PhD and Me: Transcripts, Episodes 1-4
Welcome (English), Bienvenidos (Spanish), Huānyíng (Mandarin), Ahlanwasahlen (Arabic), Selamat datang (Indonesian)
Kierra: You’re listening to PhD and Me: The Third Degree, a new podcast brought to you by doctoral students from around the world. My name is Kierra Peak, and I’m a third-year graduate student in occupational science at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Matt: And I am Matt Clayton, a third-year graduate student in clinical psychology, also at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Kierra: Our podcast is about the real-life experiences of PhD students walking this sometimes vexing but meaningful path towards the final third degree. We know that PhD life often gives us the third degree, and through this podcast, we’re looking forward to returning the favor. From all of us, we’d like to say welcome to our podcast!
Matt: First, a little bit about us: This podcast is sponsored by the Royster Society of Fellows at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States in collaboration with other doctoral students at King’s College London in the United Kingdom. This is a prestigious, interdisciplinary fellowship program for doctoral students at UNC-Chapel Hill and provides students with a supportive community for their work as well as providing opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Kierra: The idea for this podcast emerged as a part of a global initiative, known as Royster Global, which started in 2017 to engage doctoral students from across the world in interdisciplinary conversations on cross-cutting issues. The initiative culminated in a 2019 conference with attendees from King’s College London, Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, National University of Singapore, and Tubingen University in Germany. Our focus was borders: how borders changed, fortified, weakened, disappeared, or stayed the same within the context of research and universities.
Matt: During the conference, PhD students in vastly different fields across different countries realized a resounding, yet simple truth: we all share similar threads in our PhD journeys. Though all of our paths to the final degree are different and difficult, that doesn’t mean we have to get through them alone. We all know the highs of successes and the lows of the challenges. We know the difficulty of balancing our workload while attempting to gain or maintain a healthy lifestyle. We do our best to fight off the monsters of stress and imposters’ syndrome, while attempting to contribute innovative research to our fields. We all ponder similarly vexing questions from ethical concerns in our work, to how to be a better teacher and mentor, to thinking about how to speak to broader audiences beyond our disciplines. We all traverse the world of complex relationships with our advisors, mentors, and professors. We wanted to build on these conversations and connections, so this podcast does just that. Led by PhD students, we hone in and wrestle with these shared threads of the PhD experience, however difficult they may be.
Kierra: So what will this look like? Join us as we share our experiences getting into and through our doctoral programs, the things that keep us up at night about our work, the higher ed issues that bring us together, and everything in between! Each episode features a rotating panel of Royster fellows, their international collaborators, and guests to discuss wide-ranging issues that matter to us. We hope you’ll enjoy listening to our podcast, join the conversation online, and tell your friends about us as we pull back the curtain a bit on the mysteries of PhD student life. Thank you and see you next time on PhD and Me: The Third Degree.
2. Being A First-Generation PhD Student
[Herrison Chicas]: 0:01
It was a tweet heard around the first gen world. In April of 2020, a PhD student had shared on Twitter that her grant application had been rejected. Why? Apparently, her reviewer did not believe that she was capable of carrying out her study because of her GPA and her first generation status. The tweet ends with I am livid. LIVID is in all caps.
Soon after, professors, doctors, and other PC students from around the country chimed in on Twitter, many of them first generation themselves. The tweet was replied, retweeted, and “liked” thousands of times as it made its rounds. It struck a chord. A chord that the first gen community is all too familiar with and one that highlights the experience many first generation graduate students have. A constant struggle to try to prove that we are more than capable. That we too bring great ideas that more importantly, we belong.[Various Speakers]: 1:11
Welcome (English), Bienvenidos (Spanish), Huānyíng (Mandarin), Ahlanwasahlen (Arabic), Selamat datang (Indonesian)
Welcome to another episode of my PhD and Me: The Third Degree. My name is Herrison Chicas. I’m a first generation PhD student studying organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In today’s episode, you’ll hear from me and three other first generation PhD students in these three acts, as we talk through our own first gen experience. While we find this course in research around first generation college undergraduate students is more accessible. People do not talk as much about first generation graduate student experience. We are happy to be able to create and share this space with you today.
This is Chris Lane.
[Chris Lane]: 1:57
Yeah, my name is Chris Lane. I’m a rising second year student, a PhD student, in the Human Movement Science program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I actually just graduated last year from the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at UNC, so I decided to spend a couple more years at UNC and I’ve really enjoyed my time so far.
Chris is one of the smartest people I know. But he’s also one of the most down to earth people. I got a chance to meet Chris years ago, and it was awesome to reconnect and talk about our identity as first gen.
And it’s been it’s been so cool to be able to grow with you as a scholar and just reconnect after so many years. But I think we both are having a very similar experience as graduate students, particularly because we’re both first generation, right, and so I wanted to ask, what does first generation mean to you? What does a first generation student mean to you?
Yeah, I think people have many, many definitions of what a first generation student is. But to me, I would say that a first generation student is someone whose parents did not graduate from an academic program. So if it’s undergraduate, a first generation undergraduate student, their parents did not graduate from a four year undergraduate college. If it’s a first generation graduate student, their parents did not graduate from a graduate level program or a PhD program. So yes, that’s what first generation means to me, and I would be actually both: my parents did not graduate from a four year undergraduate or graduate level program. Actually neither of my parents. And they did not attend one as well.
Wow, yeah. And then it goes back to the idea of, sometimes, my parents, when I think about my parents, they didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to go to a four year institution, or graduate program, and so in a way, we’re both kind of the Lewis and Clark’s of our family and are pioneers in the sense of coming into an academic world, whether that be coming into college as a first generation, or where we are now as PhD students coming into our program. But let’s backtrack a bit because I know we started touching upon our families, right, and especially our parents, and their educational background. Talk to me a little bit about your upbringing, your background as an individual.
Yeah, so I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and it has a big military base next to it. My dad was in the Army for about 20 years. He was born in Kansas City. But yes, I am an army brat but I was pretty lucky growing up. I was able to stay in Fayetteville for a lot of my life, so I didn’t have to move like a lot of other army brats tend to. But more on my background: I’m a biracial person, so I’m half black and half Asian, or as I like to call myself “Blasian”.
My mom was born in South Korea. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the United States when she was pretty young. I’ve always been very close with my family, so my family has always been very loving and caring towards me. I consider myself probably from a lower SES background, or socioeconomic status background, than a lot of graduate students, but I’ve always had food on the table and a good roof over my head. So I won’t think about my upbringing and I wouldn’t really trade it for anything else.
Yeah, I think it’s very interesting. You come from a very unique background in the sense that one of your parents I’m assuming was born and raised here in the United States? And the other parent is from South Korea. So this is biracial identity and how to navigate both worlds. I’m curious to get your take as you said you were very close to your family, like how do you navigate that space?
And it is always a very interesting thing and something, I mean, I think about my identity a lot, and a lot of times I don’t always have a true answer for even my identity since it’s kind of unique to a lot of people but my parents are very close with each other and they do have different personalities anyway. And since my mom was born in South Korea and English is a second language to her, she isn’t always as comfortable speaking as much English. I wish that I picked up more Korean from her. So yeah, in a way, I do kind of have to navigate a little bit differently in some of the ways I explain things to my parents, and just explaining what my goals are and what I’m doing in school. So sometimes they were not able to help me as much with my schoolwork. So in some ways I kind of had to figure things out more on my own. But I think that probably has helped me out too in a way of being able to go through that and kind of create my own work ethic towards that.
Yeah. And kind of grow up quick right in the sense that you have to kind of raise up to the occasion because no one else is there to save you or to help you or to be there to help you navigate that space. But Chris, even before then, when did you first realize that you were a first gen, like, when did that come up?
Yeah, I think probably the first time it came up was when I first started applying to college. And when I was a high schooler, and I think some of the college applications, kind of noted, or asked if you were the first in your family to go to college. But even then, I didn’t quite understand what that really meant. I think it was more when I first went to my undergraduate program and that was at Wake Forest University when I first went there. So at Wake Forest, there’s a first generation scholarship program called the Magnolia Scholars. And that was just a great support group. So there were other students who were first gen, there were older students, there were other staff members that were first gen, and they just gave us some really great advice moving forward. Yeah, I didn’t know there were a lot of professors that were first generation college students and made it kind of all the way up to the academic top. Yeah, they became role models for me.
Hmm. And, and in that sense, as they became role models, how did being a first generation influence your research and what you’re doing now?
