Life after the PhD – Researching Security fellows share their very personal views on the PhD trajectory (Part 3/3)

7 January 2017

We have asked 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 what 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 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.

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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 institution 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.

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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.

Read the full interview here.

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Impact on personal life – Researching Security fellows share their very personal views on the PhD trajectory (Part 2/3)

6 January 2017

We have asked 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 what 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 2: Impact on personal life

All of you conduct research on quite problematic issues like violence, organised crime and corruption, how does it affect you personally?

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Jenna Murray de López

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.

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.

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Jenna Murray de López with her family

Jenna Muray de López: I would also say that the PhD has had a significant impact on family life. I have worked fulltime 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.

Read the full interview here.

Researching Security fellows share their very personal views on the PhD trajectory (Part 1/3)

5 January 2017

We have asked 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 what 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: Doing a PhD in the field of security, organised crime and violence

What is the best and worst part of doing a PhD 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.

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.

Read the full interview here.

Working in Kabul: Bomb attack on Hazara protesters

Researching Security fellow Jorrit Kamminga was working for Oxfam in Kabul during the bomb attack on Hazara protesters on 23 July 2016

Photo_Jorrit_KammingaThe day before the attack was a Friday, the first day of the Afghan ‘weekend’ and Kabul was very calm. There are always reports of security incidents but most of these are very far away from the capital or at least from the heart of the city. Late in the afternoon, I had a very positive meeting with the Commander of the Resolute Support Mission, in which we spoke about the security situation but also about the many positive developments in Afghanistan over the past years, such as the increase of interaction between civil society and the state, with more citizens now demanding good governance and access to their basic rights.

My visit to Afghanistan had almost come to an end, and knowing there was no opportunity to leave the guesthouse the day after, as the protests of the Hazara minority had already been announced a week earlier, I quickly went shopping for presents in Chicken Street. I have been coming to this famous shopping area for eleven years now and the intensive bargaining (followed by still paying too much of course) has almost become routine. I know the shops and I know where I can quickly buy what I need. With a bag with some lapis lazuli stones, some jewelry, a nicely carved wooden box and a present for an Afghan colleague who managed to arrange my working permit in no time, I went back to the Oxfam guesthouse.

The next day, Saturday, starts with the normal routine. As our Afghan colleagues have their second day off, I can stay at the guesthouse, go to the gym and have a bit more time than usual for breakfast. I meet with a few work colleagues and we talk about the protests of the Hazara ethnic minority who are demanding that Bamyan province is connected to the planned electricity transmission line. While at first glance the Hazara protests are about the provision of basic services, they are at least partly motivated by broader perceptions of systematic bias against the Hazaras. According to the first news reports, the protests are peaceful and no serious incidents are reported. The international news on TV is still dominated by the shooting in Munich and the government crackdown in Turkey. My colleagues are joking that I will be stuck in Afghanistan as my flight back through Istanbul will surely be cancelled in these circumstances.

A few hours later, Kabul is in turmoil. The suicide attack occurs in the south-western part of the city. I am in Qala-e-Fatullah, two police districts to the north. I don´t hear the blasts but a moment later there is some shooting going on in my neighborhood, apparently nothing serious but some panicking local people or tense security forces. Even here in Kabul people still get upset when such attacks happen, especially because we did not witness an attack of this scale since December 2011 when 63 (also mostly Hazaras) died in an attack on a Shia shrine. The worst part is that this attack was targeted at civilians. In contrast, while many civilians also die in Taliban attacks, the Taliban usually target a specific government or international institution.

My colleagues and I are quite shocked and watching the images of the attacks on television somehow makes it difficult to grasp that this is actually happening in the same city. At least we hear that all Afghan colleagues are safe and accounted for. At two o’clock at night, there is some further shooting in the area of the guesthouse but for the rest everything is calm.

