International PhD and postdoc during the pandemic: Settling in a new country via Zoom

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What is it like to be an international researcher in Denmark with a limited social network during the Covid-19 pandemic? At a seminar held by the Faculty of Arts’ Committee for Equality and Diversity in December, Postdoc Petra Hermankova and PhD Fellow Edwin Ambani Ameso addressed that question. In this article, they describe the difficulties of settling in a new country via Zoom, having no proper desk to work at, and the fear of failing when you cannot afford to.

2021.01.11 | Petra Hermankova og Edwin Ambani Ameso

Photo from Petra Hermankova's fieldwork in January 2020, Perachora in Greece. Photo: Private.

The speeches

  • On 17 December, the Faculty of Arts’ Committee for Equality and Diversity held an online seminar on the challenges for junior researchers caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Four junior researchers presented speeches on this topic. Here, we publish shortened versions of the speeches held by Petra Hermankova and Edwin Ambani Ameso, both of whom arrived in Aarhus with little time to settle in before the Covid-19 lockdown during spring 2020.
  • Petra Hermankova is a postdoc at the Department of History and Classical Studies.
  • Edwin Ambani Ameso is a PhD Fellow at the School of Culture and Society - Department of Anthropology.
  • You can read a Danish translation of the speeches on our Danish webpage.

One of the upsides during the lockdown was when IKEA opened

Petra Hermankova, postdoc at the Department of History and Classical Studies, arrived in Aarhus just a few months before the corona pandemic got serious in Denmark. She immediately got busy working on her research project and did not get to make any social connections – or to buy a desk – before the country went into lockdown. Here, she shares her experience of being an international in Denmark during the lockdown and urges her Danish co-workers to remember to include their international colleagues, especially in times like these.

By Petra Hermankova

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit us all. Some of us have struggled with the lack of daycare and having to homeschool. Most of us have seen a sharp increase in the numbers of online meetings, followed by digital fatigue and the feeling of never-ending uncertainty. Plenty of pages have been written about the decreased academic productivity in 2020 and most likely in 2021 too.  But one group has been overlooked so far – the internationals on temporary contracts.

Prioritised work over socialising

I am currently in the middle of my 3-year postdoc at the Department of History and Classical Studies. I was born in the Czech Republic, but I have spent the last several years as a research fellow in Sydney, Australia or doing archaeological fieldwork in the Balkans. Although I came to Denmark several months before Covid-19, I didn’t make many local connections as I immediately got busy with my research project, organising and teaching workshops, and attending international conferences. I thought there would be plenty of time to get to know my colleagues. Therefore, I made building the foundation for my postdoc – the seed of my future career – first priority. How wrong was I then.

Saved by IKEA

Moving to a home-office in March has brought unforeseen issues, which are so familiar to all expats. Because I have recently moved from overseas, I simply did not have an office desk, or chair where I could sit all day and there was no space to fit an office in our tiny place. As a result, on Thursdays and Fridays I got migraines from working off random pieces of available furniture.

Therefore, one of the upsides of the lockdown was when IKEA finally re-opened in May, and I was able to buy proper furniture, and create an office corner for doing my research. With the new desk, my migraines were gone in less than a week!

Petra Hermankova at her desk. Photo: Private.

The archaeological remains will still be there in 2022 – but I most likely won’t be

In January 2020, I was lucky enough to squeeze in an archaeological field season in Greece – which is going to be the last one for a very long time. In the current uncertain times, there is no guarantee we will be allowed back before 2022. Although the archaeological remains will still be there in 2022, I most likely won’t be.

I’ve had to change the plan for the rest of the postdoc, and even the publication of this year’s findings got delayed due to Covid-19. I am terrified to predict the consequences the pandemic might have on my future career and job prospects.

How refreshing to interact with other human beings

Since my postdoc is fully in English, I am not required to learn Danish. However, I wanted to learn a bit of Danish. But the Danish classes were cancelled several times and I only got to start in September. Luckily enough, we were able to meet in person. After several months of rigorous isolation (because I had no one to meet even if I could), being able to talk to other humans face-to-face felt so refreshing, even if we had to endure the Danish ‘ø’, ‘æ’ or ‘å’. Our classes are now online, but I made some friends and we can share our joys and pains in real life, which makes a huge difference.

The precariousness and isolation of international scholars became obvious in 2020

Reflecting on 2020, I have learnt a lot about myself, about the societies we live in and about what we took for granted. In my eyes, the Covid pandemic has not created new problems, but it intensified the already existing ones – one of them being the precariousness and isolation of international scholars. To fight the long-term effects of Covid, I suggest that if you sit on a job assessment committee or grant panel and you see a gap in publications on a CV, remember that 2020/2021 was a tough time for everyone.

You can make a huge difference in 5 minutes

To help with the short-term effects, talk to your international colleagues, send them an email, invite them for a walk and ask them how they have been. It may take you 5 minutes, but it has a great impact on our lives.


Flying solo as an international PhD: Going home is not an option

Edwin Ambami Ameso, an international PhD Fellow at School of Culture and Society - Department of Anthropology, went almost straight from an overwhelming and traumatizing field work experience in Kenya into isolation and social distancing in Denmark. Here he discusses why he chose to stay in Denmark during the pandemic: He simply couldn’t let this chance pass. And he owes this determination to his mother.

By Edwin Ambani Ameso, PhD Fellow at School of Culture and Society - Department of Anthropology.

As a hectic field work year in the rural parts of Kenya came to its end, I looked forward to going on an academic adventure in the Nordic countries that promised – and delivered – frustration, loss, hope and desire.

My research explores the universal health coverage agenda and what it means in the global south. As part of my fieldwork, I ethnographically followed families and I ended up spending time with patients in and out of hospitals, where their health needs could not be met.

At the beginning of 2020, it was time for me to distance myself from the field; a respite from the overwhelming experiences of the patients and from caregivers and health workers making do and improvising care. For patients with diseased bodies, the cruel ends were inexorable.

I thought to myself: Maybe when I get to my university and sit down with colleagues and seniors, I will find reprieve from the trauma and grotesque images from my fieldwork experiences? Maybe I will be able to understand how to articulate these experiences?

The pandemic – a distant concern

Simultaneously, news of a new strain of coronavirus, Covid-19, with its origins in Wuhan, China diffused through the available media to East Africa. Just like the majority of the public, I construed the pandemic as being ‘far away’ and the perceived risks to the social fabric as we knew it, a distant concern.

Trying to fit in while being isolated

On my arrival in the Nordics, the pandemic was beginning to take shape as transnational mobility ironically enabled its transmitability. Within days, social measures became the go to social contracts, redefining social interactions. Fitting in in Denmark was now limited to technology and isolation.

Leaving is not an option

Personally, I could not leave Denmark and go back home. I was on borrowed time to actualize the contractual demands I agreed on. I knew that I had to deliver, and due to the limited or zero interaction with others, I had to find my way on my own. Despite the situation, I had to be resilient and take this chance to make meaning of my studies which is the reason why I am in Denmark.

Besides, back home the pandemic was unravelling, and close kin and interlocutors (informants involved in the research study, ed.) were falling prey to the pandemic. Could I go home and mourn? Well, what good could come of it?

I have to deliver

Should I let my fear, anxiety, loss and frustrations overpower the need for completion, a mark of success, in this uncertain future? Should I sit back and forget my temporal status and neglect ironclad contractual agreements? No. I need to be keen and vigilant, and turn fear, anxiety, frustration and loss into hope, ambition, desire and aspiration for success. I have to deliver.

Now, my short-haul flight is touching ground and the watch tower has to stay on schedule. Detours and rerouting are uneconomical options for economy-class passengers like myself.

I am flying solo, I am the other, a possible intruder, and I have to weather the storms. I need to actualize academic success for the interlocutors, as well, and make meaning of time spent using Nordic tax payer funds.

This is not about me – this is about the dreams of an illiterate woman

I need to do it for the dreams of an illiterate woman, not by choice but by design; grateful to have her seed make strides for a better life against all odds. After all, education, she knows, is the greatest equalizer in an unequal world.

Covid-19 is but a flimsy barrier despite its unpleasant realities. A success story, I need to be, I cannot afford to fail. I need to keep walking, time is of the essence.

The speeches

  • On 17 December, the Faculty of Arts’ Committee for Equality and Diversity held an online seminar on the challenges for junior researchers caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Four junior researchers presented speeches on this topic. Here, we publish shortened versions of the speeches held by Petra Hermankova and Edwin Ambani Ameso, both of whom arrived in Aarhus with little time to settle in before the Covid-19 lockdown during spring 2020.
  • Petra Hermankova is a postdoc at the Department of History and Classical Studies.
  • Edwin Ambani Ameso is a PhD Fellow at the School of Culture and Society - Department of Anthropology.
  • You can read a Danish translation of the speeches on our Danish webpage.
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