Blair Nolan started his PhD positionin Historical Osteology with us in winter of 2020 and we all know what the pandemic did to everything and everyone, so his time here hasn’t really followed the usual rhythm. I had the chance to catch him for a conversation just before summer vacation 2022, three semesters in on his project. I thought it would be interesting to hear from someone who have applied from outside the Swedish system, so we started our conversation there. What follows is a summary of that conversation that Blair wrote up for you.
“What did you do before you ended up here?”
”Immediately before my PhD here in Lund I was living back in Canada having finished my master’s the year before at the University of Sheffield. I did an MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology. Prior to Sheffield I did a bachelor’s degree majoring in archaeology, minoring in biology, at Simon Fraser University in my hometown of Vancouver. That was where I took my first few courses in the branch of archaeology called bioarchaeology or biological anthropology, and really developed my interest in the subject of archaeology as a whole. I had always been inclined towards the biological sciences and had a love for reading and studying history while in secondary school, so this seemed like the best way to marry two of my interests together. After that I worked in commercial archaeology for a couple of years on various projects in my home province of British Columbia and a few other locations in the country before heading to Sheffield and eventually ending up here. Part of my decision in come to Lund was to experience the education system and academic tradition of another country, the same kind of thing that I did in England coming from Canada. I think it provides a perspective that you can’t otherwise obtain and gives you an appreciation for the practices and work of academics from various backgrounds.””
“When did you start to consider a PhD?”
”I think that was probably during my master’s. The decision to do a masters really came from my work in commercial archaeology, because it was seen as an asset to have a master’s degree if you wanted to move up in those companies. I chose to do the MSc in Human Osteology because I had loved the subject during my bachelor’s and wanted to explore the topic more and then once I really dug into the material while at Sheffield I think I realised that I really enjoyed the process of developing my own research project and tackling a larger problem. About halfway through when we really began to focus on the thesis I thought that a PhD could be an option and then towards then end of the degree it was something that I think I was striving for after graduation. Not necessarily something that I wanted to do right away, even though I guess I ended up doing that, but something I saw as a goal for the future. I think the onset of the pandemic, returning to Canada, and maybe some of the struggle I faced finding a job as a non-EU international in the UK helped push me along to decide to apply more quickly than I would have. Not to mention my master’s supervisor, who is now my secondary supervisor for this PhD, really encouraged me to apply and take the next step.”
“How did you decide on the subject for your PhD application?”
”My master’s thesis has acted as a foundation for what I am doing in my PhD. At Sheffield, with some guidance from my supervisor, I developed an interest in palaeodemographics, which is the study past population dynamics that can incorporate data on health and mortality, disease, diet and mobility patterns for the purpose of better understanding the lived experience of people in the past and how they interacted with their social and physical environments. My master’s project focused on a small sample of human remains from a medieval church cemetery in Warwick, England and I tried to say something about population level health and mortality prior to the Black Death in that country. For my PhD project I wanted to take those themes and extrapolate outwards working with a larger sample, in this case over 2000 remains, and engaging a more multidisciplinary approach. Really looking at how within an Urban environment different segments of the population may have interacted with their environments and identifying the inequalities in health and mortality with respect to various social identities.”
”Has your initial project changed a lot? How have you dealt with that change?”
”I think that the scope of the project has changed quite a bit. As I said I came in with the idea to do a somewhat larger version of what I had done in my masters and overtime through various discussions with my supervisor and through my own reading of the current research in the field I have been able to expand the idea and incorporate a lot of new elements. That can be a tough and stressful process though, and it wasn’t necessarily easy to wrap my head around at first. It’s important not to get to latched onto the idea and be open to making changes while at the same time not letting yourself be pulled in too many directions. Again, it is something that I think comes from having a lot of conversations with not only the supervisors, but also other PhD students or even friends and family that might be interested in the topic. You’re not going to have the perfect project on day one and the whole point is to take what you are learning through your deeper dive into the material and take the time to rework and develop your project into something more meaningful.”
“How did you go about writing your application once you figured out what you wanted to do?”
”I identified Lund as a possibility through some conversations with a friend of mine that had graduated with a bachelor’s from the department and she indicated that Lund had a really great Historical Osteology group with some fantastic collections and might have a call for doctoral students coming up. From there I went ahead and looked for PhD position postings at Lund and several other institutions that I felt were either tailored to bioarchaeology or looked like places I might be able to make something work. The department ended up posting a call for a PhD in historical osteology in Lund and going off what I had heard from people and after doing a bit of background research on the department, the collections, and faculty in the historical osteology division I decided to put together an application. I saw Lund as a place where I could really find my research niche and develop that.
