Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here:


phd, work, refugee, internship, journey, supervisor, practice, studying, feel, little bit, opportunity, legal, interviews, bit, asylum, case, asylum claims, project, practitioner, put

Hello, Denise. Hi, um,


I’ve been really looking forward to speaking to you because it is a very juicy topic today about kind of getting out there getting your hands dirty and getting into practice. But before we get into that topic, I just going to ask you, as I do everybody here to tell us a little bit about you, and your journey into the PhD and, and kind of through it, because you’re, you’re still in it. You’re still in that process? Yeah. Yes, I am. So tell us a little bit about you. Okay, so,

um, yeah, let’s see, I’m in the final stage of my PhD. Although I’m a little bit like, hesitant in saying that, let’s say that I’m like writing up and get into the end. But the journey to come here has been quite, I would say, complex, I mean, for the reasons that we will discuss together. I’m researching on refugee law. I’m a lawyer by education. But my research is also I would say, kind of empirical. Because I’m more on the side of law and anthropology. And this is also one of the reasons why I went back and forth into academia. I’m working specifically on LGBTQ plus refugees. And in a nutshell, I’m analysing what it means to say qualify, LGBTQ plus refugees as vulnerable, whether it is like an effectively legal tool, or it’s just like a passport that nowadays is more and more used in asylum law and policy. So this is a little bit, yes, this. Maybe something that I think can be also interesting. I came to this topic, I would say, starting again, from my practice, I started working as a lawyer in Italy, and I was working on refugee and asylum cases and migration more generally. So I developed like disinterested than I further developed in my studies, when I was working as a lawyer, I took a sabbatical to go back and study a master’s in human rights. And I did my thesis on immigration, and the European asylum system. And then let’s say from, from one thing, let’s say elect to the other, I decided to enrol in a PhD. With this project, that, of course, looked very much different back then. And it has been, like shaped together with my supervisor and building on my interest on the intersection between refugee refugee law and gender. So this is, I would say, the picture and what I started from,


well, I love his he’s the title of a book, one thing led to another. Oh, amazing, amazing. And I think that as, as I say, often, but I really mean, it is very humbling. I’m doing this podcast, because I meet such amazing people doing amazing work and your work. I mean, it’s helping in attending to the vulnerable and thinking about human rights and what I mean, what’s more important than that, so I just, again, thank you for your time, and

thank you for being here. Thanks for the invite, actually.


So you’re studying this material, you’re engaged in that but as you say that an important part of your story is that you are a practitioner, and that you are a lawyer, that’s where you started. And so as part of your PhD, you have been out there in the field, and that’s what we what’s what we wanted to talk about today. So, tell us a little bit more about that and how that evolved and what that has involved in date.

Yeah, sure. So, I think that what I think will be also useful, I mean for us and them for for the listener is as you said also where I started so, I was, I mean, I was a practitioner, this is I mean, where I started, I was working as a lawyer and especially I was working as a lawyer in Italy. So it means like working self employed, so it means that you actually have to like look after your clients and so on. So it was a very, I was very pretty much involved like in the practice when and why I started the I wanted to do a PhD is because I felt that I needed literally to surround my practice with a more like a bro than brother or eyes on an understanding of what I was dealing with. So like working as a lawyer, I think it is crazy. I mean to me, it was crazy, but I felt that I needed like some some more thorough understanding on it. See the structure that I was putting out We getting together with my clients and in my practice, and part of this, I was able to gain it through the master in human rights that I attended, which like, it was a huge experience for me because it was my first experience of studying abroad. And I did this master like, I would say, quite late in my in my ility my career paths because I was already in my 30s. So I think I’ve done with my PhD what I’ve done to a certain extent, also with my master back then, so I went back into studying and after the master, and after, like having dinos to this knowledge that I wanted, again to know more, and I decided to enrol in this in this case. I must also say that, at the beginning, my PhD was pretty much very, like, Lloyd law was pretty much like legal stuff. And this is it. But I had already like an amazing supervisor that was already supporting me, which was the same supervisor I had for my master’s thesis. And she’s a legal anthropologist, we have


