Elizabeth Buchanan wins NATO Defense College Fellowship

Elizabeth Buchanan wins NATO Defense College Fellowship
ANU Centre for European Studies Europa Fellow, Elizabeth Buchanan, will spend a semester at the NATO Defense College after winning a Fellowship
Tuesday 10 October 2017

A young scholar in The Australian National University’s Centre for European Studies is heading to Rome to start her fellowship with the NATO Defense College.

Elizabeth Buchanan, (PhD expected ’17), who is also a Europa Fellow at the Centre, will study the military alliance’s Arctic strategy during her semester at the College.

She is the Centre’s second scholar to secure a NATO Defense College Fellowship in 2017, after Associate Professor Stefan Markowski, and one of the youngest ever recipients.

The research Ms Buchanan will be conducting builds on her doctorate, which examined Russia’s Arctic energy strategy.


Why did you decide to come to ANU for your PhD? Who is your supervisor?

I had completed a research thesis on Ukrainian-Russia natural gas relations and was always interested to delve further into Russia’s foreign energy strategy. I departed academia briefly for real world experience in the energy sector, but still found myself more driven by strategic studies. I knew opting out of the commercial energy space was a huge gamble, financially, but I figured early 20’s was the best time to gamble with the whole career concept! Of course, I covered my bases by applying to Australia’s top research university – which is also top 10 globally for International Relations.

The best part of been able to base my research at ANU has been the Canberra locality. We are immersed in Australia’s political dialogue, with policymakers and subject experts a short walk away. Personally, I have been lucky enough to receive advisory support and supervision by some of Australia’s leading Russianists, now retired but affiliated with ANU in adjunct positions.

My supervisors were Dr John Besemeres and Dr Annmarie Elijah, with the Centre for European Studies. With over 30 years government experience in foreign affairs, John has been a fantastic support in guiding my research career whilst also continuing to flame Australia’s research credentials on all things Russia. As Australia’s leading Brexit expert, Annmarie has experience in government as well as an academic background in trade politics.  I certainly look up to how she balances family and career life and I think it is really important for young women to seek out mentorship in the field.

What is it about Russia’s foreign energy strategy that fascinates you? Was there any particular moment when you thought: “Aha! I want to study that!”?

Two things really. First, that the energy ‘weapon’ was an effective tool of statecraft which didn’t appear to garner much attention; cutting off energy supplies doesn’t make as many headlines as military might does. There’s also the knock on effect for Australia – our energy security strategy (I use that term very loosely because we don’t really have one), whereby the continuities and shifts in Russia’s foreign energy policy directly impact the wider Asian energy market.   Second, I was towards the end of my vacation program with a global oil firm and the corporate world just wasn’t for me. The insights gained working in big oil allowed me to hone in on an area of future interest to both the public and private spheres – Russian polar energy strategy. This space is still emerging so I formulated a PhD project within it which sought to dispel the new ‘Cold War’ theses when it comes to assessing Russian Arctic strategy under Vladimir Putin. Safe to say, I have found my little niche.

What was your reaction upon winning the NATO fellowship?

So many feelings! Honestly, a lot of self-doubt. Unfortunately, I think this is all too common with young researchers and particularly an ongoing issue for young women in a traditionally male dominated field. It took a little while to own the achievement. I had the winning project, CV and the panel decided to award me with the globally competitive fellowship. Then I was simply ecstatic. That said, I didn’t really have too long to dwell on the award – I went into labour the next day with my son…

What does the Fellowship entail?

The Fellowship involves employment with NATO’s Defense College. In residency for the last quarter of 2017, I will be steering my project and delivering my findings via a research paper to be published by NATO and a lecture to the leadership. I am examining the High North component (Arctic) of NATO’s North Atlantic strategy after the 2016 Warsaw Summit. Russia’s re-emergence and increasing aggression within the near abroad has threatened the concept of peaceful Arctic development. For the past decade, calls for NATO to develop an Arctic presence have resulted in increased exercises and yet overall, a non-committal approach to the region. NATO’s most recent strategic concept (2010) had no mention of the Arctic. Indeed, there have been continued mixed signals from NATO. The July 2016 Warsaw Summit reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to ‘deter and defend’ the North Atlantic, into which the High North region necessarily falls. Not only is this language unprecedented since the Cold War, it highlights the reality that the North Atlantic will feature again as a key arena for deterrence.