On Sunday, the first working day of the week, most Afghan people have the day off because President Ghani has declared a national day of mourning. While I drive around Kabul in the morning, it am astonished how quickly a city can return to normal. People go about their business and it is almost as if the terrorist attack never happened. Some roads are still blocked and the Hazara community is torn between continuing their demonstrations (forbidden during the day of mourning) and calls to turn this horrific event into a nation-wide act of solidarity with the 91 people who died and the 265 who were wounded.

There is no silver lining to this tragedy. It is terrorism at its worst: cowardly striking fear into the political heart of a country where many people are working firmly towards putting an end to poverty, instability and to at least 38 years of conflict. Islamic State has claimed responsibility, which makes this their first attack in Kabul or in an urban centre for that matter. It is not clear whether the predominantly Sunni terrorist organisation was deliberately targeting Shia Hazaras, whether it was retaliation against the substantial military offensive against Islamic State that started the week before, or whether they would have exploited any big gathering in Kabul on this day. Some fear this may be the beginning of a bigger presence of the terrorist group in Afghanistan which so far has been mainly confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar. Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), as they are officially called in Afghanistan, consists mainly of former members of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). For the moment, however, the ongoing military offensive against ISKP seems to be quite successful in eastern Afghanistan, and they also face strong resistance from the Afghan Taliban.

I have a little bit of hope, therefore, that this ruthless attack might somehow play a part in putting the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban back on track. The fact that the Taliban quickly denied any responsibility for this suicide attack could maybe represent a tiny stepping stone towards peace in Afghanistan. For me personally this attack will not stop me from returning to Afghanistan. My next trip is already planned and in my current support role I will be assisting Afghan colleagues and project teams until at least March 2017. Over the years, I have experienced quite a lot of tension and turmoil in Afghanistan but this will never weigh up against all the beautiful things I have seen in this country and all the wonderful interactions I have had with Afghan people since 2005.

Appreciating the Positive Moments of Researching Insecurity and Violence

 by Susan Hoppert-Flaemig, July 2016

Although being an academic requires spending an essential amount of time with desk work, the time spent ‘in the field’ is most important to advance in my thinking. Like other researchers, I tend to focus more on the problems rather than on the positive aspects of my topics. Dealing with issues of violence in Central America and the incapability of governments to contain violence, this can be become quite depressing. However, there are moments when I am reminded that the courage of a few people can make the difference, even if only one individual life is changed.

My first trip to Central America was in 1999. I was 18 years old and volunteered at the Casa del Niño, an orphanage in La Ceiba, Honduras. For one year I shared my life with a bunch of lovely wild boys. Many of these boys had experienced poverty, abandonment, abuse, and violence but they were also just children who wanted to laugh and play and live their lives. One of these children was Noe, he came to the Casa del Niño with his brother Carlos when he was about seven years old. He was one of the youngest of the group of about 25 boys, a sweet little kid, smart and playful, and I enjoyed spending time with him and Carlos. That year in La Ceiba opened my eyes about the enormous difficulties many people face every day who are affected by violence and poverty and who are neglected by the state.

I remained attached to the region. In recent years, Honduras gained the sad reputation of being the world’s most violent country.[1] La Ceiba is considered one of the ‘murder hotspots’.[2] In 2011 I came back to La Ceiba. Now a PhD researcher, I had just spent a few weeks of fieldwork in El Salvador. Before heading back to the UK, I wanted to visit some friends in Honduras. One of them was Tania who had been teaching at the Casa del Niño for many years and was now working as principal at an NGO called Niños de la Luz. Niños de la Luz was providing a home and education for children and young adults in a high risk neighbourhood. Tania was working with the same dedication, empathy and persistence I had observed at the Casa del Niño. I was shocked when she told me that most of the children I had met at Casa del Niño had died. At some point in their young lives they had become involved in the lethal business of Honduran street gangs of killings, drug addiction and extortion. It was depressing to think about the kids as young men who killed and were killed.

