2016 – A year of living intensively

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My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I look back at this year and I think of myself as a circus performer balancing plates on my fingertips, toes and nose. Those plates represent data collection, conference papers and presentations, thesis writing and serving the postgraduate community. At times, some plates were spinning slower than others, but none of them came crashing down. I could be extolling the virtues of productivity, but I have to concede all that scheduling and compartmentalising has awful side effects that affected not just myself, but my family as well (a Guardian article elucidates this reality).

Through this one very intensive year, I learnt lessons that no textbook can teach you about doing research – that you never only embody a single role of the PhD researcher; that you mustn’t confine yourself to just doing the PhD; but that in the end, you are ultimately human, not machine, a being with limitations and a spirit that needs to be nourished.

“I am a PhD student.”

Sure, I am a PhD student. My purpose is to conduct research and report on it. And while it is a time and life consuming endeavour, I am also many other people – a mother, a wife, a friend. However, the personal realm didn’t feature much on my very filled out Google calendar. In fact, maybe because it didn’t get penciled in, it just didn’t get done. Since the better part of the day was filled with academic, mostly mentally exhausting, activities, by the time I came home, it was pretty much leftovers for my family in terms of energy and attention. As a non-resident and non-local, building relationships with other families and peers was also important, but that simply dropped off the radar – there were no leftovers after the leftovers. And as for the fabled ‘me’ time, it was barely experienced except when I was on a plane to Wellington to attend a conference.

“Publish or perish!”

And of course, when you do research, there is a need to communicate it to a wider audience. Conferences and publications are important academic/research activities – especially when future employment opportunities are dependant on them. While the PhD research is the central focus, there is also a need to seek out appropriate conferences and publishing opportunities. I was very fortunate to have participated in the recent ISANA Conference, a conference that nurtures doctoral students by having a doctoral consortium and encouraging doctoral students to publish refereed papers. It was also at this conference that the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ was put in perspective. The life of an academic is one of writing – and very importantly – publishing. Getting your work reviewed by intellectual others who are detached from your work and yourself (i.e. not your supervisors and friends) builds the inner capacity to be critiqued and to respond as part of the scholarly conversation. So even though doing the PhD is demanding, it’s simply not enough to write a long and complex tome only a handful of people will read. And even if you were interested in non-academic jobs, prospective employers would still need to see you doing more than just being holed up in a room writing endlessly.

“Is there any wax left in the candle?”

So I’ve realised that I’m more than just a PhD student but the commitment to doing it is draining my energy away from important relationships in my life. I’m also convinced of the need to be a productive academic during my PhD candidature, and not wait till after the PhD. This seems to be leading to a conclusion where I resign myself to another busy year ahead and hope that family and friends will be understanding and forgive me for my lack of tenderness towards them.

But I reject that conclusion. It will be another busy year, without a doubt, but it will also be a more intentional year. My intentions are not grandiose plans, but about making family time a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’m thinking short trips with the family during school holidays. Better yet if I have to pay for the trips. I know I can’t devote the same amount and kind of energy towards friends but my lunch and coffee breaks can be planned with them in mind. I think the main challenge, however, is to have ‘me’ time that sits outside academic and personal demands.

So instead of going through another intensive year with relationships dangling at the periphery, my hope for 2017 is to be intentional with my time with people who matter, and perhaps I should start with myself. It won’t be a solo trip to a mountain top, but a still morning or quiet evening in prayer.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

Supervision conversations

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I had a supervision meeting today and I came out of it feeling encouraged and refocused. It was not simply a matter of kind words or specific directions.  It was the way the conversations among my two supervisors and myself allowed one another to express, respond and reflect.

I usually audio record the meeting and listen to the recording as I write up the meeting notes. In the past, I would summarise what was said and wrote it in the third person, but lately, I’ve been writing it as a conversation and using the first person instead. Although it takes a longer time to represent the meeting in this manner, I derive great satisfaction from doing so.

Firstly, by replaying the meeting in my ears and mind, I recapture those aha moments, and pin down the triggers that caused particular responses. While the point might be, say, to focus on a particular research method, the conversation points that led to that are just as illuminating. By representing the exchange as a conversation, I am able to track my thought processes, and have a better appreciation of the advice given.

Secondly, the thought processes that are captured in this conversation format are unique to this particular meeting. I may have considered some of these points I made in my researcher journal or in conversations with others, but the way my ideas and my supervisors’ responses are woven together do not appear anywhere else. Had this meeting not taken place, I would not have certain conclusions or convictions about aspects of my research.

Finally, the ability to track my thought processes through roughly transcribed conversations, and the uniqueness of these conversations, contribute to my ongoing thinking about my research. This, to me, is invaluable for helping me shape my thesis writing. Perhaps it’s a bit strange to think of supervision meetings as reference material but I am certain that the things I have captured in conversation will inform the writing on methodology and analysis.

