by Elke Close

Since I started my studies almost eight years ago, I have learned quite a few things: for one I quite like doing research, I love Ancient History and, perhaps the least surprising fact of all, academia is never the same in two countries. Having studied in three countries, I have experienced first-hand that higher education and everything that comes with it – i. e. research, administration, tutoring and its place in society – is organised in very different ways. For example, in Belgium a PhD student is, in most cases, considered as someone with a full-time job who is paid a complete wage by the university that employs them: unlike in the UK, you’re no longer a student. While I was vaguely aware of all of these differences, I was at a seminar in Berlin a few weeks ago organised by ISHA (International Students of History Association) which focused on showing its participants what different career paths historians end up in.

During one of their events – a round table discussion on the topic of “Young Historians in Europe” – I was listening to all of these people talk about how things were done at their universities and how history was seen and used by society throughout the world, and it led me to a discussion centred on the question of whether or not PhD students would benefit from a PhD process that was the same in every country. Wouldn’t it be better if every university gave PhD students who wanted the chance to tutor? If examiners would evaluate graduating PhD students using the same criteria? And if everyone wrote their dissertation in English? Or if one’s PhD was seen as a a full-time job (I think a lot of you wouldn’t say no to this particular option)? It certainly would be much easier in many cases, just think about the distinct referencing systems (which I am sure have had you cursing at your computer screen on many occasions) or even worse the requirements stated by periodicals, conferences or courses for submissions (be sure to read the guidelines for these things about a gazillion time before submitting anything!).

It also made me realise once again that this diversity in the academic world is what makes the PhD experience and academia in general worthwhile and it is something that every aspiring scholar needs to be aware of since a lot of academics quite frequently move from one institution to another during their career, often in different countries. While there is nothing wrong with staying at the same university for your degrees, I think studying in different countries can be extremely helpful because of the different experiences studying in other countries offer you. At every new institution, you are forced to familiarise yourself with the administration of the university (which can be an absolute pain), the way your subject is taught, what is the best way to do your research and how you should or should’t write. It may take some time, but eventually the experience and knowledge you gain from these varying academic approaches or instructors will end up shaping your research in very definite ways. For me, spending my Erasmus year in Greece would eventually lead to my interest in the Hellenistic period – my current research project -because I had to write a paper on the period for one of my courses. Or because of my undergraduate studies in Belgium, I have the necessary knowledge of modern political theory to help me with the most theoretical part of my thesis.

So being aware of how things are done at other universities or talking to fellow students from other countries is a good thing. You never know what will happen in the future: you might be talking to someone from France about your thesis when they tell you about a methodological approach that is the key to solving your writer’s block or you could be doing a postdoc in Germany in which case local knowledge makes this move much easier.  Of course, while the PhD process might vary wildly from one place to another, there are still many elements that we all share making one’s PhD a shared but still unique experience: we struggle with the same ups and downs during research projects (some of which have been chronicled very well here), proving that academia around the globe is like two sides of the same coin, very different though still the same at the most important level.

Elke Close is a final year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh and is working on the influence of the Greek polis of Megalopolis on the ancient federal state known as the Achaean Koinon. She is the Webmaster of ISHA International and Pubs and Publication’s Publicity Editor. You can find her on her page or on twitter as @ElkeClose.

Picture 1 (c) Elke Close