Dr. Graham Pluck
Minds, Brains, & Internationalism

Travel, Internationalism, and Academia Blog

27.01.2021

At Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan

Recently I’ve been working at Nazarbayev University. This is an ambitious, internationally-focused and well-funded academic project in Kazakhstan. Opened and expanding since 2010, the university comprises impressive facilities on a single campus (plus a nearby medical school) in the capital city, Nursultan. All classes are in English and the faculty are recruited from all over the world. This photo shows the front of the main building, in summertime.

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The conditions of work are generally pretty good, low teaching loads for professors, free accommodation, and impressive remuneration (in a country with low living costs). I suspect the conditions have to be good to attract academics from their cushy European and North American etc. university positions, to live, a somewhat isolated academic life, in the second coldest city in the world. This is a place where temperatures frequently drop below -30C (that’s -22 F for people still living in the 19th century). It’s been past -50C (-58F) at times. If that sounds off putting, then there is a solution. It is actually possible to live out the entire winter without going outdoors, as some professors do. The entire campus, including student and professor accommodation, restaurants, shops, offices, and lecture rooms, can all be accessed through overhead ‘hamster tube’ walkways. And the summer period actually has pretty good weather. This photo shows the back entrance, in wintertime. 

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Neither -50C temperatures nor being campus-bound for most of the winter are great options. Nevertheless, I’m used to living in challenging environments, and thought Kazakhstan sounded like an interesting place to live and work. It’s also a potential base for travel around Central Asia. But the appeal for me was that I’d been looking for greater opportunities to expand my research and educational work, and a well-funded, international university like this sounded ideal for that.

Further, I knew that a new psychology department was being planned, and I had wanted to be part of forming that. My wife had already taken a teaching fellowship at the university, and I came, rather presumptuously, hoping to find a faculty position, in January 2020. Just before COVID-19 went global. At Nazarbayev University, as at most universities, with the pandemic and lockdowns came financial concerns and new-hiring freezes. This photo shows the psychology section in the university library, alas there is no psychology department. 

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So, 2020 for me was spent locked down in a university campus in Kazakhstan, with no option of travel in Central Asia, I wasn’t even able to leave the city. And for the first few months of that, without any sight of employment. The students were sent home, the research seminars and conferences all cancelled, and the labs shut down. Just the wife and me living in our university-provided apartment, with hamster tubes that take you to closed shops, closed restaurants, closed offices and closed lecture rooms. Helen was able to keep teaching over Zoom, but it was clear I wouldn’t be able to get a professor position.

Luckily, research funds for temporary contracts were still available, and after a few months I got a research assistant post in the School of Engineering and Digital Sciences. I’m no engineer, but with my cognitive science background I’ve been able to fit into a project performing in silico simulations of human short-term and semantic memory. I’ve been working on that since September 2020, and we already have one paper ‘in press’. I was able to visit the faculty that I was employed in only once (photo below), the rest of the time I worked from home.

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This was admittedly a rather humbling change: I’d come from being Director of the Institute of Neurosciences at a university in Ecuador, to research assistant at a university in Kazakhstan. A contrast highlighted to me every week when ResearchGate emails me to ‘congratulate’ me on being the most read academic in my department, while I’m in that department at the lowest possible employment rank.

It’s not the university’s fault. We have all been screwed over by COVID-19 in some way, many losing their lives. So, I mustn’t grumble. But it’s now clear that my ambitions for promoting scientific psychology, via education and research, are not finding fertile ground in Kazakhstan. So maybe in the future, when the pandemic chaos has dissipated, I’ll return. But for the near future I need to try elsewhere for academic work. Even somewhere perhaps where I can realize my vision of implementing real evidence-based higher education, and research, on psychology and brain sciences. Also, somewhere warm would be nice.

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