It’s kind of interest in diversity in general. And this goes with my racial background, and in my first generation background, I’ll consider both of those as the important parts to my identity. So I guess to give maybe an overview of my research in general, I’m interested in studying chronic pain. And then with my healthcare background as graduating from a physical therapy program, I’m interested to see how we can help improve people’s pain and improve people’s function of patients who have chronic pain. And particularly, I’m interested in knee osteoarthritis, but kind of in addition to that, I’m also interested to see how people from different backgrounds, from different races, or sexes or genders, how they may respond to treatments differently. So I think just being first generation, I kind of understand that not everyone goes through life the same way. So I really want to see how different people may respond to interventions differently or may have different risk factors for getting a disease or condition and then also with that, education and socio economic status I think are other good areas to be researched as well to see if there are differences. So of course, education I think can help people out a lot in health care. Because the health world is just so complicated, just navigating through the health system. So not having the financial educational resources to understand what it’s like to book an appointment or see the doctor and understand what they’re actually telling you. I want to be able to help facilitate the communication between healthcare providers and patients.
So I was lucky enough to see one of your videos, Chris, and, you know, one of the videos here at UNC’s Allied Health Department if I’m not mistaken, and you had mentioned how one of your motivations is to be able to be a therapist or healthcare provider that looks and is able to connect with people who may look like you and may also be yearning for a connection of it from a doctor that looks like them.
Definitely. Yeah, that was really one of my biggest motivations of wanting to become a physical therapist. So I had an injury myself. And that’s when I first became a patient myself, but kind of just seeing the therapy background, I really loved it, how physical therapists have so much time with patients. Time to connect with patients, to have a good discussion and not just about what their health condition is, but even about just life in general. So I really think, being a physical therapist or really any healthcare provider, it’s not just about treating the condition, but it’s really about understanding the person as a whole. So one thing I kind of noticed in the physical therapy world is that a lot of physical therapists don’t always look like their patients. Some of them have different racial backgrounds or they may have even different upbringings, may have different conditions. So I really think that healthcare providers, at least in general, or the healthcare workforce should reflect the patients that they serve. So whether you have the same racial identity or at least understand where someone’s coming from, I think that’s very important. Because really having that connection can help build trust. And that trust is what can really help get a patient better. A patient that trusts their provider would probably be more likely to follow the instructions that the provider give. So I mean, that’s just one thing I want to be able to improve as I try to work as a healthcare provider, and as I become a researcher and go into academics, I just want to be able to help inspire more people from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue these professions.
We run. We fall. We fail. We rise and try again. We win and we run again. But that doesn’t mean that all challenges are monolithic. Far from it. As you will hear today, each of us first gen has experienced similar yet different challenges in school and at home. I’m joined today by Steven Houang and Burcu Bozkurt. Steven is a first generation, Taiwanese American immigrant with research interests in mobile delivered HIV care and prevention intervention for queer youth of color. He is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Public Health here at UNC. Burcu, originally from Istanbul is also at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is pursuing her PhD in Health Policy and Management. Burcu is also a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and I’m glad we get to have her and Steven for this engaging discussion. Enjoy.
One of my earliest challenges that I faced as a first gen student was just simply not knowing how to navigate the system, not knowing where research is, not knowing what the relationship with faculty looks like, or not In the publishing game at all. So there was a steep learning curve for me in the early days of graduate school. And I’m sure many graduate students have some form of learning curve. But it definitely felt a bit steeper for me when I compare myself to students who have family members, or very close relatives who have graduate degrees, or PhDs of sorts. And I’m wondering if any of you have also faced a similar experience of like, not knowing what you don’t know. And ultimately, how that made you feel in your graduate career?
[Steven Houang]: 14:36
I think I relate to that. I think a common thing that I’ve often thought about is how do you know what you don’t know? Right? And so a part of my first generation experience is also just, you know, having parents that didn’t go to school in the United States and didn’t do college. There were a lot of things that I tried to navigate on my own. And I’ve been fortunate to find, you know, lucky mentors and other people who were helpful. But part of my defining experience is also, after my second year of undergrad, I took a lot of time off. So basically, I left school for about three years, and then I went to go work in a restaurant because that’s kind of what I knew how to do. And so, part of that experience really taught me about like, who I was and what I wanted to do. And when I came back to school, I was also able to reconnect with my mentor. She emailed me like twice yesterday, just kind of with resources and checking in just in the current climates. And so that’s something that I’ve really treasured. And she also is an immigrant who is Persian. And so she and I kind of share this common immigrant background, but also as people of color, trying to navigate this academic space. So that’s been really a valuable perspective.
[Burcu Bozkurt] 16:07
Yeah, I relate to that as well, in that, you know, people talk about the hidden curriculum, and I think all of us uncover that hidden curriculum at different points of our educational careers. And for me, it really probably happened towards the end of college. And so, you know, a lot of things weren’t in place that I would have wanted to be in place to be competitive for graduate school. And the other things that I struggled with, kind of had to do with, I guess, what it meant to pursue a graduate education, both in terms of the impact that I wanted to have on communities that share similar threads to my own narrative, immigrant communities, vulnerable communities, who may not have access to the kind of educational or social capital that non-immigrant communities have here, for example, and so it felt like I knew the importance of seeking graduate education both for me and my family and also for the potential impact that I could have but it also felt like I was fully stepping into a privilege or a facet of like ivory tower life that you know, carries with it a lot of different connotations that I may not be okay with. And so, you know, it’s a privilege to do research, it’s a privilege to, even if our stipends are measly, to get paid to think deeply and poke holes in methods and wax poetic about frameworks and theories that guide our research questions. And I had trouble with that because I know that the world needs faster turnaround on change. So I think it was a weird way my intersectionality of my identities kind of manifested, you know, being a woman, being an immigrant, being a Muslim in a society that carries with it a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment at the moment. There were extra considerations psychological and like existential that I think I had to navigate through.
I think you bring up a really good point, Burcu, this idea of finding one’s place. Between there’s like two very distinct homes, if you will. So last week, Chris and I talked about how family, you know, keeps us grounded, serves as their recharger and motivates us. But there’s also challenges that we face and being in this middle ground one of those challenges is like, communicating what exactly we do with our families. And so have you experienced anything of that sort and the difficulties in communicating what research is, and academia is to them?
Yeah, I’ve definitely struggled with that. And I can’t say that I’ve figured out the way but I don’t think you know, as with many parents whose children seek higher education opportunities or even graduate education, especially in a doctoral program, I don’t think my parents fully understand what it is I do eight to five or a lot of times eight to midnight, and then 3am to 5am. I think there’s just, it’s a hard mountain to like mount and navigate. I will say I particularly some of my work is focused on some more stigmatized issues that are a bit harder to talk about. I work in health policy. And in particular, a lot of my research has centered on reproductive health, reproductive health policy, things like youth access to contraception and abortion quality. And a lot of those things entail, you know, like, young people having sex and it’s not something we talk about at the dinner table. And at this point, I’ve gotten enough kind of public recognition of my work that they know like, generally, that’s what I do. And it’s kind of a smile and nod and don’t talk about kind of moment. And I think they to their friends are like, “Oh, she works in women’s health, like pregnant people”, which is not a lie. It’s just incomplete. I think, underlying there’s a respect for what I do, but there’s definitely stigma. And I don’t know what a full conversation about all the ins and outs of what I do look like.
Yeah, because I feel like, you know, for me, one of the toughest parts is just like explaining to my parents what research is, but then adding another layer on your end of just like stigmatized research is like, times two, because it’s already tough explaining what research is, but then having to discuss something that’s a bit more taboo, particularly in immigrant cultures, it might be even that much more difficult to explain.
Right. And what’s interesting is that, you know, I’ve, in the last few years started to talk about like research topics that they can understand like the Affordable Care Act and insurance coverage and because my dad has insurance, and suddenly he feels like his lived experience is equal, equal worth, and relevant to the research that I’m doing. And so it’s also interesting to navigate, you know, it’s not the things I work on are not so removed from our day to day experiences that they can’t or they don’t truly understand. It’s just the application of the lens looks a little bit different for first gen students, I think.
Yeah. And Steven, have you experienced something similar in the sense of like, trying to communicate research to them and how has maybe your background influenced your research as well?
Oh, of course, I think, you know, for me, I came here when I was seven, and my family is from Taiwan. And so English is my second language, but I think as children of immigrants, I think I’ve retained a lot of my mother tongue, my native tongue. And so there is a lot of kind of translating that I’m having to do on top of being, you know, explaining what is public health, right, like my parents think it’s sanitation. But I work in HIV care and prevention, and specifically with LGBT populations, with queer youth. Usually, it’s with men who have sex with men. And from my parents’ perspective, like they didn’t grow up around people who were out and queer, right, like Taiwan had a period of time that was under martial law until 1987, which is the year I was born. And a lot of these kind of more progressive ideas didn’t start to come in until then. And by then we were already in the States. And so explaining that extra like, barrier of language as well as content, I think has been a challenge, as well as that stigma, right? And so I think, right now we’re at an interesting point because Taiwan had a really successful response to COVID. And there has been legislation that kind of recognizes public health as a missing piece of the puzzle for health responses. And so I think my parents are starting to see the value of this degree, this thing that I’m doing, but I think similar to you, Burcu, I don’t think they understand from day to day what I’m doing. I think I’ve had multiple conversations when my dad still asks me about my grades, and they don’t really know the kind of papers that I’m writing and the manuscripts that I’m preparing and what all of that means. And so I think that’s still a kind of a missing piece for them. In terms of like, their understanding for what I do in the academy.
