Reflections 5 – The Internal Dialogue of a PhD Student Abroad

From the beginning of my PhD dissertation, I knew it would be likely that I would need to spend a significant amount of the project in Germany. There are simply not enough available sources in the UK on the particular esoteric area of East- and West-German art music in the years following the Second World War which I am researching. A few weeks’ worth of fruitless library searches for necessary volumes – WHICH MOSTLY TURNED OUT TO BE AVAILABLE IN ONLY ONE LOCATION IN THE UK, OFTEN QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY BELFAST FOR SOME REASON, AND RARELY INTRA-LIBRARY LOANABLE – made the need for a research placement not only clear, but imperative. As such, AND AFTER A HEFTY AMOUNT OF BUREAUCRATIC INSTITUTIONAL PAPERWORK ON BOTH ENDS, I find myself now roughly half-way through a year-long research placement at the Humboldt in Berlin, and now with access to a body of relevant literature that is sufficiently comprehensive to rival those institutions found in the UK (EVEN QUEEN’S BELFAST).

There is an element of pressure which comes with the time frame of my placement; there are sources, archives, potential interviewees and other resources available to me in Berlin to which I will only have access for this set period. As such, this time is precious and there is often the feeling that my schedule here should be more exciting, or at least different from what I have so far experienced as a PhD student. I SHOULD BE IN SOME MUSTY ARCHIVE OR ELDERLY GERMAN’S EQUALLY MUSTY ATTIC SEARCHING FOR A UNIQUE COPY OF A PARTICULAR DOCUMENT NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE. More often than not, however, the reality is that I am simply working in the University or State Library. All those books which I couldn’t find in the UK are now available for my mundane perusal, meaning that my working patterns and habits here are more or less like they were in the first year of my project in London. There is also (WOE IS ME!) the need to balance the imperative to conduct as much research as possible with a desire to partake in as many of the vast cultural activities Berlin has to offer, ARGUABLY MORE COPIOUS AND DIVERSE THAN IN LONDON, before my year here is over.

That said, the workings of everyday life are not exactly the same here. As a visiting PhD student, I am naturally an observer in my new departmental surroundings, rather than a fully active participant, and this is more generally the case in my position as a relatively short-term foreign resident in Berlin. A year is, after all, not that long, especially when I am awaited by an already-established life and familiar academic environment back in London. I have a level of distance from the German system, WHICH THE MORE INTEGRATED MEMBERS OF MY DEPARTMENT WHO ARE ACTUALLY READING FOR DEGREES AT THE HUMBOLDT DON’T, and I have my home institution with which to compare my host. My placement has, as such, made me a lot more aware of what I do and don’t like about the German and British academic systems respectively.

Many UK universities provide an environment in which interdisciplinarity within the Humanities is actively encouraged (A PARTICULAR BOON TO A MUSICOLOGIST, GIVEN HOW SMALL OUR DEPARTMENTS NORMALLY ARE). In Germany, however, different disciplines just within Music faculties themselves don’t even speak to one another, let alone members of other departments. THEY, FOR THE MOST PART, BELIEVE MUSICOLOGY TO BE A BYWORD FOR SPENDING THE MAJORITY OF ONE’S TIME LAZING AROUND PLAYING THE FLUTE (THAT IS NOT TO SAY, THOUGH, THAT THE UK IS PERFECT IN THIS REGARD (THOUGH IT IS BETTER), AND ANYONE WHO HAS STUDIED MUSIC AT ANY LEVEL AT UNIVERSITY WILL KNOW THE OLD REFRAIN “OH, YOU STUDY MUSIC? WHICH INSTRUMENT DO YOU PLAY?”). On the other hand, Germany still has the post-PhD habilitation system with fixed contracts and places (THOUGH THIS COMES WITH ITS OWN PROBLEMS), rather than the often precarious and short-term postdocs common in the UK. Further, tuition fees are negligible at the majority of German universities, with most of the comparatively tiny termly fees actually being put towards a heavily subsidised ticket for full use the of the public transport network (ON WHICH IT IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE TO FIND A SEAT, EVEN DURING RUSH HOUR). It is, naturally enough, easier both to appreciate the positive aspects and to see the faults of the system with which I am most familiar now that I have something to compare it to.

A long-term research placement is not a given for all PhD topics, but, when possible, it is a unique period within the project in which much is actually rather familiar in terms of daily routine, but which is also filled with surprising ruptures in its established normality. These make me stop and consider why certain things are done in a particular manner in academia, when other systems quite happily conduct things very differently (AND INDEED BELIEVE THAT THEIR WAY IS THE ONLY WAY IN WHICH THEY COULD BE CONDUCTED!).


Alasdair Cameron is a second-year PhD Musicology student in the Department of Music at King’s College London. His research focuses on cultural memory and national identity in postwar East- and West-German art music. He is currently on a year-long exchange at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin to conduct further research into these issues in the German Democratic Republic during the years 1949-1961.

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