The Power of Peer Support

Peer support for doctoral students meets emotional and cultural needs outside power relations imposed by institutional structures and authority figures.

I was recently invited to contribute a blog post to the Trust Me! blog, an amazing resource for research supervisor development, helmed by Dr Kay Guccione, Chair of the University of Sheffield Mentoring Network. My post is based on a recent article I wrote about how peer support and student advocacy are important resources for supporting international (indeed, all) doctoral students. The original post is re-produced here with kind permission from Kay Guccione.

[Journal article ref: Lee, S. (2017). Peer Support for International Doctoral Students in Managing Supervision Relationships. Journal of International Students, 7(4), 1096–1103. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1035971]

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I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.

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International Doctoral Students as Diasporic Academics

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I first heard the term ‘diaspora academics’ at Wendy Larner’s keynote speech at the 2016 ISANA International Education Association Conference in Wellington. Against the backdrop of the internationalisation of higher education, Larner presented an argument about the increasing importance of diasporic academics, that is, those who have multiple national affiliations. Examples of diasporic academics include researchers from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project; an academic from one country relocating to another country; as well as research students from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes. These academics or researchers who stay on more permanently in the host country are known as diasporic academics.

Larner argued that diasporic academics are valuable in advancing universities’ internationalisation strategies and policies. They are valuable because they act as transnational knowledge brokers or academic intermediaries. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

Larner also highlighted that a significant portion of diasporic academics are former international doctoral students who subsequently established their career in the host country. While she did not elaborate on this particular group, Larner’s presentation did get me thinking about whether I, and others, consider international doctoral students as valuable diasporic academics.

The thought of international doctoral students as diasporic academics provoked both excitement and disappointment in me. As an international doctoral student myself, I was thrilled by the idea that I could be considered valuable to my host institution. But the excitement quickly gave way to the day-to-day realities. Instead of being engaged in some cross-cultural understanding between my professional and research experiences and that of the host institutional community, interactions with domestic peers and established academics and researchers were hit and miss occasions in the absence of an authentic community of practice. These nagging feelings resonated with my fellow international doctoral students, often in private or quiet conversation.

Then came along an opportunity to articulate those nagging feelings in a more coherent fashion at a conference presentation. What resulted was a well-received presentation at the 2017 NZARE (New Zealand Association for Research in Education) Conference, as well as an article based on the presentation.


In both the presentation and the article, I share my own experiences and observations of how international doctoral students do not seem to be meaningfully integrated into the larger academic community, but instead, remain within ‘international only’ circles.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that our value as diasporic academics can be realised through the indigenous Māori concept of mannakitanga, which means “… mutual care and respect for people, honouring one another or power sharing…” (Kukutai & Rata, 2017, p. 41). As I conclude in the article, if we truly value mannakitanga, then integrating international doctoral students into the fabric of university life would be less a burden and simply a way of doing things.

References

Kukutai, T., & Rata, A. (2017). From mainstream to Manaaki: Indigenising our approach to immigration. In D. Hall (ed.), Fair borders? Migration policy in the twenty-first century (pp. 26–45). Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books.

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

 

From PhD to professional: Seeking mentors, finding brokers

Sharing a personal journey of seeking mentors but finding mentors instead.

Pursuing a doctoral degree for most is not just about following one’s passion, but is likely to be motivated by a desire for a career in academia or research. However, finding an academic teaching or research position is increasingly difficult, not just in New Zealand but also in Australia and elsewhere. As a result, PhDers are often encouraged to think about their ‘transferrable skills’ and look at non-academic options. Regardless of whether one chooses the academic or non-academic route, moving from PhD to professional is more than filling out an application form. Developing an understanding of possible future careers and taking steps to be employable are crucial. While there may be guide books, seminars and career services to draw from, the most valuable resource, I believe, are mentors – those who have been there, done that, and offer advice that meets your particular needs and aspirations.

As an international doctoral student seeking career opportunities in a new country, searching for mentors seemed like an impossible task. For one, I didn’t have any established social networks in New Zealand. Secondly, at least within my faculty, there didn’t seem to be a culture which encouraged doctoral students to engage with faculty staff or the wider disciplinary community. Unless you had a pro-active supervisor, or knew how to get into the inner circles of your field, important opportunities remained invisible. This reality dawned on me early on and I began to consciously seek out individuals and interest groups that aligned with my research interests, in the hope of finding mentors.

