‘When I can’t write, I organise files for a sense of achievement’

Isti Hidayati from the Faculty of Spatial Sciences won the Wierenga-Rengerink Prize – and 7,500 euros in prize money – for the UG’s best dissertation of 2020. So how do you write an award-winning PhD thesis?

Congratulations on the award, Isti! Your work was chosen from eleven contenders by a jury of former rectors, along with Cisca Wijmenga. What is your research about?

‘It’s about mobility inequality in the large cities of Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, where walking is associated with low socio-economic status. By talking to the neighbourhood residents and analysing various statistical data, I looked at how social practices and spatial configurations lead to the marginalisation of pedestrians.’

The jury praised your novel method combination. How did you come up with it?

‘I wouldn’t see it as a pioneering way, because it’s basically about combining available methods that my supervisors and my promoter are experts in. I tried to make the best use of their expertise.

Before I started my research, however, I believed that particular methods should only be used for solving particular problems. But you shouldn’t be afraid of applying them in a creative way. For example, the space syntax analysis that was previously used in assessing transport and architecture, I applied to mobility experiences. So we thought, why not look into whether those accessible streets in Southeast Asian cities are really accessible and whether they provide a good experience for those who travel there, and that worked out well.’

Was it easy for you to write such a ground-breaking thesis on schedule?

‘To be honest, it was blood, sweat and tears. But I think one of the reasons why I was able to graduate on time is because my supervisors and I divided topics and worked in parallel. So instead of writing and publishing my papers one by one, like some of my friends did, I simultaneously worked on gender experiences with one supervisor and on spatial analysis and mobility inequality with the other two. Otherwise, I could have lost a lot of time waiting for the review process to be done for each of my five papers.’

That’s a lot of multitasking. Haven’t you ever struggled with the blank page syndrome?

‘I do sometimes find myself staring at a blank piece of paper feeling that I just can’t write anymore. But then I switch to organising my references or setting my files in order, anything that can be done without much thinking, but would still make you feel like you’re moving forward. I think that sense of achievement can help you go through.’

What did you do when you felt that you weren’t moving forward with your research? That’s something many PhD candidates experience, especially during their first years.

‘I think the most important thing is to reach out when you feel like you are struggling. I was personally afraid to say that I was having difficulties at first, because I wanted to prove to everyone that I’m qualified, even when it came to the smallest things.

During my first months, I was afraid to make an appointment with my supervisor and my promoter. That’s because in my home country of Indonesia, you wait for your supervisor, who is in a more senior position, to take the lead and make an appointment. I realised the difference when my UG supervisors asked me: why are you not contacting us? And I was like, I was waiting for you!

So now I know that asking questions or sharing your struggles with a colleague, for example, is okay. You don’t have to be alone.’

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