You know, those are great points because I think as like first gen, you know, we’re juggling many different fronts in trying to fit in into each one. And I think if shifting it back to us, right, if we’re trying to communicate with our families, how’s it like trying to communicate with academia and fitting into this world? And what one of the articles that really stuck out for me when I was like first entering academia was this one titled, Academia Love Me Back by Tiffany Martinez. It really spoke to me because the author goes ahead and pleads with professors and the educational system as a whole to judge her based on the merit and not necessarily on the biases. So she begins the article by listing all her credentials. She’s a McNair fellow. She’s a Dean’s List recipient. And then after the long list of accomplishments, she then writes, there are students who will be assumed capable without the need to list their credentials in the beginning of a reflective piece. And that particular line that resonated with me because at times, you know, in academia, I felt like I didn’t fit in, right, it felt like I needed to prove myself constantly that I was worth the seat that I was given, like this opportunity almost came with an asterisk that it can be taken away from me at any time. And I’m wondering for you two, if you’ve ever felt that way, with this opportunity of like being in academia, of trying to fit in and trying to prove your worth, to academia, to your faculty and to your cohort as a whole?
I think there’s multiple facets there, right. One of them is unless I talk about my experience, my English doesn’t have an accent. People don’t know that English is my third language. They have no idea. So unless I outed myself as a first gen student, I think I have learned pretty well how to navigate as if I’m not. But that doesn’t mean that I have not struggled with aspects of my graduate education that would have been easier had I not been the first one walking this path. The other facet is that I am now used to being the first one to walk that path, right, for a lot of us first gen PhD students, a lot of us were first gen in other ways as well. I was the first woman in my family to go to a four year university. And, you know, I was kind of the first one to get a job here as being my age, and there’s a resilience that comes with that. But I think sometimes that resilience prevents us from learning how far we’ve traveled. And so I’ve definitely struggled with imposter syndrome of feeling like my experiences exist outside of myself and like, I’m almost telling a lie that I’ve had to travel the distance I’ve traveled.
Well, I think it definitely just reflecting on that question. I think for me, Asian Americans have typically been represented in higher education. But there’s a problem of aggregation. So when you look at different subgroups of what we kind of call Asian, there’s so many different groups that you know, typically have poorer representation, lower outcomes, especially in higher education. But for me as a Taiwanese person coming in here, Taiwanese immigrants tend to be more educated when they immigrate. Families tend to have more professional backgrounds. And that really wasn’t the case for me. And so, coming in here and then kind of revealing that I’m an immigrant and telling more of my backgrounds to my people in my department and faculty, I don’t know if they really understand what it is about my first gen experience that’s like, a little bit different. I also was someone who took a lot of time off from school, had a lot of struggles in my undergrad time. And so I don’t know, I think understanding the merits of what we’re able to do is important and seeing that merit, but also, how do you unravel more of the context, right, like it’s because we’ve walked so far, we’ve achieved so much and done things in a different route that other people might not have done, that we were able to do these things. And so I don’t know I think I’m still kind of reflecting on that journey and what that means for me as an individual versus for me as a demographic.
Yeah, that feeling of like, when the journey gets reduced to a statistic, I think is something that I struggle with as well. I’m feeling like, there’s definitely this, like, all eyes are on me. And I have to do well, because I was the first one on this path and other people walking down it rely on me, like, at what point is your journey reduced to a statistic and at what point is your journey your journey and something that is not captured in these lists of accomplishments or titles or credentials?
Mm hmm. And to add to that, because I think this idea of like there’s others who will follow, you know, at least for my experience that adds almost another layer of pressure. So like, at times, it’s motivating, right? It’s like I don’t want to study but then I’m just like, alright, well, if I study hopefully I’ll do better. And this will, you know, in some weird, weird indirect way I’ll help whoever comes next to maybe achieve something greater. But other times it feels overwhelming and it feels like, I need to do this because like so many people depend on me and it feels like it’s an insurmountable pressure of just like constantly trying to not only prove to academia but prove to oneself that like this, this journey that I’m on is like, is worth like that I’m making the best out of this journey. Because I know this journey is not giving to everybody and I’m one of the first and select few that get to be on this path. And I wanted to ask if anyone feels that type of pressure, almost as if you know at times, it is motivating better. Other times, it can be be like, I just need to, I just need to step back and just let this like, sit, you know.
Indubitably, first generation students face challenges in entering, pursuing and completing a graduate degree. Despite the number of obstacles that may hinder our progress, we have many more things to be grateful for.
I’m grateful that we get to be in a space where we can think about ideas and ideas matter and what we think about them and how we construct our understanding of the world have a real impact. But that impact is kind of delayed, and I’m grateful to be kind of at the table where I can formulate and help construct that knowledge.
I’m very grateful of all the mentors that I have during my journey, like in undergrad, which was the first time I knew what being a first generation student was and what that meant. Having other first gens who were older, older students at the time that could help mentor me, kind of talk about their personal experiences, how to navigate through school and even now being in a PhD program to just having the students there that I can talk to. And I really don’t think I would be where I’m at without having mentors.
No, I agree. I’ve been such a benefactor of wonderful mentorship. I feel like the generosity of those mentors was like a protective factor as I navigated higher ed. I’m keenly aware as I continue down this journey of how important early mentors were. Like I can point my finger at particular teachers in elementary school and middle school who encouraged me to ask questions, who showed such passion and modeled such passion for their work that it inspired me to pursue a career where I also feel similarly passionate. And so I’ve been very, very grateful for those networks of support inside and outside of academia.
In this final act, Chris, Steven, Burcu, and myself, share the things that helped us and are helping us navigate academia as first generation students. But though not all things that work for us will work for all first gens, we hope that those who are listening recognize the plight first gens go through in graduate programs. And if you are a first generation yourself, we hope that this episode, particularly this act, reminds you that you are not alone. Maybe some first gens who are listening to this are going through it, are probably doubting themselves. What message do you have for first generation students who may be listening to this, and considering grad school or in graduate school right now?
It’s so hard, you know, not all feedback is created equal. So it’s hard to give advice to people who have such a varied and diverse backgrounds probably and are just coming from such different places. First Gen encapsulates just so much. I do think one of the things that I found really helpful is to adopt a language at least with my close mentors and my network of friends that does nod to my history, and to my journey, because I don’t think that our kind of lived experience and the professional kind of public facing academic arena lends itself to that. And that’s been really nice. And there’s just so many things that we have to balance, right? We have to balance imposter syndrome and how to navigate a system that wasn’t built for us and the privilege of doing research and also, you know, some of us have this added, feeling like we have to give back to the communities that we came from. That’s a lot and a lot of ways we have overcome our own trauma and our own difficulties and getting to where we are. So I’m really lucky that my close network of friends, we have destigmatized asking for mental health help and that I fully leverage the resources available at my school and I have when I needed them to make sense of the world and navigate when I was having trouble. And I think as much as we can destigmatize that for each other, the world will follow suit, you know, structural changes, hopefully will follow cultural changes. So I highly encourage, you know, folks to seek out friends and mentors that can allow them to talk about some of these, some of these things explicitly, but also to seek out the resources to help us make sense. For example, I, you know, it took me a long time to understand that perfection is one way that people cope with trauma. And I think, had I not done some of the work that I needed to, I never would have known that and I never would have known the way to balance that aspect of my experience.
I wanted to quickly add that I think one of the things that has helped me in my journey that may be of use to first gen who are seeking a graduate program is the sense of authenticity. And I think it’s very hard when you’re entering a space that is not necessarily inviting or welcoming for you. I think one thing that I’ve learned in my journey is that although my story may be different from the typical graduate student, it is my story. And it allows me to see the world in a very different way and therefore allows me to see problems in a very different way. And I think living in that light and being authentic to myself, will then allow me to bring about different vantage points to a problem. And then in speaking to other folks about a particular problem, then we can get, you know, come to a better hopefully a better solution. But I think the sense of being authentic allows for better problem solving, but also it allows other folks to see, to see you for who you are. I say that because in academia, I’ll figure out the statistics, but there’s a lack of diversity. But therefore, if you’re able to bring your authentic self, you’re also humanizing your community, you’re letting other people see you for who you truly are, in hopes that, you know, they see, their biases may be challenged in a way. And so I say, I say all that to say that, being authentic, being true to yourself, and following your passion and your research, I think can go a long way as a first gen in academia.
Yeah, I definitely agree, Chicas. And I guess one of the big things for me and what helped me kind of get to this point and in addition to having good mentors was kind of thinking about my identity during this process and being very proud of who I am. So I’m being proud that I am a first generation college student, I am biracial, half black, half Asian, that I have these experiences and in a way, going through what I had been through, it has made me more unique in the process. So maybe I’m may not have the same privileges or resources as other students, but in a way I am still more unique and I can use that uniqueness as strength. And then for another thing too, I usually think that what I am doing is to really help my parents ultimately, so they did not have the experiences or the opportunities that I have right now. So I always use that as a motivating factor for me to get through school, for me to get through the PhD program, that I’m doing something that my parents were not able to do.
I think for me I have some days where I wake up in the morning and I have things that I have to just, work that I have to do, and I just started thinking like oh my gosh, I am just a lazy, no good, not smart grad student. And I start kind of like spiraling in this cycle of being an imposter. And I kind of take this from actually RuPaul’s Drag Race, because he says that you have to talk to your “inner saboteur”. And I call that talking to my inner imposter, because we’re kind of operating in these systems that weren’t really built for us and so I often have to catch myself metacognitively. And so like, yes that is my imposter talking, and okay I can spend a little bit of time freaking out about it, beating myself down, but then I have to get over it and put that imposter aside and start doing what I came here to do.
3. Issues and Ethics of International Research
Welcome (English), Bienvenidos (Spanish), Huānyíng (Mandarin), Ahlanwasahlen (Arabic), Selamat datang (Indonesian)
Burcu Bozkurt 0:21
Hi, everyone, welcome to PhD in me the third degree. My name is Burcu Bozkurt. I’m a fourth year PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. And today’s episode we’re going to be discussing the ethics of international research with a few of our wonderful Royster fellows from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Chelsea, do you want to introduce yourself?
Chelsea Ducille 0:45
Sure. I am Chelsea Ducille. I am a second year in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Burcu Bozkurt 0:54
Wonderful. And Theo?
Theo Kassebaum 0:56
Hi, I’m Theo Kassebaum. I’m a second year The Department of Anthropology, focusing on archaeology.
Burcu Bozkurt 1:05
So we’re joined here today because this topic is near and dear to our hearts. Much of the work we do is internationally focused. And we have divided the episode into three parts: bureaucracy, privilege and equity and the socio-politico-cultural, and all of our very disciplines we can all say we’ve experienced some aspects of these different dynamics and wanted to split them up into three different chapters. So chapter one, bureaucracy and Chelsea, I think you have a good story to talk about here.
Chelsea Ducille 1:42
Definitely. I for a few years, I worked for a pretty big research on one institution and I was on this three countries study based in low- middle-income countries focused on emergency response. And as you can imagine, with three different countries, you have many, many moving parts, many different organizations. So it was our organization, two big humanitarian organizations. And then the three academic institutions that we were partnered with, in each of these research sites or countries. And so before anything could get started, we have to get ethics approval in all three of those countries. First thing. In order for our own international or our own Institutional Review Board, to give us approval for the work. And then with the two other humanitarian organizations, we have to have like cooperative agreements or memorandums of understanding for each of those. And everyone involved had their own regulatory review body that had to review everything, give approval, send it to the other institution to review and give feedback. And it was so frustrating, mostly because it was such a time sink, our hands were tied. We couldn’t do any work really, until these documents got signed and approved. And the implication for us was the fact that our funding agency, though very understanding was very much pressuring us to start the work because a year had passed. And we were still trying to get approvals from these various organizations. And meanwhile, we have staff that is being paid off of this grant. Right, money that is being gobbled up, but no work actually getting done, other than following up with people. It’s like pulling teeth. Then there were Just so many different layers on top of that, as well, you had one university that was going through their own, the country was about to change election and what that meant that there was going to be shutdowns in the country, therefore, the bodies that would review the documentation would not be reviewing anything. And then if you had another institution where the employees and staff were changing, and so then you have to go through the process over the year of introducing yourself to this new person and trying to catch them up to speed. So it was just a huge delay and ultimately, the project was delayed about a year and a half. And we had to go through even more paperwork with our funder and get an extension.
Burcu Bozkurt 4:52
Right. So Chelsea a few follow up questions. I mean, I think you’ll find you know, A lot of us around this table have had similar experiences. And there’s a sense of urgency that that really kind of seeps into every aspect of the work. And you highlighted that with that sense of urgency both from the donor but also from ground up in terms of having folks to pay, that you are also navigating different organizational cultures and contexts and policies about how to navigate the review process. What was your role in that? And how how did you navigate balancing that sense of urgency with being thoughtful about the true ethical implementation of the work?
Chelsea Ducille 5:46
Well, unfortunately for me, I was the research coordinator, so I was responsible for making all of this happened in a timely fashion and there’s definitely a sense of urgency from all sides, everyone wants to be done. So they can just start the work. And I think it was particularly stressful because there’s an element that happens where that once you send it, once you send it into whatever institution or reviewing body, it’s out of your hands, right people can come to you and, you know, try to push deadlines, but you’re literally can do nothing until the documentation comes back into your hands or until you get some sort of approval. And I think, for everyone, particularly when you’re dealing with so many different groups, it definitely feeds into tensions it definitely feeds into you have to be very careful, particularly when you’re dealing with different countries that have different cultures around time, different ideologies about time and urgency, about not belittling people, about not offending people, particularly about their own work and their own professional position. And so it was a lot of kind of balancing that,talking to people frequently and trying to be as nice as possible, but letting them know that this is not okay. We need to do better. So yeah, and then particularly on top of that, even though I was the coordinator, I’m still in a position where I’m not in charge. I’m not a PI, I’m not a Co-PI so there’s also a level of how, and particularly when you’re dealing with particularly highly patriarchal countries, like you can’t be talking to certain men in a certain way. And you have to be very, very, very careful about how you come across.
Burcu Bozkurt 7:46
Right? Yeah, I mean, you’re navigating your own world of power dynamics. So its complexity nested within complexity there. And so I you know, One of the questions that you and I have talked about, of course, is the importance of ethics in international work, you know, we by no means are we undermining how important it is to go through the proper channels and, and put your research questions through the right filters for ethical research, implementation, but simultaneously, a lot of the ways you know, current grants, research projects are set up, don’t incentivize and don’t really count this entire section of conducting research internationally, which is getting the right approvals getting the right paperwork. And the way it’s done can sometimes undermine it seems, you know, the ethical components of being inclusive, thinking long term thoughtful decision making. Seems like your work included a lot of those considerations and was left up. You were kind of left to your own devices with solving them. What was helpful in that time? I mean, what did you find was either like, you know, to speak in PhD terms or protective factor versus things that did not help.
Chelsea Ducille 9:17
Um, I think the important thing that I learned through that process is to remember that you’re still dealing with people, right? No matter where a person is on the ladder, or the hierarchy of your project its people and if you’re nice to people, if you’re like, genuinely nice to people, you check on them genuinely. I think one of the techniques that I used, because I learned quickly that as part of my job, I had to be working very closely with our grants and contracts office, particularly because our project had just a high administrative component with all these different contracts and agreements that we had to do. And there’s also we had subcontractors and all this stuff in three different countries. And so I was like, You know what, let me I’m gonna have to become best friends with the grants and contracts staff because I will literally be bothering them every single day for the next two years. And so I made it part of my job. I know that kind of sounds bad. It’s not like I’m saying that I did this just as a means to an end. But, I realized that there are people and if they like me, and I like them, and we have a good rapport, if I need something urgent, or if I need an answer quickly, they’re more likely to help me out in a bind quickly and put me to the top of the list. If they know me, and they’re friendly with me and they know that I’m not just using them to be or speaking to them in a negative way or pressuring them. So as part of my daily routine, I get my coffee in the morning, I check my email, and then I walk around office, and I’ve made sure to pass by the grants and contracts staff see how they were doing. Ask about their kids, you know, ask about their husbands or their partners and what they did for the weekend and I would sometimes spend a good 30 minutes an hour chatting with them. But then when my PI called me and was like, What is the status of this? We haven’t had a meeting such and such and such I could just knock on the door be like, Hey, I know you’re busy. Do me a favor. I’m being really pressured right now, but my PI. And they’re like, Okay, I have to finish this up, and I’ll get right to it. And before I get back to my desk, I’d have an email with the information that I needed. Um, so that’s, that’s a big piece to it. And and I mean, it was a trickle down because the grants and contracts people also had similar relationships to other people within the bureaucracy who, when they were in a bind or needed something urgently could get. So I think that was the biggest piece just to be as nice as possible and and you know, within you know, reasonable confines. Just try to be friends with your team because it makes things easier. It makes the process, it becomes less onerous and both burdensome to help someone out or to get something done. If you feel like you’re helping a friend.
Burcu Bozkurt 12:16
That’s right. Yeah, I know a lot of folks who have the kind of person who is dedicated to their IRB application, they have the direct line to that person so that they can ask questions, ask for updates. Generally, it seems like those, the folks that are ushering this paperwork through are really instrumental to our work and we don’t give them enough appreciation for sure. So, Theo, I know you also travel for your research.
Theo Kassebaum 12:51
Yeah, so I’ve done some work in Greece and Israel in two different past summers. And then I was planning this summer to do some work in Turkey in Israel, and interesting, the different administrative things or like the issues that you have going into the different types of projects, in each of those places. My field school experience, did not have visas. It just was kind of pay the money, show up, do the work as a part of a academic project and then return back to the States. And this summer I was applying for visas. Well, I was hoping to do work this summer and I applied for visas and the winter so it’s interesting that as a component of a larger project, all I really have to do is submit my individual visa application and then a lot of what Chelsea was talking about is out of my hands. But then that also means I don’t really see those background machinery at work. All I’m told is either yes, you can come or there’s an issue we’re going to have to change things. So I think that the type of project and you’re role in it also influences how much you You see, even though I think almost all international projects have a lot of this like bureaucratic background work just to go on.
Burcu Bozkurt 14:35
Right, and how do you have you know, what strategies have you found useful with regards to coping with that uncertainty that the bureaucracy presents?
Theo Kassebaum 14:44
Yeah, for me, this year since it was the first year I really had to go through these visa applications. I was really nervous about deadlines, about finding out okay submitted these in December and that one of them was a little late. And I submitted that I think, like December 30, or something to do work in June. I was like, Okay, if I submit this now I should find out to me, I was thinking like, March, and then I can make my flight, I can make my plans, everything will be organized. And it was really through talking to my advisor who does work in the same region, and then through other comparable Iike scholars going to the same places or going through the same things, realizing that, no, you’ll probably find out that everything’s gone through in May, and then you’ll have to turn around, you know, a month later to go. But it’s really this network of talking to other people that either are or have been in the same situation. That for me, helps me with, like, navigate these administrative channels. Because if it just was me, I would have been so lost if I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I would have been majorly freaking out about the lack of like feedback or notifications I was getting from these foreign countries about if I could go.
Burcu Bozkurt 16:13
Right, and I feel like what we’re describing here is just this endless Odyssey of convincing institutions to back us and our research and seems like we all have various strategies to cope with that. One is talking to other folks who’ve done it before us and the other is finding kind of the unsung heroes of the process and and bringing them on to our side as allies. Are there any other strategies that other doctoral students should, should keep in mind when they’re hopefully planning out even conceptualizing international research ahead of time?
Theo Kassebaum 16:55
I think for me understanding that even though project might be the same in different places, like what I would be doing in these different places might be, I’m fulfilling the same role and I’d be doing the same methods and work. Each country will have their own restrictions in place. And so taking that time, when you’re trying to think about what projects could I get involved with, to look into these things that you might need to know beforehand as background information? Knowing Okay, these countries won’t require a visa or would require something else. So I could start my timeline of preparing much later to still get involved. But for some of those, if you miss really preparing in the fall, if you miss that window, you might not be able to do that work in the summer. So I think for me, it was this talking to people to learn about the projects, but then realizing that oh, I also need to know what are the the restrictions that might be in place too.
Chelsea Ducille 18:06
Um, I agree with that statement, I think outside of my my previous experience in that job as a student researcher or research assistant, you definitely find yourself in the position of, I don’t want to say helplessness, but of being dependent upon others, not really having a lot of agency in those decision making processes. And it can be very disheartening, particularly if you’re a student whose work depends upon you being able to participate in the research. So I think one one good strategy is always to have a plan B, and then a Plan C, and particularly now, within the context of a pandemic. I know several people who have had to come up with plans, E, F, and G. So just being aware of that that’s something particularly with international research. That’s something that you should always have, like have several different scenarios that you can turn to in case the first and the second don’t work.
Burcu Bozkurt 19:21
Yeah, I think this conversation has highlighted how important it is for us to think about the entire equation of research really comprehensively and thoughtfully and think about the different, perhaps levels, perhaps levels of exposure and vulnerability and risk that different parties bring to the table, including students oftentimes who conduct the research.
Chelsea Ducille 20:00
Chapter Two, privilege and equity. So now we’re going to get into the discussion. Um, to start with, we’re going to hear from Theo about some of her research experiences and her experiences abroad. So, to begin this discussion about privilege and equity, I’d really like to hear about what is like doing work and accessing work, particularly when you are a foreigner in another country.
Theo Kassebaum 20:31
Yes. So I think a question that I have to ask myself a lot, doing the work in international spheres is who is doing the work and who has access to the work and who is doing the work at different levels in especially regarding like scholarship versus the actual physical work. Where in archaeology, you can have very, very skilled local workers involved in the excavation, but the project itself is often directed and led by foreigners and the supervisors, while coming from international spheres are also generally in like academic circles. So you have kind of this disparity between who is kind of articulating and directing the work and who is actually conducting it. And to me, this seems to reflect the colonialist history of archaeological tradition abroad, especially with the British British tradition, and that has really, like bled into other archaeological spheres. I said spheres multiple times in that, so I’m going to like repeat some of this, but this reflects the colonialist history of archaeological tradition, where some countries are seeking to address the presence of foreign archaeologists by limiting permits and having more excavations directed by individuals in that country. You see this with Turkey. I think last summer, but especially this summer in the future legislation and being changed so that more excavations are being done by Turkish or led by Turkish directors. These decisions are made by the government or other governing bodies. So then they have their own political motives. So in the same same kind of problem almost emerges of this question of who is doing the work where, if it’s the government, does that affect the local workers access to the knowledge in that way, even if it’s being led by Turkish directors? So I think that’s something that how to take the knowledge that is being gleaned and not redistributing it, because that’s also something I’m kind of challenged with is this idea of whose knowledge is it, but how this knowledge is is articulated to the local communities, I guess.
Chelsea Ducille 23:04
So I’m getting the impression from what you’re saying that there is a clear hierarchy in terms of access to knowledge. It’s less of who’s in charge, but who holds that knowledge and who has the power to use it in a specific way? Is that correct?
Theo Kassebaum 23:24
Yes, I think that’s very much. So, um, and then also this hierarchy of like, correct knowledge, where the directors have the academic knowledge of how the excavations should be conducted. But then you have local communities that have knowledge of oral traditions and folklore and their own histories, created or otherwise, that directly influence or color the interpretations of the material that’s being excavated. And so who is to say that the local histories are less valuable than like the traditional methods implemented by the hierarchical structure of knowledge creation. So, you see a desire to enact community based participatory methods that engage the local community, as a part of the project that benefits the community. And it tries, tries to counteract in some ways, the extractive nature of archaeological methodology. And while this is definitely admirable, and you really want to instill this in the project design, you also have to acknowledge that that takes certain resources to enact these as a part of the larger excavation project. So in these cases, you also get challenges with funding and scheduling. If these components of an archeological project can be implemented. But then, it kind of going back to this question of privilege and equity, who is it to say that the project should go on, if this can’t be used as a mitigating, mitigating tool.
Chelsea Ducille 25:20
So you’ve raised a lot of interesting points and I was hoping that you can maybe speak to what a doctoral student who is facing any kind of dilemma where they’re, they’re involved in a project or they have an opportunity to work abroad, and they’re either seeing instances where they feel that there’s a definite inequity occurring in the research, or there’s a very strict or rigid hierarchy at play. What are ways that you can maintain your own ethical conscience, or what are ways that you as a doctoral student can work against those mechanisms?
Theo Kassebaum 26:11
That’s an excellent question. Um, definitely something I’m still grappling with. And honestly, something I haven’t fully had to engage with since my first summer fieldwork as a doctoral student was really upheaved due to the current climate. But I think that the most fundamental thing you can do is really ask yourself questions and try to learn about what the overarching project that you are participating in is. And seeing what answers you can give to yourself and if you can justify your work as a part of that project. I think that If you have to make excuses and some way to participate, you should maybe see what other options there are out there. And I know that it can be difficult because there aren’t that many excavations. And there aren’t that many opportunities in some cases. But really looking at the historical uses of archeology by like fascist regimes, nationalist governments. It’s imperative that as graduate students, we understand the history of our discipline and reckon with ourselves on if we can participate in how that might might look in the future. I feel lucky in that the projects that I would have been participating on this summer I, through networks of older scholars and academics have an idea of their research goals, how they will be used in the local spheres of knowledge production. But I also think that I need to be ready to walk away from projects in it at a certain point.
Chelsea Ducille 28:16
I think that’s a totally valid point. And I think it requires a lot of bravery as well. And even you can argue to an extent, privilege and equity works within those abilities to be able to walk away. But I would love to hear now from Burcu. If you have any input or feedback about being a doctoral student and dealing with issues of privilege and equity in terms of international work.
