Starting a PhD Journey

A Blog post by Nerges Azizi (PhD Law)

Diversity100 / ESRC UBEL studentship award holder

My name is Nerges Azizi and I recently started the MPhil in Law at Birkbeck, University of London. My research addresses ways of resisting the European border regime, with a particular focus on the role of strategic litigation. I chose this topic because of the experiences I have had working with refugees as a translator and interpreter. In the course of that work, the law again and again surfaced as an obstacle and an instrument of power designed to regulate their existence, behaviour and expectations. Despite the disciplinary and oppressive function of the law, the people who I was working with were forced to appeal to the law in order to receive protection. This provoked me to question whether there could be alternative uses of the law, ones less geared towards regulating and disciplining the lives of refugees, towards ones that hold states accountable. During my preliminary research, I came across strategic litigation, which describes the tactical use of legal tools to hold states accountable for their human rights obligations.

At present, I am sceptical about the prospects of this tool, however, I am looking forward to examine all the ambivalences and difficulties of engaging with the law. I am particularly interested in what the resort to legal means might be able to reveal about the ways in which the European border regime is constituted and contested. My geographical focus is the Mediterranean Sea, which presently has been transformed into a site of death and racial violence by European policy makers and border guards. I aim to place this sphere into a longer historical perspective, in which the sea was not partitioned into north and south, east and west – nor was it necessarily functioning as a border – rather, it might have worked as a space of encounter, connection or a bridge. At the same time, I will be attentive to the colonial, imperial and racial violence shaping the history of its human crossings. Tracing histories of the Mediterranean, as well as conceptually departing from the sea, hopefully allows me to imagine another function for it and opens the possibility of an alternative future. I am very excited to work on the project and look forward to the writing that will emerge from it.

When applying for the PhD, considering who my supervisors would be, and who else would be working at the department and at the school where I would be based, was of high importance to me. This is because I consider my environment to shape me intellectually; we learn from the people around us. A PhD is a long project and is potentially accompanied with some anxieties and self-doubt, therefore working with supervisors whose work I am familiar with and respect ensures that I can trust that my research will be guided in the right direction. Of course, having the financial stability of a scholarship is indispensable and crucial to be able to concentrate on researching and writing. This is particularly so for students of working class background and ethnic minorities. I would recommend everyone to apply to existing scholarship opportunities.

Diversity100 Studentships – applications open

Apply now for Autumn 2021 entry

Birkbeck is offering a number of fully funded Diversity100 PhD studentships which actively address under-representation at the highest level of research, and encourage Black and Minority Ethnic students to consider academic research in all disciplines. 

The call for Diversity100 PhD studentship applications is open until Monday 10 May. You can find further details about these studentship opportunities here including how to apply and about briefing sessions for prospective applicants where you can hear about the application process and what it is like to be a doctoral researcher at Birkbeck.

Debi Lewinson Roberts

In the video below we hear from Debi Lewinson Roberts who was awarded a Diversity100 PhD studentship and began her doctoral research in Autumn 2020. Debi speaks on the subject of bereavement, her family’s influence on her education and why she chose Birkbeck.

In times of Pandemic

A BGRS Blog post by Nicola Clarke (PhD History)

I am a mature student, just beginning the second year of my PhD in Early Modern History, so I am currently preparing my first research chapter for my upgrade from MPhil to PhD. My research focuses on accuracy and the value of accuracy in seventeenth-century English news sources, with particular reference to the period between 1649 and 1685. It was always work that was going to have some resonance in the 21st century; “fake news” is very definitely not a modern invention.

One of my main topics looks at the 1665 Great Plague and the Fire of 1666. I am interested in whether both producers and consumers of news approached accuracy any differently when dealing with natural disaster as opposed to news about political, civil and military strife, of which there was a good deal in the seventeenth century. When I decided, with my supervisor (Dr Brodie Waddell), to make this my first research chapter, neither of us had any idea that I would be working on it during a 21st century pandemic and a national lockdown….. and that archive access might be a bit trickier than normal. So many thanks are due to Brodie for advice on how to deal with that and to all the archives and their staff that have re-opened in the past few months.

At the start of lockdown in March 2020 I decided to keep a “Covid journal” prompted by a number of academics I follow on twitter. I used to be a journalist and I am trying to be a social and cultural historian, so I figured that keeping a diary might give me some insight into those diary keepers, commonplace book authors and letter writers whose news consumption habits I was trying to understand.

Historians should be rightly cautious about making comparisons between the past and the present, so I am very careful about drawing direct comparisons.

However, despite the considerable advance in medical science and news technology in the last three hundred and fifty years, the search for reliable information and the debates about how to act on that information have a familiar ring.

