Coffee With An Alumnus: Esko Suoranta
Have you ever sat in a lecture hall listening to the professor’s eager monologue on the Victorian novel or language assessment policy, and found yourself imagining your life as a researcher? In my daydream as a researcher, I’m always at the brink of a great discovery, giving lectures here, accepting awards there. In my spare time, I attend a book club where my fellow intellectuals and I drink French wine and study an extinct language, just for fun! Or something to that effect.
All kidding aside, there’s something elusive about the academic track; most people have little more than vague impressions of what the job looks like day in, day out. Here to dispel some of the myths and shed light on the ins and outs of the profession is Esko Suoranta, a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki language department.
By day, Esko works at the Finnish National Committee for UNICEF and by night (or his spare time) he works on his dissertation in contemporary Anglo-American literature. So, he’s basically Superman.
Why the double-life, one might ask. It turns out, working toward a PhD doesn’t guarantee research funding. For example, the university of Helsinki’s Doctoral Programme for Philosophy, Arts and Society has around four funded positions up for application annually.
“The competition for research funding seems to be a harder than it might have been some years ago, and there are less opportunities at the university to fund PhD students. The three times I’ve applied for funding and been rejected have been very disappointing. It’s hard not to get into a negative groove when you know you’ve done your best,” Esko tells me.
“But even though we’re in an environment with competitive structures, it’s important that, as peers, we refrain from becoming bitter toward each other. It’s not a question of one researcher being better than the other. In order to function in this world, we all have to work on the solidarity part,” he continues.
The lack of funding doesn’t mean sitting around twiddling thumbs all day. While the dissertation has top priority, PhD candidates also have to plan beyond it. In practice, this means getting published in peer-reviewed journals. Esko has publish two articles with the third one currently in peer-review.
“I’m really happy that even though I’m not that close to defending my dissertation, my name is getting out there and I’m doing what I can.”
But let’s backtrack a little—before struggling to find funding or relevant journals, one needs to be accepted into the graduate program. And in order to even apply one needs a preliminary research plan. Where does this process actually begin?
“In a sense, the process has to begin when you’re doing your MA thesis.” That is, “you need to form a relationship with your thesis supervisors, so they can recommend you and potentially be your PhD supervisors. Then you also need to get a pretty good grade from your thesis,” Esko explains.
According to Esko, success on the thesis is contingent upon the amount of work and initiative put into it.
“I was pretty explicit with my thesis supervisor about my intentions of continuing toward a PhD. So, I asked that we make sure I do my best job on the thesis,” he tells me.
Once the MA thesis is completed, it’s only a matter of finding a supervisor and applying to the graduate program with a preliminary research plan. Esko’s pro tip here is to think about potential supervisors in terms of people you could work with for years. And then, “you just have to get a little lucky”.
The university offers a limited amount of positions, and foundations have their own sets of funding criteria. A quick scan of Helsingin Sanomat shows that concern for research in the humanities is a regularly featured topic. And for good reason. Recently, the government reinstated some of the research funding that it cut in 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of that money went to Business Finland. The direction of the money flow is an apt indicator of society’s values and interests and it determines what is studied and why.
“These kinds of decisions are warning signs. We’re in a situation in Finland where the appreciation for arts, culture and languages is being instrumentalized. It doesn’t have value if you can’t apply it to something technical”, Esko remarks.
Esko himself studies contemporary literature, specifically sci-fi novels.
“The novels in my corpus do interesting things with the toolkit of science fiction to tell us about abstract and complex phenomena such as capitalism. I see that this fiction is especially capable of making us understand these difficult concepts due to the techniques of narrative it employs”, he explains.
“Intriguing”, some might say, “but what’s the point?” With technological innovations as society’s spearhead and the increase of capital as the end goal, things like literary research are often regarded as futile. So, what say the expert? What is the value of literary research in our commerce driven and tech-crazed society?
“Well, if we look at literature apart from other fiction, it does different things to your brain. And what literature does is that it works closely together with your imagination,” Esko begins.
“For me, imagination is the only thing that can get us to where we want to go as a society. A lot of our problems stem from a narrow imagination combined with a narrow understanding of history—a state in which nothing ever changes for the better. Humanities have the capacity to broaden both our imagination of the future and our perspective of the past, and by doing so affect what we do here and now,” he concludes.
Let’s get a few things straight: it’s not necessary to be in Mensa or to have rocked a Mikhail Bakhtin poster on your wall as a teenager to become a researcher. For Esko, the light struck while writing his MA thesis. A good thesis is a prerequisite for graduate studies but getting one out is more to do with hard work than inborn intelligence. The same is true when it comes to actual research work. Esko believes that skills often considered central to the job—solid argumentation, proficient writing skills, etc.—are skills learned on the job. What he considers more important are meta-level working skills such as project management, patience, self-knowledge and functional routines. A future in research is a viable option for any university student, but what should one take into consideration before pursuing the track?
“Really think about your motivation,” Esko advices.
“Think about how long are you willing to stand the insecurity that necessarily goes into it. Get to know you teachers and discuss your research topics with potential supervisors. It’s important to prepare yourself for the basic necessities that go into this world.”
It seems that a career in academia-- particularly in the beginning-- is wrought with uncertainties and requires all the self-confidence, persistence and patience one can muster up. So why keep at it?
“I had random guy on Twitter comment that my article was the best thing he’d seen written about a William Gibson- trilogy. The fact that he’d somehow found the article, liked it, and seen the though work I put into it was really cool. That kind of stuff really motivates and inspires me!”