Researching Poland from Abroad: Challenges of Doing a PhD in Area Studies: Insights from the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester
By Lisa J Walters, on 1 September 2022
A PhD is a special but equally challenging period. For those in the midst of it connecting with others in a similar position can make you realise that your experiences are shared by others and for those just about to embark on the PhD journey, an exchange with more experienced PhD candidates can help to mitigate certain challenges from the get-go.
On 23–24 June 2022 during the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester we moderated a session dedicated to the needs of PhD students in Polish Studies. The aim of the session was to discuss challenges students have encountered at different stages of their PhD journey and share experience on how some of these challenges may be overcome. The discussion took place in a friendly and supportive atmosphere of a PhD student network and also invited PhD students at Manchester University researching other countries in the region. Students who attended our session were doing their PhDs at a number of British universities and represented different disciplines, but they had one thing in common: they were all doing research on some aspect of Poland. For many of us this was the first occasion to come together to discuss challenges of researching Poland from abroad. For this reason, we ended up focussing primarily on discussing the challenges themselves, rather than providing solutions.
We’d like to give you a taste of how the discussion went in order to share our experience of what it is like to study Poland from abroad, or more specifically from the UK. We believe that the challenges PhD students (and to a certain extent more senior scholars) in interdisciplinary Polish Studies encounter on the one hand result from the specificity of one’s discipline, and on the other are applicable for anyone doing research in Area Studies in general. While the scholarly debate about the scope and impact of Area Studies is not new, we want to contribute to it here with a practice-oriented approach by presenting some of the results of the group discussions during our workshop session. As most of our cohort have conducted their research through the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Poland’s neighbour Ukraine, we hope to offer fresh insights as well as encouragement to future PhD candidates of Polish studies.
PhD students researching Poland from the UK face a few categories of challenges. The first category were challenges related to doing a PhD in general, regardless of the discipline. This can include building a good relationship with your supervisor, overcoming imposter syndrome, or managing your own schedule. While MA programmes usually offer lots of structure, a PhD is much more dynamic and flexible, which requires better time management. Another challenge that came up many times in the Manchester workshop session was isolation, both academically and at times personally which was amplified by lockdowns during the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. As travelling was heavily restricted, so was access to “the field” in Poland.
The second category of challenges are ones resulting specifically from researching Poland from the UK. These are the challenges that distinguish us from other groups of PhD students, and thus it is this category that we’re going to focus on in this piece. In a nutshell, they could be captured as the constant need for navigating ‘two worlds’ in many aspects of our PhD work while doing our best to bridge them.
One of the most important challenges in that regard is language. This challenge is inscribed in the nature of Area Studies, but it’s also specific to certain disciplines in Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences. There is a need for a fluent command of at least both English and Polish. Almost all the students who attended our session were native speakers of either, which meant that they either faced the challenge of communicating their research or of conducting research in a foreign language (for those wishing they’d grown up bilingual, sociolinguistic research shows that even then you don’t have an equal command of both native languages in all contexts). One of us had an even more complicated story, as she was a native speaker of neither English nor Polish and learnt the two as a foreign language.
Of course, everyone who wants to do a PhD in the UK has to be fluent in English and everyone wanting to research Poland ideally needs to be able to communicate in Polish. But the level of fluency that such research requires is very high and using two languages, including a language that is not your mother tongue, in most aspects of your work can be a challenge. The prevalence of PhD students who speak Polish as their first language reflects the current state within the discipline in the UK. The language question is a crucial one, but this should not deter those without Polish as their first language or without Polish heritage: a PhD programme is also a time of learning, and nothing improves language skills more than fieldwork. Moreover, having a friend who is willing to help with language questions can be a game changer.
Another big challenge is finding the environment to discuss your research in a constructive and helpful way. While the supervisor and student expertise are rarely a ‘perfect’ match (and in fact, they shouldn’t be in order for the student to be able to make their own original contribution), for students researching Poland from the UK it usually means the supervisor is either an expert in their field (and their expertise is not on Poland) or an expert on Poland (and thus they do not necessarily have the same disciplinary background). The same applies for a larger departmental community, which can result in the need for students to seek colleagues outside their own university or department (and often outside the UK), bearing in mind they need experts both in their field and on Poland. Of course, this can lead to stimulating and fruitful networking, but if you’re just starting your PhD journey, figuring out how to go about it can be intimidating and frustrating at times.
Finally, a big challenge seems to be what could be called managing two different academic cultures. For instance, there is a clash between British procedural requirements and Polish practice and culture. In our session in Manchester, e.g., sociologists pointed out how British research ethics paperwork could often be discouraging to some Polish interviewees, who were deterred by the very idea of signing a consent form. Historians, e.g., talked about different procedures regarding access to archives, which often contributed to delays in data collection. Many attendees at our session shared their experience of presenting at conferences or spending time as a visiting PhD student in Poland. While it may seem like a completely straightforward idea, it’s not always easy. Some of us have been treated with a sense of suspicion in terms of our ‘true’ understanding of Poland because of our British affiliations (some of us have been told, e.g., that we don’t understand Poland living abroad), which obstructs exchange of ideas and constructive feedback. Presenting at a disciplinary conference in Western Europe isn’t free of challenges, either. In many cases, the audience learns so much about Poland during your presentation that their feedback fails to address its content in more depth. Some of the feedback we have received was limited to how interesting the paper was or to how well we did presenting in a foreign language.
While for some of these challenges we could share solutions and copies strategies from our experience, others are more tricky to overcome. We feel like coming together and being able to discuss them with other researchers encountering similar obstacles is already a helpful strategy. It is also key to finding ways to overcome them as a community of Polish Studies scholars. For this reason, we’re planning to continue exploring challenges of researching Poland from the UK during next editions of the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester by devoting specific sessions to some of the most pressing issues.
The point of our blog post is not to lament the fate of PhD students researching Poland from abroad, and neither was it a goal of the session in Manchester. Rather, our intention has been to reflect on the specificity of such a set-up. We believe that while to some degree these challenges may be mitigated with time and experience, they are inherent in the nature of studying a country from abroad, especially a CEE country from the ‘West’. Dialogue is key for the progress of scholarship and thus it’s important that researchers stay connected, but we believe that this need for connection is even more pressing in the case of researchers of Poland based in the UK. The challenge for scholars of Polish Studies is to manage two things at once for which the Polish language has one word: tłumaczyć, i.e., to explain and to translate at once. This is what we’re hoping to achieve within the BASEES Polish Studies Group, but it is by no means the only way.
This connection with other scholars is not just about finding others in the same boat for support, consolation or even exchange of ideas. It is also, and most importantly, absolutely essential to produce solid and unique research that bridges different perspectives. That uniqueness of perspective, we believe, is the beauty of researching Poland from the ‘West’. Polish Studies are not only participating in scholarly exchange, but also in a position to make a meaningful contribution to the dialogue between the ’East’ and the ‘West’ in general and between specific societies in particular, a dialogue whose importance has become even more salient in the light of recent developments in Europe. And that’s why we’re doing it.
The Polish Studies Group Early-Stage Academics Network is welcoming interested PhD students and early-stage academics to join. If you want to join the network please email Carolin Heilig, firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Early-Stage Academics Network’s activities and BASEES Polish Studies Group’s activities is disseminated through the BASEES PSG Mailing list.