Future historian in the making – master's studies as a stepping stone to research

Ryan Reed has just recently graduated from the Master’s Programme in Russian Studies. From the get-go he knew that he wanted to orientate himself towards writing a PhD in the future and found that studying at the University of Helsinki provided him the freedom he needed.

Hello Ryan! First, please tell me a little about yourself and your background. 

Sure. My name is Ryan Reed. I was born in Columbus, Ohio in the US. I went to university at the University of Dayton (Ohio), where I studied history. 

How did you decide to apply to the MARS programme (currently MAREEES) at the University of Helsinki?

While studying at Dayton, I decided I would like to study Russia. One day, one of my professors, who knew about my plans, brough the MARS’ flyer to my desk. He pushed me towards doing a little research about Helsinki, the programme, and its link with the Aleksanteri Institute. 

I think it was the Aleksanteri Institute that really attracted me – the opportunities that the close cooperation between the research hub and the programme could offer. Also, it felt like it was as close to Russia as you could go without actually going to Russia.  

It was kind of a crazy decision really because I didn’t know anything about Helsinki, and I’ve never been outside the US before. But in 2021, I flew an airplane for the first time in my life and moved here.  

Tell be about your first impressions when you started your studies. 

The studies have a very different style than in the US, which I actually appreciate a lot. I guess you could say that in the US, or at least in my university, there is a bit more handholding: you are told what to learn, you learn that, and then you do well on the test.

Here it is different. Like, for instance, the learning diary: you choose what to learn. That was really good for me because I knew I wanted to do a PhD after graduating. I could align myself with that goal and go for it.  

What did you appreciate most about the programme? 

As I mentioned, I knew that I wanted to apply for doctoral studies, so I really liked the freedom. For example, in throughout all of the courses, I chose to focus on Gulag and memory-related things so that once I graduated, I had all the literature down pat and I had already written pretty extensively on the subject.  

Well, also, I met my wife here. That is probably the biggest benefit of all [laughing]. We were neighbors and she came out to greet to me when I first moved and that’s how we met. One thing led to another, and we have been married for almost a year now. 

How sweet! How about, were there things that you were less satisfied with in the programme?

I mean, there were some courses that weren’t the most useful to me, but I was always able to find a connection to what I wanted to study. For instance, I’m not much into policymaking but I was able to write on Russian memory policies about the Second World War. 

Overall, I was very happy with the programme. It was more the adjustment period to new circumstances in my personal life that were a little challenging at first as I had never left the country before. The programme was actually my anchor for a while. 

Tell me about your thesis and your internship, which I believe were connected. 

Yes. The programme requires us to do an internship, paid or unpaid, or a project. I chose to do an internship, and through the contacts that I gained in the programme, I was able to find a research project that needed an assistant. I worked – and actually still work but now as a hired employee – with emerita professor Judith Pallot on the Gulag Echoes project at the Aleksanteri Institute. I get to archive all the material of the project that is ending in August 2024.

Then, Professor Pallot mentioned me offhand that there was this massive online resource by the Federal Prison Service of Russia and I kind of just went for it. I wrote my thesis on the building blocks – the symbols, the language – of the mythology of the Great Patriotic War based on the online material. With the process I kind of became the expert of the FSIN online resources in the project. 

This past semester I applied for my PhD. The PhD thesis would be about placing the findings of the master’s thesis in the context of contemporary history. And I just recently found out that I got accepted. So, I will begin this winter!