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“Here I can do my research and find my own way”: Aizhamal Muratalieva's life as a Ph.D. student

Ph.D. student interview: studying the relation of migration, xenophobia, and social media.

Interview conducted by Admilson Veloso, Journalist, Ph.D. student at Corvinus University of Budapest

Problems involving xenophobia against migrants are present in several countries. Understanding this topic and how it relates to media practices is essential for us to move towards a more diverse society, open to pluralities and that respects citizens regardless of their origins. For Aizhamal Muratalieva, a native of Kyrgyzstan and a Ph.D. student in Communication Science at Corvinus University of Budapest, this has been a theme present in her academic studies since her Master's degree in Russia.

With a background in Integrated Communications (MA), PR and Advertisement (BA), Muratalieva is one of the international students who chose Corvinus to continue their scientific research and analyze empirical objects that affect people's lives, with a focus on communication and media. We talked to her about several points, from the selection process to enter the doctorate in Hungary, an overview of her research topic, to the support she receives during her course. Check it out.

First of all, what motivated you to pursue a Ph.D.? And why did you choose to do it in Communication Science?

I did my BA and MA in Communication as well, the first with emphasis in PR and Advertisement and the later in Integrated Communication. During my MA I decided to study migration coverage in the media. I conducted a research on Russian newspapers and examined how xenophobia towards Central Asian migrants is constructed. It was my personal motivation to study migration because I am a migrant. I wanted to pursue my research and go further – study ethnic identities of migrants, how they are transformed and presented.

I believe research always also involves something personal, and this is the main reason why I applied for a PhD. Another reason is that before and after MA I was working in industry as a communication specialist and I felt that I needed something more. I like working in industry, and I am still working as a producer for a communication agency in Moscow, but I think research and academia is giving me something very important: this unique opportunity to learn and analyze myself and the world around me from the “outside” perspective.

How did your interest for scientific/academic research begin?

I opened scientific/academic research during my MA in Russia. The Integrated Communication program where I was studying was constructed between science and industry. Part of the process was dedicated to projects for business which were managed by communication practitioners: directors, producers and owners of leading agencies. Other part was focused on our own scientific research.

This structure - and its combination - helped me to understand why we need scientific research and how it helps us in real life. Moreover, my previous supervisor Dr. Oxana Morgunova, who now is a professor at the University of Glasgow, and the MA program director Dr. Oleg Kashirskikh, were my role models. They opened my eyes to the scientific world.

I also think that the atmosphere played an important role: I have never seen such a big amount of talented and motivated students. It really inspired me. I think it is a big fortune to meet the right people at the right time. That’s why I am here now at Corvinus University of Budapest.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research topic?

I examine ethnic identities of Central Asian migrants to Russia and their representation on social media. Initially, during my MA I was focused on media narratives and discourse towards migrants, and now I am studying self-discourses of migrants: how they identify and present themselves. Do they define themselves as media discourse defines them in a country of arrival or by belonging to a certain ethnic group?

The interesting thing here is also the role of religion in constructing ethnic identity and ethnic pride. I suppose that the level of ethnic pride in migrants’ self-representation will differ depending on their educational socioeconomic background, as well as personal experience of rejection and difficulties with adaptation in the country of arrival.

My research is based on qualitative analysis of Instagram posts and discourse analysis of biographical semi-structured interviews. I’ve planned to interview representatives of three different ethnic groups of Central Asian migrants arriving in Russia: Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik, but this can be redefined throughout the process to a central ethnic group. The study will also include three social groups: labour migrants, middle class mobility, and highly skilled workers.

Why is it important to conduct further research on this topic?

Migration has been a very popular topic in academia for the last 10 years. There is lots of research conducted in different scientific fields, from different perspectives, and an increasing number of migrants to European countries since 2015 affected it. However, there are still gaps in Communication Science studies.

Many researches were dedicated to the migrant portrayals, effects of media and relationships between media coverage and public opinion, while self-discourses of migrants and their narratives received little attention (especially in migration to Russia).

In addition to that, the research on self-representations and identities of migrants usually consider digital diasporas which offer different types of support. However, we still have little knowledge on how migrants construe their identities in social media.

How did you hear about Corvinus and its PhD program in Communication Science?

I chose this program when I was applying for a scholarship from the Stipendium Hungaricum Programme (Tempus Public Foundation). It was necessary to select two universities and I started googling and searching about them. For me, the most important point was the content of the program, and when I looked through it, I decided to study at Corvinus University. I realized that here I can do my research and find my own way.

How was the selection process to enter the PhD?

I first applied through the Stipendium Hungaricum system, which gives opportunities for international students to pursue their studies in Hungary with public funding. There are several steps and they can vary slightly depending on which country the applicant comes from, but in general they are: online application, offline application, interview in a home-country representative, interview with chosen universities, and a final decision of the scholarship for one of the selected programs.