a shout out on this show for supervisors. So hooray for that. Yeah,

exactly, exactly. And it really, I would say that I over the, let’s say that the fact that now I’m able to understand what really practitioners can get from also like coming in, in connection, the one with the other. So I wanted to, let’s say, bring this empirical perspective in my thesis. And I was not finding that the answers I were looking for when reading like the legal documents or the legislation or the case law. So I started like, putting forward this idea of doing fieldwork, doing interviews and so on. When I started my PhD, I started in another university from the one that I am now. So you see, like, lots of changes throughout this throughout this path. And I must say that, it was not like an easy and easy avenue that I was starting to go into, when I propose when I was proposing like to do interviews for my PhD. Because the answers that I got, and also the question that I got was, what do you think you’re going to get in doing the interviews in illegal illegal research is illegal research. So you have to start with the legal analysis. So I think that that was something that, to some extent, was also a little bit upsetting to me at the beginning. And because it was also like putting into question something that I was so instead excited about. But I’m glad that I persisted again, thanks to also to the support that I found in my, my supervisor, back then. And I, after my first year of PhD, which was a lot of going back to studying literature review on exams, and so on. I want to do fieldwork. And I started doing fieldwork in the UK. Again, I find another like very supporting professor who was supporting me during during my fieldwork in the in the UK. Yeah, exactly. I think it was like luck. But as I will explain, maybe in a bit, not only that,


very rarely just luck, isn’t it? Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

I yeah, I don’t want to give all the notes. But anyway, I think also, for me, what was a little bit the game changing back then, is to switch to a context in which, for example, empirical legal research was really quite, I would say, advanced in a circumstance, which was not the case. From the context. I’m from so like, low in anthropology is not so much I would say. Yeah. It’s not much used in the in the legal domain in the southern Europe. So we, I mean, now it’s more and more like spread, but it was not the case back then. And back then, I mean, like, almost 10 years ago, right. So


it’s been quite a journey for you. Yeah,

it is still it is still absolutely. So, yes, after having done like this field work, I was very thrilled because I travelled throughout the UK, to do my interviews, participatory observations and so on. And I will see that I was building like interesting materials. I did the same initially, I did interviews and participant observations in Italy. And at that point, I felt that still something was like was missing in my in my journey. And part of my research was also about how decision makers approached asylum claims and suspected asylum claims when there is a gender component and so on. And also how, like institutions also upload this kind of claim. So I think it came quite natural to me to apply for an internship with the UN. Which I got, I thought it was a good entry point. So yeah, I started interning with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Working on judicial engagement, strategic litigation. And, and yeah, so that was a little bit the start. So I was doing this internship, which was really a great learning opportunity, my first experience with with the UN, but also like sondland Gene, because I was still doing my PhD on the site. So yeah, after that, came some experiences with NGOs, and then like a full time job with with the UN. So still, the PhD was there. But I had also my full time job. So at this point, it was a little bit. Again, it was a very good moment for me, because I thought that I had it all. Let me feel it like that. And I was really invested in my in my work at the moment. But I started like, yeah, I started having issues in being also productive with my PhD. Yes, yes.


Can you talk a little bit about that moment, then in terms of going from the internship into working full time? Because this might be something that someone else is thinking about is what I’m thinking about it? Because people often the PhD can offer up brilliant opportunities. That’s one thing they can do really well. And I think sometimes it’s about should I take this opportunity? Should I not? Should I, you know, should I put the PhD on pause for a while, shall I not? So can you talk to talk us through a little bit your your process and decision making, as well as then what happened next? Because as you say, then there was then there were some questions after Sure.

So I think the internship was quite straightforward. To me, that’s, I had to take this opportunity, because really, I was seen the internship, of course, as a way of like, let me put it like that, like, yeah, entering in the UN to some extent, but the I was still seeing the internship, as a way really to bring some practical knowledge and experience into my PhD. So it was functional to my PhD. Yes, yes. Then I got an opportunity to work for an NGO. And after that, for UNHCR, and so let’s say the Yeah, the, the work was, I think, what was gaining more and more important size? And I was like, Yeah, because I can go back to the PhD, I will have the opportunity to resume a PhD, and to work on that on the weekend. So I think that the time and I’m going to be very honest, I underestimated the difficulty of juggling both. Right,


right. Right. Yeah. And I think I think that is really difficult, isn’t it? And and because especially the new opportunities that come your way, it’s really exciting. There’s an energy to it, you feel like, okay, I’ve got a sense of what the PhD is doing at the moment I can I can, I can manage it. And of course, the thing is, you are a smart and capable person. And on a really a good day, you can manage it all. But it’s kind of when when you’re not having such a good day, then things become a bit more tricky.