People in seventeenth century London tracked the weekly Bills of Mortality, as we have all followed the graphs at the daily government news conferences. The efficacy of shutting people up in their houses once a case of plague was discovered was debated from the street to the medical journals. News came at the seventeenth century citizen from a huge range of sources, orally from neighbours, business partners, customers, from Authority – the King, Parliament and the City Authorities, from newspapers, which as well as editorial content, ran huge numbers of adverts for all sorts of plague cures and preventatives.

Those citizens of seventeenth century London, who remained in the city, had to juggle a lot of conflicting information, with the need to maintain daily life and work, and if I have learnt one thing in the last six months it is to have considerable respect for how they managed to do that.

Bob Woodward & the Case for Rethinking News Values

A BGRS blog post by Naomi Smith (PhD Film and Screen Media)

Naomi is also the Birkbeck Student Union Women’s Officer

Legendary American journalist Bob Woodward has a new book out, another deep dive into the inner workings of the White House, including extensive interviews with President Donald J. Trump in which he admits, on tape, to having deliberately downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 virus in early 2020. These interviews were conducted between December 2019 and July 2020, but the revelation that Trump was aware how deadly the virus is and deliberately sought to conceal this information from the American public wasn’t published until recently, when CNN obtained a copy of the book ahead of its 15 September release.

The revelations immediately led to recriminations against Trump from all sides – politicians, journalists, members of the public on social media – and, more surprisingly perhaps, against Woodward. Fox News, for example, questioned his decision to hold onto this information for so long if it was so important. So why did Woodward choose to withhold those interviews until now? And was the decision to do so inherently unethical? Some suggested that Woodward was motivated solely by profit and the desire to sell more books on the strength of the revelations, and others even alleged that he has “blood on his hands”. In response, Woodward argued that he could not verify the information at the time and wanted to investigate further, and that Trump’s attitude to the virus was already public knowledge and was not, therefore, immediately newsworthy on its own. Erik Wemple, the Washington Post’s media critic, argued that Woodward was following standard practice for writing a book and that his sources would have had an “implicit understanding” that they would be interviewed multiple times until he could “stitch together something authoritative, in book form”. If he were to have published “daily dispatches”, then it is unlikely that he would have kept getting those rare on-the-record interviews with Trump. In Wemple’s eyes, the decision was not whether to publish in March or September, it was whether to publish in September or not at all.

When analyzing decisions regarding news selection, we often talk about news values, a theory developed by two Norwegian researchers in the 1960s, which describes a set of criteria that form a definition of newsworthiness. The more of these criteria are satisfied by an event, the more likely it is to be reported on by the press. The results of that Norwegian study have been reviewed and updated over the intervening years, particularly in the context of the rise of digital media but rarely challenged outright. And despite satisfying several key news values – surprise, negativity, conflict, etc – the revelations in Woodward’s book went unreported for seven months.

My research asks whether – especially given that our current conception of news values did not predict and does not fully explain the actions of a veteran news reporter – we can continue to use a one-size-fits-all taxonomy, rethinking the concept of news values as one that can be generalized across different formats in multiple markets, using American broadcast news as an initial case study.

Reference

Galtung, J & Ruge, M.H., 1965. The Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 2, No. 1. Pp. 64-91.

Starting my PhD during a Global Pandemic

A BGRS blog post by Swathi Kumar (PhD Biology, Cancer Biology, ISMB)

I’m now in my second year of the BBSRC LIDo PhD programme. The first year was composed of two 4-month rotation projects, the first of which was based at both Birkbeck and UCL and is now my full-time PhD project. Like many others, March 17th was my final pre-lockdown day working in the lab and I was one month in on my second rotation project based at Barts Cancer Institute. The rest of the summer was a blur with days spent teaching myself to use command-line interfaces to run bioinformatic tools in an attempt to produce any data whatsoever for my project that had then become wholly computational. I managed to complete a coding course covering MATLAB, R and Python which was a mandatory part of my first year and a useful skill to learn as a biologist. All that remained was to return back to my old lab and officially start my PhD.

My first day back in the lab was July 27th – 4 and a half months post-lockdown. I had fastidiously read all the ‘returning to work’ documentation and was prepared for Birkbeck to look quite different to how I remembered it. Sure enough, the corridors were filled with COVID-19 safety measures and a 2-metre rule had been implemented. Luckily, I was already trained in the microbiology techniques I would need for the first month of my PhD thanks to my rotation project last year. My PhD researches the pathogenesis of the Kaposi Sarcoma-associated Herpes Virus with a particular focus on a viral oncogene it produces called vFLIP. I am interested in cancer biology having done a master’s degree in it, and my interdisciplinary PhD combines structural biology and virology. Overall, the majority of my PhD is wet lab based.