However, as Tania showed me around Niños de la Luz, we came across a young man whose face seemed somehow familiar. It was Noe, the little boy of the Casa del Niño! His way was exceptional. Not only had he managed to survive and stay healthy. He had also earned a degree in business administration and worked as the financial manager of the project. Seeing Noe alive, happy and thriving in his career was such a pleasure. It showed me that the brave work of all those committed to boys and young men at risk and trying to offer them an alternative to violence and crime is worth it. Researching issues of insecurity and violence is often about being confronted with people living in depressing and difficult situations. But it is worth highlighting and remembering the positive stories as they encourage us to keep engaging with the topic.

[1] According to the UNODC Global Study on Homicides, 90.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants were counted in 2012.

[2] http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/regional-murder-hotspots-in-honduras.

How to find a job after doing a PhD in the field of security

by Verena Brähler, 7 June 2015

I am working as a Research Manager for the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Great Britain. This is my first job since graduating from University College London with a PhD in Security and Human Rights. I really like my job but getting here was much harder than I anticipated. In this blog post I am sharing some of the lessons I learned, hoping that it will help others to transition successfully from doing a PhD to a professional job.

My personal job hunting experience

Between November 2013 and September 2014, I applied for 28 different positions. I spent the equivalent of three months’ full time work on networking, writing applications, getting references and filling out online application forms. I was unsuccessful in the first round on 20 occasions, never heard back anything from 3 organisations and made it to the next round on 5 occasions. Of those where I did make it to the next round, it took up to 8 months to hear back from them.

Timing is of the essence

The first time I applied for a full-time job was 10 months before I finished my PhD. In hindsight this was way too early. I was writing things like “I am currently completing a PhD” in my cover letter. Experienced recruiters know that if you haven’t submitted your PhD thesis yet, you are not mentally or “logistically” ready for a new job. The few applications where I was successful were the ones I wrote after I had defended my PhD thesis (read more about this experience here). That is why I would tell others that this is a good moment to start looking for a job, especially because in the UK, PhD students often need to do “minor corrections” after the defense which can take up to three months.

Prepare yourself mentally

You need to recognise that getting a job is a job and can take a long time. For most of the jobs I applied for I was told that between 250 and 650 other candidates applied (below are some examples of the jobs I applied for). You need to prepare yourself mentally for being turned down over and over again because it can be a very frustrating experience. The more realistic you are at the outset, the easier it will be to for you to deal with the fact that you are not getting interviews, or you get interviews, but you don’t get the job. At the same time you may see all your friends around you working on great career paths and it is easy to get disheartened and very down about yourself which is a dangerous spiral. Don’t internalise the job search – talk to your family, friends about the jobs you apply for, the interview you get or don’t get – there is no shame in applying for a job and not getting an interview, or getting an interview and then not getting the job.

Pick up the phone, networking is vital

In hindsight there was one thing that my 5 “more successful” job applications had in common, and that is that I had talked to someone in the organisation before I sent my application. I got in touch with these people mostly through contacts and colleagues I met over the years while doing my research. Linkedin is a great tool for that because it shows you who can put you in touch with someone in the relevant organisation. Don’t be ashamed to ask people you hardly know for some help. In the worst-case scenario your chances are something like 1 : 650 so you need any help you can get.

I asked people if they would be available for a quick phone call because I wanted to learn a little bit more about the organisation and the job in order to be able to write a better application. I never asked anyone to revise my application or give me any kind of insight knowledge that would put me at an unfair advantage compared to other applicants.

Everyone I contacted was happy to talk to me and these 30-minutes conversations proved to be extremely helpful for two reasons. Firstly, by preparing some interesting questions (”What does your daily routine look like?”, “Do you have a business strategy that underpins your work?” etc.) I learned a lot about the organisation, their culture and working style, their priorities and dislikes, and that indeed helped me to write a stronger application. Secondly, having had a friendly conversation with someone on the inside (didn’t matter so much at which level) might have helped (?) to end up on the pile of applications that were considered for the next round.

You will still have to go through the formal interviewing process, and your skills and competencies will be analysed fairly, but a recommendation or just a contact within the organisation can help enormously.

