PhD is a privilege

PhD is a privilege

Dr. Diana Kopbayeva is a sociologist specialising in the process of nation-building in the post-Soviet territory. Her research interests include nationalism, history writing, postcolonialism in the post-Soviet space. She holds a PhD in sociology from Newcastle University, the United Kingdom. Diana graduated last year and currently teach in the School of Sciences and Humanities at Nazarbayev University.

Diana lists four main reasons behind her decision to commence a PhD. Firstly, she wanted to create knowledge, contribute to her field. According to Diana, PhD is a privilege, which can take you from doing your own research to making important discoveries in your area of study. Your discoveries would bring benefits to experts from their field and beyond, who would be using your research work in their future studies. Second reason that has motivated Diana was her passion about the subject of her research and her desire to learn more. Diana says that five years is a considerable part of your life to be spending it on something that you are not interested in. Moreover, Diana reveals that her innate intellectual curiosity drives her to learn, explore, discover, and the research serves her as the right thing to satisfy that curiosity calling. In addition, Diana’s career ambition to commit to teaching and research seems as another motive that inspired her to pursue a PhD.

Diana has chosen the United Kingdom, because British education is internationally recognised for its excellence in quality of teaching and research. Newcastle University, where Diana completed her doctorate studies, has a world-class reputation for research excellence and is ranked in the top 10 in the United Kingdom for student experience. The department, where Diana belonged, has a strong team of professionals and experts in sociology, while her supervisors had a solid connection to her research field and were interested in her PhD project.

Diana did not have particular difficulties during the application process. The most important thing is to be clear about what a student wants to do and to identify a research subject. Once a person has a clear idea about the research topic, the next step is to identify the department and find a supervisor. One should put ideas on the paper, which is a Project Proposal, and ask a supervisor for a feedback. Diana began preparing to apply for a PhD one year before the application process, including several months of negotiation with a potential supervisor and developing a research proposal.

Dr. Kopbayeva advises future and current graduate students to develop strong time management skills. The successful completion of a PhD program heavily depends on how students manage their time. In the United Kingdom, a PhD program does not normally require students to attend many lectures. Students spend most of the time in the offices or laboratories working on their research. Other than this, students also attend research seminars and present their work at conferences. Besides, they are likely to teach for a few semesters and have monthly meetings with supervisors, who expect that a PhD student prepare a certain amount of work in advance for demonstration. A student should be prepared to adjust a PhD schedule for different sorts of delays as well since it often happens in academic life of a PhD student. One should be organised to fit all those in your schedule and find a healthy work-life balance.

Second advice that Diana would like to share with PhD students is to not underestimate the research skills and develop them during a PhD program. A student should be familiar with library search skills, have a good command of computing skills, be able to use various data analysis and reference software. It is also important to identify the research skills that would be needed for development of a research. For example, many universities offer various programs specifically developed for postgraduate research training. In addition, attending workshops and signing up for training sessions on research skills is beneficial as well.

Last but not least advice from Diana is to consider PhD as a full-time job, not a study in its conventional understanding. A PhD student is expected to be working long hours that often include weekends and holidays. PhD students take vacations as other people, but it is very common for research students to be continuing doing academic work such as reading literature review, drafting chapters or data analysis. Even when researchers are not engaged in their work physically, they always think about it.

Despite all the challenges and hard work of a postgraduate learning, Diana finds research life rewarding. Passion for a project serves as motivation to keep going.

Life in the United Kingdom was not entirely new to Diana. She competed her Master’s in the United Kingdom. She would like to emphasize few things that she loved about everyday life in the country. First, the ever-present small talks everywhere whether it would be at a bus stop, in a lift, on a hallway, people would be having short friendly chats about weather, plans for a weekend. Having a small talk with a stranger seem to be very natural in the United Kingdom. According to Diana, small talks help to develop communication skills and might be used as ice-breaking activities in the class.

Second favorite thing about living in Britain is that politeness is an essential part of daily life. In the United Kingdom, one would hear “Thank you” and “Sorry” everywhere, whereas in Kazakhstan that is not common. Diana thinks that politeness should be present in all societies.

Diana placed weather as a next most favorite thing about the United Kingdom. She considers climate there mild with warm and wet winters, and comfortably warm summers. In contrast with Nur-Sultan, where sharp changes in temperature throughout the year is a norm, mild British weather creates conditions to spend a lot of time outdoors at any time of the year. A lot of rain in England is not a problem for Diana since she enjoys rainy weather. The rain comes in all four seasons, hence the air is highly humid, which is good for skin by the way.

