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My PhD Journey: Year 1

Published June 09, 2016 by Austin Tiffany

My PhD Journey: Year 1

Austin Tiffany, awardee of the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship, reflects on his first year on the PhD programme at the University of Cambridge.

The past year marked my first year on a PhD programme at the University of Cambridge. Having completed my MPhil here the previous year, I felt that I had a head start to the unique ways of Cambridge. The complex network of allegiances between department, college, cohort, sport clubs and societies was already negotiated and, in many ways, Cambridge already felt like home. I knew the faculty in my department, the staff at the Institute and, in quintessential Cambridge fashion, I had a seat in a boat for my college boat club.

However, adjustment to a PhD is not necessarily simple and straightforward. Without the structure of course requirements and regular papers, it felt at times as if I had jumped into a sea of literature I was expected to comprehend and understand immediately. To complicate things even more, studying contemporary religion and interfaith relations means keeping an eye on the news. Relations between faiths is constantly changing, evolving and reacting to the world we find ourselves in. The tragic events in Paris and Brussels reverberated far beyond their city limits into the areas that I am researching. This dynamic nature creates a complex atmosphere that can lead a PhD student, like myself, to get lost in the headlines.

In the second and third terms, I hit my stride. Goals became more clear, sections for my first year report materialised and my research project began to take shape. I went from simply reading to producing something I could be proud of and eagerly work with. I had the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem and Amman with the Institute and New York City for preliminary field work. These experiences helped translate some of the complex lived realities of interfaith, whether in the Old City of Jerusalem or the grid-blocks of Brooklyn, into constructive material for my doctoral research.

IMG_6214              Austin at the Sisters of Zion Convent overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem

In many ways, the Woolf Institute seeks to expose their students to the broader narrative of interfaith research and practice by encouraging us to take part in the various projects going on. Over the last year, I helped organise focus groups on End of Life Care in Muslim communities in London, co-teach a course for the Cambridge Theological Federation, structure an online course planned for next spring and help with the publication and launch of the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life's report, Living with Difference. These opportunities give students, like myself, experience that cannot be acquired through books and a reminder that the work we do reaches far beyond the ivory towers of Cambridge.

People say a PhD is lonely, and I would generally agree. However, I will also tell you there are moments during a PhD that make all the hours spent by yourself in a library and in front of a computer screen worth it. There are periods of time when I am able take a step back and see the point where my passion and expertise meet a need in academia and, more importantly, the world. It can come in a couple sentences hidden in a book, a quiet walk with an Abbot, the encouraging words of an interviewee or a forgotten paragraph written months ago. These are moments that keep PhD students, like myself, going. And through the teaching, guidance and extracurricular opportunities provided to me by the Institute, these moments are anything but rare.

This article is written by Austin Tiffany who was awarded the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship to commence his PhD studies in 2015-16. His project, which is supervised by Dr Shana Cohen, examines contemporary interfaith training of priests and rabbis in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Applications for the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarships entry 2017-18 will open in September 2016. Scholars will be co-funded by the Woolf Institute and the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust and selected from amongst applicants in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences whose research must be relevant to the focus of the Woolf Institute – the multi-disciplinary study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Details can be found here.

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