NWSSDTP Overseas Institutional Visit to Aalborg, Denmark

Joanna Morley, Language Based Area Studies, University of Liverpool, 2017 Cohort

I am currently in the third year of my PhD in Latin America Studies at University of Liverpool. My research aims to understand how hydroelectric projects redefine the political landscapes and social understandings of sustainable energy development in Ecuador, and what this reveals about the localisation of debates surrounding natural resource governance, global sustainable development and climate mitigation policies.

In September 2019 I arrived in Denmark to sunny autumnal weather for a three month Overseas Institutional Visit (OIV) to Aalborg University. My visit was arranged after I attended a conference organised by Dr Malayna Raftopoulos, a previous tutor of mine from the School of Advanced Study at University of London, who is now Associate Professor of Development Studies and International Relations and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Aalborg. During the conference, I was invited to return for an extended research stay to develop my PhD and engage in the academic life at Aalborg. With the support of my supervisor at Liverpool, I applied for the NWSSDTP funding for an OIV which was approved in July. This made made it possible for me to travel to and live in (very expensive) Denmark for the duration of my trip.

Aalborg is a university city which, as I learnt during my visit, is located on the southern side of Limfjord that separates Jutland from Northern Jutland (the most northern region of Denmark) which is about five hours by train or a 45 minute flight from Copenhagen. I was extremely lucky to find accommodation flat-sitting for a staff member of the university who was on research leave at the time, so I had a flat to myself in the centre of town for the duration of my stay. This meant that as well as being able to catch the bus into the university each day  I also had the option to work from home as Aalborg university has a hybrid work model. In the evenings and at the weekends I could also walk into town along the fjord. 

By early October I was definitely aware of being very far north, with the weather having changed (overnight) to freezing cold rain and windy grey days with pitch black darkness at 4.30pm. After embracing the custom of hygge (cosiness), danish pastries and the most efficient heating I’ve ever experienced, I acclimatised to my new surroundings, and when the sun did come out the huge blue skies along the fjord were beautiful and definitely one of the lasting memories I have of my stay

Planning my Overseas Institutional Visit

While arranging my visit and completing the OIV funding application in collaboration with  my supervisor and Dr Raftopoulos (who also did her PhD in Latin American Studies at Liverpool), we agreed on a work plan in which Dr Raftopoulos would give me weekly supervision during my trip and I would continue to catch up with my supervisor in Liverpool each month on the phone. The purpose of the trip, we agreed, was to work on my methodology and theory chapters, and also take advantage of the opportunity to present and share my research with other PhDs and academics working in similar fields, as well as to receive their feedback about my research. Additionally, Dr Raftopoulos and I planned to co-write an article for publication and I would present a guest lecture to students on the International Development and International Relations MA programme.

Working in the Department of Political Science, Aalborg University

I was given a desk in the departmental PhD office which proved really beneficial as it helped me get to know the other PhDs at Aalborg and have a social life. It also meant that I could talk to them about my experience and ask them for help and guidance, whether this was negotiating Danish customs — such as the exchange rate which I never really mastered (£1 was equivalent to 12 Danish Krone) and no curtains in homes — or the Danish working culture — working hours (anytime from 7am with communal staff lunchtime anytime from 11am, and then the university almost deserted by 2pm) and adjustable desks so it is very common to see people standing up while working. The PhD office was also located next to the offices of faculty staff who would regularly pop in, and so being in the heart of the department helped me understand the differences between doing a PhD in the UK and in Denmark. For example in Denmark PhDs are treated and paid as staff with the same benefits, including a pension and paid maternity leave — in fact it is very common for PhDs in Denmark to take at least one maternity leave whilst doing their PhD. I also discovered that university staff can have a massage on a monthly basis on campus at a heavily discounted price to help with back pain from being sat at a desk for so many hours!

In terms of my research, three of the four other PhDs were preparing for their thesis submissions so it was a very focused and productive working environment to step into. This was especially helpful when I came to work on my philosophical framework and my theory chapter, as I was able to do a lot of concentrated reading and also discuss questions or theoretical perspectives with the other PhDs. In return, I was able to offer them help with any English language queries arising from their thesis-writing and proof-reading process. I also attempted to answer/apologise for/ field any Brexit questions they had as the 31st October deadline loomed… In fact this made for a lot discussion in the kitchen from staff in the department, including those on the European studies course(!) while waiting by the coffee machine and/or fruit box provided by the university.