As said by Diana, long hours of hard work, colossal amount of personal investment, isolation and thought that a PhD project solely depends on you lead to an almost constant feeling of pressure, which inevitably affects negatively a student’s emotional and physical well-being. At some point in her PhD studies, Diana started feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Her supervisors were first to contact; they were wonderful in explaining her that it is absolutely fine to ask for help and that it is common for PhD students to feel stressed out. Luckily, Diana attended workshops organized by the university and specifically designed to help PhD students to cope with pressures of research. Diana says that it is very helpful to talk about your worries with someone, and it is even better if that person is a student counsellor. Despite the fact that mental health is often stigmatised in academia, it is quite crucial to take care of mental health and ask for help! Most of the British universities offer free and confidential counselling services to their students. From Diana’s personal experience of dealing with stress from studying, simple day-to-day activities such as eating healthy, sleeping sufficiently, exercising, spending time in nature, socialising with friends at least once a week and most importantly talking to PhD peers have helped her to sustain healthy mental state.

Diana did not experience, in general, a significant reverse shock upon her arrival to Kazakhstan. According to her, she was too busy with attending job interviews and volunteering after returning. Moreover, shortly after her arrival, she started working at Nazarbayev University where she found herself in a familiar academic environment and an English-speaking community that helped to smooth the adaptation process. Surely, Diana reminisces her friends she made abroad and her experience in the United Kingdom, particularly during the pandemic.

Diana emphasises three main differences that she has noticed between education system in Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom. She has opinion not only as a student, but also sees a situation from a teacher’s viewpoint since she has a teaching experience both in the United Kingdom’s and Kazakhstan’s universities. Firstly, teaching and research are inseparable elements of education in the United Kingdom. Whether it is undergraduate or a graduate students, they are expected to spend most of their time studying independently. Professors give feedback on student’s work, but it is the student’s responsibility for further improvement of the work through searching, reading and learning. When Diana used to teach in Kazakhstan almost 10 years ago, she felt that both students and the university management expected instructors to be responsible for students’ progress. As a lecturer, she used to spend long hours trying to facilitate seminar discussions, while students seem to be indifferent to the study, and often unprepared. Lecturers also spend a lot of time preparing students for exams because without such preparation number of students who failed would be much higher. Diana strongly believes that learning is the responsibility of a student.

Second difference that Diana has noticed between higher education system in England and Kazakhstan is that any idea has the right to live and any opinion matters and will be respected in British universities. A student can be certain that a professor and peers will note various opinions on a topic. Group discussions teach students to learn how to express their points of view on a matter, how to develop arguments and respect opinions of there. Moreover, professors act as a moderator rather than teacher. They teach ways of approaching a problem critically and communicating ideas and opinions to others. In addition, Diana points out that relationship between a lecturer and a student in the United Kingdom demonstrates much less hierarchy and is built on equality and respect.

In terms of advices for future PhD students, Diana suggests to prioritise the research, not the name of the university. While the reputation of the university is important, the reputation of a specific department is far more crucial because a student develops research collaborations there. For instance, the department of Sociology at Newcastle University researches highest academic quality and it has established a Sociology Unit within the Russell group. Most importantly, the department has research clusters on the topic of Diana’s research.

Moreover, Diana advices potential doctoral students to actively search for information about PhD programs by thoroughly studying the information on the university websites, consulting professors from previous Master’s or/and undergraduate programs, the alumni from the department a student is applying. For example, social media such as LinkedIn or Facebook could be used to find the contacts of the alumni.

The last but not the least advice that Diana would like to share with future PhD students is to choose supervisors wisely. Diana’s supervisors and their competence, professionalism and support have played a huge role in her successful completion of a PhD. Moreover, Diana suggests bearing in mind risks of choosing a well-established, very reputable academic in the field such as his/her shortage of time to meet up with students. Regular meetings with supervisors during which a student receives feedback are crucial for steady progress. Furthermore, it might be not be a good option to select a supervisor close to retirement or planning to change the university because there is a risk of end up seeking for new supervisor in the middle of a PhD programme, which is likely to add more stress to studying. In addition, relationship with a supervisor is crucial. It is important to build effective collaboration with supervisors, as a PhD student will be working with him/her for several years. Diana has known her supervisor since Masters programme and they both have had great chemistry with each other. The second supervisor Diana has heard about from other PhD students and the faculty in the school before she started working with him, and need up being great team.

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