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What is it like to be a PhD student in our department?

Dr Susan Samata, a recent graduate on our PhD Applied Linguistics programme writes about her experience.

What is it like to be a PhD student in our department?

Well, one of the first things that comes to mind is that this is a dedicated department of applied linguistics- a phenomenon that is becoming all too rare. As a result, when you bring a PhD project to Birkbeck you find an academic community with the specialist interest, resources, and expertise to give advice and guidance on a very wide range of topic areas. The essential interdisciplinarity of applied linguistics is also supported by being a part of the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy. My own research was facilitated by being able to join seminars and workshops offered in Psychosocial Studies, for example.

Another point concerns Birkbeck’s tradition of supporting students who are fitting study around a job, or returning to university after a period in the workplace. Again, applied linguistics is essentially involved in practical problems in which language has a central role; such problems often do not emerge except in a workplace context. Birkbeck students bring experience to bear that is not often found in other universities- a glance at the varied list of research projects undertaken here demonstrates this, with people investigating questions that have arisen in business, teaching, and different areas of social policy. So, alongside the excellent teaching and supervisory staff, the PhD student in applied linguistics at Birkbeck also enjoys the company of stimulating colleagues. I don’t think many student associations can match the breadth and variety of BCALS or the support that is always evident in our seminar series.

In my own case, I had been teaching English to refugees and asylum-seekers for many years, and thought I could see patterns in my students’ evolving language and cultural adaptations to their new environment. For many this was not a situation of their own choosing, the various culture-shocks and demands that they rapidly acquire a new language represented a real challenge to their identity, their sense of self. However, I did not speak any of my students’ first languages and so could not get sufficiently close to them to carry out a meaningful ethnographic study of their experiences. Then a chance remark by a colleague alerted me to the fact that the effects of cultural and language dislocations entailed in migration can persist across generations and, most importantly for me, that language effects are particularly subtle and far-reaching. I decided to attempt an investigation of the second immigrant generation’s experience of not fully sharing a parent’s first language. This was the project I proposed to our applied linguistics department. To call it unfocussed would be charitable, but my supervisor, Professor Li Wei, saw merit in my ideas and guided me to explore different background areas and form a workable methodology. My project had found a home. Over the next three years, I read widely, conducted empirical research, and presented my findings at Birkbeck and at conferences abroad. Working with my supervisor, I refined my ideas and developed them to the point where I could submit a successful PhD thesis which I then adapted as a book, to be published in 2014 as The Cultural Memory of Language, Bloomsbury Academic. That what started as a rather vaguely defined project has come this far is due in large measure to the attitudes and resources found at Birkbeck and also to the wider reputation of our department.

All in all, a dedicated department, matched with the traditional strengths of Birkbeck, University of London, form a uniquely supportive environment in which to pursue PhD research in applied linguistics. I’m thrilled to have the chance to be a part of it!

Dr Susan Samata

Graduated April 2014

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