Getting involved in 'stuff' outside your Robert Šakić Trogrlić

Robert together with other participants of the Young Water Leaders
Summit 2016 in Singapore Image source 
Hi, I'm Robert and I'm a 3rd year PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, researching the role of local knowledge in flood risk management in Malawi. I am jointly supervised by Heriot-Watt University (Dr Grant Wright, Prof Adebayo Adeloye), BGS (Dr Melanie Duncan) and Polytechnic Malawi (Dr Faidess Mwale), and funded through the Hydro Nation Scholars Programme by the Scottish Government. Throughout my PhD I have sought out a number of extracurricular activities.  They have helped me better understand my research topic, meet people from different fields and countries, and taken me across the world. These activities have, in different ways, helped enhance my understanding of my topic and helped me develop as an early career researcher.  By sharing my experiences, I hope to demonstrate to other PhD students how they could become involved in similar activities.

What was I doing and why?

When I was starting my PhD, the prospect of being dedicated to one single topic for 3-4 years of my life seemed a bit scary. No matter how much I felt passionate about my field of research (Disaster Risk Reduction), I was very keen on introducing more dynamics into my life as a PhD student. But keeping in mind that time is a valuable resource, I wanted to be involved in initiatives that are still related to my professional and academic interests.

That’s why I decided to become a volunteer with the Water Youth Network - WYN, a vibrant community of students and young professionals working as a global connector in the water sector. For the past two years, I have been a co-coordinator of the Disaster Risk Reduction working group within the WYN, and through my involvement in the WYN, I also had an opportunity to act as a Focal Point in the Science Policy Interface Disaster Risk Reduction team of the United Nations Major Group of Children and Youth.

The last two years were a joy, because I had a chance to be a part of different types of projects, from involvement in policy advocacy, organising capacity-building workshops to organisational strategic development. I got to work with unbelievably driven international community of young people working across disciplines on creating sustainable futures.

Where did it take me?

Literally, it took me places, gave me exposure and opportunity to take part in global conversations. I was involved in organising the Young Water Leaders’ Summit during the 2016 Singapore International Water Week; I was an invited speaker at the United Nations HABITAT III conference in Ecuador in 2016; I was a co-chair at the UNISDR’s Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Mexico in 2017; I was a speaker at the ECOSOC Youth Forum at the UN Headquarters in New York City in 2018. And my favourite part –I was part of the organising team for the Pressure Cooker Event on Risk Communication during the 2018 Understanding Risk Forum in Mexico City. (Read Anna Hicks and Jim Whiteley's blog for more on this event).

Robert co-chairing a session on Disaster Risk Governance during the
Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Mexico 2017 Image source
How have all these activities benefited me and my research?

  • Exposure to interdisciplinary environments: If we are to solve global challenges, one-size-fits-all solutions are not the way forward, and sometimes very differing perspectives need to be integrated. This lesson has also benefited my PhD, because it directly influenced how I was approaching the problem I am addressing, by making my approach more interdisciplinary. One thing led to another, and now, as a trained engineer, I am doing a qualitative study for my PhD using social science methodologies.    
  • Networking and collaboration: Being part of a youth organisation gave me the opportunity to meet inspiring people, both young leaders and ‘legends’ in the field. It’s directly beneficial for my study, because I got a chance to discuss and receive feedback on my PhD from a variety of people. In addition, you never know what future collaborations might come out of your new network. For instance, during one of the events we were organising in the Netherlands, an idea emerged of jointly writing a journal paper with 9 other co-authors, which we later published in an academic journal.
  • Leaving your comfort zone: As PhD students, we are very often tied to a specific topic and we rarely get an opportunity to explore how our research can influence policy and practice. While being involved in different projects, I got not only the chance to learn new things about my field, but also to see explicit links between my research and some of the critical policy issues.  
  • Learning new skills: We are all aware of the challenges of the academic job markets and increased interest towards developing so called ‘transferrable’ skills. Getting involved in work outside our PhDs can really help us develop these skills. I was lucky to learn a lot about, for instance, working in and leading interdisciplinary and international teams, fund raising and strategic thinking.