We asked our new colleague Irina Cheresheva on her academic interests, the PhD programme, Covid, and many more

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“When you realise that your normal lifestyle is called quarantine!” No disruption in IBS PhD programme

Where are you from and what brought you to Hungary?
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. I first came to Hungary to do a Master’s at the now Vienna-based CEU. That’s where I met my partner, so I stayed around. We both did our PhDs in the UK but decided to return after 6 years because of various personal reasons, career opportunities, and a looming Brexit.

What did you study and where? What is your major academic interest?
Like many 18-year-olds I didn’t know for certain what I wanted to do with my life. So, I went for a BA in International Relations and European Studies at the University of Sofia, because it was prestigious and because in 2001 Bulgaria seemed destined for a bright European future. That’s where I discovered my passion for both human rights and the sociological imagination. In particular, I started realizing that despite a plethora of gender equality legislation, which was very much the hot topic in the EU at that moment, women and men experienced what they were actually capable of doing with their lives very differently. A series of nuances in the historical, economic, social, and cultural reality surrounding us produced a different set of expectations and opportunities, and well, set-backs, too, for women and men. I became interested in studying the everyday from a gender perspective and therefore pursued an MA in Gender Studies at the CEU. That’s where I found myself, academically speaking. I started my PhD there as well, on the topic of the cultural construction of the “good mother” in Hungary and Bulgaria, but I ended up finishing that at the sociology department of the University of Leicester, UK. While at CEU, my focus was on the differences between Eastern European countries, which often get lumped into an undifferentiated mass in theory, originating in the West. When I moved to the UK, however, I started paying more attention to the political possibilities of writing theory from an Eastern European epistemic perspective. Behind this is really an interest in the role of power within knowledge production: the same global inequalities which allow breaking COVID 19 lockdowns to fly thousands of Eastern Europeans into Western European countries to do “essential work”, regulate who has the right to speak and be heard within academic debates. If I have to sum up all this somehow and outline an overarching academic interest, it would be this: tracing the power relations that structure what one can and cannot do, and the often very subtle mechanisms which ensure no one steps out of line – in business, politics and our private lives alike.

What is your position at IBS?
I am a lecturer – I teach research methods and academic skills on both BSc and MSc level, and Employability skills – Written communication to BSc students whose command of English is already advanced.
I am also IBS’ research officer, which means I am responsible for running the PhD programme. Together with local experts on methodology, I organise workshops which help our PhD students stay on the right track with their research and make sure everyone’s needs are met. UK academia has its own logic and standards – my role is to help our students (and their supervisors!) produce a PhD thesis which is not only interesting and rigorous but meets the British idea of academic quality. Like I said already, knowledge production is not one and the same thing around the world. I make sure our students can say what they want to say in a way which will be granted a UK degree.

At this very early stage, do you see especially exciting and interesting PhD students, old or new topics? What are they?
Well, since they have been accepted to the programme, all PhD students’ topics contain something novel (that’s academese for interesting and exciting), which makes them stand out.The PhD programme at IBS has two branches: International Relations and Business and Management Studies. Within Business and Management, we have topics ranging from the exploration of what corporate social responsibility actually means in terms of labour practices in different regions of the world within the oil and gas industry, through the ways the payment technology revolution in China affects the so-called financial inclusion of its citizens, to studying the barriers which affect women’s advancing to senior management positions. We even have a prospective student who is interested in the effects the COVID 19 crisis has on the supply chains in developing countries! Within IR, our PhD candidates study the Arab Spring; Inverse migration: the reasons behind citizens of wealthier countries move to less economically advances societies within a changing European context, as well as the effects on anti-corruption measures in Georgia (the country). As you can see, the topics are both diverse and very current.

We are doing this interview in the middle of the online teaching and learning. How could PhD students adjust? What are the challenges of the present for your work, for the PhD programme?
These are difficult times for everybody. The complete collapse of a separation between work and private life affects us all, especially those with children and especially those who are expected to care for children, traditionally. Yes, I am talking about women. To illustrate, just as I am typing this, my daughter comes to cuddle and show me some very exciting pictures she made of herself in her room. Obviously, none of this can wait! Some of our PhD students have children, too, and the lockdowns massively influence their ability to work on their projects. Yet, from what I can see, they are managing, and I would really like to congratulate them on it!
Otherwise, there is a meme circulating on social media right now about PhD life during COVID, and it goes like “When you realise that your normal lifestyle is called quarantine!” A PhD is a lonely endeavour.It’s an independent research, and despite the support PhD students get from their supervisors and more broadly speaking, the IBS team, a lot of the time is spent on reading and writing on one’s own. That’s the way it should be. There is no reason why this cannot continue under the present conditions.
We have moved our workshops on Zoom, and it seems to me that there isn’t really a disruption in the way the PhD functions. Some students had to re-think their methodological choices as research methods such as face-to-face interviewing and ethnography are not real options at the moment. However, they have been very creative and are managing to interview their respondents via different digital platforms. They are also moving towards doing digital ethnographies. Overall, I’d say it’s a challenge, but challenges aren’t only hurdles – they present openings, portals, possibilities for doing our work, our lives, and ourselves differently. They are a learning opportunity and from what I see, IBS PhD students are largely living up to the challenge. Well done! That said, I would really like to emphasize that mental health is very important and urge our students, PhD and beyond, not to neglect it in these difficult times. Your research is important, but so is keeping yourself in a condition which allows you to actually do it. Take walks, eat well, sleep, and remember – this will not last forever.

PhD Programmes at IBS