After one year studying here for my MA, I no longer needed any persuasion on staying here for my PhD

Sebastian Zhang sitting on a boat
Zihuan Zhang
PhD Student
Department of Sociological Studies
PhD student Zihuan talks to us about his journey from studying an MA in Sociology to studying for a PhD here in the Department of Sociological Studies.

Can you tell us about your student journey - what made you decide to continue from your MA in Sociology to study for a PhD? 

I came to the UK in 2014, initially studying an international foundation programme in Financial Accounting at Loughborough University. At the end of the programme, I realised I did not like studying business or finance. However, there was one selective module in the programme that caught my attention, and it was sociology. I then decided to pursue a degree in Sociology at the University of Lincoln. After graduating from Lincoln, I came to Sheffield for the MA Sociology. During this academic year, I was having so much fun by just learning and thinking about many sociological theories and new sociological research, even though half of it was spent in lockdowns. Precisely because of the great time I had during the MA, I wanted to spend more time on learning and producing sociological knowledge, which is why I am now studying for a PhD. 

What did you enjoy most about the MA programme?

I cannot limit myself to one favourite thing about the MA. Let's have a top three. Firstly, the people; I love meeting like-minded people, both the coursemates and the lecturers, who are so passionate about what they do and authentic to who they are. I was the only Chinese student in my undergraduate sociology course, so the Chinese students on the MA made me feel accompanied and eager to learn more. Second, the MA course is constructed amazingly. It covers almost every aspect in sociology: the latest research to familiarise me with the directions sociologists are heading in, the social theories to solidify my theoretical framework, as well as the specific research fields to expand my research interests and horizon. Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed writing my MA dissertation. It was a theoretical dissertation, exploring the extent to which Hannah Arendt's examination of Eichmann contributes to anti-essentialism, which was inspired by the theories taught on the MA. I love thinking about complex concepts, how they interact and how it also exposes weak areas in my sociological and historical knowledge.

What was your favourite module on the MA and why? 

My favourite module was Concepts and Ideas in Sociological Theory taught by Matthias Benzer. I did not expect to laugh and to have so much fun in a subject that is often deemed to be dull and boring. I remember the liberating feeling of learning profound social theories by Popper, Adorno, Fanon, Arendt, hooks and so many others. I remember we wanted the lectures to be at least one hour longer when they were already two hours long, so we could have learnt more theories. I also remember discussing some concepts with coursemates, and we all were mesmerised by how good a teacher Matthias is in making these concepts lively. 

Why did you stay at the University of Sheffield to study your PhD?

One best friend of mine studied Philosophy in Sheffield when I was in Lincoln. I visited him here several times and I really enjoyed the vibes of Sheffield since then. He told me a lot about his fun stories and experiences in studying in Sheffield. The city itself is very vibrant and diverse. There are too many beautiful parks and Sakura trees! The department of Sociological Studies was ranked number 2 in the UK when I was looking for masters programmes, so I was convinced that Sheffield would be the perfect choice. After one year studying here for my MA, I no longer needed any persuasion on staying here for my PhD. Additionally, my supervisors are lecturers in the MA. We know each other very well already and their research fields are exactly what I need for my project. 

What is your PhD research topic and what interested you in researching this?

My PhD project investigates racism in China by conducting qualitative research with black English teachers in Shanghai. What inspired me to do this project was the time I spent with my English teacher (one of the best teachers I have ever had, who is also my best friend) before I came to the UK. He is a black man from America. In that one year, we were hanging out all the time, speaking in English of course. I witnessed many incidents that happened to him which made me feel very uncomfortable. I did not know it was racism back then, until I started learning sociology. The MA provided me with many more sociological theories that subsequently became my theoretical framework in my current research, which has also deepened my understanding of race and racism. 

What have you most enjoyed about your PhD so far?

What I have enjoyed the most so far is also what I struggled with the most - the intensity of it all. In the first year, I really enjoyed producing a 10k words literature review every one or two months. It is a privilege to be able to merely read books and articles daily and just submerge yourself in the thinking process. Currently, I love doing fieldwork, interviewing people about their experiences, transcribing the recordings while thinking about the sociological undertone of it. 

How do you think your experience so far, along with your PhD, will shape your career?

Since I want to work as a sociologist/researcher, this PhD will prepare me in every way and launch me into academia when I am ready. The skills I am learning are transferable, such as professional writing, ICT, critical thinking, presentation skills, time management, communication skills, teamworking, project leading and so on. So even if I were not to work in academia, I would not regret my decision to pursue a doctorate degree. 

What are your plans for the future?

I am very excited for writing up my doctorate thesis. I want to pass the viva with no correction, publish the thesis, and become a scholar working at a university. But who knows what could happen afterwards, I might become a fine artist, a 'housewife' in Beverly Hills, a filmmaker or pursue a medical degree in neurosurgery or psychiatry 'haha'. 

What advice would you give to those looking to study for a PhD?

PhD research is a marathon, not a sprint. As cliché as it sounds, it is so true that you should work for something you love, and not getting sick and tired of it just because you might lose interest. Ask yourself what interests you the most, what you are passionate about, what angers you, what makes you question your reality and what is significant in your life; find that 'thing' and study it sociologically in a PhD as that would be the most fulfilling way to spend these three years. 

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