Researching Security fellows share their personal views on the PhD trajectory

3 December 2016

We asked some of our Researching Security fellows to reflect on what it is like to do a PhD in the field of security, organised crime and violence, including the impact it has on their private life and what they would do differently looking back. Read this interview for a very personal view – one you won’t find in a student handbook.

Part 1: Conducting a PhD in the field of security, organised crime and violence

Q1. What are the best and worst parts of doing PhDs in the field of security, violence and organised crime?

Natalia Cervantes

Natalia Cervantes: Security, violence and organised crime are all incredibly pressing issues in my country, Mexico. Studying these themes empowered me to understand things are not as simple as portrayed. It also humbled me, realising how people cope and learn to live with violence situations. The downside of it all is feeling impotent. As a PhD researcher, you are there for a limited period of time, and there is little, or nothing, you can do to ameliorate people’s living conditions in this short time frame.

Jenna Muray de López: I also carried out my fieldwork in Mexico – in Chiapas, an area known for low-intensity armed conflict between the indigenous Zapatista movement and the Mexican state. The militarized environment and the ‘everyday violence’ that low-income Mexicans are exposed to greatly influenced how I approached questions of healthcare and state in a way I had not imagined.

Jorrit Kamminga: I like the level of complexity in all these areas. There are so many different layers and factors involved. For example, I did my PhD on alternative livelihoods in Colombia and there are many different reasons why farmers grow illicit crops. That makes it very challenging to come up with tailored public policies that produce good outcomes.

Susan Hopper-Flaemig

Susan Hoppert-Flaemig: I think the best part is doing research about some of the most challenging questions of our time. Creating peace in the 21st century is closely linked to finding new approaches of dealing with issues of insecurity and violence. I hope that our research can make a small contribution here.

Nicholas Pope: It is a grounding experience when you realise that illicit practices in developing contexts can arise through necessity and the need to ‘make do’ – and these activities are not always driven by malice. Research in this context has helped me to dismantle some of the ethnocentric tendencies that I might have had.

Q2. How has your gender, ethnicity or nationality impacted on or influenced your research?

Verena Brähler: Being white, female and German certainly influenced my field research in Rio de Janeiro. Of all these characteristics, I would say being a foreigner made the biggest difference. I noticed that many Brazilian researchers had been forced to choose sides and either align with the narrative of the police/military/elite or the favelas/human rights activists/drug dealers. As a foreigner, I felt I didn’t have to choose sides and was allowed to speak to everyone.

Alternative livelihood recipients and familiy

Alternative livelihood recipients Jorrit met in rural Colombia

Jorrit Kamminga: For me as a foreigner in Colombia I wasn’t able to conduct the field research alone in some of the areas I visited. Sometimes the risks of doing field research are unclear or exaggerated but in some cases, for example in some neighborhoods of Medellín, it would have been a huge risk to go there by myself.

Natalia Cervantes: I think my nationality benefited my research. Being a Mexican doing fieldwork in Mexico meant that accessibility was not a prominent issue. I was able to speak the language and already familiar with research settings and costumes. However, gender had a definite impact on my research. I often felt like I was being patronised when I spoke with officials.

Jenna Muray de López: My gender and role as a mother were also central to my positionality in the field – I was researching maternal lives. I was limited in my interactions with men, which is a slight regret and gap in my data. Despite this I built up good relationships with the women in the neighbourhood. I respected the gendered spaces and have previous experience of the misunderstandings that can be caused as a white woman talking alone with other women’s men. Women’s curiosity about how white women bear and care for children was useful for me to understand what was important to them.

Nicholas Pope: Conducting the ethnographic part of my fieldwork with a group of black youths, with a radical feminist leader, located on the urban periphery (of the periphery!), posed various challenges for my research. However, the juxtaposition of this setting alongside my privilege (which often led to often uncomfortable situations) helped me to develop a deeper understanding of the context and social relations. On the other hand, when interviewing at the formal institutional level my privilege was beneficial.

Part 2: Impact on personal life

You all conduct research on arguably ‘problematic’ issues like violence, organised crime and corruption. How does it affect you personally?

Jenna Muray de López: The focus of my research is examining obstetric violence and maltreatment of women in the health system which has always been very personal to me. Working in a militarized environment and an area where violence against women and kidnapping are common place affected me because I had my children with me in the field. Upon reflection I think I avoided more situations and opportunities if I felt I would be putting them in danger. Having to explain images and talk of gendered violence, presence of soldiers and brawls in the street to an inquisitive five year old made me question my priorities a lot.

The 'pacification' of Complexo do Alemão in Rio de Janeiro

Complexo do Alemao in Rio de Janeiro where Verena did her field research

Verena Brähler: What affected me most was this constant notion of fear that I had never felt growing up. Fear that I would visit the wrong place at the wrong time, say the wrong thing to the wrong people, and put research participants or myself in danger because of the information I held. Fear is very powerful. It is good because it made me be careful and alert, and it is bad because I never had peace of mind. I think a part of this fear and mistrust will stay with me for the rest of my life, no matter where I will go.

