PhD Blog: The First Three Months
Three months in and Lilian Saka has been reflecting on her PhD journey so far. It's still early days, but the first three months have given her a lot to reflect on.
On 1 October 2019, I started a PhD in Global Development at the University of York. Three months in, and I have been reflecting on my journey. It is still early in my studies, but the first three months have been quite full-on, giving me a lot to share.
How I began
In November 2018, I was in full time employment in Lusaka, Zambia, working for a regional non-governmental organisation. One day, on Twitter, I came across an announcement for fully-funded PhD studentships in global development at the University of York. What attracted me to this announcement was one of the topics: Regionalism. I connected with it immediately and prepared my application. A few days later, I was called for an interview, and I was pleased to be then offered the scholarship.
Moving to York
To take the PhD studentship on a full time basis required me to move to York, UK, from Zambia where I had been working and living for 13 years. The visa process was very straightforward, although I found it quite expensive. Fortunately for me, the scholarship paid for it and also covered my flight from Lusaka to the UK. I arrived at Manchester Airport on 26 September 2019 and got on a train to my new home.
My arrival home was a bed and breakfast arrangement in Castleford, West Yorkshire. I had no idea that West Yorkshire was not York. I got the train to Castleford via Leeds, and got the shock that my home was very far from the University of York campus! The next few weeks involved train rides between York and Castleford, connecting at Leeds. Here I got what I call my UK experience, learnt about the rail card, train tickets, changing platforms and all the running that is involved. I was amazed at how people walk very fast while holding a cup of tea or coffee; very strange. I also learnt quickly that sometimes the train you should catch may not show on the screen because it may be a stop-over to a different destination. It was a wonderful but hectic experience, an experience I had never had before, because where I come from this kind of public transit system does not exist.
Getting settled in York
I started looking for accommodation within York, closer to the University. This is when I discovered that York was quite expensive, and somewhere to stay not easy to find. When you see a flat or apartment advertised, by the time you call the agent, they may have already been taken.
I learned later on that things could have been easier if I had just booked on-campus accommodation. There are nice apartments for graduate students, even those for students with children or families. If I had booked in advance, chances are very high that I could have had one, because priority is given to international students who book before the end of August.
Receiving my living stipend from the university depended on me having a local bank account and opening a bank account depended on me having a place of residence in my name.
When you are new in the UK, it is difficult to get accommodation because you have no credit history, so the best solution is to be able to pay six months rent upfront. I managed to mobilise the money, and by the end of October, I had found a flat in the city centre. I had my own home, could cook my own food in my own way and that was a very liberating experience. After finding a home, I also managed to open a bank account. Finally, I felt settled.
Getting started on my PhD
My first meeting with my supervisors was on 2 October 2019. I was so excited to meet the people who interviewed me and selected me for the scholarship. I was mostly just thankful that they chose me and I was so happy to meet them in person. We discussed how the supervision process would work, and my training needs. We identified which classes I needed to take, and then agreed to meet again a week later to give me time to settle in. In our second meeting, we discussed the plan to start studying on the subject and getting to understand my topic, Regionalism.
My first submission was a three-page document and I was nervous of what their feedback would be. I was relieved to find that I was allowed to improve the document without feeling bad about myself. My confidence was boosted having been out of the academic scene for ten years and I hadn’t been sure that I could still write something meaningful, but they were very positive and supportive. I realised immediately that having a good supervisor is a gift that I cannot take for granted. I am truly thankful for this.
For the past several weeks, I have been studying Regionalism, understanding how and why it started, and how it has evolved over time in various regions. I’m learning why it is useful and its role in regional level and national level development; what is working and what is not.
My ultimate aim is to focus on Africa and come up with recommendations on how we can make the most of regional approaches in order to take national and regional development forward.