Absolutely. And I had many of those of those days, actually. And I would say that over the over the over the past years, maybe the days in which I was not able to manage both were like more than the ways in which I was actually able. So of course, I mean, I don’t regret any of my choices, I would go back and do the same. But these offsets, I think that again, a lot. And yeah, I will also explain a bit what again, in my perspective, busted, it was difficult, but I had this, as you said, this competence saying this excitement or say, okay, I can do both. Because also, I was really seen that what I was doing in my work was useful for my PhD.


Absolutely. And I think there isn’t, there’s no right or wrong in this in this situation. And I think as you say, actually, you can see the real value in that not only for the PhD, but also for you and your life journey, as you said, you acknowledge that and so I think kind of taking time out and some some people choose to take time out completely and put the PhD to one side for a little while. I’ll come back to it after because they’re doing something else. But I think thank you for being so honest with us about kind of how that how that felt in the in the moment because I know that will resonate with a lot of people. So we’ll jump forward into a bit then in terms of in terms of when when you started to think actually, now the juggler is getting a bit tricky, then then how did it how’s it gone from from there?

Yeah, I think it was So it has also been a natural process, I would say, because what what happened at a certain point up to think about two years that I was doing, let’s say both, but I was working and maybe doing some time something related to the PhD, I decided to take a post from the PhD. So to put the PhD, like, formally on hold, yes. Then I mean, you don’t realise also that when you’re doing working on PhD at the same time, same time, life is also happening. And so this is what happened to me. Like I had some family issues. Yeah, COVID happened, which, like, I don’t know, changed all my plans. For example, I turned down a very good job opportunity abroad, because I wanted to finish my PhD. And then COVID came, and I had like, family issues. So I really couldn’t leave. And I couldn’t even continue to PHP. So my PHP was, like, lingering there. I saw that I had, let’s say, I had gained so much C knowledge that I could, let’s say, put into my PhD. And when I mean knowledge, also MLM II specify that it was like, not knowledge, like gained from work that I was putting my PhD. I like, having the idea of unseen that what I’m studying, from a theoretical point of view with a PhD can actually be helpful in the practice and the other way around.


Yes, yes, yes. And I think it can be so motivational to go if this is worth doing this is worth finishing this project, because actually, I can make any I love that, I love that so much.

And I had an I had actually, again, a very, like honest conversation with my supervisor back then, because I was really working with in my office, I was really working like on my topic. So for example, I was dealing with cases related to other elements sexual orientation, so because they, I mean, my office saw an added value in what I was, I was studying, so it was like, of mutual benefit, let’s say, and, and I had this supervisor telling me, You gotta finish the PhD, because you see that this is really like something useful for for you, but also for for the work that that we are doing for for refugees. So I, I started feeling very frustrated also, because I saw friends getting their PhD. I started Yes, seeing like people who were also like, in the same situation, I was juggling, both. And they were actually able to progress with a PhD, something that I was not able to do, or so because as I said, Life happened. And it was impossible for me to do both. So I came to a point in which I said, Okay, this is my project, I think it is worth and like, going back into practice also taught me that this is worth and I really like feel a lot of ownership towards my project, if I may say so. And I just at a certain point, I I said, Okay, I need to be honest with myself. If I continue doing both, I will not be able to finish this PhD. So it I mean, for me, it was not possible. But for somebody else it would have been, it has been as I know, but for me, like working full time, and then having your weekends and evenings writing, it was just not working. I’m perfectionist and I acknowledge that. Yeah, I need time two, I wanted to devote time to this. So I decided to go now on a sabbatical from my work and go back into academia. And I think that this is, it was a good decision for me. And it is being a good decision now that I’m done doing that. So excellent.


I love what you said there about being honest with yourself. I think so much of that is just key in the PhD journey. And really checking in with yourself and what you feel like. It’s really where really where you’re where your capacity is really where your desire is really checking in with that. And a wish that we could kind of go in this is the answer everybody do that? And it’s the answer because we can obviously because everybody’s on their own journey. And as you say, for some people, that that’s that’s how it goes for them but for you. And I think that the this sense of of a process as well that you kind of you stepped in with the internship, you then went to full time you then have come out on sabbatical. And I think what’s really useful about your story is it models different ways that people could work as well. There are different opportunities there and different ways of doing it. Absolutely.

