Meet our postgraduate researchers: Zoë Kessler

Published on 7 August 2021

Zoë is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Education and Social Work and has a background as a social worker. Her research focuses on emerging adults leaving care.

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What did you do before starting your research degree at Dundee?

Before starting my research degree at the University of Dundee, I was teaching as a part-time lecturer at a university in Boston for two years. Before that my clinical work as a social worker focused on adolescent girls with experiences of commercial sexual exploitation.

What is the focus of your current research?

I wanted to find out about the experiences of emerging adults (18-25) that grew up in the care system in Latvia. I collected their stories of three stages in their lives: before moving into care, growing up in care and transitioning out of care and into adulthood.

What first got you interested in your research topic?

Eight years ago, I was introduced to the Latvian social orphan population through the process of adopting my daughter. Upon spending time with the older children (ages 10-18) and the staff I learned that there is a specific narrative that is told regarding a presumed very limited and bleak future for the children. A social worker at the time, I became interested in researching the lived experiences of these children to hear their stories and to find out if that narrative was accurate.

What has been the most positive aspect of your research degree so far?

Honestly, there are so many positive aspects of my research degree so far. First off I get to travel to Scotland from the U.S., which I love. I have met a fantastic group of people at Dundee, including my supervisors and my fellow students. The most positive aspect is the experience in data collection with the young people from Latvia sharing their stories with me that experience has changed me.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?

The most challenging aspect was the fact that I was in Latvia hearing their stories in a research position not as a social worker meaning I had to carefully guard any desire to offer support outside the realm of my position. Many of the stories were challenging to listen to and not take action to help.

How are you hoping your research will benefit others?

I hope my research benefits social orphans in Latvia, other Eastern European countries as well as in the U.K. and U.S. by bringing their stories to life and showing people who they really are. There continues to be considerable stigmatization from growing up in care that burdens people often fora lifetime and even into future generations. I hope to show that these young people are much more than a label.

What advice would you give to postgraduate research students?

One piece of advice I was given very early in the process of applying to PhD programs was to make sure that whatever topic I chose to research was something that kept me up at night thinking about it. I later understood more fully that to spend 3-4 years engulfed in this process, you must be passionate about what you are doing. Also, to write out why it is essential for you to finish this research degree and pin it above your desk where you will see it every day.

When times are challenging, and you might lack the motivation you need to keep going, you remind yourself why it matters.

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