Tips to Ensure That the PhD Journey Isn’t Lonesome | Study in New Zealand

This is a blog post I contributed to the Education New Zealand blog:

The PhD journey is often said to be lonesome. For those starting the journey or planning to, I can assure you that this is not an exaggeration. Part of making the PhD journey a meaningful one is to connect with others. Here are my top three tips for ensuring that your PhD journey isn’t a lonesome one.

1. Participate in activities for doctoral students

Usually, there are activities organised for doctoral students, whether at the university or faculty level. At my university, such activities include regular writing workshops, topical seminars and social lunches. My experience is that while many PhD students are often holed up in their offices, they do attend these activities, especially when the topic is a practical one for their study. 

If you keep saying you don’t have time for other things apart from studying, think about how these activities will enhance your research. Plan your time well so that you can make time to broaden your perspective, and at the same time, meet other people.

2. Network

When you attend an event or participate in an activity, do you meet new people? Or do you gravitate towards people you already know? If you do the latter, I guarantee you that your circle of friends will remain as small as it started!

I believe that networking, or making new contacts, is important for a PhD student. Knowing fellow PhD students from your faculty is important, but so is getting to know students from other faculties, and also people who are not PhD students. Establishing a network of contacts is especially important in New Zealand where careers are built on networks and relationships.

For me, knowing people from different disciplines and areas of work helped me to understand the university better. At times, they also provided different perspectives on an issue I was looking at.

Sherrie Lee PhD Student

3. Make it happen

If you find that there aren’t many activities to join in the first place, or any chance for networking, then here’s your opportunity to create them. If there’s a student association for doctoral or postgraduate students, why not join the committee and help organise activities that other students will find useful? Or perhaps speak to a staff member at your faculty who oversees PhD students? Perhaps make suggestions on how the faculty can help integrate PhD students better?

Personally, I have done both. I am a fairly sociable and outgoing person, and yet, I felt isolated and disconnected when I started my PhD, especially in the first few months. While there were several activities happening on campus and at my faulty, I felt more could be done to foster a sense of belonging for PhD students. I now actively advocate for, and contribute to, a community of doctoral students. 


Don’t believe that you are meant to be on the PhD journey alone. Whether or not you are an extrovert or introvert, having meaningful relationships with peers and others is an important aspect of your scholarly pursuit, as well as part of a well-balanced life.

Source: Tips to Ensure That the PhD Journey Isn’t Lonesome | Study in New Zealand

Book Review: Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event


“Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event” by Stanton Wortham and Angela Reyes is about using a new approach to discourse analysis that draws primarily from linguistic anthropology. It emphasizes the importance of analyzing the pathways across linked events in order to understand social processes such as learning and socialization. The authors argue that “[i]n order for discourse analysis to be a useful method for studying social processes …, it must uncover how people, signs, knowledge, dispositions and tools travel from one event to another and facilitate behavior in subsequent events” (p.1). The intended audience are students and researchers who are already familiar with discourse analysis. The authors clearly present the tools and techniques of discourse analysis applied to a range of data including data from classroom observations, historical artifacts, and internet-mediated communication.

Chapter 1 ‘Discourse analysis across events’ introduces the approach to discourse analysis through an example from a ninth grade classroom of mostly African-American students in an urban American high school. The authors make a distinction between the terms ‘narrated event’ and ‘narrating event’. Narrated event is what is being talked about, and narrating event is the activity of talking about the event/s. For example, interactions among students and teacher make up the narrating event, while the topic of discussion is the narrated event. The narrating events that are linked through recurring patterns form a pathway in which the analyst examines patterns within individuals events, and across linked events over time.

Through several segments of classroom interaction, the authors introduce key terms used to analyze discrete events, as well as the steps to examine patterns across events. Some of the key terms include indexicals, voicing, evaluations, positioning and actions. The authors show through their analysis how social action is accomplished through language use – and in this case, how teachers and students exclude and discipline a particular student. Thus discourse analysis across speech events combines within-events and cross-events analyses to understand social processes such as learning.

