By Jackie Militello
I am just winding down my first stint in London, preparing to return to Hong Kong. For those of you unfamiliar, HKU has a program with King’s College London (KCL) for a joint PhD in the humanities/social sciences. (There is a similar program with Imperial College London for the Sciences.) The rough guidelines are that a student has a supervisor in both schools, spends half the time in each location, and has one PhD at the end from the “home” institution. When applying to HKU, a student has to apply (separately) to KCL with all of the concomitant paperwork, forms and recommendations.
So, what is this dual program like, you may wonder. Knowing that we all share the HKU experience, I will use that as my point of reference to describe the KCL experience.
The program was not on my radar when I applied to HKU, but was suggested by my supervisor, Adam Jaworski. He explained that KCL has a large English department with a lot going on, and that proximity to Europe meant I could attend the many conferences there. He was right, and these have been highlights for me. Many people come through London, so the speakers at the weekly seminars (two a week) have been varied and excellent. The Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication also houses the education programme, so it’s the equivalent of having the HKU Education Faculty and School of English rolled into one (minus the wonderful Literature group). Given that, when compared to HKU’s seminars and reading groups, the number and quality here are pretty much on par, but the pool of speakers is different. One caveat is that I have been here May through October and really there is little going on from July throuth the end of September, so perhaps my impressions will change after my next stint here, which will be longer.
Conferences and seminars/workshops/researchers nearby are the second highlight. For the InCoLaS summer school in Copenhagen, for example, it was a short 2-hour flight from London, and zero jet lag. I decided to come back a day earlier than planned, on the last day, and my flight was a mere GBP 30 or HKD 310. Similarly, the BAAL (British Association of Applied Linguists) conference, held in Cambridge, was a 45-minute train ride, meaning one could leave the first morning and return at the end of the last day. Lastly, in terms of proximity to sociolinguists, the number of people relevant to my research within a day trip’s journey is very large, and this is something that Hong Kong cannot compare to.
There are some drawbacks. Numbers one, two and three are the library. The number of books and publications through KCL, the ease of search, turnaround time for requests, and period of loan all pale in comparison to HKU. Another PhD student on a similar joint program with NUS (National University of Singapore) posted: “Oh NUS Libraries, I miss you so much. You make the University of London Library system seem like it’s just a personal collection.” Truly, truly finding and using the resources I want takes much more time and effort than in Hong Kong. The other main drawback is that I’m missing the weekly meetings with my supervisor. Sure, there is email, and he’s extremely responsive and helpful, but there is really something to the face-to-face, regular contact. Perhaps as I progress over time, I will need less guidance, but for now, this decreased contact has been a drawback.
Beyond research, as expected, I have enjoyed the exhibits and cultural life in London. I attended the best Taming of the Shrew production I have ever seen at the Globe (incredible how a director and actor can take such a seemingly misogynistic play and turn it into a feminist critique). I was not as keen on the production of 1984, but was nevertheless glad I went. And then to round it out with musicals, I saw Beautiful and Funny Girl, both excellent. As for exhibits, there is so much to see that even were I to go somewhere every day, I’d never be able to see it all. I saw some current shows, including George Shaw at the National Gallery, Mark Wallinger’s Reflection at the Sigmund Freud House, Colour at the Fitzwilliam, and Zaha Hadid at the Serpentine Sackler, but I still feel I’m missing so many world-class shows that I’ll never have the chance to see again.
For a hiker, which I have become thanks to Hong Kong, London has little to offer. Although the parks are lovely, the difference between “some green in the city” and being surrounded by green in a country park is like night and day. I miss the nature that is so easily accessible in Hong Kong. My hiking friends from the UK tell me that Manchester is great for hiking, but that’s a good two hours away. Quite different from the 10-minute walk to the Hong Kong Trail! Also, while London has many good yoga studios, there is nothing like the convenience and number of classes/different styles offered at Pure in Hong Kong.
I am heading back to Hong Kong in mid-October and will squeeze in as much hiking, yoga, supervisory guidance, and library use as I can. And then when I am back in London later in 2017, I will squeeze in as many conferences, exhibits, and performances as I can. The joint PhD program / time in London has been a wonderful experience, but I expect that had I stayed in Hong Kong the entire time, I would have had an equally wonderful, albeit different, experience.