Alexandra Forrester (MPhil student 2015-16; Current first-year PhD student in Chinese Studies)
Last year I completed my MPhil in Chinese Studies and this year I began my PhD in the anthropology of Chinese religion, both in the Department of East Asian Studies. Having studied Chinese and History at SOAS for my undergraduate degree, I was looking for a course which would be challenging and allow me to develop my research skills. I found the MPhil Programme in Chinese Studies to be flexible and suited to those who want to use their language skills to focus on a specific area of interest, particularly in preparation for a PhD.
During my MPhil, I took courses in ‘Anthropology of China’ and ‘Asia in Theory’, which provided me with a theoretical basis for my research and allowed for group discussions of key themes and concepts. As my focus is on Chinese religion, specifically Daoism, my department arranged for me to take a special module in ‘Ritual and Religion’ to support my dissertation project. In addition to classes with other MPhil students, I had one-on-one teaching for two hours a week with my dissertation supervisor, who is a specialist in the anthropology of Chinese religion, and this really pushed me to develop my ideas and deepen my understanding of the subject. My supervisor also helped me to arrange language exchange with native Chinese speakers on postgraduate programmes in the department. This has fostered a real sense of community and camaraderie in learning which I believe is vital to progress in any degree that requires intensive use of a field language.
The PhD can seem a daunting prospect but with support and input from my supervisor and contemporaries, I am enjoying the process of preparing for my first year report and planning my fieldwork. Postgraduate students have the opportunity to participate in regular seminars in order to practice presenting research and conducting question and answer sessions. These are invaluable as they give us the chance to try out new ideas in a non-judgemental academic environment, and to discuss and defend our work amongst peers before presenting at external conferences. The department also arranges research seminars throughout the academic year, inviting an impressive range of speakers to present on a broad variety of topics. In this way we can get to know academics in our field, build networks, and discuss our research in both formal and informal settings. I have also had the opportunity to attend several external conferences and workshops, including the ‘Shifu Conference’ in Paris which focused on Chinese religion and included an array of researchers who presented on their topics and were keen to discuss with and encourage the postgraduate students. Between the MPhil and the start of the PhD I attended a week long text-reading summer training programme which featured a range of Chinese language materials from Dunhuang manuscripts to Republican period reports. Engaging with these different sources was exceptionally helpful practice for considering material for my own thesis.
The collegiate system at Cambridge also offers many opportunities to broaden one’s interests and skills, providing a necessary counter-balance to the intense rigour of academic life. Colleges arrange lots of events for postgraduates both socially and academically, with many hosting their own postgraduate conferences and speaker events, as well as providing pastoral support for students. I sing with a chapel choir a couple of times a week during term-time which not only allows me to develop my musical skills and expand my knowledge of Western sacred music, but also to get to know people outside my subject area and practice discussing and explaining my research to non-specialists. This unique collegiate system creates a rich and diverse academic environment which supports us in our research and gives us opportunities to develop a wide range of supplementary skills.