”I took my initial idea and reached out to Torbjörn Ahlström, the project supervisor, to see if this would be a project the department might be interested in and to get a few more details on what they expect from the submitted applications. Throughout the course of writing and editing my proposal I also reached out to my previous supervisor in Sheffield for a reference but also for guidance in writing the proposal. I think that reaching out to the prospective supervisor was a real help in the application writing process and I think it probably made my name stand out a bit or at least give them some sort of contact prior to submission, as I was not previously a part of the institution. Then it was just a process of writing, rewriting, and sharing it around for edits and critiques from friends, peers, and as I said my previous supervisor. Once I had something that I thought worked well and was happy with I sent it in.”
“What have been hardest about applying outside your previous environment?”
”That the process felt like being in the dark a lot. This being my first application and not knowing what to expect exactly, while being an applicant from outside of the EU was a bit daunting. At times I didn’t know really what stage the application was at or how long it would take until the next phase, but I was able to get in contact with people at the department to give updates here and there. There was just a geographical distance that made things feel a bit more up in the air.
”I think the biggest difficulties for me were after having accepted the position. There were delays with the migration office that pushed my permit back further than it should have been, the relocation company had issues with filing paperwork, and I think there was a general uncertainty and nervousness on my part about moving to an entirely new country during a very strange time with the pandemic. Upon arrival I think I felt like I was jumping through hoops with administration and social systems while also trying to find my footing with the PhD. It took a couple of months to sort a lot of things out but I was able to find a solid footing.”
“Do you have any advice for people thinking about applying?”
”When you apply: It’s important to know that this subject is truly interesting to you and is something that you are going to enjoy exploring further. This can be hard to figure out I know, but It’s four years of work, at least, and you want to keep yourself motivated throughout the entire process. Keeping that in mind you don’t have to have it all figured out on day one. Easier said than done and I also had the initial shock of arriving on day one and thinking what now, how I move on from this point. It can be really daunting and doctoral students, myself included, tend to get very overwhelmed at the beginning. Temper your expectations and know that your project can always be changed and focus can shift over time. It would be an extremely rare occasion that a student applies with the perfect project that doesn’t undergo any changes.
”Identify someone that is working in the same field you are interested in and perhaps even approach them to see if they are interested in your project idea before there is a call for applicants. You want an engaged and interested supervisor as well, because that is such an important relationship and support system to build and foster while you are studying and can really be an asset in making connections with other researchers and institutions.
”It was really valuable to have the introductory course and hear from the recently graduated PhDs and have them say that it is normal to feel that way. I also say take advantage of every resource that you have, go to the seminars and courses for PhD students on how to write and time and stress manage, even if maybe it seems a little early on. Dealing with stress levels and maintaining a healthy balance between life and work is incredibly important to me and something that I really strive to make work in a productive manner because if you don’t make time for yourself and a life outside of your work you are going to burnout and hurt yourself in the long run. And to that end, don’t apply to much pressure to yourself and constantly compare yourself to your peers and colleagues, it’s a recipe for disaster. Healthy competition is great but obsessing over your achievements compared to others isn’t. ”
“Is it what you imagined?”
”It was a bit of a strange start. Having shown up during the pandemic a lot of the academic and social activities that help to meet people in the department and around the city weren’t happening and so I think there was a bit of a lack of community, especially amongst the PhD student group at the time, at least for myself. This is something that is changing though in the recent term and having an enthusiastic group that wants to build that community back up has been great.
”Like I said I got into the PhD because I wanted to explore that research niche and I really think that I have been able to do that here in Lund, and the department has been very generous and welcoming in providing me with the tools and expertise to do that. I am coming towards the end of a long year of data collection on my project and will soon focus a bit more on writing and interpretation of the data. I have also been given the opportunity to teach, which is something that I really valued about the program here that Lund focuses on providing those opportunities to PhD students as well as providing courses and training in teach methods and theory.
”I have really come to love living in Sweden. I have never felt out of place here and the Swedish people have been so welcoming and accommodating. As a native English speaker I think the transition might be easier for myself with so many having such a high level of English in Sweden, but the blow of having to make it by in a foreign country is lessened by that. In the year and a half that I have been here I’ve began to see Sweden as a home away from home and really can’t wait to continue my PhD, see what the future holds and explore more of this country.”
Thank you Blair, for your time and thoughts. I hope you have a wonderful vacation back in Canada this summer!