Ph.D., University of Cambridge

Alex Loktinov: I am determined to try to stay in Egyptology and push forward with an academic career

Interviewed by Nowreen Priyanka

Interviewer’s note: Thanks Alex for sharing your story and experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. He is currently appointed as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

Alex Loktionov

Alex Loktionov

Postdoctoral Research Associate

Dept. of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Alex was born in 1992 to Russian parents living in Lyon, France, but have lived in the UK since the age of three. This multicultural upbringing has probably been the key reason for why he developed an interest in how different human societies function: as a child, he was exposed to lots of different languages and worldviews, and drifted towards his future career without really even knowing it.

The key thing is to begin a PhD only when you are 100% ready– it is difficult to develop your skills in the same way as in a North American graduate school.

Why I chose to study at the University of Cambridge

As a school leaver, I suppose I was initially drawn to Cambridge because of its reputation. Its undergraduate course in Archaeology & Anthropology was seen as one of the best in the world, and I managed to get in. Once in Cambridge, there was a really clear path of progression from undergraduate to MPhil to Ph.D. – and there was never any up-front cost. I had a really good relationship with the other students and teaching staff and was given the opportunity to write a Ph.D. on exactly the topic which I wanted.

In short, I was happy with my past at Cambridge and saw an exciting future. When applying to University, Archaeology & Anthropology just seemed a natural choice. I was then given the opportunity to learn Egyptian hieroglyphic script as part of the course – and it captivated me.

It was the perfect combination of absorbing language work and detailed analysis of how a fascinating ancient society operated, and luckily my motivation translated into good marks. As a result, I was able to secure funding to complete an MPhil course in advanced Egyptology, and eventually, the UK Government offered me a Ph.D. grant. You can look me up on the Cambridge website – http://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/directory/al621.

My research area and its importance

I work on tracking certain changes in Egyptian law from 2600-1100BCE. Essentially, Ancient Egypt is the first human society for which we have a fairly comprehensive record of legal cases for a time period spanning over a millennium. This means we have an insight into the development of some of the oldest laws ever known, helping us to answer questions on how law emerged in the first place and how societies decide what is legally “right”.

Of course, my Ph.D. has to concentrate on only a very small aspect of Egyptian law across this period – otherwise, it would be far too big for one person to complete. I am focussing on two titles used by judges throughout this period – these can roughly be translated as “listener” and “divider of words”. I am interested in how these judges differed from one another and how their functions changed over time – for instance, in certain periods they were concerned primarily with conflict resolution, and at other times the focus was firmly on the punishment of offenders.    

Funding and/or scholarships as a Graduate Student

Although I consider myself very “international” in terms of my cultural identity, officially I am classed as a “domestic” student. All aspects of my doctorate, including course fees, living costs, conference fees, and study visits, are funded by the UK Government through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The stipend is not designed to allow a life of luxury, but it is definitely enough to live on and I can always earn some extra cash through teaching.

I am a Teaching Assistant in the Egyptian language, so I run weekly or fortnightly tutorials for students in the first year of learning Egyptian. I am also heavily involved in giving outreach talks to teenagers who are considering studying Ancient History and related subjects at University – sometimes this involves giving lectures to groups visiting Cambridge, and at other times I get paid to travel to schools in different parts of the UK and run sessions there.

What I like most about being here

Above all, I am very lucky to have an exceptional Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Hratch Papazian. He is a leading scholar in the field of Ancient Egyptian administration and co-ordinates all the Egyptian language courses in Cambridge, but even so, manages to be remarkably flexible in terms of finding time for advice and consultation.

I know that I have very firm academic support here and that both my supervisor and the rest of the department are genuinely interested in what I am doing. That is very motivating in itself.

More complicated is my relationship with the library facilities. On the one hand, the range of materials available is superb and the collections available at Cambridge are among the best in the world. On the other hand, the department library is only open 9 am-5 pm (often with a 1hr break for lunch). I find this rather sad – doing a Ph.D. isn’t really a 9-5 job, and I feel that they could keep it open for at least a couple of extra hours in the evening. The library is also in need of renovation – for example, the room in which I work now was originally a storage loft, and more needs to be done to convert it into a proper working environment.

However, I have no doubt that things will get better – the University is 800 years old, so it is inevitable that some parts of it are outdated.

My background as an undergraduate student

As I have said before, I studied Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge. The transition to the MPhil in Egyptology, and ultimately the Ph.D., was very straightforward. I was working with the same people and in the same place – the only change was a move from doing exams to writing longer assessed essays and dissertations. The emphasis shifted from taking in accepted facts from the lecturers to developing your own ideas in slightly more contentious areas, where there is no right answer. In that respect, I guess the transition is the same for most disciplines.

Finding a supervisor and settling

I knew Dr. Papazian long before I started my Ph.D., as I had come up through the ranks of the department. He supervised me for my MPhil dissertation and brought my Egyptian language skills up to a level that allowed me to start teaching the subject with confidence.

Ultimately, I wanted a Ph.D. in Egyptian law, so I always knew that he would be a great supervisor considering all his work on Egyptian administrative documents. From his point of view, I was a known quantity – this made the Ph.D. application much more straightforward.

