If you are in Kazakhstan and looking to apply for a doctorate program abroad, you may have come across an Instagram blog called @kzphdgirlsunion and its offshoot @doctorate_school. Kazakhstan Ph.D. Girls Union is a community of PhDs and postdocs who dedicate their free time to help students with everything from the enrollment process to everyday challenges of academic life.
The community websites provide a variety of webinars and a comprehensive program made up of courses that cover all the basics of doing research and scientific methodologies.
The Union is managed by eleven members—who are all women—dispersed across the globe from Spain and Japan to Israel and the United Kingdom. QazMonitor interviewed seven of the members who talked about the origins of their community, filling the knowledge gap, and their rolemodels.
A space to share
How did the Union come to be?
Aigerim. I can’t remember the exact date. Maybe around 2018-2019. It started when a group of Ph.D. students (or graduates) decided to start a community. Some of the founders – Amina Mirsakiyeva, Alina Bekhuhametova, Dana Akilbekova, Pakita Shamoi, Nassiba Baimatova, and other women who aren’t active participants of the Union anymore – had an idea to gather likeminded people and share their experiences with the world.
Every week we create posts on Instagram around topics on choosing your Ph.D., building your relationship with a supervisor, publishing papers, and others. We [the members running the account] also post about academic life, host webinars, and create bespoke courses.
I joined because I wanted be in a space with people who were going through the same challenges as me. It’s nice to have a community where you can openly share your struggles and dreams. This organization is pretty much a living organism where people can come and go as they need. Some join when they start their Ph.D. journey and leave after it’s over. Right now, there are eleven of us girls actively running the account.
Alina. Essentially, the Union started out as an Instagram account. I think most of us joined through the page. It might have been the only or one of the very few blogs dedicated to Ph.D. and science [in Kazakhstan], so those who were starting their Ph.D. eventually stumbled upon our page. Our community is pretty open; anyone can join at any time.
Bridging the gap
When did the Union decide to design its own courses and webinars?
Alina. I think it was in the autumn of 2021 and, for various reasons, it wasn’t the easiest time for the project. To better facilitate our work, we decided to streamline our activities into three directions: online courses on our website (which I’m mainly responsible for), weekly and monthly webinars, and consultations. We have a variety of specialists in different scientific fields who can speak on various issues.
How did you come up with the courses? I believe you have six so far.
Alina. I am the creator of the platform [course catalogue @doctorate_school]. I have a background in philology. I received my education at Moscow State University and, as you can imagine, the education system is quite different in Western universities and post-Soviet countries.
So, when I just started my Ph.D., I was in a state of panic. I wasted so much time and energy looking for useful resources. Then, I met Ph.D. students who started [their higher education] in Kazakhstan or post-Soviet countries and discovered they shared the same struggles. This was what motivated the course project. There’s such a huge gap and we must shorten it somehow.
As for our courses, they have a logical order. For example, the first one is about the application process: how to collect documents and apply, how to search for a supervisor, and so on and so forth. As you continue to grow as a Ph.D. researcher, the courses progress linearly. In the second course, we teach you how to write a literature review.
Becoming a role model
Since the Union is called the “Kazakhstan Ph.D. Girls Union”, I initially thought that it would be more about helping women pursue higher education. Was it the Union’s goal at some point or was that association never intended?
Aigerim. I think, initially, we just wanted to be seen because being a scientist isn’t commonly associated with being a woman. We wanted to break the stereotype that if you’re a woman you cannot pursue science. That was the original intent behind its name. A lot of the struggles female Ph.D. researchers and postdocs face are unique to women. For example, the issues usually related to balancing family life and career.
There are members who are married and have children while pursuing their studies. They set an example for the rest of us—they show us it is possible. We are each other’s role models.
Ayana. It seems that the members being women doesn’t bother anyone. A lot of men attend our webinars—so it doesn’t really matter. Guys follow our page and ask questions about how to get scholarships, or how to write papers. It might’ve been a “girls’ union” originally, but now it’s a gender-neutral doctorate school.
As an engineer and applied mathematician, sometimes I see that gender inequality is still prevalent, even here in Manchester. In Kazakhstan and especially in STEM, there’s a mindset that it’s hard to pursue your Ph.D. if you’re a female, so it’s important to show girls that it’s possible.
What do you think makes this Ph.D. community special?
Ayauzhan. Aside from the courses and webinars, our members take turns running the Instagram page every week and answering any kind of questions 24/7. People also share their personal stories or post useful things, so our page is full of good resources on the topics discussed in the webinars. But I think the most significant part is us doing all this voluntarily.
Dayana. Just to add on, many people ask about how to apply for Ph.D. They’re either not familiar with it or just don’t do much research. When I was applying for a Ph.D., there was not much information available on social media.
We help people realize that they're not limited to the opportunities offered here, in Kazakhstan.
I think that’s the value that people find [here] – information that is often “hidden” from them.