Burcu Bozkurt 28:46
Yeah, so my my research revolves around or has historically revolved around Maternal and Child Health and sexual reproductive health and rights. In addition to to kind of help policy and implementation work, so I exist at the nexus of those two fields and issues of privilege and equity or center to my work. I, I think when you look at the issues that I’m that I’m looking at and grappling with on a day to day basis, there exists huge disparities across countries or, and even within countries and, you know, I my dissertation work is going to be looking at racial disparities and postpartum care here in the United States. And, you know, my, I think one of the most meaningful things, and I haven’t figured this out, it’s a constant work in progress. But one of the most meaningful things that I hope to do as a PhD student is honestly and truthfully reckon with the identity that I’m bringing to the table and place that front and center. You know, I I’m a doula. I’ve been engaged in this work for years way before it started hitting the press. But that I still need to do, I still need to prove myself and still need to do justice to the black scholars and authors and scientists and organizers who have been advocating and creating local expertise for this work for decades and longer.
Chelsea Ducille 30:27
What would you say, for other students who are interested in doing that work and getting that knowledge and building the capacity to do that? What are some resources or things that you have done?
Burcu Bozkurt 30:40
Um, that’s a really great question. I think it probably looks different based on your fields. You know, I think there’s a lot of great. There’s a great public discourse happening right now around helicopter research, kind of like helicopter parenting where something’s big and the issue of the day. You know, the research of the day. And I think it’s up to us as PhD students to approach the the questions that we want to answer with a lot of thought and meaning and a lot of preparation work, you know, I think reaching out to scholars and to, to scholars who have been engaged in this work is first and foremost, I have created a grid of all of the different researchers I’m citing in my for example, dissertation proposal, and I’m just doing like a blunt measurement of am I citing all white people to talk about racial disparities? Um, and if so, how can I change that and it’s like, very blunt, but it’s important for me to know who I’m citing and why it is that certain clusters of knowledge or certain authors have been historically kind of disenfranchised or not given the visibility they deserve.
Chelsea Ducille 32:08
Um, I’m also within the context of our discussion on international work. I’m also really interested about instances where you’ve had to think about these things in a global context or an international context.
Burcu Bozkurt 32:22
That’s a really great question. I, you know, I have been engaged in a research study that, that took place across five countries and in over three years, and there were phenomenal kind of young people that were hired by the kind of research entity to conduct the focus group discussions and the individual stakeholder interviews that were a part of the research work, and they did a phenomenal job implementing focus group discussions with vulnerable groups of people in a way that I would not have been able to do so. It has been it’s an immense kind of success of the project that we’ve been able to get funding for these scholars to be primary authors on data that that was extracted from their own communities. You know, I say that but I also say it with an asterisk of like, it was not easy. And I was shocked at how much marinating conversing planning needed to happen to convince folks that that was a good idea. And I think oftentimes in the international frame of things we need to start we need to nod to the past, we need to understand the broken history of our various disciplines. And make sure that we do not repeat history, that we do not reverberate across time, colonial paradigms of power, where we extract data from local communities, people, etc. But we we, you know, research is not a scarce commodity. There’s, there’s so many questions that need answers. There’s so many competent people, both within the country and who are, you know, working at international institutions to answer those questions and the rise of one does not mean the diminishing of the other. And so I think we have to stop buying kind of these. And this narrative is really held up in academia. It takes a lot to fight it, unless you’re talking to kind of newer faculty or, or faculty who have, who are perhaps working for more progressive institutions, but that we need, we need to conduct and plan out research in a way that nods and respects local communities in a way that brings them closer to to sources of funding so that they can meet, you know, maintain, maintain autonomous kind of identities and work on their own work and decision making power so that they can be partners and how the research has developed and implemented and not just tokens for when we need to check off the Yes, I included some local people here. No, that, it is 2020. It is past time for us to be more diligent about this.
Chelsea Ducille 35:41
I think those are amazing points to make. And I think both from you and Theo’s input, there’s definitely, I think themes and what we’re saying about acknowledging the capacity that already exists in the places that might, we might be working and this idea of trying not to take right trying to I don’t even want to use the word empower, because I think that has different meanings in different places. But it’s an acknowledgement I think, always is an important part of when you’re thinking about privilege and equity, acknowledging people that you’re around and acknowledging that you are maybe a foreigner in that space or you’re not a person who can relate to that population and acknowledging their own strengths and contributions and histories. So thank you so much for that.
Theo Kassebaum 36:48
That was a great discussion. In chapter three, let’s move on to discuss the socio-politico-cultural context of our international work and how we navigate the different systems of power and place. Burcu Do you have any narratives that you would like to share with us?
Burcu Bozkurt 37:09
Yeah, so, um, I, man, I think I’ve engaged in enough international research to know that a lot of, a lot of these grant institutions that holds the funding power also hold power over the research agenda. And it’s immensely difficult to kind of operate within that as a PhD student, because in that equation, you’re the one that probably has the least amount of say. You’re not a PDI or you’re not, you’re just coming in, you’re coming into your skills and so it’s something that is difficult to navigate and I think requires, in addition to a lot of introspection and humility, some good advisors to help point to some of the more problematic aspects of that, or some of the implications that that kind of dynamic poses on how you design your research. Um, you know, I think oftentimes, for example, about the way our research environment really tends to favor fast, robust, quantitative methodologies. And while I think those are, you know, so important to the progression and evolution of different fields, I also think it’s only a part of that picture. And, you know, unfortunately, a lot of that is echoed and the decisions and kind of the RFPs that are released by the powers that be, the granting institutions.
Theo Kassebaum 38:55
Could you touch a little bit more on the RFPs and their Place in the social and cultural communities in which this work is being conducted?
Burcu Bozkurt 39:07
Yeah, sure, um, you know, I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but I work with a lot of partner organizations, both that are community based but also internationally scoped, um, are, you know, headquarters in North America, but they do international research work, to know that a lot of these RFPs, for example, come out, reflecting the kind of research priorities and oftentimes, political priorities of the current administration in power. And, you know, I don’t think I need to say it out loud. But a lot of times those don’t reflect actual research priorities or stances of a lot of the communities from which we’re extracting information or that we’re engaging in the research. I also know enough, not too too much, But enough about those funding methods. isms to know that they really require such robust both documentation of previous work, but also such a fast turnaround that a lot of institutions that are, for example, community based or local, don’t even have the capacity to really respond to those RFPs. So we miss a lot of important voices that can be contributing to a research agenda or the formulation of a research stream of work.
Theo Kassebaum 40:15
Are there any ways that those voices could be amplified in some way through this international work as a foreign scholar coming into a new place? Or are you seeing that those marginalized voices are unable to find a place both within the local communities as well as not recognized by these foreign institutions?
Burcu Bozkurt 40:46
Yeah, yeah, unfortunately I haven’t led my own research grants at a high enough level to know what may work. I just know from a PhD student perspective to keep my head down and work hard enough that ultimately when I am kind of at a place where I can be responding to an RFP, that when I include community inclusion or community-based participatory methods that those are not tokenistic methods or methods to just like tick off a box. But that I actually did the work as a PhD student to learn when are the instances when these are done well and when are the instances when these are done to benefit the folks who get the money, who just want to check off a box to say that they did it. And I do think that, you know, we’re not doctors, but as researcher our aim should also be to do no harm, and part of that, part of that relies on us reckoning that a lot of the research that is funded or not funded, that a lot of those remain at, you know, political decision at their very essence.
Theo Kassebaum 41:59
Opening this question up to both Burcu and Chelsea, knowing your work in public health, have you found any of your work has led to changes in political systems or in a social system at all?
Burcu Bozkurt 42:23
I, um, was involved in a line of work where we included, the research was around youth and we included youth researchers from the very beginning to kind of review the tools. And of course we could have always done a better job, but they were part of the design of the research from the very beginning in a way I hadn’t seen in other projects. And um, what, what the second half of the project entailed was actually bringing that research, those research findings, acting on the data, driving areas, you know, or encouraging, you know, supporting them and supporting their own, kind of, institutions for change.
Chelsea Ducille, 43:24
Um, I think everything that you all have been discussing has been really interesting, um. I think something that I kept thinking about as you all were talking in terms of like the socio-political nature of things, I kept thinking of instances where sometimes you’re doing, um, international work and you are making every effort to include partners from the countries or the sites that you want to work, but your own institution, I’m referencing US-based institutions, your own institutions are creating barriers to that. So I have worked on projects where we have worked with community-based organizations in country as well as academic institutions in country, but our institution, the university that I was working at, viewed those organizations or subcontractors, in the case of our grant, as high risk, um, the subcontractors. So it just added layers and layers of documentation and work. And to me it posed a great barrier to them ‘cause many times you might be dealing with community-based organizations that don’t necessarily have the infrastructure, or don’t necessarily operate in the same administrative capacity as a large research one institution. Or they don’t have US-based bank accounts or to set them up might be really difficult. And so sometimes when I think about that, you see the power dynamics operating there where we are, just because they’re not US-based, we immediately think they’re um, organizations that need to be treated with suspicion. And I don’t know, I think it also basically saying from an institutional standpoint, we don’t trust you. We don’t trust the quality of what you might produce, so we are gonna make all of these different check points.