Chapter 2 ‘Central tools and techniques’ elaborates on the authors’ approach to discourse analysis. This chapter clarifies the authors’ primary focus on “how participants establish relationships with others, they position themselves interactionally, perform social actions and evaluate both others and the social world” (p. 41). The authors elaborate on the three phases of discourse analysis. Phase 1 focuses on mapping narrated events, which means identifying characters, objects and events that participants refer to as they speak to one another. In order to map a narrated event, the analyst needs to look at grammar, lexicon and the sociocultural context. Phase 2 is an iterative process of establishing the meaning of signs through selecting, construing and configuring indexicals. Finally, in Phase 3, the analyst engages in drawing conclusions about the positioning of participants and interpreting the social action occurring in the narrating event. Phase 2, in particular, employs concepts found in linguistic anthropology such as voicing (Agha, 2005), entextualization (Silverstein, 1976), and enregisterment (Agha, 2007).

The chapter illustrates the procedure for discourse analysis with different classroom examples, this time, focusing on instances of crying ‘racist’. Through the analysis, the authors demonstrate how understanding the sociocultural context of crying ‘racist’ in the mass media, and linking it to the analysis of the classroom events, lead them to the conclusion that the instances are best understood as being humorous instead of serious.

Chapter 3 ‘Discourse analysis of ethnographic data’ applies discourse analysis to ethnographic data such as interview transcripts, recordings of naturally occurring events, and documents. In using discourse analysis on ethnographic data, the goal of the researcher is to record potentially linked events over time and across different settings and subsequently “identify which events are in fact linked into pathways through which consequential social action occurs” (p. 73). The chapter refers to two ethnographic case studies in which data was collected from classroom settings over a period of one year. Analysis was based on transcribed audio recordings of classroom events, and supported by the researcher’s observational notes and sociocultural meanings of the classroom and the broader context.

The challenges of using ethnographic data to conduct discourse analysis across speech events are i) the researcher must record numerous events in the settings being studied over an extended period of time; and ii) the researcher cannot tell in advance which events are significant although he/she can predict certain topics that might be relevant in the long term. The authors stress the importance of collecting as much data as possible as the analysis is dependant on “pathways of linked events that together accomplish social actions” (p. 109).

In Chapter 4 ‘Discourse analysis of archival data’, the author’s model of discourse analysis is applied to archival data used in two existing discourse analytic studies, one on Japanese women’s language and the other on Irish English accent. The archival data used in the studies differed in their sources. While much of the data was taken from print media, including visual images, in one study, three books were referred to in the other study. The authors thus demonstrate that discourse analysis beyond the speech event can be applied to a wide range of data sources from historical materials.

Drawing from material used in the study on Japanese women’s language, the authors present a pathway across three narrating events across a long temporal space; the three events were based on publications dated 1888, 1907 and 1908. While separated by historical distance, the events share several features such as referring to the same linguistic style spoken by Japanese schoolgirls, characterizing such speech negatively, and giving similar historical accounts of where the speech originated and how it spread. In a subsequent set of events, the authors similarly demonstrate how the negatively evaluated linguistic style took on a positive meaning as seen in print advertisements from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.

In analyzing the material used in the study on Irish English accent, the authors trace a pathway of four events from publications of 1802 and 1910. Focusing on evaluative indexicals and voicing in the data, the authors demonstrate how speakers of Irish English who make language and pronunciation mistakes are contrasted with superior speakers who do not make such mistakes. The authors further conclude that the readers of the publication are invited to align themselves with the superior characters and make fun of the mistakes. In two events taken from contemporary publications, the authors similarly analyze how Irish English is construed as ignorant and humourous, again pointing out that readers of the publications are enlisted to laugh at the mistakes.

The authors point out some key differences between analyses of ethnographic and archival data. In ethnographic studies, participants are often the same in different narrating events. In archival data, because of the historical scale, participants often change from one event to another. In addition, ethnographic studies focus on relatively few linked events in a pathway, while archival studies involve a larger set of events. Thus the challenge of engaging in discourse analysis of historical artifacts is to choose events from a very large set of potentially relevant events.

Chapter 5 ‘ Discourse analysis of new media data’ focuses on discourse analysis of new media such as email, blogs, and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The authors apply their model of discourse analysis to recent studies of new media, one focusing on a YouTube video and the comments posted in response to it, and one that traces the recontextualization of stock storyline elements in music videos.

The case study on a YouTube video and its comments focused on how the YouTube performance indexed African American culture or ‘blackness’, and how the subsequent comments demonstrated whether viewers aligned themselves with the performer or not. Using data from the case study, the authors highlight the indexical cues that take the form of nonstandard pronunciation and orthography, emoticons, and abbreviations that contributed to an understanding of the viewers’ attitudes toward the YouTube performer’s interpretation of blackness.

In the study of storylines in music videos, the authors focus on the comparison of two music videos that employed stock storyline elements. In the analysis of videos, images and non-verbal communication form a substantial part of the data. The authors make two important points about the music videos. One, the use of stock storylines demonstrates how the two videos establish a pathway across a genre of music videos, and yet differ in their treatment of the storyline elements. While one video simply replicates the the stock storyline, the other creates self-reflexive distance by “juxtapos[ing] stock and contrasting elements to produce ironic commentary” (p. 169). This analysis is further supported by the commentaries on the videos. Two, the self-reflexive music video and the previous YouTube performance video on blackness together form another pathway that “perform ‘ironic blankness’ and position themselves as clever and self-aware” (p. 169). These two different pathways thus show how discourse analysis beyond the speech event can account for media that are separated from one another in time and space.

In Chapter 6 ‘Conclusions,’ The authors conclude their four primary contributions to discourse analysis by applying discourse analysis beyond the speech event:
A systematic method for doing discourse analysis of discrete speech events based on existing linguistic anthropological concepts;
Moving from discrete and recurring types of events to cross-event patterns;
Using pathways of linked events to demonstrate social action; and
A productive approach that can be employed in different ways for different data.
The rest of the chapter goes on to elaborate on their primary contributions.

The final point made by the authors is that their approach to discourse analysis beyond the speech event circumvents the issues surrounding conceptualizing discourse analysis as focusing on either micro or macro processes. Instead, discourse analysis beyond the speech event “uncover[s] intermediate-scale regularities that take shape across pathways of linked events, … allow[ing] us to capture the heterogeneity of relevant resources from various scales” (p. 182).


The authors of “Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event” have achieved their goal of communicating a systematic method of discourse analysis by detailing the processes and demonstrating how their analytical approach can be applied to different types of data. What was most impressive about the approach was its productivity across dissimilar data (i.e. ethnographic, archival, new media) and contexts (i.e. classroom, history, internet communication).

The intended audience is supposed to be advanced students and researchers working in the area of discourse analysis methods. Since discourse analysis spans various disciplinary fields, and the authors adopt particular analytical terms, readers may find the book on the outset somewhat alienating if they are not familiar with the particular terms used. However, the authors take care to define key terms and illustrate the use of such terms through examples and thorough analysis of the examples. Students and researchers with a background in linguistic anthropology will probably be more familiar with the concepts and terms used since the approach is based on linguistic anthropology.

Overall, the authors present a robust methodology that aims to uncover how participants accomplish various social actions. It is hoped that future research employing discourse analysis will consider what the authors have to offer.


Agha, Asif. 2005. Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 38-59.

Agha, Asif. 2007. Language and social relations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. In Keith Basso & Henry Selby (eds.) Meaning and anthropology, 11-55. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

This review was originally published on The Linguist List.

Lee, S. (2015). Review: Anthropological Ling; Discourse: Wortham, Reyes (2014) [Review of the book Discourse Analysis beyond the speech event]. The Linguist List. Retrieved from

Going Solo


They say this 3-year solo flight of a PhD journey is one fraught with anxiety, self-doubt, and a lot of other negative stereotypical emotive words, whether related to the student, supervisors, and the monster called Thesis. I’m an idealist. When I embarked on my PhD studies, I made up my mind to make it a positive experience, no matter how I felt, with whatever resources I had.