I have like colleagues, amazing colleagues who were working in this same office as I was, and they were able to do both. I think it also depends on which kind of PhD project you are your arms. Like for my project, I really needed to go back to the field work and maybe do some additional interviews that could validate the results that, that I that I, again, but because I started almost 10 years ago now, so you need also like recent data, and so on, and I just couldn’t do it. So I think I spent a lot of time in trying to compare myself to others. And to try also to find all kind of say, like, suggestions on what was working for others. And trying to like, yeah, to make those solutions also suitable for me. But it just, I mean, it just didn’t work. Sometimes, part of me feel still a little bit of frustration for that, because I’m saying, Okay, I should have been able to do both. But eventually, this is not. So I’m glad that they Yeah, that I was honest with myself. And it took it took close, I think, yeah, again, discussions with good supervisors, and also ability to communicate with them. This is why I said before, it was not only like, I think it was also a way of communicating effectively, like with them. Setup and understanding that I want to focus on my on my project. And I want to also to use this knowledge, because something that I learned throughout this journey is also that one, actually, I mean, academia and the practice, come together to really benefit from each other. And I think this really is my key takeaway from


Yes, and what a gorgeous take away this sense of really, as you say, getting in there getting in the field. And as you say, all all the benefits of that the benefits of the people that you’ve been working with, and the way that that is that will enrich their work the way in, which is, as you say, it’s motivational for you in terms of like, yeah, this really, this is really important, but as also as enriching your writing in your thinking, brilliant, and how fantastic to have seized that opportunity, and got out there in the field and done that work. Oh, yes. And comparison, Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say. And it is difficult. And I think, as you say that, that sense of really checking in, because you can only run your own race. And I know it’s a kind of that’s such a cliche, but especially on the PhD is such a unique journey. And we’ve you know, however many episodes I’ve done, now, everybody’s Come on, and their journey has all been different. And that’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty I get to write your own story. Absolutely. Denise anything just before because I, what I’m aware of is we’re condensing as we always do this massive story and this massive journey into a very short time. And I am aware of time, and I want to kind of get to the to the top tips. But before I do that, I just want to say is there anything else that you wanted to say about that experience or your learning from that?

I think something else that I mean, we did in my decision now to go back into academia, and like finish this project was also maybe the decision came to some extent, in the right time. For me, it was a moment in which like, reassessing my career path, my opportunities, my career choices so far. And also, I think that that has a role to some extent. And also the idea that I learned something from going into practice. So I really, I accomplished what I wanted to get when I enter into practice. And now I think it’s the time to wrap this chapter of my PhD because I, I see now the value of the PhD. When I went went into practice, I think there was also there was also an element of let me put it like that frustration a bit for the academic life.


Okay, I’m sure lots of people can relate to that. Exactly.

Like also all these theoretical discussions and like not really seeing the impact of that. Whereas instead, like going back going into practice, as taught me that. I mean, our like, our work our thinking as academics, it matters. And I’m sure that maybe I would have come to this realisation or sustained in academia. But for me for the way that yeah, that I work, let’s say, it was this way to realise that. So. Yeah. I


love that. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a nice, thank you so much. So I’m going to ask it often, as I say, out of all that rich journey and rich tapestry, I’m going to ask you that offer reductive So one of the top tips, and you’ve already given us, a top tip that you said was close to your heart. So you are very welcome to repeat that, or to offer something else. Well,

I think maybe something that I would like me to share is something that my favourite songwriter would say. So it’s never too late to be what you might have been. And I used to say, and this is something that I said to my to my husband a couple of evenings ago, it’s never too late to finish your PhD, in this case, my PhD. So sometimes, like, I joke a lot on the fact that this is going to be like my son’s theory. Actually, I was on on a post from my PhD for so many years that it feels like it is the fifth year and so I think it’s okay. And I really want to like hold on to this, for sure. And something else, maybe find your find your supporters, I think like supporters, in my case, were an essential part of this journey, and are still because I still have like a supervisor that is still like supporting me in this idea of finishing the PhD. And she has seen the benefit of me going into practice, like supporters are a lot. Yes.


And as you say, the way you communicate with them as well, the way the way that you have nurtured your supporters. And I love this. I love this. It’s never too late to finish your PhD. It happens in its time. And I love that. I love it. I love it. I love it. Ah, Denise, thank you so much. I wish you all the very best in this final phase of your work. And thank you, thank you for what you’re doing. Thank you for your commitment to the community that you’re serving. And thank you all for listening.

Thanks a lot, Emma. It was a pleasure.