Humanities Blog

Tallinn University's doctor Colm James Doyle: there’s no point in being busy if you’re not making progress

Over the past year, many wise and talented people have defended their doctoral dissertations at Tallinn University, This year's promotion of new doctors took place on November 20. We talked to fresh doctors. We asked about their current activities and how they motivated and disciplined themselves while writing their dissertation. Of course, we also looked at how they improve the world with their research.


Colm James Doyle defended the doctoral thesis on the language policies of bilingual and multilingual transnational families resident in Tallinn, wherein one parent is Estonian and the other parent is from a country other than Estonia.

  • How did you choose the topic for your doctoral thesis and how did you get interested in this research field?

Colm James Doyle: It’s the culmination of many experiences over the decades. From an early age due to growing up in Ireland, travelling, and living for a time abroad, I became interested in languages, bilingualism, minoritised languages and later linguistics and language politics during my Bachelor’s. Languages have been a big part of my life and a big passion of mine for many years now. I chose the topic of transnational family language policy for my Master’s and my PhD as I am fascinated by the complexities of bilingual parenting, and how parents navigate the logistical challenges of raising children in more than one language and the ideologies and politics that come into play when using languages and managing language use in the family home, particularly when one parent is a foreigner.

  • Where do you work at the moment and and how do you use the knowledge, which you got during your doctoral studies, at your current job?

I work in anti-money laundering compliance in a finance technology company, where I am principally responsible for liaising with external financial crime auditors so that my company has a productive and successful audit. 

While I cannot directly apply my knowledge of sociolinguistics and transnational family language policy to my day-to-day work, I find that the skills in writing, presentation, communication and analysis I developed during my PhD serve me well in my job.

  • Writing a doctoral thesis definitely needs constant self-motivation. During this journey, what were your ways or tips on how to successfully finish your thesis?

With a full-time job and two kids, free time is non-existent. Doing a PhD requires great self-discipline and self-motivation. You need to make time to read, research, analyse, write, present... It’s like a marathon that occurs over literal years. Unfortunately, given my time constraints, I missed out on many holidays, events, and other leisure and family activities to get my PhD done. That’s the sacrifice you need to make to get it done. The upside? I have a backlog of so many films, fiction books and games to enjoy now that my studies have come to an end. If I would give advice it would be to write little and often, stay positive, and believe in yourself that you can do it – because you can!

  • If you look back on your doctoral studies, what you most vividly remember about it?

I did my PhD over 8 years, so I have so many memories! I remember studying Lithuanian through the medium of Estonian (only recommended for the very brave!), learning mixed methods with Prof. Katrin Niglas (this was by far the hardest course!), and studying contact-induced language change with Prof. Anna Verschik (fascinating subject, but I had to parse so many difficult Estonian noun phrases that I hope I never have to read again...).

I think my most enjoyable times were getting to travel to Tartu, Berlin and Jyväskylä (Finland) for conferences and getting to connect with other sociolinguists. I particularly remember one occasion where I shared a sauna on Lehtisaari island with just two American academics and a random elderly Finnish lady and me trying to communicate to her in Estonian and broken Finnish. When we tired of the conversation we swam in the lake during a hail storm.

Colm James Doyle

"Work smart not hard. There’s no point in being busy if you’re not making progress. Pursue your passions but develop some sellable skills to allow you to pay the bills." 

Colm James Doyle
  • How do you think you improved the world with your research? How well and how did you succeed in improving this world?

I would never be as brass to state that my research improved the world in any way. I just hope in a tiny way if anyone is to read my work that they feel less stressed about the whole business of raising children in two languages. Us parents are often too critical of ourselves as parents. Spouses should support one another with respect to nurturing both family languages, especially the non-societal (minority) language and make the foreign parent feel valued, equal, and supported in transmitting their language.

  • Who has been a scientist, great man or thinker with whom you would like to work? Why?

If I had a better ear for phonetics and knowledge of phonology, a part of me would love to work on documenting endangered languages. Linguist-author K. David Harrison is a bit of a hero for me because of his work documenting threatened languages in remote parts of the world. His book, “When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge”, is a fascinating read on what knowledge is contained in threatened languages and what exactly is lost when one dies.

  • What are the most important values and beliefs in your life that you live by and that will help you succeed?

Work smart not hard. There’s no point in being busy if you’re not making progress. Pursue your passions but develop some sellable skills to allow you to pay the bills. Don’t stay in a job if you’re unhappy. Take risks. Look after yourself and then you can look after others. Be kind to yourself and others. Be humble. Never stop learning. Try and live a simple life in which you spend time on what’s important to you. And I’m still learning everyday how to embody this advice.

  • The last book you read? Why do you recommend it to others?

“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by journalist John Carreyrou. It’s a non-fiction that reads like a triller. You’ll read it in one sitting transfixed, and then will watch all the documentaries about this engrossing story of corporate greed, delusion, and unbridled unethical ambition. Presently I have my teeth in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a fascinating read about the history of us – humans, right from the first humans all the way to today.