9 months into the journey, flight, any metaphor of your choosing, I’ve had to deal with those stereotyped feelings and emotions, whether it was from me, or proffered by others. Was my candle snuffed out for good? Did my grand ideas and ambitions count for nothing? Had my idealised vision of an emergent scholar come to terms with reality? I was tempted to admit defeat and claim the messiness and roller-coaster emotions as normalcy, but I couldn’t, and didn’t.


A particular incident prompted me to reflect deeply about what I’ve been through. I talked to others, considered my options, and was in between feeling resigned to my fate, and feeling indignant about my situation. Then I took up the advice of a senior PhD student who had gone through a similar situation. One action led to another, and these actions opened up possibilities. Through the process of exploring what I could do, I managed to step away from myself, my situation, and considered things in a less emotional and more critical and objective manner. It helped that I was away for a few days in Wellington for a student conference, and that experience also helped re-framed my outlook on my PhD.

I’ve taken steps to move away from self-pity, and to create a more nurturing environment where I believe my ideals need not be be displaced, but work alongside the twists and turns of PhD life.

I do not discount the effects of academic isolation that a 3-year PhD model brings, but I do not believe the PhD student needs to buy into the narrative of doom and gloom. My PhD studies were motivated by sociopolitical ideals and personal goals. I’m not about to let the dream fade into a distant memory.

ASEAN Student Voice 2015

I was nominated by the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato to attend an event organised by Education New Zealand (ENZ). The event is called Student Voice and it provides the opportunity for internationals students to network, and for ENZ to hear from the students themselves about their educational experiences in New Zealand. This year’s Student Voice was named ASEAN Student Voice 2015, in celebration of 40 years of partnership between New Zealand and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). It was held on 11-12 August, 2015 in Wellington.

I met 29 other international students from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as 10 Kiwi students who had previously spent some time studying in ASEAN countries. The 40 of us spent two days discussing issues international students face, as well as learning from representatives from government, educational institutions, and private companies.

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It was a packed programme, rich with ideas, possibilities, and inspiration. There were practical tips for job search and interview skills, as well as perspectives of what international education means for New Zealand. I was especially inspired by Simon Chu from Otago University, Lester Khoo from AUT, and Jimmy Walsh from Beca. While Simon and Lester shared their personal stories and motivations for building networks with international students, Jimmy spoke about the increasing importance for New Zealand to engage with ASEAN countries.

Despite a full programme, there was time during breaks and meals to interact with the participants. I formed new friendships and also had the opportunity to discuss my PhD research with fellow participants. My research on informal learning practices of international students struck a chord with many and I received insightful comments and encouraging words.

I didn’t have much time for sightseeing but managed to see a good part of the city early Wednesday morning. You can’t beat Wellington on a good day, as the locals say, and I’m blessed to have been in Wellington on a good day. Instead of ducking my head in wild wind, I faced the rising sun along the waterfront, and ambled along the streets as the city came to life.


I left my heart in Wellington. The city reminds me of San Francisco – the waterfront, the hilly landscape, and a vibe that makes the city come alive.


Chanced upon a magazine shop tucked behind a coffee place. Apparent, only one of two in New Zealand. The other of its kind is in Auckland. Here, I found serious reads and childhood favs (Beano!). Picked up kids mags that came with freebies.

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The Railway Station. A regular means of transport between suburbs and city.

The timing of ASEAN Student Voice 2015 was also opportune for personal reasons. I was invited to attend a gala dinner organised by the Singapore High Commission in celebration of Singapore’s 50th National Day. I had never been so excited to be part of a Singapore community since leaving home more than nine months ago.


A cultural performance by a Singaporean arts group flown in for the occasion.


A mishmash of Singapore dishes – or rather, a Kiwi version of Singapore dishes. Somewhere in there was Chicken Rice.


The final course of our gala dinner – a dessert platter with Kiwi and SG elements. The only recognisable dessert for me were the three chocolates.


A spontaneous selfie moment with the Singapore High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Bernard Baker and his lovely wife, Susan.

Reflecting on ASEAN Student Voice 2015, I am impressed with New Zealand’s commitment to creating a positive international student experience, and even more impressed with the passion and personal convictions of the speakers. Their common message was about relationships – cultivating meaningful and long-lasting relationships between New Zealand and its ASEAN neighbours.


