As I complete my first year as a research student in the DPhil in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, I was asked to share some thoughts. My initial intuition was to think along the lines of "what I wish I'd been told before starting". However, I've understood that what works best for me is probably not what works best for others. In addition, some may say that the DPhil process in 2020-2021 is not comparable to other years. In particular, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted so many of the structures which typically support students throughout their academic life. Indeed, we had limited access to in-person lectures, most opportunities for formal and informal exchanges were transferred online, study and leisure environments were closed off, the list goes on. Nonetheless, I would argue that Covid or not, conducting a DPhil is an incomparable experience in and of itself, such that what follows are just a few reflections on a very personal experience in a position of immense privilege.
Personal experience of the DPhil
In hindsight, one of the main worries I had before starting a DPhil was how isolating I was warned the process might be. There’s a difference between feeling isolated and feeling independent. The scholarly autonomy I had in devising research directions is not a condition of the current global pandemic but a reflection of what is expected of all us DPhils: to learn how to think, think for ourselves and think within well-established theoretical disciplines. What is not a solo process is the acquisition of the analytical rigour in expressing and defending these views. For this, trust that you will not be left to your own devices.
I have two anecdotes which come to mind. First, I presented my research to the team at the Centre on Migration, Policy & Society (COMPAS) during Michaelmas term. This was nerve racking since there’s no bluffing as to how much you know about your topic. Second, I was pushed well beyond my comfort zone during my transfer of status by the two assessors. Yet what I learned from these experiences was to engage with challenging discussions as positively as possible. I learned to embrace this essential outside perspective on intrinsically driven research interest, interests which I expect to largely define my career as an academic. Similarly, COMPAS brings together scholars from different cultural, educational, methodological backgrounds. The Centre's collegial attitude towards knowledge production and in particular, Knowledge Exchange, was just as valuable in the research refinement process as the resources I choose to review independently.
Beyond the DPhil program
In essence, the University of Oxford is a myriad of networks in which one can find comfort in similarity, stimulation in difference. My first year was rich in interactions with fellow migration study DPhils, with medical and social science students at Green Templeton College, and sparring partners at Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club. These contributed equally to the development of my research topic and to myself as a person. Looking back on how much such networks tried to keep things “normal” in the depths of lockdown makes me feel ever so grateful.
Beyond the University
This could be a good concluding remark, to reap the benefits of being at Oxford beyond the tangible structure of your own degree. We can go one step further still. Throughout my first year (and most likely for the following two years), I worked as a part-time researcher for a business school on topics unrelated to Migration studies. This was a substantial commitment driven by not having secured funding. However, working alongside University helped me to better manage the time I allocate to my DPhil. It helped me look at my research with a fresh mind every day. It also helped reduce the moments where I felt overwhelmed by the immensity of what I could decide to focus on. And, working alongside the DPhil has been, to contradict my own initial comment, something I wish I had been told was achievable before even starting the programme.
More information is available here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/courses/dphil-migration-studies
About the author: Daisy Pollenne is a DPhil candidate in Migration studies at COMPAS. Her research focuses on the impact of integration policies for refugees in France and in the UK.