 When immersed in academia, it is easy to forget that there is a natural world out there, and it, actually,  is really precious.

Life as a graduate student

It is hard. For a start, you have to be very accomplished in what you do, and there is little room for error because time is tight. In the UK, the Ph.D. consists of three years of pure research only – there are no other courses and very little training in research methods.

By the time you begin the Ph.D., you are already expected to have advanced knowledge of your field, often having publications to your name, and you should be capable of conducting research for a dissertation of 80,000 words from day one. Therefore, the key thing is to begin a Ph.D. only when you are 100% ready – it is difficult to develop your skills in the same way as in a North American graduate school.

When I came in, I had already completed the MPhil course which had very specific modules in Egyptian paleography and advanced Egyptian grammar. I had also completed a dissertation on Egyptian law enforcement and published several articles. As a result, I felt ready and on the whole, I feel that I did start at the right time.

The main challenges are time management – as there are no courses, you have to be incredibly disciplined with doing research at an appropriate pace. This can be a challenge, especially when you have to teach, have commitments, or do outreach work with school students.,It is also essential to factor in time to do other things which connect you to live outside of your discipline – in my case, the two traditional Russian pastimes of fishing and gathering wild mushrooms! It might sound weird to some people, but these are things that I have done since my early years and they always remind me of my family and all the fun we had (and still have) together. These activities also get me out into the open air and force me to think about the environment – when immersed in academia, it is easy to forget that there is a natural world out there, and it. actually, is really precious.

Follow your dreams. Egyptology is hard and it will not make you rich, but you will get to work with some remarkable texts and objects.

How I became interested in this field

The deciding factor was my multicultural upbringing and exposure to lots of different languages. I also think that being born in Lyon, with its spectacular ancient heritage as a Roman city, has something to do with it. Indeed, Emperor Claudius, conqueror of Britain, was born in Lyon – and he did quite well in what is now the UK! Maybe I subconsciously took inspiration from him…More seriously though, when you have this melting pot of cultures and history all around you, it’s quite difficult not to get sucked in.

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

Follow your dreams. Egyptology is hard and it will not make you rich, but you will get to work with some remarkable texts and objects. Follow your dreams. Egyptology is hard and it will not make you rich, but you will get to work with some remarkable texts and objects. At an early stage, just try to do as much history and languages as you can – in particular, ancient languages like Greek or Latin are good if you get the chance.

However, if they are not on offer where you are, universities will generally understand as long as you show that you are genuinely excited by the ancient world. If your interest lies more in the archaeological aspect, you should also try to volunteer for digs – although this can be expensive. It is also a good idea to get a working knowledge of French and German – there is so much literature written in these languages, and you will have to learn them anyway if you end up pursuing Egyptology as a career.

Specialized tests to get admission into this department

Officially, there were no tests – it was all based on past performance, reference letters, and the research proposal. In reality, I knew that to stand any chance of getting government funding I had to get a Distinction in the Cambridge Egyptology MPhil – and without funding, my Ph.D. would never be possible.  

Advice for new students new to this department

There is, of course, a department handbook. However, personally, I would say that talking to existing students is a far better way forward. There are lots of social events in the first couple of weeks of the year, and this is the time to try and come across as a nice person. Generally, people tend to adapt to Cambridge very quickly – it’s a very small city, and within it, Egyptology is a very small discipline inside a small department.

My short-term and long-term career plans

The job prospects are grim, but I am determined to try to stay in Egyptology and push forward with an academic career. Cambridge Ph.D. students have historically been quite successful in securing academic posts, so hopefully, I have a chance. There are also lots of opportunities to teach Ancient History in summer schools and various sorts of outreach programs for children across the UK – this would certainly not be my ideal job, but it could be a useful interim measure while I look for something more permanent.

What I do in my free time

I wish I had more free time! As I said, I love fishing and gathering mushrooms – but you need good weather and good company for that. I am also an avid reader and a huge fan of Leo Tolstoy, but sometimes the Ph.D. means that I have to stare at words for so long during my work that I then can’t bring myself to look at any book. At such times, the best thing to do is sleep!

My favorite book or movie

To keep this brief, I’ll just do one book and one film… For the book, it has to be Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace – it probably is seen as a Russian cliché, but people keep coming back to it for a reason. It basically covers all aspects of the human experience and is exceptionally comprehensive in scope.

I honestly believe any person can find a character in there who can fill them with inspiration. In my case, it would be Sonya Rostova… For the film, I’ll go with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour. It is incredibly depressing and asks some very tough questions about life and how we live. In particular, it has a very disturbing way of switching between often diametrically opposed and yet painfully related concepts – war and memories of war, love, and loss, occupied France and imperial Japan. It is a masterstroke – watch it.

Stories about me and my life have been featured in the Cambridge Evening News. This one looks at some of the work I have been doing in the education sector –   http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/immigrant-english-highflying-alevel-student-school-governor/story-22513231-detail/story.html   This one is an interview focusing more on my current research –   http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/baboon-tax-collectors-phd-student-alex-loktionov/story-29400908-detail/story.html   You can find out about some of my fieldwork experiences here:   https://issuu.com/uni_cambridge/docs/issue_25_research_horizons/34