Making time for supervision conversations is important to me. Not just a meeting to report facts and receive advice, but a space for genuine dialogue and and gentle persuasion.

Relationships in research

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I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about interviews. I’m preparing to recruit research participants and the entry point into their lives is the interview. But setting aside the interview for a moment, my biggest challenge is to even get research participants. I know who I want, but will they want me?

The process of gaining entry into people’s lives appear to be quite matter of fact in so many reports. It could be a case where the researcher has an existing relationship with participants, e.g. classroom teacher, or has approached relevant gatekeepers, or has simply cast a net out and caught some fish. Yet whether it is a case of familiarity or looking for total strangers, any research involving human beings surely deals with having some kind of relationship with them – establishing one, maintaining it, and towards the end of the research, perhaps ending it or leaving it to wear off its novelty.

Even approaching gatekeepers is a matter of managing relationships. This is the stage I’m at. I find myself consciously courteous, watching for signals of disinterest. No one owes me my research participants, I tell myself as I carefully explain what I want to do and hope that they smile, nod, and say a few words. Perhaps be interested in my research? Offer me encouragement? Give me tips on how to approach their students?

Some of these gatekeepers are warm, some cold. Some appear genuinely supportive, others are managing my presence. Again, who am I to make demands? Who am I? Someone who needs them more than they need me. And this, too, will be the case with my participants.

In the earlier stage of planning the research and submitting the ethics application, my supervisors and I agreed that the incentive for students to take part in my research was the opportunity to be able to talk to someone and reflect on their learning. And now I’m thinking about why they would want to talk to me. Who am I? A friendly face who wants to chat? Someone who shares the colour of their skin? Someone who will shower her attention on them?

I will find out in the course of the next few weeks whether any student will respond to my call for participants. Perhaps they will be curious and come and talk to me. Perhaps they will be amused but turn away. I don’t need too many, ten will be nice, but I will need to earnestly seek them out till I find them.

I can’t really predict what these research relationships will be like. I feel a great responsibility towards my participants – not wanting to exploit them but eager to dig into their experiences. Relationships, especially new ones, are really made up of the moments and encounters that take place. I hope these moments and encounters hold some value for my participants. I’m not sure what, and I’d like to find out. If they let me.

Getting the big picture of my PhD

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The Postgraduate Studies Office at my university recently organised a postgraduate development workshop for students. It was a jam-packed programme with concurrent sessions covering a broad range of skills and strategies a PhD student would need in the course of his/her studies, and beyond.

I chose both academic and non-academic sessions. The academic sessions I attended were on thesis submission & examination, and strategies for getting published in journals. The non-academic sessions were about careers outside academia, and career planning & interviewing skills. The highlight of the event was a mock PhD oral exam that aimed to demystify the process.

Here are my main takeaways of the day:

1. Non-academic pathways for PhD holders

I decided to do a PhD because I wanted to work at a university and be involved in research related to international students’ learning. The workshop opened up the possibility of being involved in research in a non-academic setting, such as a government agency. In a competitive labour market, PhD holders would be wise to be open to both academic and non-academic positions.

I’m certainly open to non-academic positions, but I wonder if the university can create links to potential jobs and employers though internships. Getting jobs in New Zealand is often through contacts and prior relationships. Internships would be invaluable to PhD students for both academic and non-academic jobs.

2. Networking to build a network

I’m also more aware of the need to participate in networking opportunities, although sometimes, I admit, they seem to be taking up precious time I should be using for reading and writing. And then there is the matter of keeping up with contacts, which appears to me to be fairly superficial unless there are regular encounters with them.

But network I must! The session on career planning reminded me how important contacts were in New Zealand. And although I’m far from completing my PhD, waiting till I complete it to start making contacts would really be too late! I’m not about to go to very possible networking event and I can’t – my time is mostly devoted to study and family – I’m making each opportunity and encounter count by making a good impressions (hopefully!) and offering to help whenever I can.

3. Being smart means being strategic

Being strategic as a student means to make the time and effort you put into your writing, reading, etc. as productive as possible. It sounds like one giant economics equation but it’s not.

For me, it’s about being focused to complete tasks for the day, plan ahead, and be flexible to change things. The workshop didn’t deal directly with this but the session on being productive in writing and submitting journal articles led me to think that it is about having focused and practical plans that will lead to results.

I’ve just completed the first milestone of my PhD – confirmed enrolment. And in the past few days, I’ve been refocusing my thoughts and energy towards getting ready for data collection,  and making plans about what reading and writing I want to do. As the year draws to an end, I’m glad there’s the summer holiday to relax and recharge for the journey ahead.

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. 

Conclusion

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

Going Solo

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.