How to Navigate the Hot Seats of PhD life?

08 August 2020

Take-Aways from this Year’s IMISCOE PhD Network Interactive Discussion Forum at IMISCOE’s First Online Conference

2020 has thrown a lot of curve balls at us, forcing us to rethink how we manage our personal and professional lives during a pandemic. Unlike previous years, the 17th IMISCOE Annual Conference could not take place in-person but was re-imagined as the network’s first online conference. The new format did not take away the opportunity to listen to groundbreaking research but instead showcased new ways in which we can meet and exchange ideas, knowledge, and strategies in these extraordinary times. The two-day conference encouraged us to consider (im)mobilities in times of Covid-19 in plenary talks with Biao Xiang and Anna Triandafyllidou. In six parallel sessions, nearly 100 panels discussed a broad range of topics, including immigration politics, policies, research methodologies and conceptual questions. The coffee room, virtual dance lessons and art presentations invited conference participants to mimic familiar after-session get-togethers in the digital format.

How to Navigate the Hot Seats of PhD life?

The online conference did not fall short in addressing the needs of its PhD student community. Organized by the IMISCOE PhD Network, a four-tier workshop series offered students the opportunity to learn from mid-career and senior scholars as well as practitioners from a variety of research institutes about pertinent questions in research and PhD life:

What Are the Ethical Challenges and Recommendations for Doing Research on Immigration?

The first session reflected on ethical considerations for planning and carrying out research. Judith Kohlenberger, from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, discussed the importance of the issue of “representation” for survey compositions. Judith cautioned that often the way we ask people about their migration biography is flawed and subsequent data outcomes reflect that. Language barriers and the lack of a common frame of experience makes it difficult for researchers to identify the pitfalls of a Eurocentric lens to a survey’s question framework. As a solution, Judith suggested to conduct such surveys in intercultural teams and involve people who have a refugee background.

Milena Belloni, from the University of Antwerp, pointed at how we frame the idea of “vulnerability” in our research. Drawing on her ethnographic research in Eritrea, Milena explained that vulnerability has many dimensions, which can mislead researchers in the kinds of authority that they may have in a fieldwork situation (Liala Consoli shared a recent publication on the issue). Milena also discussed how framing researched people as vulnerable is a paternalistic stance that needs further consideration, especially with regard to what imprints researchers leave on the people after the project is completed. Being transparent in what researchers do and why is important, but in some contexts, it can create unsafe spaces that can put research participants and the researcher at risk. There is a need to think about how these ambiguities might be reflected in the guidelines for conducting research in different settings.

Willy Sier, postdoctoral researcher at the from the University of Amsterdam, turned the focus on doing research during the Covid-19 pandemic. Drawing on her recent research on Wuhan, Willy advocates advocated for allowing interlocutors to become part of the research process. Decolonizing how research data is gathered can empower interlocutors and open up new possibilities for researchers, considering the obstacles that the pandemic poses for fieldwork. Willy also raised the issue that anthropologists can often overwhelm interlocutors with the aims and goals of the research project. How researchers navigate this conflict should be reflected in the write-up of the research process.

The subsequent discussion with audience members revealed that WhatsApp voice messages, image and videos by research participants can be useful tools for navigating research during the pandemic. Skype for business was suggested as a useful tool for doing three-point calls for interviews with people that require an interpreter. Liala Consoli suggested the recent publication by Deborah Lupton as a useful resource on how to do fieldwork in a pandemic. Ana-Maria Cirstea shared a reading list from the LSE Digital Ethnography Collective about online ethnography and recently we published a blog post by Melissa Hauber-Özer on the positive effects of doing research online.

How Can Research Help Turn the Wheel? – Strategies and Challenges

The second workshop with Jacqueline Broadhead, director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity section of COMPAS at the University of Oxford, and multimedia journalist Sara Creta, from the Dublin City University was about strategies and challenges of making research relevant for public and political debates.