Group photo with Minister for Tertiary Education, Hon Steven Joyce


Group photo from Education New Zealand (taken from FB page – Study in New Zealand)

I now have a renewed vigour for my research, and a clearer vision of how my New Zealand journey can make a difference in the international student experience for my immediate community and beyond. I’m grateful to have had this experience and look forward to many more.

Postscript (19 October 2015): Read the article by Education New Zealand about Student Voice 2015.

Digging a tunnel

I’ve been writing and writing and wondering when it’ll end. It doesn’t, it won’t, but there’s always good reason to pause for thinking, re-reading, and letting go. Just when I thought I was going down the path of one idea (that is, providing an alternative to the deficit discourse on international students), it became apparent that chasing that idea was becoming trite and ultimately, not answering the ‘so what’ question. Lately, I’ve realised that while I’ve spent a considerable amount of effort in pursuing an idea, I have to let it go in favour of a better one.

This whole business of writing and refining your proposal is an exercise in building up stamina, finding new routes, and being persistent in moving forward. A bit like digging a tunnel – you just have to keep on digging until you’ve reached a place where it’s safe to pop your head out into the light!


There have been times when I feel shrouded in the darkness but I always try to avoid being isolated in private intellectual thoughts. There may be some romanticised view of the solitary academic producing voluminous work in a corner of a cafe filled with the aroma of coffee (and in real life, I can actually see this in a professor I know!), but I am no lone ranger and find it dangerous to entertain thoughts of solitary confinement.

The journey may be my own, the destination of my choosing, but my travel companions and pit stops make the journey and bring me to my destination. By companions, I certainly mean more than books and the computer. I do mean people – real human beings who complain about bad weather in the same breath as waxing lyrical about Bourdieu. Sometime more weather, sometime more Bourdieu. (By the way, Bourdieu is not a type of wine.) And those seminars scattered around, social things that happen in between or in sheer serendipity, and whatever you do with people all other times.

I’m a full-time doctoral student but I’m also a full-time person interested in meaningful exchanges and changing the world. (Yes, changing the world, one word at a time, one child at a time, one friend at a time.) I will dig many tunnels yet. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.

My love-hate relationship with writing deadlines

I can’t write without them. I mean thoughtful, focused writing when your mind could wander off on another theory, another concept, another methodology.

I can’t think without them. I mean fast and furious thinking to complete paragraphs of thought formation, to decide when to review and revise, to decide when to cut it down, throw it out, and move on.

I can’t relax without them. I mean truly be at ease and appreciate other things (like blogging) – after the deadline. What is rest if there is no stress?

Today marks the start of Month 5. I have exactly two months before my application for confirmed enrolment is due. This is a crucial point in the phd journey here at Waikato. Once I’m confirmed, I move from being a student to a candidate, and work on the phd research can start proper.

I’m not sure if I can meet this all important deadline. I know there’s the option to extend the deadline but I’d rather not if I can help it. Unless my supervisors think I need the extension, I’d like to stick to the deadline.

Sure, it’s stressful to have to keep up with revising my work, reading for purpose rather than for intellectual curiosity, and working at every available hour in order to meet deadlines. But in the pain, there is gain. I’m learning how not to waffle through ideas, honing my skills at paraphrasing summarising, critiquing, and developing original thought.

Without deadlines for writing, as it was in the first few months, my time was spent reading and thinking and making notes, but in a rather loose fashion. I felt I had something important to say, but I didn’t have to present these thoughts formally, and so they were left as that – informal, inside, inert.


Writing, not just any kind of writing, but writing for purpose, for someone to read and critique, within a reasonable time frame, shapes thought. The act of writing, entwined with thinking and reading, must be the vessel for those ideas. And those pressing deadlines that create pockets of time when there were none, is the fuel to keep the vessel afloat and moving.

I’ve just met a writing deadline today. It is a feeling of sweet relief. Now, I rest. I thank God, for he arranges the best schedule, that this period of rest is during the Easter weekend. A time with the family away from home. A time to rest from writing (and thinking and reading). A time to count my blessings.

