Isabel Sawkins is a second-year PhD student, based in the History Department at Exeter and the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth. Issy’s project investigates the contemporary memorialisation of the Holocaust in the Russian Federation, specifically how it has been represented in museums, film, and education. Her project is funded by the South-West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Issy is also co-editor for Ex Historia and one of the representatives for the British Association of Holocaust Studies

For half of 2019, my interaction with my supervisors took place solely through Skype: I was living with my parents over the summer months in Kent, before embarking on a ten-week placement at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum between October and December 2019. Skype was also my modus operandi for communication with my supervisors upon my return to the UK, as I was living with my parents in Kent yet again before my “planned” research-trip to Russia between March and June (Spoiler Alert: that trip hasn’t happened!)

Because of my research-trip to Poland, the Doctoral College agreed to offer me the opportunity to sit my upgrade in the Second term of Year 2 of my PhD, a term later than was expected for my cohort. It afforded me the means to completely immerse myself in my research whilst abroad, and then focus on submitting the documents required for upgrade when back in the UK. Being able to split my time in this way was essential for my mental wellbeing, ensuring that I was not overwhelmed with multiple responsibilities during my time in Poland.

I submitted my documents for upgrade in mid-February, in the hope that I would be able to have my upgrade interview in the first weeks of March (when I was scheduled to be down in Exeter for a conference I had organised for the British Association of Holocaust Studies). However, given the UCU strikes, my upgrade was delayed until the end of March, to just two days before I was destined to fly to Russia. Given that I would be back in Kent by this point, it was agreed that my upgrade would happen virtually, and this had been the agreement since late-February.

The decision to move all upgrades online in light of Covid-19 complications did not, therefore, affect my planned upgrade in any way! I was prepared for the fact that my upgrade would happen in my parents’ house, with shoddy internet (they have six different WiFis in their house because of the thick Georgian walls). I was also prepared for a situation in which multiple people would be in the same vicinity as me (plus two dogs). Luckily, my mother was kind enough to offer to walk the dogs whilst my upgrade was taking place, so that they weren’t tempted to scratch at my bedroom door, climb over my laptop, and introduce themselves to my upgrade panel (and yes, they have done this during multiple Skype supervisions and conference calls!)

The upgrade was a really pleasant experience for me, a unique opportunity to discuss my research with experts in the field and how to look at the project from different vantage points. Speaking frankly, within two minutes of speaking, I had completely forgotten that I was speaking to my panel virtually: it didn’t even cross my mind! I actually think I was more relaxed doing the upgrade virtually. I was in the comfort of my bedroom, with a cup of tea in hand. My panel understood the complications that might arise from doing the upgrade in this fashion, and when one of my panellists disappeared because of poor internet connection, we all managed to laugh at the situation. Technology is not always our friend, but we were all prepared for this eventuality! We didn’t let technological anxieties get in the way of discussing the research, which was the reason for which we were all there, after all!

Now that I have passed my upgrade, I can continue with my work, although not necessarily as had been originally planned. Luckily, some of my information can be accessed online, and I have managed to schedule some interviews with teachers in Russia, which will definitely keep me busy! I am sure that some of the conversations during my upgrade will shape this next stage of my work, and I am incredibly thankful for the advice and guidance offered by my panel for this project.


Written by: Isabel Sawkins

Twitter: @IssySawkins