that was probably a bit naïve,” Alexander admits, “but if you want to achieve something big, you’ve sometimes got to take a leap into the unknown.”

The motivation for this leap of faith? A little idea for an app called Blind Cupid.

Blind Cupid is a dating app with a difference, using a never-before-used science to match people based on their fundamental values, giving users the chance to see bios and compatibility scores before they reveal pictures to potential matches.

“A lot of dating apps claim to be all about personality,” says Alexander, “but it’s really just a slogan. In their questionnaires, they will ask about polarising issues like politics, which is valid, but simply agreeing on something doesn’t mean that you’re compatible. Take Brexit, for example: people voted Leave on both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s essential to understand the rationale behind the belief.

“The questionnaire that we use for Blind Cupid goes right to basic principles. The greatest feedback we have received so far from users is that they could see the value in the product even from just filling out the questionnaire – before they’d received any matches. When we tested the product, 80% of the test group went on four or more dates with their matches – that’s way higher than anything else in the market.”

Was the concept for the app born out of Alexander’s personal experience? “People ask me that a lot,” he says, “but in reality, the idea just came to me in a lightbulb moment, fully formed. I came up with the concept aged 21, while studying Law and working in the City. I found the reality of being a lawyer very boring and would end up spending most of the day daydreaming about this app. I knew that I was going to do it eventually, but I wanted to do it properly.”

In 2019, Alexander applied for the MSc Business Innovation at Birkbeck, specialising in entrepreneurship. “Studying in the evening meant that I could continue working in the City until the business was up and running,” Alexander explains. “I thought that, worst case scenario, I could find a role in venture capital, but I really wanted to give Blind Cupid a go.

“The course was everything I wanted to learn. One of the early modules, Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, required us to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan for Blind Cupid, and that’s when I decided to quit my job.”

As Alexander worked through the masters and the Pioneer programme, his business and networks grew. “I’ve made some amazing connections and put together a dedicated team – we’d meet at 8am and still be working together at 1am, before we were earning any money to do it, which just shows the commitment we all have to the business.”

Alexander’s Pioneer experience culminated in June’s virtual awards ceremony, where he took home the award for Best Business Pitch. “It was a shame not to be able to do the finale in person, but I was really surprised and pleased by how many people came along to the virtual ceremony. When pitching Blind Cupid to investors, it usually takes a full hour to go into all the detail, so drilling it down to three minutes was a real challenge. I’m thrilled to have won the Best Business Pitch award; it feels like all the hard work is paying off.”

Alexander is currently fundraising for Blind Cupid, with the aim of getting the product on the market within the next three months. Encouragingly, it seems that he’s also hit on an idea that can withstand the current tough economic conditions: “Strangely enough, the dating industry is booming at the moment. Regardless of what’s happening in the economy, people have a natural desire to have someone in their lives romantically, and that doesn’t go away in a recession.

“The decision to do the master’s was a life-changing, life-affirming decision. It’s crazy to think that the idea that I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

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“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

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Is the city a place of freedom? Reflections on Priya Sen’s documentary on Delhi

Priya Sen’s newest documentary explores the everyday lives of young women in contemporary Delhi. The film is available for streaming as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week. In a podcast that accompanies the documentary, the director was interviewed by Professor Melissa Butcher (Geography, Birkbeck) about the process of film-making in urban India. Together, the podcast and the film invite the audience to reflect on how the arts and the social sciences can be used in combination to explore contemporary urban life. The event marks the launch of Birkbeck’s new MA/MSc Cities programme, showcasing its interdisciplinary approach.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen.

The social life of cities

Early thinkers of urbanization reflected on the ways in which city living was transforming the relationship between individuals and others. In the “Metropolis and Mental life”, Simmel coined the famous concept of the “blasé”, in reference to the indifference that urbanites expressed in multiple everyday interactions. Compared to traditional rural settings, he argued that urban life allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. In the city, people were liberated from the constant social expectations of communitarian life and could thus behave more freely. What would Simmel say if he could watch Priya Sen’s exploration of everyday life in Delhi?

In “Yeh Freedom Life” we follow the lives of Sachi and Parveen, two young people living in a working-class neighborhood (Ambedkar Nagar) of Delhi. The film shows their struggles to negotiate family and societal expectations for “the right to live their lives properly and openly”. Far from the “blasé” attitude, what we observe is the constant scrutiny of others in relation to the protagonists’ choices of who to love and how to live their lives. The film invites viewers to reflect on how patriarchal norms are contested but also reproduced and accommodated within India’s fast-urbanizing society. This topic has been recently discussed by Sanjay Srivastava during Birkbeck’s “Gendered cities” webinar in which he explored the spatial-politics of gender in contemporary urban India. For Sanjay, rather than challenging gendered norms, Indian society is incorporating those normative ideas through practices of “modern” consumption.