Productivity Moment by Moment

It has become clear to me that pursuing full-time academic or research work revolves around writing. There’s thinking, reading, musing, but writing is the central activity that binds all the activities of scholarship and knowledge finding and creation into a visible, searchable, reflect-able artifact.

To be able to understand my writing and reading patterns, and to track the work I have been doing and need to do in the next steps, I have created a writing/reading log. It is an excel spreadsheet (I use Google Sheets) with columns for date, time, activity and comments. I was skeptical that I could keep up with a mundane task as this but after a few days into logging, I can see the benefits.

First, it helps me to track how long I spend on various tasks. By logging the start and end time of a particular activity, I can see how long I have taken to write a few paragraphs, or clarify a thought. With this log, I realise that it can take all of two hours to write three paragraphs, and part of me wants to shorten that time, but the other part of me is thinking that I need to allocate that time in order to think and write.

Second, with the comments column, I write down what follow-up work I need to do, for example, extend the argument or find more references. These comments are important so that I don’t forget what I need to do when I start the next writing activity. Previously, I used to spend time figuring out what I had thought about the previous night before I could carry on.

Thirdly, this log helps me track my overall progress and serves as an encouragement to keep on writing and reading! It also helps with planning what to do and when do do it in order to meet deadlines.

With a busy household of three school going children, I welcome tools to increase my productivity but more importantly, to help me improve my writing habits. This blog post, for example, will be logged as an activity so that I can track how often I blog and how long it takes me to write.

Seize the day! Tomorrow may throw you a curve ball but take each available moment and make it count. Having a log will help you count that moment!

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be

The UK-style phd program can lead to an isolating experience with the phd student engaged in solo acts of reading and writing. Having study groups may fill that lonely gap, but how can this be done?

Oh, the more we get together,
Together, together,
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be.

For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends.
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be!

Being isolated is a common perception of phd studies and it is not an exaggerated one. The UK-style phd program as it is here in New Zealand, does not have any formally taught courses as you would expect in the first two years in a US doctoral program. Learning about theories, concepts, and various other topics is primarily through copious amount of reading. And how does one read? Well, alone, as I’ve experienced. How often would other phd students you personally know be reading the same book or article or even related articles? Not often at all! And if you did find them, would they be interested in discussing the readings? Would they be forthcoming in their interpretations and application of what they’ve read? Of course I would like the answers to those questions to be a resounding yes but I’ve yet to find like-minded individuals who are in the same stage as I am, exploring the same area as I am, to be able to test this notion of study group.


I wonder if self-formed study groups would materialise in the absence of taught classes. I wonder if serendipity would link the right people at the right time to be in the right mood to learn together. I wonder if others feel the same way I do about how learning together is better than learning alone, that two heads are better than one, and that the sociocultural theory of learning is a power in theory as it is in practice.

My Master of Arts in Teaching experience at USC was premised on sociocultural learning. Every course had a compulsory study group component which required members to jointly prepare and present on topics, work on assignments, and in several instances, record the online video conferencing meetings that the group had and send the link to the professor. And we knew the professors watched them because some of them made references to them during our lectures! Peer evaluation among study group members was common and it was important to choose members who had similar levels of commitment toward their studies.

My schooling experience had little group work and the majority of assignments were individually carried out and graded by the teacher. Study groups comprised friends you studied with before exams. So having my Masters program hinged on the success of my study groups was at first disconcerting, but later as I became more comfortable with the idea, and more importantly, had found a group of dependable and hardworking classmates to form groups with, I realised how much less I would have learnt had I not been in study groups.

Four months into my phd studies, I’m reading much more than I ever have, but I wonder if I’m learning just as much. Writing helps to clarify my thinking, chatting with others helps with bits of thinking here and there, but I’m missing the focused and purposeful discussions around common topics from the study group experience I had.

I’ve heard that there are groups at the Faculty of Education that meet monthly to discuss various topics and I’d be keen to find out more. But I think more formally organised groups with specific goals, e.g. jointly present on qualitative methods, would generate high quality discussion and academic work that could benefit the faculty’s phd community.