Being supervised while adhering to social distancing rules vaguely resembles a Quickstep dance. The 2-metre rule was recently relaxed to 1-metre with masks on at all times, which made it significantly easier for my supervisor to teach me how to use structural biology equipment. Later this month I will be demonstrating these techniques to undergraduate summer camp students and supervising an undergraduate placement student – both firsts in my career. Apart from eating our lunches at desks spaced 2-metres apart, the daily work routine is becoming relatively normal. I do look forward to the day we can attend seminars and lectures in-person rather than online. However, I will say that the switch to online talks gave me the courage to try a new profession – teaching! Overall, I’m thankful that my transition from working at home to experimenting in the lab has been smooth. I hope my story encourages others who may have some anxiety about returning to work to not be afraid and to believe in themselves!

Meg Kiseleva tells about founding the Birkbeck PhD Network

A blog post by Meg Kiseleva (PhD Organizational Psychology)

I joined Birkbeck as a PhD student in January 2019. Being one of the few people who started halfway through the traditional academic year, initially I found it quite a solitary experience. Luckily, the BGRS were very supportive when Alex Leggett and I decided to start the Birkbeck PhD Network within the Students’ Union to help PhD students meet, network, and find information and support.

For a typical Birkbeck student – busy, juggling many responsibilities, often in employment alongside their studies – finding ways to connect with others may be an overwhelming experience. While the BGRS training events are a great opportunity to meet other PhD students across College, the networking is usually done within the constrains of a workshop: you may chat with someone or even have a coffee together during the break but then usually just rush off to your next appointment.

Within the PhD Network, we are trying to provide an informal space for meeting others, socialising, discussing our experiences as PhD students, and supporting each other on the PhD journey. While we cannot physically meet while the COVID-19 restrictions are in place, we are trying to make up for it with our WhatsApp chat, which you can join by dropping us a line at SU-PhD-Network@bbk.ac.uk, and Facebook group.

Our aim is to bring together people from different departments, different backgrounds, and with different experiences to enable a deep multidisciplinary conversation. Besides, talking to people from other disciplines sometimes opens an unexpected perspective on your own research (and meetups with other PhD students provide an opportunity to practise your “elevator pitch”!). Serious talk aside, we also try to make sure everyone has a comfortable space just to discuss anything the PhD community can provide support with.

On top of that, the Network frequently acts as a point of contact between the PhD community and the BGRS since we can collect comments and queries and bring them up with the BGRS via email or at PGR reps meetings anonymously.

Please use the links above to get in touch and we look forward to welcoming you to our community.

HS2 Student Placement in the Colne Valley

Photo Credit: Samantha Brummage

A blog post by Samantha Brummage (PhD Archaeology)

In 2018/19 Birkbeck PhD student Samantha Brummage was successful in gaining access to a placement supported by the AHRC funded CHASE DTP. In the piece below you can read about Samantha’s experience on the placement and the skills she acquired through it.

Life as a first year PhD student and NHS Mental health worker

A BGRS Blog post by Ogechi Anokwuru (PhD Psychology)

Hi my name is Ogechi, I am currently a first year PhD psychology student at Birkbeck and an NHS Mental Health worker. My previous studies are Master of Public Health (MPH) and BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science.

My PhD journey has been great so far, acquiring new skills and knowledge in psychology. I have been very lucky to be a part of the Department of Psychological Sciences, and am grateful to my supervisor and mentor. My research is on medical help-seeking behaviours amongst the BME community which crosses over to my line of work in the NHS on a daily basis.

As well as registering my systematic review on Prospero, lecturing about what I do in work gave me a sense of joy to share the knowledge and attitude around how health psychology interventions are practised in NHS and NHS Mental Health settings. In these uncertain times, it can be quite challenging, but it is very important that everyone looks after their mental health during this time. 

Balancing work and studies can be quite challenging as a mature student, but I’m determined that this will bring more benefit to the world of research and the field I am heading towards. COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill and has shown us the possibilities of adjusting to this potential new normal. It has also highlighted the health inequalities and disparities seen in the BME community which is in line with my research, medical help-seeking and the barriers experiences by this group making it very relevant to today’s climate. 

I hope the next time I write another blog post, it will be me sharing my published systematic review for all of you to share and read.

Stay tuned and stay safe!

Ogechi 

Ogechi Anokwuru, MPH, BSc (Hons)

1st Year PhD Psychology Student

Department of Psychological Sciences

Call for participation; Chinese follows English

Are you a Chinese student? If so please consider helping one of our Birkbeck Research students who is looking for participants in the UK for a project which aims to look at the relationship between languages and life in the UK.

Get in touch by filling out one of the questionnaires below – it takes 15 minutes to complete. There are 3 versions of the questionnaire: English, traditional Chinese, and simplified Chinese so you can choose the one that suits you best.

Thank you very much for your help!