Interview with: Mr Neil RenicNeil is a PhD student from the University of Queensland who recently completed 15 months of study at the Oxford as part of his PhD.
Introduction: Neil’s research explores the impact of the rise of ‘radically asymmetric’ modes of violence on the moral and legal constraints on the use of force between combatants in war. In order to determine the challenge and implications of this military imbalance, Neil’s project is anchored within a comparative historical account of asymmetric warfare.
You recently returned from a 15 month research stay at Oxford. How did this research trip come about?
I had always wanted to complete a portion of my studies overseas but it was not until my honours year that I brought the idea up. I kept the same supervisor for my PhD, so this was something we discussed and sought to bring about from the very beginning of my research.
Was this in addition to Field research? From the beginning, the plan was to select somewhere that would benefit my field research, and through the experience itself, enrich my project more broadly.
Why Oxford? How did you get in contact with Oxford and form your partnership with them?
One advantage of making such an early decision to study abroad was that I was able to approach the application process quite instrumentally.
I suspected that one of the biggest concerns my supervisors might have, particularly given the length of time I would be away, was that my project might derail and I would miss key deadlines. Knowing as early as I did that I wanted to travel overseas, I endeavoured from the beginning of my PhD to meet deadlines ahead of time and exceed some of the milestones we’d set. So basically I tried to set the idea in place that I was a very diligent student who would fare well while overseas and unsupervised. Once this was established, I again brought up the idea of travelling with my supervisors. They were both receptive to the idea, partly I think, on the basis of my proving I had my project firmly in hand.
From that point on it was basically all about matching the university department and potential supervisor with my project. My two most important considerations were finding the right location and institution. My supervisors and I quickly narrowed it down to the United States or Britain and finally decided on Britain. We then narrowed it down further to King’s College in London, Oxford or Cambridge. Finally we settled on Oxford, largely on the basis of the strength of their departments and programs, including the Changing Character of War Program and the Ethics and Laws of Armed Conflict Centre. Both fit really well with my own project. Also, Oxford had a number of academics that one of my supervisor’s had previously worked with, and was happy to approach on my behalf. Both myself and supervisor contacted these academics together and inquired whether they would be willing to work with me for 6 months. These academics get a flood of emails daily, so the fact that my supervisor also emailed them was a big advantage.
Another advantage of beginning this process early is that it allows you to familiarise yourself with the application process, which may differ quite significantly depending on the institution. With Oxford, for example, I needed someone based at the University who would be willing to take me on in a supervisory capacity. They were then required to make the request on my behalf and agree to supervise me formally for that period of time. Getting these things in place before you go is essential. We eventually found someone who was an ideal fit and I sent a letter outlining my project and what I was hoping to get from the experience. Another letter accompanied this from my supervisor, who had worked with her previously. Fortunately for me, she was very receptive.
If you want to head overseas it is also a good idea to talk not only with your team but also with other academics in the department. If they happen to have collaborated with or had any previous relationship with potential supervisors and would be willing to send an e-mail or something on your behalf, that would be really helpful.
Another advantage of setting this up early is you can properly outline how your project will be managed while you are away. I wouldn’t assume that these things will just magically arrange themselves. My supervisors and I spent a lot of time prior to my departure working out how this relationship would function while I was overseas. We initially agreed on a fairly rigid schedule, with a 3-way skype conversation planned for every two weeks to discuss the project. Gradually, as we became more comfortable with the arrangement, these conversations became less frequent. But working this out before you leave is very important, as there is a real risk that you and your supervisors will drift out of contact – you could be in a different time zone, and you are not seeing these people in the corridors every day. But if you take positive steps to avoid this drift the process can be fairly easy to manage.
What about housing and a workspace? I had the option to apply for housing at one of the colleges but chose to live off campus, as I was with my partner. I had two options for a workspace. I could get a desk and office space and have essentially the same experience I have now at UQ, or I could opt out of the desk. For the first six months when I was working with my Oxford supervisor and I was formally part of the college I went for the office space. This was the right decision, as it allowed me to meet a large number of other academics. For the second six months I had a different supervisor and didn’t opt for the desk. That is definitely the order to do it – start off with the support structure and then, as you become more comfortable and competent, you can move out of it. Oxford is unique in that it has roughly 40 colleges rather than single departments – so it really helps if you overcome any early timidity you might have and explore as much as possible.
You extended you time away from 6 months to 12 months. How did that come about?
