Avdan conducting his fieldwork in Turkey's Gediz Delta.

convocation, research

Ataman Avdan’s isolated dissertation defence the happiest moment of his life

June 08, 2020

Ataman Avdan is an urban and environmental sociologist who is graduating with a PhD in sociology this June.

His graduate research examined how nature conservation policies and urbanization processes unfold simultaneously and shape each other in Turkey’s Gediz Delta, an internationally protected wetland adjacent to the country’s third-largest city, Izmir.

Avdan explored how protected-area designation increases the value of land in the urban periphery and attracts middle-class urbanites to formerly rural areas while forcing traditional villagers to change their social and economic practices, a process he describes as “conservation-led gentrification.”

Read more below about Ataman Avdan’s experiences during his graduate studies at SFU:

Why did you choose to do your degree at SFU?

First of all, my supervisor Professor Yildiz Atasoy’s great interest in my project played a huge role in my decision-making process. I had received another offer from a university in Boston; it was tempting, but I wanted to work with Professor Atasoy, who is an expert in global political economy, state-society relations and urban-rural transformations in Turkey. She was also so encouraging and enthusiastic in her emails.

I had also heard fantastic things about the academic life and intellectual environment at SFU from a friend who was finishing his PhD in a different program. After a long conversation with him, I was 100 per cent sure about my decision. Finally, I know I will sound like a real estate agent, but I have to say: location, location, location! Vancouver is a terrific city to live; it is beautiful, it is full of contradiction, paradox, and dynamism; but also, for my own intellectual reasons, it is a perfect place to think about the nature-city nexus.

Is it too early to pick highlights from your time at SFU?

Perhaps it is. But probably the most memorable part of my PhD was the last six weeks. Right after my dissertation was submitted to the examining committee, B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school was shut down, and we were ordered to stay home. I defended my dissertation in my apartment, alone, via videoconference. After my presentation and two rounds of Q&A, the committee put me in the “waiting room” to discuss my performance and make their decision. They invited me back after 15 minutes or so and announced that I passed with no revisions! The happiest moment of my life, literally. The chair ended the “meeting” and I immediately started a new Zoom session but this time with my family and friends. I opened a bottle of champagne that I had been saving for my defence day.

People always say that doing a PhD can be an isolating experience. Mine was not; I’ve met wonderful people during my time at SFU and developed amazing friendships. However, I had to defend and celebrate in isolation.

What are your short or long term goals, now that you are finished your degree?

It is not easy to make plans in the middle of a pandemic. I currently teach as a term lecturer at SFU and am a faculty member at Columbia College. I have been teaching since January 2016, and there is nothing in the world that I enjoy more. I hope I will continue what I am currently doing: exchanging ideas with and learning from brilliant undergraduate students at SFU.

Can you offer any advice or words of wisdom and encouragement to new graduate students in your field?

My main piece of advice to new graduate students would be this: choose your research topic based on your passion. You will be reading, writing, thinking, even dreaming about the same thing for many years. Maintain a consistent relationship with your work; make sure that you dedicate some time to write every day, even on the days you teach or take a class. Whatever your field is, as an academic, writing will be a central practice in your life: Learn how to be a productive writer early on (Two books are worth reading in your first term: Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot and Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What). But don’t get stuck in your research! A great poet once said, “there is more to life than the books.” Find your community, engage in activities you enjoy, and take good care of yourself both mentally and physically. Work-life balance is extremely important, but within the current competitive environment, many of us tend to neglect our social needs. Have a life and friends outside of academia, follow the cultural events in the city. Sometimes you need to take some time to relax and recharge. Be patient with yourself, don’t stop believing in yourself. Graduate school can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Take advantage of everything that SFU has to offer and the support available to you. And finally, invest in a comfortable bed and bed sheet set, you will need to sleep well.