Drawing on extensive experience as a policy maker, a researcher, and from working with knowledge exchange, Jacqueline’s presentation focused on mismatches in expectations and behaviors when policy makers and researchers communicate. Jacqueline stressed that unproductive exchanges often happen when researchers and policy makers communicate because they have to, for example, when at the end of a project or when a political issue becomes pressing. She suggested that a possible solution is to consider the desired knowledge output already when designing the research project and throughout all its stages.

Sara focused on communication with the public. Drawing on her extensive experience as a multimedia journalist, a researcher and in the communication department for Doctors Without Borders, she presented how our research can reach a wider audience. Sara explained that we can make use of traditional channels and social media to catch people’s attention. Sara emphasized that in doing this, we must recognize that editors and readers cannot – and should not – be expected to have a lot of time or background knowledge about our topic. Instead, we should be concise, unexpectant, and vivid in our communication, so that the audience feels invited, learns something new, and is emotionally engaged.

How to Be the Unicorn? – Publishing Strategies

What is the secret to publishing successfully? This seems to be the burning question for doctoral students throughout their careers. The third workshop sought to understand how to navigate the challenges of publishing as an early-career researcher when information on how to do it is scarce.

Deniz Sert, from Özeğin Üniversity, gave insight into the so-called “Mystery of Academic Publishing”. She explained that it is very important to follow a strategy: Choose a journal that gives you the best feedback. It is common that good feedback tends to come from higher impact journals. Even if your paper is rejected (we have all been there!) you are still able to use the reviewer's comments to improve your paper before submitting it to another journal.

Martha Montero-Sieburth, from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the University of Amsterdam, talked about the ins and outs of English-language academic writing. She suggestde to think about your paper in three steps. Firstly, gather your general ideas. Empty your head and write to your heart’s content. Secondly, label your ideas. Give your ideas a format. Put them into lines and paragraphs. Write annotations. In the last step, you perform your ideas. Communicate with others and focus on grammar, style, and language. Work on the feedback. Finally, REWRITE! REWRITE! REWRITE!

To be or not to be in Academia – what to do after your PhD?

The final discussion room addressed how you can best decide on whether to continue your career in academia or pursue alternatives outside of it.

Marie Mallet-Garcia and William Allen from the University of Oxford, recounted the challenges of an academic post-PhD life. They proposed different strategies for how you can put yourself out there. William suggested that we should think creatively about our current PhD project. Thinking outside the box can help identify new ways how we might extend the interests of the first project into a post-doc. Marie emphasized the benefits of working collaboratively with others. She encouraged us to not be afraid of networking from scratch – write to that fancy professor in your field and ask if they are interested in your ideas!

Jill Alpes, from the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research, shared her journey to a non-academic post-PhD life. The route to working for a consultancy or NGO is just as challenging as that into academia. However, don’t be afraid to approach consultancies and NGOs with ideas on how our work can add to theirs. NGOs and consultancies have a more collaborative nature than academia, thus, learning how to adapt to that environment is key.

All in all, the PhD workshop series was an interdisciplinary knowledge forum in which participants could engage with questions pertinent to their research and seek advice for how to overcome some of the challenges that arose in view of the pandemic. The online format of this year’s conference confidently provided attendees with a feeling of community as we strive to understand the future of migration studies at IMISCOE. Walking into the next stages of our PhD careers, we can look back at the gains in knowledge and connections that the conference provided as important steppingstones for our future journeys.

Carolin Müller is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University, focusing on arts-based pro-immigration activism, community projects, and literature. Her PhD project explores the space of musical activism that challenges anti-immigrant and neo-fascist attitude in Germany. She looks at how coalitions between musicians make for reimagining belonging, participation and understanding of citizenship through creative strategies where migrants and refugees are denied rights.

Thanks to Olav Nygård, Lisa-Marie Kraus and Marina Lazëri, who attended workshop sessions 2, 3 and 4, for their contributions to this blog post as the workshops were held simultaneously.

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