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Being an Indonesian PhD in Leiden: what is that like?

Wija Wijayanto and Arum Perwitasari both were Indonesian PhD students at Leiden University, funded by the Leiden-DIKTI Graduate Scholarship Programme. With the help of this scholarship, literally thousands of students travel abroad to write their dissertations. During their research period, Arum and Wija got to discover what it is like to live in Leiden. Here they are, sharing their personal experiences.

Name: Wija Wijayanto
Research topic: The biography and journalistic values and practices of Kompas, the largest and oldest national and daily newspaper in Indonesia, with special emphasis on the newspaper’s relationship with the power holders across different political administrations (promotion January 17).

Name: Arum Perwitasari
Research topic: The pronunciation and comprehension of English vowels by the Javanese and Sundanese speakers (promotion February 19).

Wija Wijayanto
Arum Perwitasari

What was the reason for you to join the Leiden-DIKTI programme?

Arum: ‘I love to call it fate or destiny that brought me here since, frankly speaking, I never even thought of ending up in the Netherlands. But I always told myself I'd love to get a PhD before my 40s. So right after finishing my Master’s degree, I sent numerous research proposals to several universities in different countries and I got two PhD offers. They were very appealing but financially not fully covered by the DIKTI scholarship. Online I came to know about the DIKTI programme at Leiden University, that – apart from the previous offers - did cover the fourth year of my PhD plus all the other expenses. It was impossible to still complete all the requirements as the deadline was approaching, so I sent several emails to some professors in Leiden Linguistics Department instead and I got a positive reply. I felt lucky to study here since it meant that I could continue to improve my knowledge, expand my research skills and to get my paper published so I could present the results to a bigger audience.’

Wija: In Indonesia I’m a lecturer in Mass Media and Politics but nevertheless, in my opinion I always remain a student. I want to keep learning, even from my own students. The fact that I was able to improve my knowledge by being part of this cooperation with Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands, was the most important reason I felt attracted to this programme. Financially, it also was beneficial because – like Arum said – most DIKTI scholarships, which are funded by DIKTI itself or the Indonesian government, do not cover the fourth year of a PhD. In this program however, Leiden University funded my last year plus the costs for doing research and going to conferences. My living allowances and tuition fees during the previous three years were paid by DIKTI.’

During your research period, you both lived in Leiden. How was that like?

Arum: ‘I would say I led the life of a typical doctoral student. My mornings began slowly, first with the alarm going off at 6am. I ate my breakfast, prepared my lunch box and went to the university. My flat was about a 25-minute bike ride from the university; every morning I arrived around 9 am. There, I attended seminars, workshops or meetings with my supervisors. In other cases I spent the day continuing my research. In the first two years of my PhD, I always went home around 10 or 11 in the evening. So bringing my lunch and snacks were necessary for me. I have to say that the first and second year of my PhD were intense; I did not have a good balance between my work and private life. In 2015, in the third year of my PhD, I decided to balance it better. I went home at 7, registered myself at the Leiden University Sports Centre and went to yoga classes 3 to 4 times a week.’

Wija: ‘Leiden is a small, quiet and beautiful city that provides the perfect environment for students to learn and think deeply about their research. When I just arrived in Leiden, I often complained about the weather. Strong winds and cold is a problem for someone like me, who is used to living in a tropical country. I remember when I just arrived, I made an appointment with my professor to meet the next day. At that time I cancelled the appointment because of rain. That's a pretty common thing in Indonesia, but not in Leiden. It will actually make people laugh. The Netherlands has fascinating weather, with its mix of seasons. I remember the winter of 2012, when snow began to fall and suddenly it was everywhere. Spring came, then summer, which warmth brought me much joy. Many people come out, go on boat rides, laugh or bath under the sun on the banks of the canals. Leiden has stolen my heart, and I will carry its memory with me forever.’

How did you experience the guidance that you received from our Humanities faculty during your research period?

Arum: ‘The Humanities faculty has provided huge academic and non-academic support, which I think is substantial for doing a PhD. Being a PhD student, I was encouraged to learn on a more active and independent basis, since I should be able to have full responsibility towards my research. I was also able to join courses and trainings within the Leiden University Center for Linguistics (LUCL) or other institutions related to LUCL, such as a Data Management and Didactics Course for PhDs and winter and summer schools by the Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics (LOT). Plus, I got opportunities to build networks with students or professors inside and outside the university through attending conferences and talks, research group discussions, and doing online courses. In terms of non-academic support, the faculty provided financial aid such as grants and funds to attend conferences outside the country, to execute research in Indonesia or to provide proof-reader service. I even had a counsellor who could help me in coping with academic workload and mental health problems.’

Wija: ‘Firstly, let me tell you this: when I was younger, I harbored dreams of becoming both a scientist, and a novelist. I think it is fair to say that writing my thesis is the perfect materialization of that ambition and both my supervisors totally supported me in that. My thesis became a piece of academic work shaped using a scientific approach, but it is also a story, written as a narrative – just like a novel. In the words of professor David Henley, my first supervisor, “Your dissertation should be a novel that is easy to read. It has to be down to earth. A dissertation doesn’t have to be hard to follow.” Dr. Ward Berenschot, my second supervisor, agreed with this vision and said: “There is a saying: that anthropologists are those who write a good story badly. And that should change.” These two people have been instrumental in guiding me in every stage of my research project – from the proposal, through the ethnographic fieldwork, and finally to the dissertation writing - but also for paving the path for me to realize my dream.’

What are your plans after your promotion? Do you have specific ambitions or dreams you want to pursue?

Arum: ‘I would prefer to work in corporate and non-profit sectors. I would love to show how skills that were learnt in a PhD are put to use outside of university. I am well aware that the particular problems that I might experience in the corporate sector will be very different from those I experienced in university. However, that doesn’t stop me. I feel like working in a corporate sector enables me to apply the hard and soft skills that I've acquired from my PhD. Though my interest now is to work in non-academic life, it does not mean that I will never think of being a student again. I still would love to do research collaborations with my fellow linguists in Indonesia or all over the world, and publish some articles. I also want to disseminate my thesis results and educate English teachers and students in Indonesia on the specific problems in learning English.’

Wija: ‘Like I mentioned before, I am a lecturer at Indonesia’s Diponegoro University (UNDIP), in Semarang, central Java. Soon after I go home, I will continue my work there. I feel like there are a lot of things to do in my home country. Its academic atmosphere is perhaps not as good as it was at Leiden University, but this is precisely what I would like to work on once I’m back. Also, just like myself, a lot of other young Indonesian intellectuals travel home after having studied abroad. I already met many of them and built some collaborations. I believe if we work together, we can make Indonesian research among the most progressive in the region, and in the world.

In 2012, several Indonesian PhD students came to Leiden University to do promotional research, funded by the so-called Leiden-DIKTI scholarship. The students are part of a big operation of the Indonesian governement to upgrade their academical framework. Literally thousands of students travel abroad to write their dissertations there. Right now there are about twenty Indonesian PhD's being supervised by scientific staff, mainly at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) and the Leiden University Center for Linguistics (LUCL). They live and study in Leiden for 4 years and are often accompanied by their partner and children. 

Text and banner image: Lieselotte van de Ven
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