Working on my Phd

At the beginning of my visit I worked on my methodology chapter and Dr Raftopoulos and I co-wrote an academic article on the fires in the Brazilian Amazon that had been in the news over the summer. This was valuable experience in planning and writing a journal article, and taught me the importance of having a strong theoretical foundation to use for the analysis. It also helped my research horizons to move beyond my PhD, so that while environmental politics feature in my research into hydroelectric dams in Ecuador, here we analysed environmental politics in a different case study and country, but the same regional context. While working on my methodology and philosophical framework chapter, I was able to attend and participate in lectures on research methodologies, including some which were not covered at Liverpool. I was also able to participate in lectures delivered by visiting academics from other institutions, such as a workshop on research design given by Donatella de la Porta from the Center on Social Movement Studies (Cosmos) at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. I also began working on my theory chapter, and through sharing my research with other academics (see below) and my supervision sessions we chose to look at the Bob Jessop’s work on the State — as a social reality involving relations of power and the internationalisation of state policy — as a framework for my research. And so after a lot of reading I began to work on the draft chapter.

Sharing my research

As part of my stay I was invited to share my research in a presentation at a lunchtime lecture for the Centre for Environmental Humanities at Aarhus University (two hours south of Aalborg so a day trip away). This was the result of an informal agreement that exists between Latin American Studies at Aalborg University and Brazilian Studies at Aarhus University, that when one institution has a visiting researcher the other will host them to give additional talks at their institution. My lecture at Aarhus included a discussion and feedback from the audience made up of students and staff who work on similar subjects to my own. This led me to expand my view of my research to consider how it could have an impact and how it is seen in other disciplines (eg. by academics focused on international relations, political science, development studies and cultural studies among others). The feedback I received helped me define my research questions and explore my theoretical framework in a strategic and structured way and the experience also gave me an opportunity to contribute to discussions with other academics and to present myself as an ‘academic researcher’ to a new audience. Back at Aalborg University, I attended and presented my research in seminars with other PhDs and also in the academic research groups made up of staff from different disciplines across the university which helped me to further expand and refine my research. It also taught me the importance of presenting myself and my research in a clear, measured and calm way, especially in a setting where English is not the first language.

Teaching experience

I was invited to participate in and deliver a number lectures alongside Dr Raftopoulos on the Latin American specialisation module and also the Development Studies module of the MA in International Development and International Relations. I was also invited to give a class to the BA Spanish students on the International Studies programme in the Faculty of Humanities. I also delivered a guest lecture on ‘Sustainable Development in Latin America’ open to students on all of these programmes. This has been valuable teaching experience, especially as there are no lecture or seminar teaching posts (apart from by invitation or as a single case) in my subject at University of Liverpool. I was also very pleased to be invited back to deliver an updated version of the ‘Sustainable Development’ guest lecture (via Zoom) to the new intake of MA students on the Latin American specialisation module in October this year.

I would definitely recommend doing an OIV to other students, it is a great opportunity to develop PhD research skills and subject knowledge, and to share your research and get feedback in another academic setting. From the supervision and feedback I received, and in discussion with my supervisor at Liverpool, I was able to formulate the beginnings of a methodology, philosophical framework and a theory chapter. Working in the PhD office proved to be very productive, and made a nice change as I live in London and (pre-pandemic) only got to the office in Liverpool every month or so. In terms off my own academic development, from this visit I had the opportunity to co-author a journal article which has now been published, expand my academic network to include other researchers working on similar subjects outside the UK, gained valuable teaching experience which would not have been as available to me at my home institution and develop my skills in presenting myself and my research to an academic audience. Additionally, the OIV is a great opportunity to travel and explore another country and its culture, to meet new people and make friends. It also helps to broaden your academic network and horizons by having experiences and developing skills as an ‘academic researcher’ that may not be as available at your home institution. I am really grateful for the opportunities this OIV visit gave me.

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