Theo Kassebaum 45:38
This was a wonderful discussion on situating our work within the international sphere, especially as graduate students conducting interdisciplinary work. That will be the end of this episode of PhD and Me: The Third Degree. Thank you all for listening to our stories of the tensions between socio-politico-cultural aspects of international research, the moral implications of privilege and equity, and time consuming and often frustrating elements of the bureaucracy of international work. Good-bye.
4. A Forced Pause – Mental Health in the time of COVID-19 – Part 1
Welcome to another episode of PhD in May the third degree. My name is Kierra Peak and I am a PhD student in Occupational Science at UNC Chapel Hill. I will be hosting this episode with four other students: Matt Clayton, who is a PhD student in clinical psychology at UNC, Poushali Ganguli, a PhD student in Health Economics and Epidemiology at King’s College London, Jamshaid Shahir, a PhD student in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at UNC and Kelsey Thompson, a PhD student in Speech and Hearing Sciences at UNC. Together we discuss the forced pauses we have taken in response to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic and its specific implications for mental health. And now here’s Matt.
This is Matt and I’m here to start off our mental health podcast today with a conversation with Dr. Mitch Prinstein. Dr. Prinstein is a John Van Seters distinguished professor in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill. And he is also an assistant dean of the Honors College. Mitch, thanks for joining us, and how are you doing today?
Doing great. Thanks for having me.
Of course. And thank you so much for joining me. Mitch, I know that you’ve been in communication with UNC about surveying the student population in regards to their mental health and general emotional and behavioral well-being during the COVID19 crisis. I’d really love to hear about the progress on that so far, as well as the university’s response in regards to mental health.
Sure, the University set up a large student hub care team to think about all of the ways that COVID has been influencing students’ lives. Part of that was a focus on the emotional health and behavioral health of students at all levels, undergrad graduate students, professional students, and I was really happy to be part of the team and help construct a survey and coordinate the responses for those that expressed difficulties.
That’s really great to hear, Mitch. And I’m also very curious just to, you know, hear about the response to the survey. Were you able to get a look at any of the data thus far and perhaps share some with us?
Yeah, it was a great response. It was fortunate that the survey was pushed out by the chancellor. So, I think well over 7000 students responded. And there were some definite concerns. It was really helpful to get students’ input. Students are having some difficulties in a wide array of domains, but emotional and behavioral health is certainly one. And that’s for all kinds of reasons. There’s the loneliness, of being without social interactions. There’s the anxiety over people’s grades and ability to continue their education. And there’s exposure to a wide array of new stressors – family members, illness, financial woes and difficulties being in a context that students are not used to being in anymore, which is surrounded by their family or others, which sometimes can be good and sometimes could mean extra exposure to conflict.
That makes total sense. And, you know, I wonder, undergrads, graduate students, professional students, that potentially might have some anxieties about the future, in terms of their careers, internships, or even just what the next semester might look like, did any of those themes come up?
Absolutely. A lot of students are very concerned about whether the grades they get and the experiences they’re used to getting outside of the classroom – experiential learning, research experiences, internships, shadowing – how the absence of all of those things might change their career trajectories or their chances of getting admitted to the next step in their educational process.
Right, right. And these are, you know, already existing anxieties that have now been heightened due to the sort of global uncertainty that exists. And I’d be remiss not to ask, I know there have been some student suicides that have been in the news, both at Duke University and UNC as of late. And I’m just curious how this is relevant here in terms of heightening pre-existing problems.
Yes, it does make sense that people who were vulnerable to suicide would find this to be a significant stressor that would lead to more suicidal ideation and even self-injurious and suicidal behavior. So sadly, we did hear that that was a concern as well. And that makes sense. We know that one of the biggest precipitants for suicidal behavior are disruptions to our social lives. And this has been a disruption to our interpersonal interactions more than anything we’ve seen in over a century. So, it’s unfortunate, and really, really tragic that we’re seeing some folks that are having difficulties with suicide finding this to be a stressor beyond their ability to cope.
I really appreciate your perspective on that Mitch. I know that’s very relevant to your own research outside of this. So, thank you for that. And, you know, I know most recently the university has moved ahead with the decision to have us return to school actually as early as August 10th. So, I’m curious, in light of some of these findings, has the university had in your response, or any thoughts about how to address some of these mental health concerns? Or is that sort of outside of the scope of where things are currently?
I think there’s been a big focus on logistics so far to figure out how people can actually get back and remain physically healthy. But I know that I’ve started to ask for some increased dialogue about all of the concerns that students will face, about going back, including some ambivalence about whether going back is a good idea or some potential parent child conflict if parents and kids disagree about whether going back is a good idea.
Yes, and I think it’ll certainly be interesting to see how a lot of things develop in the coming months. And certainly, how they relate to mental health among student populations and the population more broadly. But until then, Mitch, thank you so much for coming by and giving us your unique perspective on these issues. It’s been great to hear about the university response, as well as some of these general themes. So, thanks again.
Yeah, thank you. I hope everyone is well.
And hope you’re doing well as well. So for now, we’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be back with the next segment.
Hi, and welcome back. This is Matt again. You just heard a segment with me interviewing Dr. Mitch Prinstein from UNC Chapel Hill regarding the university’s response to the COVID19 crisis and how it pertains to mental health specifically. I am joined here by the whole crew. I have Kierra and Kelsey and Jamshaid and Poushali. And we’re going to talk about that interview a bit. And Poushali also interviewed someone from KCL and has some other sort of international perspectives on that. But I guess from starting off, I would love to hear everyone’s perspective on and thoughts regarding my interview with Dr. Prinstein. And just any, I don’t know any immediate reactions y’all have.
Yeah, I thought that meant a lot of great information and it was really interesting to hear his perspective. One thing that struck me was that there was a one data gathering happening, but I haven’t seen a lot of action on the results, specifically the ones that he mentioned. For example, I’ve seen a lot of planning on practical solutions and logistics for the fall semester, but not a lot of resources for students right now, other than offering some free counseling or mental health resources for students. And this was kind of surprising given those survey results that really indicate mental health to be something that is taken into consideration. I did actually look on the UNC roadmap site, and they do have a student care hub. But right now, on it, it actually only includes financial support and forms where you can submit suggestions or concerns, but who knows where those are actually going to.
Yeah, I agree 100% with Kelsey. It would be nice to sort of see some more action taken on those results. Which granted, it’s still early so there’s still a lot of, I guess, wiggle room left to sort of address and everything and kind of just feel like kind of, those kinds of facts and everything. But I do hope it’s something that is taken into consideration with this roadmap. And on that topic, as of this recording, UNC is planning to reopen the fall and reasonably release this evolving website called Carolina roadmap designed to give the most up to date information about the reopening processes, process detailing how various aspects of campus life will change due to this pandemic, as there’s still a lot of uncertainty and other in various areas such as transportation and parking. So that’s the kind of the whole gist of this plan really is that they plan to start the semester a few weeks earlier. And consequently, and right before Thanksgiving break, take one there’s expected to be a sort of like, second, third cases as in everything as weather gets colder. With this a reduced number of breaks to mitigate any chance of transmission. I’ll be frank and say that I’m not really a big fan is reopening plan, especially as cases continue to rise in North Carolina. It’s a very complicated plan that they have to sort of prevent outbreak on campus. That that last is that we, as stands for the most part kind of bear the lion’s share of responsibility, ability and upholding? Yeah, ironically, we weren’t, we weren’t actively involved in designing this roadmap from the beginning. And we just now recently have they sent us a survey, soliciting feedback. Whereas, whereas I was talking to a friend of mine about this the other day, apparently at some other schools they’ve, they’ve actually, sent out surveys was instead feedback about the possibility of reopening before making such a big decision. So, we’ve made kind of concerned with the university crew, truly has students’ best interests at heart. I should mention, though, that they did have a webinar last night addressing some student concerns and everything though. While this was useful, I saw this more so as just kind of addressing more or less or sort of the symptoms of reopening, rather than, than the actual root of those symptoms, which for a lot of students is just sort of hesitancy and reluctance of coming back to a crowded campus next fall, regardless of whether we have these social distancing and mask wearing procedures in place and everything. And even the wording they’ve used now to kind of to get student input has put the bitter taste in my mouth with one question asking what excites you about the plan to return to campus in the fall. Which to me felt very insensitive to a lot of the genuine and valid concerns a lot of students including myself, have about returning to campus, especially with all these mental health challenges that can arise on top of the academic pressure of a XX.
