2nd year of the PhD: facing new challenges

Some people say that the 2nd year is the most exciting and easiest stage of the full PhD process. On the one hand, I agree with this, because at this point you know what you should do exactly and it is still far to write the whole thesis. On the other hand, each PGR student has its own path depending on her/his research project, so you never know what challenges may arise at this stage. During my 2nd year of the PhD in Sociology at the University of Manchester, I completed fieldwork, analyzed most of the empirical data, and gained teaching experience. I decided not to make these things all together and spent several months for each of these activities separately.

Teaching

In September 2018, I came back to Manchester from the 2nd field trip to Russia and as a teaching assistant joined two courses, Media, Culture & Society and Researching Culture & Society, given at the University of Manchester. Before the PhD I had already taught in Moscow Universities. However, as far as British and Russian systems of higher education differ, there was something new for me to learn. New teaching assistants have to take introductory courses explaining, for example, how to protect confidential information about students, how to solve a problem of cultural diversity in the classroom, how to assess students’ records and give feedback, etc. Only after the completion of these introductory courses you are allowed to start teaching.

IMG_2772The Whitworth Building of the University of Manchester. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

From October to December 2018, I gave seminars (called tutorials at the University of Manchester) in four groups, in two for each of the course. There were approx. 10 students in each group. It took me two-three days of preparation, and one day of teaching. Normally teaching assistants should read the required and additional literature for tutorials (up to 10 positions for one tutorial) and facilitate a discussion in the classroom. Lecturers prepare questions for the discussion beforehand. You may be creative and add something else but a seminar has already a structure though. The things you are required to do is to help students to get answers to the questions based on the reading and support them in critical debating the issues formulated by the lecturer.

By the mid-autumn, each student had to submit a written work on one of the topics proposed by the lecturer and based on the recommended reading. For me, the assessment of students’ essays was the most time-consuming part of teaching. It was absolutely different from the assessment process I used to do in Russian Unis. At the University of Manchester, you should estimate an essay on a 100-point scale and explain in detail (i.e. to write feedback), why you gave a particular mark to a student. In addition, you should assess different elements of each essay on a 10-point scale, e.g. creativity, methodology, originality, critical reflection, arguments, etc.

IMG_2780.JPGThe campus of the University of Manchester. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

At the time of teaching, I spent one-two days in the working week for my PhD research and sometimes weekends. In spite of new challenges, it was really great for me to change the activity: to switch from fieldwork to teaching. In addition, I got to know some new approaches from the course Media, Culture & Society, which I may use in PhD, and broadened knowledge in qualitative research methods thanks to the course Researching Culture & Society. At the beginning of December 2018, I went to Boston to present PhD research at the Annual Conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. After coming back to Manchester I gave the final class and in the next couple of days headed to Moscow to undertake the final phase of fieldwork.

Fieldwork

The research design of my PhD project ‘Working-class life and struggle in post-Soviet Russia’ is based on the approach of multi-sited ethnography and involved collecting ethnographic data in two localities. Fieldwork took place in two field sites and was split into three phases. By the end of the 1st year of the PhD (read more: here), I had two field trips to Yekaterinburg and Moscow and collected most of the empirical data in two industrial neighbourhoods located in these two cities. After the 2nd field trip, I formulated some new suggestions, which needed to be supported by additional empirical data.

To check the provisional arguments, I decided to undertake the 3rd phase of fieldwork in Moscow between December 2018 and January 2019. During this final field trip, I came back to the examined Moscow neighbourhood and conducted some more interviews with its residents. However, this phase aimed at researching the experiences of workers who took part in trade union activity. As far as this winter field trip coincided with long New Year celebrations in Russia, it was quite problematic to arrange meetings with potential participants. If people agreed for the interviews, our talks were long and occurred in a warm and relaxing atmosphere, sometimes over tea at the participant’s place.

Sociology PGR Colloquium

An announcement of my presentation at the colloquium. Made by Francisca Ortiz Ruiz

In February 2019, I finished collecting data and came back to Manchester being ready to move onto the next stage of data analysis. Finally, my database consisted of 53 ethnographic interviews, 155 pages of field notes, more than 550 photographs and other visual data. I was invited to present the PhD project at the PGR colloquium organized by my peers from Sociology. The process of preparation for the colloquium allowed me to build a more or less coherent visual narrative with sociological ethnography and to see that I had enough empirics for putting a puzzle together.

Data analysis

The spring semester of the 2nd year was fully dedicated to work with empirical data. First of all, interview transcripts needed anonymization and creation of an anonymization log with records about places data, which was removed or replaced by pseudonyms. I changed the names of research participants, and the names of their relatives and friends mentioned in interviews, the names of neighbourhoods, streets, and other recognizable spots, numbers of schools and house buildings, etc.

IMG_5238.JPGMy desk in the office of the Department of Sociology. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

At the next stage, from March to July 2019, I coded all anonymized interview transcripts in NVivo 12 software. Before coding my supervisors advised me to choose three absolutely different interviews from the data set – I chose one interview from each of three fieldwork phases – and to create the initial codes, which changed slightly in the following process of coding. At the beginning, the codes looked a bit unstructured, but later I restructured them and generated child codes related to the key categories. On the one hand, the process of coding was routine and monotonous. On the other hand, coding in NVivo helped me to structure ethnographic data and create a detailed hierarchy of codes, which consists of more than 670 items now.

I generated some codes ‘bottom-up’ from empirical data and some codes ‘top-down’ by keeping in mind theory. Now it is clear that coding in NVivo was the first step toward bridging empirical data with theory, theory with empirical data in my PhD research. Emotions were also there. While rereading interviews, I was sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing. Well, the everyday life of workers in Russia is really hard, but there is also a place for humour and resilience.

IMG_5698Presenting PhD research at the BSA conference. Photo by Francisca Ortiz Ruiz

In April I presented the intermediated results of data analysis at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association which took place in Glasgow. May and June were fully spent on preparing a field report and other research documents for the annual review. In the field report, I tried to write a sociological ethnography – which was not easy for me – and figured out how the empirical chapters of the thesis may look like. At the end of the 2nd year of the PhD I presented the field report at the annual review. The reviewer gave me insightful feedback on empirical research and helpful advice on the theoretical framework. Inspired by the stimulating discussion at the annual review, I am looking forward to moving onto the next stage and starting writing the thesis.

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