Alexandra Forrester (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.
Ghassan Moazzin (Current PhD student writing up his thesis in modern Chinese history)
I started my PhD in modern Chinese history (supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council doctoral scholarship) at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES) in 2012 after having read Chinese as an undergraduate here before. Making the transition from being an undergraduate to becoming a PhD student was somewhat daunting at first. While I enjoyed the new freedom to follow my interests and delve into my research on foreign banking in late 19th and early 20th century China, in the beginning I was at times not sure how to actually do a PhD. Fortunately, both the guidance of my supervisor and advisor and the courses at the University’s Researcher Development Programme quickly helped me develop a clear research plan and structure my studies in terms of what classes to attend and audit, what seminars to attend and how to prepare my first-year progress reports. The DEAS Postgraduate Seminar gave me the opportunity to start presenting my work in a friendly environment and to meet other graduate students in the faculty. Starting from the first year of my PhD, funding from the Faculty and my College also enabled me to spend several Easter and summer breaks collecting archival materials in British and German archives.
During my first year, I also discussed my plans for archival work in China with my supervisor. Not only did he suggest possible sources of funding but through a partnership he had established with East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai I was able to find a Chinese advisor and an affiliation with a Chinese university for the period of my archival work, which made everything much more convenient and easy to organise. Subsequently, research funding from both the German Academic Exchange Service and the partnership programme with ECNU allowed me to spend sixteen months conducting archival work in China. Spending such an extended period of time in China allowed me to visit numerous archives in China from Tianjin and Beijing in North China to Nanjing and Guangzhou in the South and unearth many hitherto unused primary sources crucial for my research. Throughout the period I spent in China, I kept in touch with my supervisor and also benefitted from the guidance of my Chinese advisor and the history faculty at ECNU. Contacts of the Faculty to the Academia Sinica in Taiwan also allowed me to spend a month collecting sources in archives in Taiwan.
After my return to Cambridge, I began writing up my thesis. In the writing-up process, I again benefitted from the guidance of my supervisor and other members of faculty in East Asian Studies. Participating in the weekly China Research Seminar at FAMES, which brings many prominent scholars in Chinese Studies to the Faculty, as well as in the numerous seminars at the Faculty of History provided the ideal intellectual environment for the writing-up process. Moreover, financial support from both the Faculty and my College allowed me to present my work at national and international conferences, where I could receive useful feedback and meet with other researchers in my field. I was able to organise a panel for the annual Association for Asian Studies conference, the biggest and most important conference for Asianists. As my doctoral career is drawing to a close, both my supervisor and other faculty members at FAMES and the University’s Careers Service have provided invaluable help in preparing my job applications. In sum, FAMES has provided me with an ideal environment that proved to be both intellectually stimulating and extremely supportive throughout my PhD career.