Part of the reason was that I was having such a great experience. It was, however, tricky to be away for as long as I was. I sent some e-mails to my supervisor at Oxford and the department saying, “I think I am getting a lot out of this experience and would I be able to extend it?” and they were really open to the idea. At UQ my supervisors were also on board but there was some reluctance from the department. This is understandable I suppose, as I imagine there have been cases where things have gone less smoothly the longer the student has been away. I would say six months is generally a good time to be absent from the department. My experience is perhaps more the exception than the rule.
What funding avenues did you pursue?
I got department funding from POLSIS. I gave them an outline of the reasons I was travelling over there and what I hoped to achieve and it was a very smooth process. And there was also the grad school funding. You definitely have to put more work into that. One of the difficulties is that there is no set template for what you need to show them. It helps though to highlight tangible reasons for your trip, like conferences and workshops – things with actual set dates. You don’t want to just say, “While I am there I hope to talk to some experts in my field”. They want precision: “On August 5th I will be going to this workshop on drone warfare and I will be presenting for 25 min.” The more detail you can add the better. Also show how your work will reflect well on the school. I was happy with the amount of funding I received but this aspect of the planning bears a lot of consideration, particularly if you plan on spending a long time overseas. That was something I had to factor into the experience, that this was going to exact a financial toll – but the pros far outweighed the cons. This can’t just be a consideration of what will be best for your project, though. Some real life decisions have to come into it, like can I actually afford to live for this period of time? The rent in Oxford was mental.
How has your project benefited from your stay at Oxford?
For the first six months, the department offered me a large amount of material support. I had my own workspace and a lot of administrative guidance. It was quite similar to the normal PhD experience over here. For the remainder of the time I was there, this was less rigidly organised. I no longer had formal supervision so I contacted people myself to organise things and arranged to go to workshops and seminars. That said, it was probably more rewarding, because I was settled in and more comfortable approaching academics. I had a large list of scholars that I wanted to meet, and frequently did so at a pub or cafe. Everyone was warm and welcoming and I attended some fantastic events. For example, just before I returned I went to a 3 days workshop with drone and reaper pilots from Britain and the US, military cadets, as well as a panel of Law of War and Just War experts. I was also lucky enough to obtain a spot on the panel as a late addition. It was a fantastic experience and something I could only have done in that environment.
As much as I have enjoyed my time at the University of Queensland, there is a relatively small number of people who have my specific interests. At Oxford, this was far less the case. An inevitability of your PhD is that you and your supervisors are going to work on it so closely there will be difficulty in stepping back and assessing the project with fresh eyes. One of the most rewarding things about Oxford was presenting my project to people who were sceptical about the whole premise of it. Their criticism was a relief to receive though, as I thought, “Okay, this was always going to come out and fortunately it’s come out a year and a half in rather than with the examiner who is actually examining my PhD.” The more people you can find to critique your work, the better.
Where were you at in you PhD process when you departed?
It was less than a month after my SOI. I also had to fly back for my WIP. Part of navigating my extension was that I flew back, presented my WIP and touched base with my supervisors to show that I was still on top of everything and set some new milestones. Leaving when the project was still forming, rather than fully structured, was probably an advantage for me. People were examining it when it was still very mutable. This gave them freedom to offer really substantive feedback, which was fantastic.
What recommendations would you have for other PhDs who are exploring undertaking extended stays at other institutions?
There is going to be a temptation to only consider well-known institutions and universities, but it is so much more important to actually look at the individuals who are there. Maybe there will be a university that isn’t so flashy in its title that is perfect for your project because it has a terrific department or even one person that is exactly what your project needs. The advantage of Oxford was that there was a fantastic contingent of scholars who were totally enmeshed in asymmetric warfare and my research area. That’s why it is so important, as soon as you have an inkling for this, to start making moves. Think about who is out there doing work that is interesting to you and can benefit your project. Talk to people in your department and find out if they have any connections or affiliations there.
More generally, if you have any temptation to go overseas, definitely go for it. I imagine some people might think it is a bit too much to take on but for me at least, it was a great decision. I loved the whole process. I had been at UQ since the first year of my undergrad and I was afraid of getting too wedded to this place and this topic. But the travel overseas was such a perfect tonic to that. Travel gives you perspective, it helps you develop, and it also gives you an appreciation for the place you left. It has helped my project to still feel fresh, which is a big advantage heading into the final stretch. Anyone who is tempted by the idea of going overseas to study should lean into it. I found it a sensational experience.
Interviewed by: Shannon Zimmerman