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!
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