Natalia Cervantes: At the risk of sounding very idyllic, researching issues of violence for me worked as a booster. It encouraged me to try and communicate people’s experiences on the ground to grasp a little better what we can do about violence. However, I also found that researching violence can take a toll on you. Listening and transcribing interviews recounting very violent experiences has a clear emotional effect.

Nicholas Pope: Experiencing violent contexts everyday is eye opening. Even though you might not be witnessing or experiencing specific acts of violence, structural violence is always present. This can be difficult and have a personal impact on the researcher. However, these personal impacts on as a researcher have to be contextualised with the impacts on people living in that context.

How does doing a PhD impact on your family and private life?

Local police station in El Salvador where Susan did her field research

Susan Hoppert-Flaemig: This is an interesting question because usually I think about it the other way around – how does my family life affect my PhD? I heard people saying, if you do a PhD, you do not have time for a private life. That certainly was not true for me. I always found it important to have a balance between my private life and the PhD. Otherwise I would not have found the strength to face the various challenges of doing a PhD.

Jorrit Kamminga: I did my PhD part-time which meant that it did not really affect the family and private life. During the last year of the PhD, the writing process was quite intense, but that year I was not combining it with work, so that also was quite manageable.

Verena Brähler: My experience was that there are no free evenings, weekends and holidays when you do a PhD. Or maybe there are but you cannot enjoy it because you know that every hour you are not working on your research project, is an hour you need to add at the end.

Jenna Muray de López: I would also say that the PhD has had a significant impact on family life. I have worked full-time and studied part time for the last six years. When at home I have not been as ‘available’ to my family because I have been locked away working. During the nine months of fieldwork I left my husband and three year old son in the UK whilst I went pregnant and with my five year old daughter to carry out fieldwork. I have had two more babies through the duration of my studies (affectionately referred to as fieldwork baby and write-up baby!). I think ultimately my children and husband would answer this question better. But, overall I am glad my children have witnessed how hard you have to work for something. Ultimately it is the thought of the family sacrifices we made that got me through to the end.

Natalia Cervantes: My husband started his PhD six months before me so at times we were both under massive amounts of stress. Nevertheless, it was nice that we both understood the processes we were going through, so we were able to provide a lot of support to each other. Needless to say, the dynamic changed again last year when we welcomed our baby boy into the world.

Part 3: Life after the PhD

Some of you have finished the PhD already. What has been your trajectory since you finished the PhD?

Jenna Muray de López: In my personal life – learning to be with my family again and rediscovering weekends! I was lucky to already have an academic post and be familiar with the strange world that is academia. The most useful thing I have done, which also helped me secure a new post, was devise an achievable five year research agenda and two year publishing plan from my thesis – giving myself a new direction to go in when the focus has been ‘finish the PhD’ for such a long time.

Susan Hoppert-Flaemig: I have had my viva about two months ago and am currently trying to turn my research into publishable articles. So I am still at the very beginning of my post-PhD life. I would like to keep working as an academic but I am well aware of the huge challenges of pursuing an academic career.


Jorrit Kamminga explaining his research in Colombia

Jorrit Kamminga: After finishing the PhD, I was unemployed for about half a year, but then I started working for Oxfam within their international Rights in Crisis campaign, which also focuses on conflict and post conflict countries. A few months later, I was also asked to work as a consultant for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on the research and writing of a big chapter on alternative livelihoods for farmers of drug-producing plants for their World Drug Report 2015. That was a very rewarding experience as the topic was directly in line with my PhD research.

Verena Brähler at UCL in London

Verena Brähler: All in all, life after the PhD is so much easier, both personally and professionally. I am working as the Head of Research at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the national equality body and human rights institutions for Great Britain. I manage a suit of research projects, have responsibility for budgets and risks and a duty of care towards the people in my team but I am finding it much easier than doing a PhD.

Looking back, what is the most important thing you learned that helps you in your career today?

Susan Hoppert-Flaemig: You need a lot of stamina and tenacity to do a PhD! I hope these qualities will help me during the job search.

Jenna Muray de López: Resilience and owning your ideas – they are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

Verena Brähler: Wherever I work, and for whoever I work, I want to be clear on what we are trying to achieve and why and how. Life is too short to waste people’s time and do work that has no impact. Therefore I think the PhD has raised the bar in terms of what I expect from my work environment and those around me.

What would you do differently?

Jenna Muray de López: Keep writing more during fieldwork. I became so immersed in data collection that I forgot how to think about writing large pieces.


Susan Flaemig, Juan Carlos Ruiz, Edmund Pries and Verena Brähler at a conference in Budapest

Susan Hoppert-Flaemig: I wish it had taken me less time to write the thesis. Having a clearer idea about my research goals at the very beginning of the whole PhD process would have helped speeding it up.

Verena Brähler: I would use more project management skills to plan out my PhD from start to finish, with deliverables and milestones, and always being clear what is coming on the horizon. Sometimes I was writing on a chapter for months and never thought clearly about what would come after that, and then after that.

Jorrit Kamminga: I would try to keep the scope of my research as limited as possible. I thought I already had narrowed the topic down considerably, but the next time I would definitely focus even more. I think that will make the research not only more manageable but in most cases also better.