The phd may appear to be a singular endeavour but it is really the harnessing of multiple resources and the support of others that enable this intellectual pursuit to see fruition.

Getting started, getting somewhere

I’m into the fourth month of my Phd journey. Here’s what it’s been like:

1st month – December 2014

The first month was a slow month since it was December and the university was heading towards the semester break. I got my office space set up, had a few initial meetings with my supervisors, and was reading around the various topics related to my proposal.

It was a quiet month with few people in the office but I did manage to meet a fellow Singaporean Phd student (the only Singaporean I know in the Faculty of Education), attend an end-of-year social gathering with other Education Phd students, and get to know staff at the faculty.

The holiday came soon enough and I was not about to return to a ghost town for any sort of scholarly work. So I borrowed a few books to read over the break and enjoy the time with my family. It was also a good break from the stress of having just arrived and settling in the kids, getting to know people and learning how to run a household (e.g. school lunches, recycling waste, tending to the garden).

I started baking (muffins and cookies), made dishes (mac n cheese, roast chicken) and was amazed how an oven and recipes can turn the kitchen klutz into, well, not a kitchen goddess (nowhere near there), but at least a regular baker and an occasional cook for now.

2nd month – January 2015

It was timely that a workshop on organising and writing a literature review took place once the university re-opened, giving me a framework to wort out the many ideas that was starting to make my mind map look like a scary multiple-legged monster.

The workshop also gave me the opportunity to meet fellow Phd students start to make connections with them. It was serendipitous that I sat next to an Icelandic student (Bryndis G.) who was also seated next to me at my office, but only now met her since she wasn’t usually at the office. Our proximity meant that I had more conversations with her than others and through our chatting, we realised we had similar experiences of being recent arrivals and still trying to find our way around.

It was this encounter that led us to set up a Facebook group for the Phd Students at the Faculty of Education (yes, that’s the name of the group and that’s who it’s for) to try to connect the various people who were scattered between offices and homes. We also decided to have a regular mid-week lunch gathering at the common room, hoping it would be a space to meet fellow students.

Study wise, I was still meandering around ideas and my supervisors highlighted how I had veered away from the main ideas that were coming out of meetings and going off on a tangent on relatively less important things. I was a bit upset with myself for letting myself get into this but was grateful that others saw my blind spots.

3rd month – February 2015

I spend the first two weeks working on a literature review on the topic of brokering which took me to unfamiliar territory. I read works from anthropology, sociology, bilingual education, health care in immigrant communities and knowledge brokering of health care related research. It was a whirlwind tour and I wanted to satisfy my need to know how brokering has been conceptualised in different areas, and in doing so, find a concept that would fit my research focus on international students.

At the end of that exercise, I had a very long essay and wished I had spent more time on other areas but it was a good exercise to flex my mental capabilities for understanding a diverse range of disciplines and approaches. I’m not sure if I want to do that again, because a large part of what I found out was going to be immediately relevant or relevant at all, and I realise I still had to expand on the relevant areas that were there. But had I not been set the task, I would not have done it so extensively.

Having completed a mentally draining task, I felt free to engage in socialising and the next day after I submitted my work to my supervisors, I went round the offices to invite Phd students to the Wednesday lunch gathering (which in the past weeks were quiet with just me and Bryndis having lunch). It also happened that Bryndis decided to print out invitations to the lunch and place it on people’s desks. So it was another serendipitous coincidence and that led to a record turnout of nine students. Yay!

It was also a relief that the deadline for the lit review was just before the Chinese New Year so I could celebrate it with my family and friends (a Malaysian couple came over to our place for reunion dinner) without the weight on my shoulders. Chinese New Year is not a big deal in Hamilton, so I did feel a little homesick for the usual festivities and food (and lots and lots of food) that are common back home. But I was blessed with a container of homemade Chinese New Year goodies from my Singaporean friend’s wife. That certainly added colour and taste to our dining table!

4th month – March 2014

This month, the first semester of the year started and so the campus began to come to life. Also, the Doctoral Writing Conversations (regular academic writing support meetings) started and that meant connecting with phd students from other faculties and getting serious tips on serious writing! We also had a morning tea organised by the postgrad department at the faculty and that was a great opportunity to meet others. Also enjoyed the muffins and crackers with cheese and hummus!

Personal life wise, I signed up for the uni gym membership and having paid $385 for the year, I’m motivated to visit the gym at least once a week. So far I’m doing a class called Express Train which lasts just 30 minutes and takes us through the machines for a muscle straining workout!

Just yesterday, I completed another lit review, this time for my research proposal, and I think it is more focused and my research ideas are beginning to take shape. It is the writing, the painstaking work of writing, reading, thinking, over and over again, that produce claims and argument. Not reading around and thinking about things, but serious writing!

Also yesterday, while having lunch with Bryndis, that we talked about getting involved with the Postgraduate Student Association and hope to start a Faculty of Education chapter, or at least, start organising, and getting people involved in organising, study groups, expert presentations, social events for phd students at the faculty.

We also talked about documenting our phd journey through blogging and encouraged each other to get back to what we set out to do in the first place, that is, to blog! (Bryndis blogs as the Running Researcher.) And that is why I am writing this post today, the result of yet another serendipitous encounter.

Learning points

A quarter of the year has passed and there has been ups and downs in my personal / family life and academic life. A few things I have learnt along the way:

  • Talking about issues with others helps to relieve the load.
  • Making time for myself and my family is just as important as making time to think and write.
  • I am not a lean, mean, writing machine. It is important to include in my phd life, connecting with others, discussing ideas not related to my research, and of course, keeping fit!
  • Finding like-minded peers to solve problems is more fruitful than having solutions handed to you on a silver platter. (No silver platters around here in New Zealand, I assure you!). It forces you to think collectively and for the group.
  • I need to set aside time to blog, otherwise, it will just not get done. And having a fellow academic blogger sit next to me is a great encouragement!
  • Routine works for me. I’ve just sorted out a routine that takes me from studying to working out to having coffee with friends. Blocking out time to do things makes things happen! But also be prepared for plans to awry, then get over it, and carry on!

Article Review: Generating Research Questions Through Problematization

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). Generating research questions through problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 247-271.

Link to article (free)

In preparation for the full research proposal (the first stage of my doctoral program), one of the main challenges is coming to terms with a sea of articles and book chapters and deciding what to do about them. I want to do the following:

1) Give an accurate summary of what is happening in the research area;

2) Highlight areas that have been overlooked or misconstrued;

3) Propose an alternative paradigm for approaching my own research.

Reading Alvensson & Sandberg’s (2011) article has provided me not only fresh insights, but a practical approach to what I want to do, particularly with developing an alternative theory or conceptualization.

The authors recognize that researchers want to produce interesting and influential theories and that such theories need to “differ significantly from, and at the same time be connected to, established literature in order to be seen as meaningful” (p. 247). Generating research questions through problematization thus seem to be the main route toward more interesting an influential theories, however, established ways for arriving at research questions tend to mean spotting or constructing gaps in existing theories rather than challenging their assumptions.

The authors discuss briefly the reasons for such tendencies (e.g. fear of offending others), and illustrate the prevalent ways of constructing research questions from existing literature in the field of management studies.

The authors then focus on the methodology of problematization and offer five broad sets of assumptions open for problematization (see Figure 1 [p. 260]):

1) In-house: assumptions that exist within a specific school of thought

2) Root metaphor: broader images of a particular subject matter underlying existing literature

3) Paradigm: ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions underlying existing literature

4) Ideology: political-, moral- and gender-related assumptions underlying existing literature

5) Field: assumptions about a specific subject matter that are shared across different theoretical schools

The authors also provide six principles for identifying and challenging assumptions  (p. 260) which are helpful for the researcher, or the problematizer as they call it, to consider and when articulating alternative viewpoints.

This article has been for me a missing piece of the puzzle as I try to make sense of the broad sweep of literature with various strands and focus areas. May I grow in my role as a problematizer to question the underlying assumptions and offer an alternative but positive perspective to my research focus.

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