My PhD has always been a bit unusual

Judit Fazekas, Postdoctoral Fellow, Psychology, University of Liverpool

As I’m (finally!) at the other side of my PhD, having defended my thesis this March, I thought I would tell you a bit about the life after. My PhD has always been a bit unusual – as soon as I arrived to Liverpool my primary supervisor took up a job at the amazing Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics (MPI). While this is the dream destination for all language researchers, it had a small downside from the point of view of my PhD: namely that it is in a completely different country! While working with an off-site supervisor might be the subject of a whole different blog post, this one is about what happened afterwards, when my dream also came true and I got to join Caroline in the MPI for a year after my PhD.

The MPI is a true wonderland for language researchers, being the only research institute in the world exclusively looking at the psychology of language. Its departments approach this topic from various angles, from genetics to neurobiology. Given my research area, I joined the Language Development Department. The first few months in Nijmegen were amazing, I was getting to know my colleagues and getting involved in the institute’s life, not least by attending an amazing range of lectures and seminars that the MPI hosts all year around. As well as planning a new project building on my previous research, I was also working towards wrapping up my PhD, with my viva scheduled for the March 11th.

This, of course, did not go quite as planned. Not only did we need to reschedule because of the UCU strikes (remember those?), then – I think we all know where this is going – Covid started interfering with our revised plans. For a while even the location wasn’t certain, and we didn’t know which examiners would be able to attend in person and who would have to join via Skype (Zoom wasn’t even a thing yet!). At one stage, it wasn’t even clear whether the university regulations would allow a remote viva at all. As the examiners’ lives were naturally heavily complicated by the unfolding situation, I wasn’t even sure whether we would even be able to have a defence at all until the last minute when everyone showed up on the screen.

Thanks to the understanding and flexibility of the examiners, the defence did go ahead in the end. As it happened in the exact week that the UK went into lockdown and universities scrambled to figure out how to shift online, I think I must have been one of the first people to have had a pandemic viva! Following a chaotic few days and some last-minute travel arrangements, I ended up defending on Skype from a seminar room at the University of Edinburgh. This was an interesting location for me, as I spent multiple years working and studying there before and for a while I even planned doing my PhD there! So defending there was pretty strange feeling to say the least. It did not help that the whole institute had a doomsday feel, staff emptying the offices around me while I discussed my dissertation with the examiners. I managed to grab a quick, celebratory meal of sushi, just hours before the order to shut down all restaurants was issued.

The big advantage of sticking to the original viva date amidst all the uncertainty was that afterwards I was not only finally a doctor, but also allowed me to apply for an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship* (https://nwssdtp.ac.uk/pdf-scheme/), the deadline for which was just three days after my viva. For anyone finishing their PhD soon, this fellowship is really worth checking out – it’s a great opportunity for early career researchers, as it allows them to continue developing and expanding on their PhD project, enhancing its impact through outreach and new publications.

After a little-bit-too-exciting March, the following months were spent very calmly. I had to settle in for the long quarantine months we are all a bit too familiar with. It was a bittersweet time – after enjoying the MPI community so much for just a few short months, working alone was just that little bit more difficult. On the other hand, I have something new (and old) to look forward to, as I will be re-joining the University of Liverpool as an ESRC postdoctoral fellow in November, working with Dr Perrine Brusini to expand the project I started during my PhD and to work with a new age group, babies. While it doesn’t look like the 2020 uncertainty will be ending any time soon, I am looking forward to returning to Liverpool and seeing what the new year brings!

*The NWSSDTP is awaiting details of the 2021 Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme from the ESRC, and this will be communicated in due course.

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