Our Woman in Russia: Anastasiya Boika on Researching Abroad
This next series of posts is going to be made up of guest writings and interviews with people who have experience with topics that the Gradifying team hasn’t written about as much as others. Today we’re starting off with the topic of studying abroad.
There’s much more to say on this topic than this one post will do justice to – for instance, on the experience of students studying here who are from elsewhere; on the issue of taking up a tricouncil award abroad as a graduate student or afterward, as a postdoc – but there will certainly be more. In fact, if you have any ideas, please feel free to get in touch with us. Post in the comments below if there’s a topic you’d like to see us address or if you yourself would like to do it! (Gradifying comments: the only comments section you don’t take your faith in humanity in your hands to read).
I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Queen’s own Anastasiya Boika (BA, MA, PhD Candidate), of the History Department. You may be familiar with Anastasiya’s name from her work at the Queen’s Journal (see here
for her grad-related articles), because she’s the incoming VP Campaigns and Community Affairs for the SGPS
or as a friendly face behind the counter at your local neighbourhood book store, Novel Idea. I asked Anastasiya a few questions about how she came to be doing research abroad during her PhD, how she is funding it, and what advice she wishes she could give herself – and you – if she were just starting out again.
Sharday Mosurinjohn: Why did you need or want to do research abroad?
Anastasiya Boika: During my dissertation proposal defense, my committee unanimously told me that I needed to go and conduct primary research in Russia as soon as possible to strengthen my project. While I was already using periodicals and newspapers, they were interested in seeing personal and government papers as part of the next step of my project. As I study Imperial Russian history, a lot of the primary source material has not been digitised and is therefore only available in the archives themselves.
SM: That’s a compelling reason. And so then you needed to secure support for that. Were you already aware of what options were out there?
AB: As far as I was aware, there was only one that you could apply for, and that is the Graduate Dean’s Travel Grant. It was very well advertised within our department via email by our Grad Chair, Professor Andrew Jainchill. He was very communicative of the deadlines in advance and sent numerous reminders through the history office so that those of us who wanted to apply had ample opportunity to do so.
I was given a supplementary award upon receiving the full amount for the travel grant, which I assume was part of the same adjudication process. (The supplementary grant was The Timothy C. S. Franks Research Travel Fund, which provides financial support for doctoral candidates in the Departments of History and Political Studies pursuing dissertation research abroad. Doctoral candidates in the two departments may apply for funding to help cover travel and subsistence costs for field research outside North America. Grants are made on a competitive basis annually or more frequently at the discretion of the awards committee. Applications are adjudicated by the Heads of History and Political Studies or their delegates, who may make one or more awards as they see fit.)
SM: I’ve just noticed on the site where Graduate Dean’s Travel Grant is listed that there are a few other awards – some also discipline specific, or destination specific – that may be available for others. I also know that SSHRC holders can apply for the Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement. (That one is for both Master’s and Doctoral level students, and is for up to $6000).
Now, once you were awarded this travel grant, what kinds of things did you find yourself having to do in order to prepare? Did you need to make contact with people at particular archives and do anything to demonstrate that you were working in a sort of “official” capacity through a Canadian university?
AB: As for the preparation, it has been an ongoing process since I found out about the need for my trip at the end of January [this was after the defense of her proposal]. This particular part will be different depending on what people are studying and what countries they are going to, but my prep included looking into what is available at the archives in St. Petersburg, making a list that is as complete as possible, then getting letters of introduction from the department on letterhead with copies in English from the head of the department and in Russian from me.
I have also had to be in contact with the National libraries of both Belarus and Russia in order to ensure that the resources I need will be available in the locations I can access.
I don’t think I would have been able to do most of the archival prep had it not been for one of my committee members, Professor Rebecca Manley, and my supervisor, Professor Ana Siljak, sitting down with me for a few hours at different times and walking me through the websites and search terms.
My external committee member, Professor David Gordon, who is the director of the Urban Planning Department, also helped me contact archives in England which I might need to go to as either part of this trip or for the next time around. So while it was my committee that encouraged me to make this trip sooner than I originally intended, they also walked me through the process and have been an invaluable resource throughout my preparations.
SM: Letters of introduction from the department – that’s good to know! What kind of archival training did your mentors provide?
AB: From what I understand, archival research is a bit different for people in different areas. So having people who are experts in the time period I study and have been through the process before walk me through how it all works, what to expect and, most importantly, where to look, was pretty crucial. It was also helpful to be told that some things would not be resolved from here and that being on the ground and in the archives will be where a lot of the discovery process happens.
For example there’s only so much I’m able to find from here online on the archival databases. Other resources will be found by talking to the archival specialists there and looking through the first batch of sources I found from here. Other things that can come up, as I just found out for example, is that the archive I need is now closed for the first week I’m in Petersburg. So now I have to figure that out a day before my trip.
In my experience of this process so far, the important thing is to know what to expect. It reduces some of the anxiety and ensures that you do everything you can in advance to limit the tasks you have to accomplish once you get to your destination.
SM: You’re a pretty experienced traveller, but is there anything that you’ve been surprised by or wish you knew at the beginning of this process, or that you think a less experienced traveller would want to know?
AB: Something important to keep in mind for travelling purposes is that some places need visas, which is something you have to prep for in advance. Also, you want to make sure that you have a place to stay as far in advance as possible, especially if you are travelling in high season. I booked my hostel in early February and looking at the site now for May, there’s only expensive private rooms available, if that. Hostelworld is my go to site for hostels and b&bs all over the world.
Also in terms of knowing in advance, it’s good to try to get a contact or two at universities in the city (or cities) you are going to. I’m lucky enough to have acquaintances in St. Petersburg through my family, but it can be daunting going somewhere for research all by yourself without any contacts on the ground. I have also found myself emailing professors who have published material on my topic asking for their help in locating source materials and relevant archives. I have found all of them to be incredibly kind and helpful and would advise others not to hesitate and to reach out to experts in your field for guidance if you feel it is needed.
SM: What’s one final piece of advice you’d leave with readers?
AB: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s the thing I’ve found to be my guiding principle throughout this entire process.