This post is part of a profile series on NPSIAns and their summer work experiences. If you have any questions for the student profiled, please refer to their contact information at the bottom of this post.
Name: Sarah Katz-Lavigne (Ph.D Candidate)
Position title: Research Assistant
Workplace: The Institute of African Studies at Carleton University, working as an RA on the “Uncovering women’s experiences in artisanal and small-scale mining in Central and East Africa” project, which brings together scholars and researchers from Canada, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Rwanda, and the DRC.
NPSIA cluster: International Development Policy
Position obtained through the Carleton co-op process?: No
Undergrad school: McGill
Major(s): International Development Studies
Graduate school: London School of Economics (LSE)
Major(s): Development Studies
What is your commute to work like?
This summer I’m helping to coordinate a training workshop that will take place in Uganda for researchers from all the different countries who are collaborating on this project. I’m lucky to be working from home for the coordination part of it. I’ll travel to Uganda at the end of June for the training, and then to Kenya for all of July for research talking to women and men who work in the gold mining fields. So right now there isn’t a commute except for the occasional meeting at Carleton, but soon I’ll be on a more than 14 hour trip to East Africa.
How would you describe the dress code at your work?
When doing research in East Africa (as anywhere) the main thing is to dress modestly and respectfully, and take your cue from others. When I’ve lived and worked in East or Central Africa I’ve normally worn jeans or long skirts, with tank tops or sleeveless tops (or sweaters, because it can get chilly at night). On this trip I’ll be in the gold mines, so definitely long pants. And maybe a hard hat if I’m going into the pit…
Are there many other NPSIAns at your workplace?
There is one other NPSIAn PhD student doing RA work on this project.
What are the lunch options like nearby your work?
Food in East Africa is delicious (and carb-heavy!) Luckily, for a vegetarian, there are lots of options like beans, rice, chapatis (Indian wraps), and many vegetable options. Food isn’t expensive and East Africa’s cities have many good restaurants. Indian food is a particular favourite given the cultural cross-pollination, but you can get all kinds of food.
How many jobs did you apply to this summer?
As a PhD student I’ve been lucky to have this RA position since my early days at Carleton, on a recommendation from my PhD supervisor. Even as a master’s student your professors and supervisors can be a great resource for opportunities, whether that means offering you RA work directly, or connecting you to someone who might be able to find you a position outside of university, in a field that interests you.
Having done research in East and, especially, Central, Africa before, I’ve been able to listen firsthand to the stories of people who, often, are dealing with far more difficult daily circumstances than many of us in the West. This has been difficult and humbling and I’m constantly aware of the privilege that I have to be able to travel abroad, meet new people, and hear their stories. I try to be respectful and empathetic and to give back in little ways, as much as possible. I do what I can to try to challenge negative or simplistic perceptions that many people have of the African continent.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Not only listening to painful stories and feeling powerless to help, but also witnessing the difficulties of daily life that people can face in places where they can’t rely on the government to help out. And logistics! We take a lot of things for granted, but infrastructure is extremely variable in parts of East and Central Africa. A vehicle breakdown takes you by surprise until the first few times, but you get used to unexpected obstacles and it teaches you flexibility and resilience..
What is an average day like for you?
There really isn’t one, although I imagine I will be spending full days at the mine site once the research starts. For a short research period you really have to maximize the work you do because unexpected obstacles and administration can take up a lot of time.
Is your workplace fully bilingual, or does it favour English over French (or vice versa)?
We tend to work more in English, at least the professors and students working on the project here at Carleton, but our survey materials will be translated into multiple languages for use in Rwanda, Uganda, the DRC, and Kenya.
What are some exciting things happening in your workplace right now?
The training workshop in Kampala at the end of this month will be really exciting, because it means everyone from all the different institutions and universities involved in the project will be together in one place, learning research skills and exploring issues like mining legislation, gender, research ethics, etc.
What surprised you the most about your workplace/position?
Probably how quickly the situation is involving in the DRC in particular (where I lived for over a year) in the mining industry and in society more broadly. In the popular media there’s a perception that the DRC is a state that is locked into a state of failure and decay, but it’s changing all the time.
Are you also taking classes (NPSIA, language training, etc.) and/or studying abroad this summer?
I take German lessons at the Goethe-Institut. It’s a challenge to balance German class with work and school, but it’s a nice change.Which NPSIA course best-prepared you for your position?
My PhD comprehensive exams were extremely helpful, especially the module on gender, particularly since this is a project that looks at how women are involved in artisanal mining! It’s one thing to understand how gender works in an abstract sense, but it’s not until you have really studied and read about it that you can start to look for how gender structures everyday relationships, everywhere.
What sort of work experience did you have before this position?
Before starting my PhD I had a couple of jobs working in development and civilian protection projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Those were very different in approach from what I’m doing now, but I constantly rely on what I learned from those experiences.
What are your hours like?
My hours are pretty flexible and I set my own schedule. I’m also doing some work for the Canadian Association for African Studies. I manage to make everything fit, but it’s definitely a juggling act. Once I travel to Uganda and Kenya I’ll probably be working closer to 24/7!
What is some advice you’d give to a student hoping to get hired/intern at your workplace?
I’m not sure what the hiring will look like in the next few years of the project, but feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in learning more!
Looking back, is there anything you wish you would’ve done differently in your job search?
I really feel very lucky to have gotten this job. It was very much a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and having interests that fit in well with what my supervisors were looking for. It has not always been so easy in the past to find jobs, but once you’re working on a specific area (e.g. mining in Central Africa) it tends to be easier to find opportunities, because there are just fewer people looking, or at least fewer people with experience in that area. In the past I’ve really relied on building networks and I’m in touch with a lot of people in my networks still, which is a huge help when travelling abroad.
Have any questions for Sarah?
You can get in touch with her via the NPSIA Students’ Association at firstname.lastname@example.org.