Every summer a talented group of doctoral students from around the world arrives at the OII for an exciting, challenging, open and intense fortnight of study with leading academics in the field. This year sees the OII’s tenth Summer Doctoral Programme; we catch up with SDP Director Dr Victoria Nash to talk about it.
Ed: The OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme started in 2003. What were your initial expectations: did you imagine it would be going strong ten years later?
VN: We had no idea that the SDP would be such a long-lasting success! We started the Programme as a teaching experiment to see what level of demand there would be for graduate degree programmes in this area, should the OII want to provide University courses at a later date. So there was an expectation that we might stop SDP once we had our own degree programmes in place, but by that point, the course had gained so much momentum in its own right, and seemed to make such a difference to participants, that we didn’t even consider stopping it.
Ed: What do you think has changed over the ten years?
VN: We’re certainly much more organised! And I suppose that the Internet itself has moved on so much that many of the topics students are researching would have been unimaginable back in 2003, but otherwise we haven’t changed that much. We do try and improve our offering each year in response to student feedback, but in practice that has meant fine-tuning the agenda and format rather than radical change.
Ed: SDP has enjoyed support from many longstanding partners: how did they get involved?
VN: We’re very lucky at OII to have some really loyal and trusted academic partners whom we’ve worked with on multiple projects. With SDP we’ve really benefited from the support provided by colleagues at the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT, the Annenberg School at USC and the Berkman Center at Harvard, for example. In each case that collaboration started with a single personal connection, but in each case the institutional bond has strengthened simply because SDP’s success is so obvious, and our partners recognise the benefits to their students and the discipline more broadly.
Ed: What does the programme gain from being held at the OII?
VN: The ‘Oxford experience’ is of course unique. To someone who’s never studied or visited here it can be a really magical experience to spend a couple of weeks amongst the ‘dreaming spires‘, with time spent sitting on college lawns and going punting. But on the academic front, there’s also great benefit in that we can involve many more of the OII’s own faculty, and in return that infuses our own research and study agenda.
Ed: Why should students from single disciplines attend this strongly multidisciplinary programme?
VN: One of the key challenges in undertaking research related to the Internet is that it is often quite difficult to answer a particular research question using tools, concepts and methods from a single discipline. And even if you do have a fantastic disciplinary project, it can be really valuable to get an alternative perspective, to share your views and ideas with others who may have a similar interest but from a very different background. We also know that many students studying the Internet within a single-discipline department may just not have much contact with other researchers studying this topic. So it can be very exciting to be exposed to 25 or 30 other students with similar research interests.
Ed: What do you think the SDP students bring to the OII?
VN: They bring so much! Now that we have our own degree programmes we realise how true it is that the future of Internet research lies in the hand of current doctoral students. Very often they are undertaking some of the most cutting-edge research, asking some of the most exciting questions. With the SDP we get insights into how other departments around the world are approaching and studying the Internet, and of course in many cases, students end up forging long-lasting links with the OII, so it has certainly expanded our network of connections substantially.
Ed: The SDP has been taken abroad three times (to Beijing, Boston and Brisbane): how were these different to the usual Oxford programmes?
VN: It’s really exciting to take SDP abroad. From an organisational point of view it makes things a little more unpredictable, but it delivers great benefits. First of all you are able to involve a more diverse group of students who may not be able to travel all the way to the UK, and secondly you have a whole new faculty body to draw on in delivering the teaching. We usually find it makes sense to have a slightly different academic focus that can draw on the strengths and expertise of the hosting department, and that is valuable for the OII staff attending too. But other than that, the SDP is the same wherever we hold it – a bunch of great students doing great research having a fun time with some world-leading academics. You can’t really go wrong with that!
Ed: Having been held so far in China, the US and Australia: where would you like to take it in the future?
VN: We would have gone abroad this year but as it’s the 10th SDP, we are staying in Oxford to hold a reunion conference for past SDP alumni to run in parallel with the programme. But we want to go away in 2013 and have had many great suggestions. Right now I’m excited by the possibility of going to India or possibly Hong Kong, but it’s not too late for other good suggestions!
Ed: And lastly: How do you think the programme (or students) might change in the future?
VN: We’re always on the lookout for new ideas, and it’s not unthinkable that in the future we might take a narrower topic or disciplinary focus, or even run similar events for new post-docs. But I do think what we have works really well, so at the moment, we’re going to stick to what we do best!