On 22nd of June 2016, one day before the Brexit referendum, I had the interview for my studentship at the CREWS Project. I still don’t know where I got the courage to apply for a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Probably from my mum, who told me: “Imagine how many people won’t even apply just because they feel as intimidated as you are right now.” She was right, and I had nothing to lose.

I remember asking my interviewers how a supposed Brexit would change the situation of the project and mine if I were the chosen candidate, as I am a Spanish national and CREWS is fully funded by the European Research Council. They told me not to worry about it, that most probably it wouldn’t happen. While Britain was voting, I got the good news: I was successful in the competition and was invited to do my PhD as part of this project. The bad news came the following morning: the UK had voted to leave the EU. But that would take quite a long time to materialise, in fact, as much as my thesis.

So there I was, in September 2016, arriving for the first time in Cambridge. The months and years to come were happy ones. Although I missed my family, my people, my Madrid, I was feeling truly independent in my personal and professional life. I owned my work and my time, which wasn’t easy at first, but very rewarding once I managed to visualise clearly what I wanted my thesis to look like and how much time I had to finish it.

Those years would not have been the same without the support that I had at Cambridge, especially the wonderful graduate community at the Faculty of Classics, the people at the CREWS Project and the visiting fellows that I got to meet. All of them aroused my curiosity with their own research and made me feel part of a community.

However, the experiences that I am most grateful for happened outside of Cambridge, although with the economic support of the Faculty and Jesus College. The first was my trip to Japan in August 2017 for the 11th International Workshop on Writing Systems and Literacy. During those days I learnt a lot from scholars working on many different writing systems and those learnings inspired my thesis deeply. The second were the 5 months that I spent in Greece doing fieldwork during the spring and summer of 2018. I can’t even mention all the wonderful experiences that I had, both academic and personal, and the beautiful people that shared that time with me.

It has been a year already since I submitted my PhD thesis. It was January 2020, and back then I could take a bus freely to the city centre of Newcastle, where I live now, enter the post office without a mask on and send two copies of my dissertation back to Cambridge. Meanwhile, the UK was finalising the Withrawal Agreement with the EU and entered its transition period the last day of that month. I was also in some kind of transition period until my viva and graduation, and the global pandemic just made this final process of the PhD especially long and difficult.

January 2021 has come to put things to an end. The UK is no longer part of the EU, I cannot call my mum as part of my monthly plan, now I need my passport to travel back home and this Saturday I’m finally graduating and will be able to call myself a doctor. After all these years, it doesn’t sound as glamorous as it used to and, actually, I don’t care that much about the title anymore. What really matters is that now I can see the product of my work and that, hopefully, I will share it with you later this year in the form of a new book of the CREWS series with the title “Early Greek Alphabetic Writing: a linguistic approach”.

I may not continue my academic career, at least for now, and in fact I’m starting a new job as a Linguist in a startup working for investment banks on Monday; nothing to do with ancient writing systems. But do not worry, I am still collaborating with the CREWS project and it will always be part of who I am. I am profoundly grateful to all the members of the team, and especially to Pippa, for the opportunity to work with them, all their support and for creating an environment of collaboration but, most importantly, kindness. Thank you.

~ Dr Natalia Elvira Astoreca (formerly PhD student on the CREWS project)

One thought on “On a PhD, CREWS and Brexit: a vital experience

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