What are you currently researching?
I am researching how processes of educational selection in different European countries shape people’s beliefs about meritocracy. To do this, I am using quantitative and qualitative research methods.
My qualitative work involves in-depth interviews with European students at elite UK universities to explore how people socialised in different educational systems perceive the interaction between structural factors (such as family income) and individual merit in shaping their educational journeys. This is to understand how education-based meritocracy is conceptualised and enacted by its ‘champions’.
As part of my quantitative analysis, I am looking at the distinct characteristics related to educational stratification of different educational systems. As an element of novelty, I am adding the countries from Central and Eastern Europe to the analysis.
What attracted you to this area of research?
I grew up in Romania, where conversations about the meritocratic ideal have become prevalent after 1989, with people trying to find fairer ways of allocating positions of power and prestige.
I came to realise that the promotion of meritocracy can be a ‘double-edged sword’ when it comes to reducing inequality. I can see the appeal of the idea that those who work hard can get to the top without compromising their moral integrity, especially in comparison to a society where getting ahead is dependent on nepotism, gender, ethnicity, or inherited advantages.
However, I have noticed that people who think their success is their own doing tend to believe that those less fortunate deserve their place in the social hierarchy too. This framing can create a ruthless environment that breeds social polarisation. It pressures those who do not match a narrowly defined definition of merit to internalise failure, while keeping the ‘worthy’ in a continuous state of hoop-jumping to prove themselves.
I believe that understanding the dark side of what it takes to create a seemingly objective hierarchy of worth is essential to finding alternative ways of encouraging individuals to cultivate a broader set of talents.
You are a student ambassador for CIVICA - The European University of Social Sciences. Can you tell us a bit more about CIVICA and what your role involves?
My role involves creating bonds between LSE students and those from CIVICA partner universities: Bocconi University, Central European University, European University Institute, Hertie School, Sciences Po, Stockholm School of Economics, and National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (where I completed my BA in Political Science).
I am a first point of contact to CIVICA for students at LSE and aim to facilitate collaboration between LSE PhD researchers and scholars from partner institutions.
What attracted you to the ambassador position and what do you hope to achieve in the role?
I believe that we can do better research by learning from each other. Personally, I am very curious to see what the experience of doing a PhD looks like at other top social science universities. I think a lot of doctoral students could benefit from finding out more about the different pathways for obtaining a PhD and joining the academic community.
I plan to facilitate the creation of collaboration groups for PhD students in the CIVICA alliance, so that we can support each other in developing our methodological skill set, exchange knowledge about our areas of interest, and even co-author.
If you are interested in finding out more about how you can connect with scholars from our partner universities, do not hesitate to get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What advice would you give other PhD students or early career researchers?
Choose a topic that matters to you: one that you keep bringing up in informal conversations, one that you feel confused, worried, or even a bit angry about.
Use the PhD as an opportunity to delve deeper into this topic, search for answers, and find your voice. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas and seek feedback, even when you don’t feel 100% ready – you will probably never feel this way. The input from scholars with different perspectives is incredibly helpful for developing a more nuanced understanding of the social issues that you care about.
What is your favourite way to de-stress?
I think it is healthy and liberating to talk about temporary setbacks and the stress we are inevitably experiencing along the way, as doing a PhD is a difficult endeavour. I talk to my friends about the reasons I’m worried and try to promote a culture where other PhD students don’t find it embarrassing to admit if they feel stuck or a bit lost.
I also find it helpful to do activities that help shut off my mind and literally shake the stress off, such as dancing, going to the gym, or playing the guitar.
This piece was originally published on the website of CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences.