I was a visiting PhD fellow at UNU-WIDER — this is my experience

Virgi Agita Sari joined UNU-WIDER as a visiting PhD fellow in the summer of 2017. Coming from Indonesia, Virgi joined five other fellows from across the globe. Upon completing the three-month fellowship, she returned to the University of Manchester to finish her PhD in Development Policy. In 2019, she joined the Poverty and Equity Global Practice of the World Bank as an economist.

An enriched research experience

On the third year of my PhD, my academic interest in inequality grew and I wanted further exposure to inequality research beyond the country I was working in. I learned about UNU-WIDER and their Visiting PhD Fellowship Programme even before I started my PhD. I knew how competitive it was going to be, but I set my mind to joining the programme one day.

In March 2017, when I was one research paper away from completing my PhD, I finally had the courage to apply. Dr Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, who was then working at UNU-WIDER as a Research Fellow, had the research trajectory I was looking for. I applied for the programme indicating that I wanted to work on a paper on social assistance and indicated my interest to work with him.

To my surprise, my application was successful. There was doubt from my supervisors whether it was a good decision to leave the university for three months during the final year of my PhD. I felt very fortunate to join the programme, and eventually my supervisors supported my decision. It turned out to be the best possible experience, as it helped me to complete my studies and led me to my dream job working as a development economist at an international organization.

Quality supervision contributed to a productive research environment

My time at UNU-WIDER was like fireworks — it sparked here and there, leading to many invaluable experiences. I was fortunate to work with an experienced researcher and to receive high-quality supervision from Miguel Niño-Zarazúa.

During the first month, I encountered some data issues and had to throw my initial research plan down the drain. We were expected to deliver a presentation and share our research papers during the fellowship. It was stressful, but I quickly came up with another research question, managed to produce preliminary results, and was able to deliver the presentation. Thinking about it now, it was an absolute roller coaster of a journey.

I definitely would not have been able to do it without the guidance from Miguel Niño-Zarazúa. He posed critical questions throughout the process, provided constructive feedback, and pushed me to interpret results in an interesting manner that goes beyond just numbers. He also encouraged me to turn my research into a working paper, which was eventually published by UNU-WIDER as well as in a peer-reviewed journal.

Supportive, friendly, and healthy environment to work and live in Helsinki

These achievements would not have been possible without the supportive environment and the good work-life balance at the Institute. Like many PhD researchers, I flunked into a habit of working long hours before joining UNU-WIDER, which wasn’t necessarily productive.

At UNU-WIDER, I found the working environment very supportive and well suited to my needs. The office ambience was very quiet during the working hours, but friendly, especially during lunchtime. We had great conversations over lunch with other colleagues in the glass dome overlooking the beautiful bay area. The little details were also very helpful: free-flow coffee, tea, and the staff taking turns to host themed lunches with home-cooked food or snacks from different countries. This facilitated a network among UNU-WIDER colleagues and the PhD fellows whom I am still in touch with today.

Living in Helsinki was also a delight. I found joy in nature and passing by the park and the bay area on my way to the office.

Carving my way out of the PhD program and into my dream job

I found the Visiting PhD Fellowship Programme a great aid in completing my PhD, and in contributing to where I am today. A year after the fellowship, in January 2019, I completed my PhD. Shortly after that I joined the World Bank as a poverty economist.

I had always wanted to join the fight against poverty and inequality through supporting evidence-based policy reforms. The World Bank’s goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity fits right into my aspirations. At the Bank, I’ve really felt like I’m at the heart of it, addressing the distributional challenges of growth in developing countries through frontier research.

It’s been a real highlight to work with policy-implementing agencies to address pressing challenges such as the effects of COVID-19 on poor and vulnerable households. Reflecting back, I am grateful for the experience I had at UNU-WIDER. The exposure to an international research environment helped me gain a global perspective on the issues I work on now.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.