(Un)making gender in urban India

The documentary opens with scenes of an event where a female audience listens to a talk based on Hindu mythology followed by a discourse on the importance of women’s education. The event can be seen as a space where “traditional” and “modern” ideals are combined to offer a standard of womanhood compatible with contemporary India. In the event, we are first introduced to Sachi and her soon to be married friend Didi. They both work in a beauty parlor where they spend their time discussing their love affairs while threading costumers’ eyebrows with impressive dexterity. In the “Beauty Care and Training Centre”, femininity standards are being produced but normative behaviors are also subverted through Sachi’s personal struggle for a fulfilling life. Despite Didi’s protest over the sorrow inflicted on her friend’s family as a result of her unusual choices in love, Sachi refutes any critical commentary, arguing that “if you live by what people around you say, life will be very hard”.

The constrains of associational life

Similar to Sachi, Parveen also struggles for love and happiness, facing the negative consequences of his unconventional life. He works on a cigarette stall owned by her family located in a busy intersection. Despite his hard work for the family business, he remains an outcast, often facing the hostility of those around him. Nonetheless, he is unapologetic about who he is and willing to have a less comfortable life to keep his autonomy. His discourse never veers towards a rights-based language, always foregrounding instead the truth of his emotions and his need for freedom. Like many others, he is willing to accept the penalty of exclusion from social networks in order to claim a “freedom life”.

The film reveals the complex ways in which solidarity actually works. The reality is far from the idyllic appraisals of associational life often celebrated by international development agencies for its beneficial role in poverty alleviation. In those accounts, communities are often portrayed as unproblematic networks of solidarity and trust that can be accessed by its members in case of need. Particularly in Southeast Asia, schemes of microcredit and other market-oriented initiatives focused on the inclusion of the “bottom of the pyramid” usually assume the existence of such socially cohesive networks. However, as Priya Sen’s documentary reveals, the maintenance of social networks often require adherence to social norms that either constrain individual’s autonomy or exclude those who are non-conforming. The film also illustrates how the complex realities of urban life in postcolonial settings are not easily captured by rigid frameworks.

A view from the South

Recently, postcolonial urban thinkers have challenged “universal” narratives of urbanization rooted on Western experiences. Calling for a “view from the South”, urban scholars have challenged “modernizing” discourses that ignore situated trajectories of urbanization and impose inadequate analytical frames and solutions. In this context, researchers on urban India have criticized the use of binary categories, such as modern/traditional, formal/informal, as unsuitable for uncovering the complexities of contemporary urbanization in the country. In “Yeh Freedom Life”, the unfolding of everyday urban life reveals how rigid categorizations of gender, femininity and sexuality are simultaneously reinforced and contested.

Dr Mara Nogueira is a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Programme Director of the MA/MSc Cities programme.

 

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“Birkbeck equipped me with knowledge that has helped me continue making a difference in my community.”

Esther Joyce Ariokot, from Uganda, graduated with an LLM in International Economic Law, Justice and Development. The intensive programme involves two blocks of intensive face-to-face teaching in London, with preliminary materials and readings developed especially and sent to students in January.

Esther Ariokot

Esther Ariokot

Can you tell us about your background?

Before joining Birkbeck I had completed a Bachelor of Laws from Uganda Christian University after which I pursued the Bar Course to enable me to practice Law in Uganda.

I chose Birkbeck’s intensive LLM International Economic Law programme because it fitted within the work I was doing at the time. I was working as a Court Mediator which involved helping people settle disputes without going through the whole process of litigation. I was helping the vulnerable attain justice.

The programme includes two blocks of intensive face to face teaching. Can you tell us about your time in London and on campus?

I enjoyed studying with my classmates because we were from a range of professions, from lawyers to bankers to actresses. They brought a rich contribution to the lectures and discussions we often had. The different professions brought a different angle to the human rights course unit we were studying. I have kept in touch with four of my classmates.

I particularly enjoyed the Human Rights class and the Risks and Response class. I received additional support from the Library Team. They made using the Library easy along with the online Library. I also received a Tutorial on how to write a dissertation.

Unfortunately, I did not join any social clubs or societies as I was studying an intensive course so had little free time on my hands. But I had a great time looking around London.

What did you enjoy the most about living in London?

London has so many tourist attractions that I enjoyed going to when I got some free time. I also enjoyed the diverse range of cuisines available; I was able to eat food from my country during my stay.

I had never lived overseas before coming to UK. I was living in Harpenden and because of the efficient transport system I had no trouble coming into London for study and research.

Furthermore, I was fortunate that a British family took me in and looked after me for my whole stay. I did not have challenges living in London because I was well taken care of by the Vickers Family – I am forever grateful for their generosity.  The weather was not a problem as I was in London during spring and summer.

How has your time at Birkbeck influenced your life and career since then?

Birkbeck helped me to become a critical thinker, a skill that was key to me getting my research job. I was appointed as a lecturer to the School of Law of Nkumba University because I had an LLM and I was also given a Research Job by Judiciary because of the skills I had attained from Birkbeck.

I work under a Justice of the High Court in the Commercial Division of the High Court.  I have also started a Legal Aid Project that is helping the needy and vulnerable people where I live in Entebbe attain legal services at no cost.