As I was a migrant in Russia, throughout the process I had to fly three times to different locations. I was applying from Moscow but I went to Saint-Petersburg to take my TOEFL exam before New Year, as all places in Moscow were full (language certificates are necessary for the application). The next step was a selection process in our home-country, thus I went to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. After being nominated by my country, the interviews with universities were conducted online.

Gladly, I ended up winning the scholarship and, then, I took the flight to Budapest to start my course in Fall 2020. Counting from the first steps, it took over six months to complete everything, thus the applicant needs a minimum of one year for preparation.

Do you get any funding for your studies?

I am funded by the governmental program (Stipendium Hungaricum), which really helps me, because the scholarship is covering part of my accommodation and living expenses. It means that I have a possibility not to be a full-time worker and thus have the opportunity to dedicate more time for the PhD. Besides this stipend, there is also the possibility to get funding based on scientific publications, academic events and other research projects at the university.

What characteristics of this Ph.D. do you find appealing to other international students?

The program is fully in English, which is very appealing, because learning another language takes time. Furthermore, our Professors at the Doctoral Program are very supportive, understanding and helpful. In addition, the atmosphere here is healthy and friendly, as well as the international students’ department which is always in touch with us. I believe these are very important aspects, especially for those who are arriving in an unfamiliar environment.

For those wondering if they should continue their studies into a PhD, how could a doctorate be a differential to their careers?

A PhD is about your own way and academic career path. If you want to be a researcher or professor, that’s what you need! But I am sure that it can be helpful even if you are more of an “industry” or a “business” person.

It is important to ask yourself before applying: “why do I need that?”. MA programs nowadays are mostly focused on giving practical knowledge in a certain field, as the MA in Communication and Media here at Corvinus. If you feel you lack knowledge (or skills) at your work, it’s good to go for a MA. After that, a PhD is necessary when you have questions about that field you’re in, and even to life itself. It is more specific and deeper.

Despite the circumstances (Covid-19 restrictions), how have your PhD studies been so far?

My first year became fully online. I haven’t seen my professors and groupmates, and it was quite hard and stressful at the beginning, but I got used to it. For example, now I have classes on Research Methods and Trends in Communications Research, which are helping me to elaborate the methodology of my own research. I am also taking Academic Writing training and other courses on research practices.

All classes are on online platforms with our complementary research activities and readings offline. In these circumstances, even meetings with supervisors and conferences were also online, which presents lots of advantages, of course. For instance, we have more time to prepare for a class, we feel comfortable at home and always can have a cup of coffee. I personally try to be positive, but I am really looking forward to meeting all of my Doctoral School colleagues offline soon.

What challenges did you face as an international student in Hungary/Europe?

The main challenge was COVID-19, which isn’t our exclusivity, as it forced several countries to close borders and apply restrictions in order to control the pandemic. Universities were not allowed to accept students for in-person classes and I had to manage my relocation distantly. In this scenario, I was looking for an apartment from Moscow, organizing video calls with landlords, the visa process took me quite a long time, and there was a bit of bureaucracy with documents for entering Hungary. It can be hectic, especially when you are alone.

Have you managed to engage in any extra academic activity so far?

I have participated at Kommentar Conference in January, which was held online, on a recommendation of my supervisors. It was my first academic event here in Hungary. I presented my research conducted during the MA about migration coverage and xenophobic discourse. It was a good experience and I liked all the research presented at the section where I was speaking. Now I am preparing a paper based on my presentation to be published soon.

What advice would you give to an international student looking forward to pursuing a PhD abroad?

I know people who were thinking at least once about PhD and who are still afraid of diving into it. There is only one advice: give it a try and take just one step, even if you are not sure about the topic of your future research yet. Sometimes good ideas come within the process. Then, when applying or studying you can find out your own motivation.

How will this program in Communication Science help you professionally?

It is hard to see the future, because life changes, and COVID-19 demonstrated to us that we can plan lots of things but life has its own plans. I came to PhD in order to change my career path from communication specialist in business to researcher in academia. I hope that it will come true. And I also believe that there will be many interesting opportunities, countries and people whom I can explore in 5 or 10 years time.

What other information would you like to share to future Ph.D. students?

When I was thinking about a PhD in Hungary and when I was almost ready to refuse this idea, my mom told me: “Whatever you decide, we will support you”. I think I would never be here alive and capable of answering these questions if I didn't have people who support me. I am very grateful to my Family and Friends (with capital F). Even though we live in different countries, they are always with me in my chats, voice mails, calls, mind and heart.

Name: Aizhamal Muratalieva, Kyrgyzstan

Course: Ph.D. in Communication Science, Doctoral School of Sociology and Communication Science

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