My research will examine the potential for the High North to be ‘siloed’ from NATO’s reaffirmation strategy for the North Atlantic. It will test the potential of decoupling the High North from the North Atlantic and investigate the policy implications and operational challenges by looking to the GIUK Gap as a blueprint. The GIUK is a naval chokepoint in the northern Atlantic Ocean. I could go into further detail, but I will save you from that. 

Do you have any plans/goals after you complete your PhD?

Ideally, I would like to stay in the Russian studies space, especially in the energy security sphere. However, Russian studies in Australia lacks funding and a solid platform for growth. That’s something I really hope I can change. Of course, I would love to extend my NATO position, potentially move around in the organization and gain insight into the policymaking processes in Brussels. There is always big oil, or risk consulting in the Russian foreign energy space too. But I think my course is firmly within academia. I am looking to turn my PhD into a book so perhaps there are also a few more books in me.

How are you finding juggling your busy life?

I wish I could say I have found that elusive balance, but I would be hiding the reality that it is a real struggle some days. I spent a heap of time trying to divvy up my energy between motherhood and my career and only recently have come to accept I don't have to do that. Both can coexist, at the end of the day, both 'hats' are relatively uncharted territory for me! So I just keep going.

Of course, I am really lucky to have ongoing support from my research home, the ANU Centre for European Studies. My son has been attending ANU since he was 12 weeks old; his cot is actually in my office. It’s great, I can't dream of a better environment for him to grow and develop in. Already in his short life he has been exposed to a slew of languages - from Czech to Polish, Russian, Italian, and French just recently. He attends most lectures and I do wonder if his first words will be ‘Brexit’…

The flip side isn’t so great. The central challenge for me now is that I no longer have blocks of solid research time, so deadlines need to have inbuilt contingencies for entire days to be about my son and not my research. I guess the trick to keeping everything in the air is… just keeping it all in the air. I have learnt to be kinder on myself and alter my expectations.

Do you have any tips for fellow PhDs, or those contemplating postgraduate study, on how to keep all the juggling balls up in the air?

PhDs can be great fun. It’s vital to formulate a project you are passionate about and can stomach the reality of spending 5 years with it. That said, it is like getting a driving licence in many ways – your research trajectory might not necessarily be related. That is something I didn’t really realise until the midway point.

Some great advice I was given recently was to ‘slow down’. I was advised to consider putting away my career trajectory timeline and cease the rush. It took me a little while to grasp the concept, but it is the best advice I have ever received. The pressure, applied by ourselves, to arrive at our dream job and to put an age on when it must be done is self-defeating. I think I have gained so much more by enjoying all the trials and tribulations that come along with early career research. The pressure to land the top job, to be accepted by a top peer reviewed journal or to win that grant is not where I want to be putting my energy anymore. 

There was this fantastic story about a Princeton Professor who started keeping a list of ‘failures’ – jobs, papers, fellowships etc. that he was not successful in achieving. It gave me a whole new perspective on academia and a new approach to dealing with rejection!

Overall, planning is central to completing postgraduate study. Have strategies and deadlines, make lists and lists about lists if you have to. Make use of ANU – there are so many great services on offer here. Personally, I would not be at this point in my research journey if I hadn’t engaged with ANU Research Services. Everyone should be aware of Dr Inger Mewburn’s ‘shut up and write’ sessions and the thesis boot camps! Above all, be kind to yourself and enjoy the ride.

Learn all about the Bachelor of European Studies at The Australian National University.



Updated:  10 October 2017/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications