Becoming an Expert
Vigjilenca Abazi on her experiences as a PhD Researcher
Vigjilenca Abazi is currently in her third year as a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Columbia Law School (beginning January 2014).
‘During my LLM studies in International and European Law at the University of Amsterdam, I worked as a research assistant and I liked the academic environment here. I heard there was a call for PhD candidates, and although I was immediately very interested, I was doubtful whether to apply. The trigger for me was when a professor encouraged me to apply, trusting that I would make a good candidate.’
Vigjilenca submitted her research proposal on secrecy and transparency in the European Union, and passed both the pre- and final selection processes. ‘The procedure takes time. Since you’ll be part of the Faculty research staff, the proposals are closely scrutinized, which I appreciate. I also liked the fact that the interviews touched on the human side of the PhD adventure as well. When you apply, you don’t foresee all the consequences, but you really should consider how you feel about spending four years doing this research, living in Amsterdam, the financial consequences, and so on.’
Support and guidance
‘What I like about doing a PhD at the University of Amsterdam is that researchers engage with each other. Everyone is open to read your work and give constructive comments and advice, even if they’re not your supervisor. The atmosphere is welcoming and supportive, and the PhD community is very vibrant. We organise informal PhD forums where we present our research, read and critically analyse different strands of literature and – very importantly- receive training on academic writing and how to do better research. This is in addition to the formal PhD education programme that we have during the first year of research.
The supervisors are there to give you initial guidance as well. When you are appointed, you draw up a plan with your supervisor and the PhD candidates' dean. This is a good opportunity to reflect on a variety of issues, like research methodology and its consequences for your time allocation - for example, doing interviews or empirical work takes more time than reading - teaching subjects, whether you want to spend some time abroad. There’s a sense of both guidance and scrutiny.’
‘I strongly believe this is a place where merit is cherished. Anyone with a good proposal and a strong educational background can apply. The faculty offers a diverse and open environment that brings together young scholars from all around the world. We also receive many visiting PhD students who stay here for a while, which is good for us as well as for them, because we both take away a lot of interesting input from these encounters. Also, Amsterdam is a pleasant, cosmopolitan place to live. There is so much going on here - lots of cultural activities and plenty of ways to have a good time outside of work.’
Passion and pace
‘In my opinion, the type of person who would do well as a PhD student is someone who is curious and wants to critically reflect on a topic. You will live with this topic for four years of your life, so it has to be something that you’re passionate about and that you can truly see the relevance of. Some people see their PhD project as a means to get somewhere else, others have come across an issue in their work that needs solutions, and so they want to figure that out. I think it’s important to always keep in mind why you’re doing the PhD. Planning well, knowing where you want to go with your project and knowing yourself and your work ethic, are all critical. Remember, you need to keep the motivation for your work and the pace for four years.’
An average day as a PhD student
‘On an average day, I wake up early to be at the office around 8 a.m. I start with typing out my ideas for the chapter that I am working on, until about 10 a.m. Then I take some time for administrative issues and e-mail, and then I read until the lunch break. The lunch break is often the highlight of the day, because we take our lunch together with a group of PhD students, and although we could talk about music, films, or any type of light subject, we almost always end up debating current issues within the European Union.
After lunch, I read some more for my research until I go home. When I had just started my PhD, I spent long hours at the office; there was always a new book or article to read! But now as a third-year-PhD, I use most of the time to reflect and write. Of course, the days I have to travel to Brussels to interview officials look very different. I try to cram in as many interviews on the same day as I can, to keep travel costs down.’
When it gets difficult
‘The dean of the Faculty of Law, who is very supportive of young researchers, said something I really liked in one of our PhD forums: Sometimes you experience doubt or other negative emotions during your PhD, but those are simply part of the project. You have to go through those moments. When it gets difficult, that’s when you really are becoming an expert in your field.’