Sit down and write the application

Once you have made your phone call and you know a little bit more about the organisation and the specific role requirements, it is time to sit down and write the application. Nowadays most application processes are competency-based and every effort is made to eliminate assumptions, stereotyping and other forms of bias from the recruitment process. Recruiters are interested to know how you have handled situations in the past which are related to the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the job. Recruiters work on the principle that: „Past behaviour predicts future performance“. If you have successfully demonstrated certain knowledge, skill and abilities in the past, the chances are that you are likely to be able to do so again in the future.

The recruitment process of the British Civil Service, for instance, is entirely based on this principle. Applicants are asked to use the STAR approach (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to talk about their past achievements. This approach might seem very weird and rigid in the beginning but if you get behind the logic of it, it is very useful and I would definitely recommend everyone to have a look at it.

Here are some common mistakes that applicants tend to make:

  • Not providing a specific example of how they have demonstrated a competency in the past;
  • Not explaining clearly what the result/outcome/impact of their work was;
  • Using “we” instead of “I”, making it impossible for the recruiter to know exactly what their specific contribution was (opposed to what the team did);
  • Using passive language;
  • Exceeding the word count.

Ask for feedback

It is common practice these days to ask for feedback from an interview, particularly if you have been unsuccessful. It is very likely that you will just get a standard response or that giving individual feedback is not possible, but if you get it, it can service three important purposes:

  1. It will put your mind to rest – you may wonder why you didn’t get the job – they will tell you – you were a strong candidate but the successful candidate had more experience, or could evidence their skills more effectively.
  2. It can open other doors – you may have been exceptionally close to getting the role – sometimes employers make room for another person – following up shows that you are a professional and are interested in how you can improve your performance. They may be able to recommend another role for you within the organisation
  3. It may give you some important pointers in how to improve for next time.

Jobs in international organisation

Finally, here are some examples of international organisations that continuously recruit people through their young professional programmes. Please be aware that all of these programmes are highly competitive and getting through the process can take many months or even years.

  • Young Professionals Programme (YPP) – the general young professional programme of the United Nations
  • United Nations Volunteering (UNV) – it is called volunteering but you get paid
  • Junior Professional Officers (JPO) – JPOs work in UN organisations, the World Bank and other international organisations and are sponsored by their respective governments so you can only apply for positions advertised by your own government. In Germany, jobs are advertised twice a year on this website.
  • UK Civil Service Fast Stream

FUNDING: Leach-RAI Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Brunel University (Department of Social Sciences, Media and Communications; Division of Anthropology)

Applications are invited for the 2015-16 Leach-RAI Fellowship tenable at Brunel University for one year, from 1 October 2015 (or as soon as possible thereafter).Salary is £33,508 per annum, plus London Weighting. Deadline for applications is June 12, 2015.

The Fellowship is open to a social or cultural anthropologist who has received their doctorate from an institution within the five years preceding the take-up of the award, or attained equivalent research, industrial or commercial experience, and who would be able to use the Fellowship to complete within the time limit a substantial piece of work for publication.

The Leach-RAI Fellowship programme is hosted by Brunel University, and funded by the University and the Esperanza Trust for Anthropological Research.

You will have the ability to draft research papers in publication in appropriate academic Journals, have experience of planning research, preparing research proposals and negotiate contracts with little supervision. You will also be able to demonstrate good communication skills, particularly the results of own research to both specialists and non-specialists.

Applications can downloaded from https://jobs.brunel.ac.uk/wrl/pages/vacancy.jsf?search=0. Applications should be accompanied by a full CV, one or two articles or their appropriate equivalent (no more than 1MB), details of the writing planned to be carried out under the Fellowship and the names, addresses and e-mail of three referees.

Deadline for applications is June 12, 2015.

If applicants have any questions about the fellowship they are invited to contact Dr Andrew Beatty from the Anthropology Division: andrew.beatty@brunel.ac.uk