Right, it’s a similar story at Kings, I guess. All of the focus has just been on the logistics and other practical considerations of having people back on campus. We have been told now that in the autumn term, all of the teaching will be done online, but students will have the opportunity to come to campus if they wish. We don’t really know how that will work. But it’s more of a blended learning program that they’re trying to set up. We’ll be starting a pilot next week so they’ll have they’ll reopen some buildings, they’ll see how many people choose to come back, and whether they’re able to maintain the social distancing guidelines. In terms of surveys, Kings hasn’t conducted one specifically for students. But there is one done by Smarten and this is a group working on student mental health. They sent out a survey in mid-April, and have now had nearly 5000 responses. And people have completed questions on mental health and well-being. This was sent to research staff and PhD students all across the UK, actually, and not just Kings. And in, in the results, we can see that 45% of the respondents scored low on a measure of well-being, which is indicative of depression and anxiety. Now, this is quite worrying, but it doesn’t seem to be high up on the priority list for Kings.
I think that’s an interesting point Poushali you have about you know, surveys at Kings and Kelsey earlier mentioning the survey that Matt did with Mitch- that these institutions are asking for all this data and concerns to mental health. But for me personally, it doesn’t feel like they’re effectively communicating how they’re going to address these concerns. I know at UNC, we have a Counseling and Psychological Services or CAPS, that does provide a lot of resources for students one on one therapy, group therapy that has been extended through the summer for students that needed or feel like they could benefit from it. They even implemented a 24-hour hotline a few years ago. But CAPS has been known to be overburdened, not having enough therapists to meet the needs of students even before the pandemic. And even though they tried to address these concerns with creating a mental health taskforce, that appears to be, you know, kind of collectively working with UNC admin during this time to provide solutions to address these needs. It just doesn’t feel like they’re effectively communicating what they’re going to do and the strategies they’re going to take. I also attended this webinar that Jamshaid mentioned, and I still wasn’t really satisfied with what they’re going to do. Granted, you know, at the time we’re filming this, it’s still summer and they’re still planning on how to address these concerns, but I really wish that you know, we as students, even employees that work here, had more of a say in what was going to happen going forward. And just as an overburdened student myself, knowing that CAPS is overburdened is really concerning to me.
Yeah, I also think that’s a pretty big concern. I know speaking from my experience in the clinical program here at UNC, we serve as counselors through the community clinic, I know that we typically have a very full client load every semester, invariably, and I know that, like Kierra was saying, the same is true of CAPS. And I think it’s, I think it’s great that they’re offering free services over the summer. Like I think that’s a very, like, I think that is like that’s, that is an action item. However, it doesn’t really address what, what I’ve just mentioned, what Kierra mentioned, which is the, you know, there is an over, you know, there’s an overburden already. And so, it’s, you know, do we have the personnel to handle that? Do we have the adequate funding allocated to that to address concern? I would imagine, yes. But I think the personnel issue is still a question mark. And I mean, in general, I think towards the point of having solutions in mind, I know a theme that I’ve seen come up with a lot of clients of mine, as well as with grad student friends and my own worries is, you know, there’s been a struggle to find balance in our lives since the COVID quarantine began, and certainly with all of the other developments on a societal level here in the US, there’s a lot of concern I have about like maintaining balance in my life in terms of both my productivity from an academic and professional sense. Also, maintaining relationships with close friends and family while also, you know, allocating enough time to take care of myself, whether it’s for exercise or doing things that are pleasurable to me, getting outside after being stuck inside all day. And I’ve been in sort of a constant rebalancing act for the past few months, and I know that a number of clients been doing the same thing, and they’re sort of wondering, well, when I get a new when I get a new courseload in the fall, you know, it’s going to be, you know, back to the normal academic standard of having, you know, all these academic pressures. And, you know, how am I going to do with that, you know, what that returning to sort of normalcy while still living in this very not normal reality. So, I think it’d be great to hear from the university, how they’re going to address that. I know that in the spring, there were some adjustments made to course grading as well as expectations on students, but now it seems like they’re trying to push back towards normalcy, but without any sort of addressing of how are they going to support students, what’s going to be probably, you know, burdensome to their mental health. I’m concerned for myself, I know I have friends who are concerned. And from a mental health practitioner standpoint, I’m concerned for my clients and for the undergrad and graduate population. So, it’d be great to hear more about that in particular on my end.
Yeah, definitely. I couldn’t agree more. Another concern that I have with returning to the fall which I alluded to earlier was how transportation and parking is going to look, especially grad students living off campus and relying heavily on public transit. I work as a representative in graduate student government, for my PhD program and a common concern my fellow students have brought to me is the exact concern with transportation, especially for those who don’t a car or share one with a partner, especially since with my Ph. D. program, we’re not so much class centered as we are research centered as a computational programs, and with a lot of labs, already announcing their plans to work remotely indefinitely until this pandemic essentially comes to an end. So, the idea of having to go all the way to campus for just a single class and then go back home to work, work remotely, from that way is very taxing and stressful for a lot of students in my program, particularly those who do not own a car or share one with a partner. And they talked about this in the webinar, or in that they plan to increase the number of buses in the fall, but they’ve yet to really address how the specifics as to how that will change to accommodate students on top of the general public, as these buses at the end of the day are made to serve the entire town of Chapel Hill, and neighboring areas and such, not just students. And as anyone who goes to UNC can tell you in the morning, those buses fill up very quickly with students and such, to the point where you can’t, we’re very depending on where you get onto the bus you can’t even find a seat. So it will be so be really interesting to see how they seek to combat that, while maintaining social distancing, good hygiene practices, on top of also catering to the fact that the general public, many of them still need to use public transportation as well to go their own respective workplaces and other ventures.
I think that’s a great point. And it’s really interesting for me to think about considering other people outside of the university and these fall plans as well. Like you mentioned the general public also use that Chapel Hill bus system, it’s not only students. And I think kind of a theme overall with all of this is that even though universities mapping out every possible scenario and coming up with a plan, everyone’s going to have their own level of comfort with the guidelines based on their own personal situation. So, I really I do sympathize, sympathize with the universities, trying to plan for the fall semester, because there’s really no way to come up with a guideline that everyone is going to be comfortable with. And I’ve heard suggestions about integrating a lot of flexibility into plans. But I just don’t know how much flexibility is realistic and feasible. For example, I’ve heard suggestions about making classes have an in person and a virtual option. But that’s really hard for students and faculty to plan for. So it’ll be interesting to see how they move forward with giving students options based on their personal comfort, but also balancing that with just the feasibility of that kind of flexibility.
You know, there was a lot of information actually presented in this webinar that Jamshaid and I have referenced to about this UNC’s roadmap being flexible. However, as a viewer, I didn’t feel like they communicated how they’re going to address, you know, every possible situation or even just maybe a couple that they did, but I didn’t feel too comfortable with how they were going to handle certain instances. But I truly hope like when this episode comes out that by the by that time that you know, it’ll be fall semester, people, maybe be back, not sure what changes will come. But I’m still concerned, I echo my concerns of, you know, universities and institutions asking students for this information about their mental health concerns. And university not really feeling like they’re going to prioritize it and even a bit in that interview, I felt like the concern was just to get students back and to be physically healthy. And that’s how I felt with most of that webinar. It’s just you know, make sure everyone is physically taken care of, and we can handle outbreaks if they come up. But yeah, I feel like you’re getting all this information, I would have appreciated more concrete communication with students. And I hope that does come. Again, I will mention that in this webinar that they did mention, creating the taskforce or the health and wellness team membership. And they did touch on how these concerns will not only be implemented to address the concerns that students have during this time of the pandemic and COVID-19. But they also did touch on that these services will provide strategies and opportunities to help Black students as you know, at the time of the summer, when we’re filming this police brutality protests have increased and there’s been more of a push for admin to provide resources for Black African American students. And so, they did mention it. But I hope it is effectively communicated by the time the semester starts. I just hope for more and better communication as we go forward. As you know, we have been saying loudly and clearly that our mental health concerns are unprecedented for us as college students. I know that’s a word that’s used a lot. But it truly is for all of us and how to manage our life and our mental health during these crazy times. So, I just hope going forward that institutions take that into consideration, and not only take it but act upon it.
Right, I hope so too. I hope the relevant people are listening to this podcast and can do more for mental health support services at universities. And this has been a really good discussion and an interesting one for me to compare the university responses from different continents. We’ve talked about the practical considerations of returning to campus and about the already overburdened services. And we’re all concerned for ourselves, our friends, and people more generally. So, I really do hope that more is done. And thanks, everyone for listening. We’re going to be back with another episode where we discuss different themes around mental health. Thanks for listening.