Life as a graduate researcher: Franka Vaughan


Franka Vaughan has moved to Melbourne from the UK to complete her PhD. Originally from Ghana in West Africa, Franka is researching identity construction in post-conflict Liberia.

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Meet the researcher

Tell us about yourself and why you decided to do a PhD at the University of Melbourne

I am originally from Ghana in West Africa, where I completed my undergraduate degree in political science. During my undergraduate degree, I realised I wanted to teach at university level. But I needed postgraduate studies to do this. I completed my masters degree in the UK, and initially explored PhD options there too.

But it was difficult to secure a scholarship. While there were scholarships for African students, I was already living in the UK as an international student.

The scholarship process is different in Australia. It is linked to a research project, rather than location. I had previously been in contact with my future supervisor, Professor Sarah Maddison. Her commitment and support were influential in my decision to come to the University of Melbourne.

Describe your PhD research

I am researching identity construction in post-conflict Liberia. Liberia is one of the oldest republics in Africa. It has been through a long period of conflict, during which time many people fled. I had met former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – her clarion call for Liberians in the diaspora to return home piqued my interest and informed my research.

During her presidency, she asked those who had left, to return. As Liberia rebuilds, Liberians remain divided over questions of citizenship and identity. I’m interested in how the sense of belonging and identity differs between those who stayed and those who left. My research straddles debate over identity, citizenship, race, class and belongingness in Liberia. Specifically, how do these debates impact state-building in a post-conflict context like Liberia?

At what point in your candidature did you have your baby? What impact did this have?

I discovered I was pregnant just before my confirmation. I was worried about money and the impact on my research. My supervisor became my rock. She was very supportive and reassuring, and told me that she’d had two young children during her PhD.

The experience has lengthened my PhD. I took six months of maternity leave when my son was born. I also took COVID-19 leave when he couldn’t go to childcare during lockdown. As with all families, whenever a child is sick and can’t be in childcare, one parent has to stay home. With us, it made sense financially for me to be that person. We still have our rent to pay.

What is it like to be an international PhD candidate living in Melbourne?

People are welcoming, but it can still feel lonely. This was my second time moving to a new country, so I did some things differently this time. I looked for opportunities to join African groups, so I could connect with people who understand my culture.

I have recently been elected as president of the University’s African Studies Group. Initially, this group was intended for anyone whose studies related to Africa. Now, it has expanded and has more of a community focus. We’re finding ways to engage with the broader African community and with the Indigenous community.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your graduate research experience?

I love meeting different people and learning about their research. I also love being at a university where there are constant opportunities to learn. And the teaching experience has been very rewarding – this is my area of passion

What has been the biggest challenge of your graduate research experience?

Writing a PhD can be a painfully long process. You have to be passionate about your research.

Personally, I also struggle with my own insecurities as a mature age student. I am in my early 30s, but a lot of domestic PhD candidates are in their early 20s. I sometimes grapple with thoughts such as ‘What am I doing with my life?’ and ‘I should be earning proper money by this age’.

Where are you hoping your PhD will take you, in terms of future career aspirations?

I want to teach. I want to educate the next generation and influence their thinking. My dream was to return to Ghana and engage in teaching that is guided by the values of knowledge co-creation and collaborative learning. Now we have a child, it’s hard to imagine moving. But maybe one day we will return to Ghana.

First published on 16 February 2022.

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