'It was a rounded experience'
Dr Rachel Hanna
Dr Rachel Hanna talked to us about the benefits of being a DTP doctoral student, using ethnographic observation and critical thinking in a non-academic career, and the importance of a work-life balance when studying for a PhD.
Rachel started her AHRC-funded doctoral studies in 2014 at Queen’s University of Belfast and was one of the first students to be funded through the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) grant scheme. Her academic interest which she explored in her doctoral thesis was sociolinguistics in the context of global migrations, and her thesis analysed the perception of asylum seekers’ life stories. Since successfully completing her PhD in 2019, Rachel now uses her interdisciplinary background in linguistics and anthropology, working on a project analysing and supporting Northern Irish churches’ engagement with migrants who are speakers of other languages, including multilingual people.
Rachel says she wouldn’t have been able to undertake her doctoral studies or her Master’s degree without AHRC funding. As an AHRC alumna she talked us through a long and varied list of opportunities she was given access to when she was a doctoral student at AHRC Northern Bridge DTP. ‘I was a part of the first intake of Northern Bridge consortium, and I think everyone was quite excited about what this was going to mean for PhD students’. As a DTP student Rachel had a chance to network with other students researching similar topics (although she admits linguists were a minority in her cohort) at joint Northern Bridge events, attend training sessions on general doctoral skills, did fieldwork trips and work placements. Visiting an archive in Sheffield helped her to gather resources for her research whereas three short-time placements: with a Belfast-based community arts and heritage organisation ‘ArtsEkta’, Northern Ireland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (since mid-2016 incorporated into the Department for Communities), and Research and Information Services at the Northern Ireland Assembly, allowed her to explore various types of jobs available for linguists outside academia and decide which career paths could be suitable for her. See page 30 of ‘The Impact of ARHC Research April 2015 – March 2016’ report to read more about Rachel’s placements.
Apart from specific knowledge of the subject matter and methodologies used within the discipline, Rachel’s current job as a Sociolinguistic Specialist with SIL International, a Christian charity documenting and supporting development of languages which forms a part of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc., requires utilising transferable skills that she ‘carried over’ from her PhD. Critical thinking and the ability to undertake independent research is at the top of the list, combined with ethnographic observation skills, intercultural communication and the understanding of ethical context of researching the landscape of migration.
There is also a broad spectrum of other ‘soft skills’ the PhD gave her: confident public speaking, project management, networking, teaching and community engagement. Contacts and professional relationships established during Rachel’s studies proved to be very valuable to her and allowed her to get a good awareness of the range of organisations working with migrants (not just asylum seekers) in Northern Ireland. She also mentions that with a PhD comes a certain level of respect in the academic and non-academic environment.
Asked to give some advice to current and prospective AHRC-funded doctoral students, Rachel starts with emphasising the importance of maintaining a good work-life balance in the competitive environment of academia and avoiding falling into a state of mind she calls ‘the comparison trap’. ‘Everyone’s PhD is so different’ – says Rachel – ‘so just focus on getting your research done and don’t compare yourself to others’. She also strongly encourages students to make the most of opportunities that AHRC studentships provide, especially work placements, as well as to consider how doctoral research could be applied for the greater good. ‘While you have shown a certain degree of academic calibre to get an AHRC studentship, I don’t think you should take that for granted. It’s public money, therefore you need to be responsible and think what impact it could create for the wider society, not just for you personally’.