Selling yourself while sticking to your guns

Katja Swider on how to get a scholarship

Katja Swider is a legal scholar of statelessness, about which I interviewed her previously. Her PhD is being funded by a national research council scholarship: the Dutch NWO Mozaïek. In this second half of our interview, I asked her how she won this competitive funding.

You have had to convince a panel of non-experts of the importance of your research. How did you explain your project to them?

It was a good exercise in reaching out to non-experts. The chair of the committee was a neuroscientist. The closest to my field was a sociologist with a side-interest in legal issues.

The procedure was a bit unfair to other disciplines. No grants were given in mathematics, physics or other abstract sciences, which you simply cannot connect to if you know nothing about them. So that is a problem with these interdisciplinary boards.

I received a lot of help in explaining my project. The university which I was affiliated with when applying offered dedicated training. There were mock-panels of professors from all kinds of disciplines, and an expert on presenting. The main lesson: ‘forget about what you actually want to investigate, and write a proposal which people who know nothing about the subject would get excited about’.

Also, it should not sound too ambitious. So no ‘I will cure cancer’. Your goal must sound doable: ‘I will explain how this works in a sample of people, and this knowledge will help find a cure for cancer.’

I was very conscious of selling a product; I was not thinking of my PhD at all. I had a lot of people read various proposals at various stages. and paid special attention to comments by non-lawyers: what disturbed them? What was not likeable?

Statelessness is easy to get excited about. It is about people, so you can show photos. True, the problems with statelessness are less tangible than, for example, poverty or sexual abuse; they are intrinsically legal, bureaucratic, and less human in nature. Still, they have very human causes and consequences, so these are what I focused on. I showed five newspaper pictures of stateless persons, and told their stories very briefly. That always ‘sticks’. It is a little sensational.

Some of my advisers wanted me to focus on one case, one story, but I wanted to show diversity, and I think it worked. Causes can be very different, and consequences too.

Selling at Damnoen Saduak market. Photo by Ppoonns, 2015.

The message was more or less that statelessness can happen to anyone. That makes it something people can relate to. I noticed that people are surprised how ‘close’ statelessness can be to them. There are the news stories about large stateless populations is Kuwait and Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic, but every now and then there is a rich expat couple who get a baby in Germany and the baby turns out stateless. And then again, you have the well-known cases of Roma etcetera. I wanted to show a bit of everything: some reaffirmation of the existing images of stateless people, but also something surprising that would make my audience think: ‘wait a minute, how come my kid is actually Dutch?’ or ‘Could that have happened to my child if I was married to someone else, or was abroad when giving birth, or … ?’

Apart from these things, I talked relatively much about myself. I hated that, but based on advice and experiments, I realised that this, too, sells the project. Ultimately, they are giving money to a person, and they want to have faith in that person. So I spoke about my networks and my experience in working with statelessness.

Mozaïek is a funny scholarship, because you have to be ‘allochthonous’ in order to receive it [roughly: a migrant or the child of a migrant), and because NWO’s definition of allochthonous has changed over the course of the years. It was only in the final year of the existence of the scholarship that I became eligible.

Still, it is a shame the programme is being discontinued, because it is an individual scholarship that you can take with you to the institute of your own choosing. It therefore offers PhD candidates a lot of independence vis-à-vis the universities that employ them.

So once you had that money secured, did your project change much over the course of the years?

Actually, the core did not change much since that scholarship proposal. I did tweak the research question, but that was more a matter of phrasing. Also, I originally proposed a neat symmetrical comparison of five countries. As it has turned out, one country is under the microscope, and a few others are studied in less depth. Next to this, I introduced an EU perspective, which I was not thinking of at the start.

I was always a big believer in not letting your research design limit you in what you are actually researching. I see a lot of my colleagues suffer because they have a specific chapter in their outline, but do not know how to fill it in. I think you should revise your design as often as is necessary for you. But as to myself, I have not done much of that. NWO could not complain about me doing something else with their money than what they have given it for!

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