What are your top tips for aspiring students?

The Legal profession requires Commitment and hard work, after attaining your law degree aim to make a difference in the community around you. I thank Birkbeck for equipping me with the knowledge that has helped me continue making a difference in my community. I am currently applying for a Law PhD at Birkbeck.

Birkbeck will make your study easy and enjoyable. It has a diverse culture, you cannot fail to fit in. The members of staff are professional and make understanding the concepts easy. Apply for a course now, don’t hesitate!

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“With the right support structure all things are possible.”

Gaining professional experience with the support of Birkbeck Careers service, making friends from all over the worldtravelling around the UK and Europe… Namibian alumna Omagano Kankondi, Head of Solution Mapping at the Accelerator Lab under United Nations Development (UNDP) talks about her experience at Birkbeck. 

Omagano Kankondi

Can you tell us about your background?  

I am originally from Okahao which is in the northern part of Namibia, I currently live in the capital city Windhoek.  In 2005, I started my tertiary education in Cape Town at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and I was there till 2011. During my time there I obtained a National Diploma in 3D Design, a Bachelor of Technology in Product Design and a Master’s in Design focusing on Socially Responsible Design. I graduated from my Masters in 2012 and four years later started on the MSc in Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management. 

Why did you decide to study at Birkbeck?

It was always my intention to get a qualification that was business-centred because I felt as a designer who had the intention of going out on my own in the future, I really needed it. In 2012 I started working for the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Namibia as a Design Consultant, focusing on product development for SMEs. Working here, sparked my curiosity for business studies. Initially, I had wanted to pursue an MBA but after much contemplation, I realised an MBA was not the route I wanted to take.  

When I came across this programme at Birkbeck I believed it would suit me perfectly. The MSc in Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management had the right balance of business focus and innovation, so I was even more pleased when I was awarded a Chevening scholarship.   

How was studying at Birkbeck?

I found the staff to be friendly and approachable, whenever I approached a staff member with a query or problem, they always offered their full assistance.  This was the case for staff on all levels.   

I made a really good set of friends. We were a diverse bunch, a small United Nations. We started off as a study group and soon we were planning epic trips together, I think our most memorable trip was to the Austrian Alps. My very patient friend Kevin tried to teach me how to ski for the very first time but despite his best efforts, I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. We all still stay in touch via our WhatsApp group and we check in every now and then.  

I didn’t officially join any social clubs, but I did attend a couple of activities organised by the International Students forum. One such activity was a tour to Houses of Parliament which I thoroughly enjoyed.  

When I started writing my dissertation, I thought it would be the right time to look for work experience because my schedule was way more flexible, but I was not making any headway. I reached out to the Birkbeck Futures and one of the staff members helped me review my CV and gave me guidance on how to improve it. I eventually secured a job at Good Innovation London. 

How was it living in the UK?

 When I moved to Cape Town it was my first time moving away from home. At that time I really wanted to live in halls of residence but was unable to get a place, so when I moved to London, I decided that I would live in halls for the experience. I got a place in Connaught Hall right next to campus which was so convenient and cost-effective for me. I loved the experience and I got to make great friends in halls (Hi Russel, Isaiah, Hanako and Shezard!) but I must admit sharing bathrooms was an interesting experience I do not need to relive.   

My London experience was amazing, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I made sure to get to know London; going to art shows, concerts (please tell Adele she still owes me a concert from that time in 2016), joining my brunch club in various parts of London to try out Instagramworthy dishes and chilled hangouts with friends from the African diaspora. I think my initial challenge was getting used to the pace of the work at Birkbeck but I eventually got the hang of it  my main challenge turned out to be the lack of sun! I come from one of the sunniest places in the world so this was a tough adjustment. One of the things I enjoyed and miss the most about London is the variety in Every. Single. Thing!!  

London living showed me that with the right support structure all things are possible. I think one of the ways I have changed is that my level of tenacity has been boosted, ‘try just one more time’ has become a self-cheer and part of my way of doing things.  

What have you done since graduating from Birkbeck? 

I am currently employed as the Head of Solution Mapping at the Accelerator Lab under United Nations Development (UNDP) in Namibia. The accelerator Labs are the UNDP’s new service offering that works with people, governments, and the private sector to reimagine development for the 21st century. Together with the Head of Experimentation and Head of Exploration our main objective at the #AccLabNam is to support the UNDP Country Office in addressing wicked complex challenges in Namibia. At the lab we hope to create people-centred solutions “where today’s moonshots1 become tomorrow’s breakthroughs. 

I landed a job which combines my social responsibility and design background and innovation at the United Nations Development Programme, which was on my vision board as a dream employer. 

My journey has been a little unusual, I started as an industrial designer but now work in development. The one thing that has remained consistent is that at the heart of it all, my work has always been about people so if you would like to keep people at the centre of your workmy advice would be, as cliché as it might sound, remember why you started and how it can contribute to the big picture of not leaving anyone behind.  

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

Do it! You will have the best time, challenging at times and in times like that you can pop over to The George Birkbeck bar. 
😊  

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