I joined one particular research group and made an effort to attend its meetings and presentations as often as I could. After a few months of being an active participant, I was asked to help coordinate its meetings. Through that role, I interacted with a few academics who were in a field I considered as a career possibility. However, to approach these academics to ask them to become mentors was quite another matter. We did not meet in person as much as we interacted through email, since we were in different departments or different organisations altogether. Nonetheless, the occasional conversations over coffee or in a corner away from the crowd were helpful in some ways. For example, I gained an insight into academic culture in New Zealand (political and precarious!), and was able to ask one to be a referee on my CV (but as yet this hasn’t landed me a job!).

I also followed the widely promoted advice in books and from the mouths of career advisers – I attended conferences. Conferences are often touted as prime networking opportunities. But as I soon found out, for a conference newbie, networking was (at best) a few good conversations without any promise. This was particularly true for conferences that already had regular attendees. These regulars were part of an existing academic or professional community who were more interested in renewing ties and meeting important contacts, and seldom interested in making connections with those at the periphery. As challenging as it was for an outsider to break into a fraternity, I finally found a conference that made the challenge less difficult. This particular conference had a session reserved for doctoral students’ research, and included a workshop tailored for doctoral students. At least for a few hours in a three-day conference, there was a deliberate attempt at recognising those at the periphery of an established community of academics and practitioners. The academics who facilitated these sessions were friendly, helpful and inspiring. However, again, there were some barriers in approaching them to be mentors. They were there at the conference for a particular purpose and only for a limited time. They were not part of my regular and immediate environment. Most importantly, they had no obligations towards me and neither could I expect any.

By the start of my third year of PhD study, after having been involved several research interest groups, symposiums and conferences, I started to evaluate my mentoring-seeking efforts. What had become of these academic acquaintances? Could any of them cross into the ‘mentor’ zone? Mentorship, even in its simplest form, had to be intentionally and willingly done as part of an ongoing relationship in a shared context (see this resource on mentoring from the RSNZ). Why then bother chasing after these relationships that could take far more time to build than it would take to simply complete my PhD? Why not embrace the precarious and fragmented nature of academia, or many other contexts for that matter?

Given my frustration after my unsuccessful efforts to pursue a formal mentoring relationship, it was ironic that that my own PhD research was on informallearning and I had used the concept of brokering to understand how first year international students strategically approached peers and others for academic help. Despite the overtones of a task-oriented transaction, brokering was what I had been engaging in all along – the very thing I had mistaken for failed attempts at accessing mentoring. I had been doing the right things, but calling them by the wrong title.

I realised I had already cultivated several brokers over the past two years – individuals from specialised fields or who held particular positions, who provided useful responses to specific questions or predicaments. These brokers were insiders in the fields of my potential future career. I communicated with them as and when I needed to, sometimes in person, sometimes through email, but often through social media for those who were comfortably connected with me in those online spaces.

With this epiphany, I now have a different attitude towards mentorship. While I still recognise the importance of having a more formal mentor, I no longer have it as part of a to-do or wish list. I now view it as a bonus. It may happen that some of my brokers will evolve to become mentors in the future. But for this season of preparing to transition from PhD to professional, I appreciate the brokers who have already become authentic social and professional connections.


The diasporic academic – a narrative in the making

This post marks the start of a new blog – The Diasporic Academic. Starting a new blog allows me to choose a more appropriate title to reflect my current state of affairs. For the past two years, I was using Teacher Sherrie, a blog I started when I embarked on my MAT in TESOL, to write about my PhD experiences and research topics. I’ve been thinking about my academic narrative recently, and I realise that the ‘teacher’ label is simply not the right ‘frame’ for my current, and potentially, future endeavours.

I first heard about the term ‘diasporic academic’ from Wendy Larner during her Keynote Presentation at the 2016 ISANA conference. The presentation was based on her 2015 paper, and according to Larner (2015), the diasporic academic is defined as one with multiple national affiliations. Examples include a researcher from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project, and a doctoral student from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes.

Image credit: Imma Moles

Apart from identifying academics as having links in more than one country, ‘diasporic’ further points to these individuals as being intermediaries, acting as transnational knowledge brokers. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

I remember being inspired by this perspective of foreign/non-native researchers. I wrote down personal notes on what this term meant to me and I discussed this term with some fellow international doctoral students. We concluded that the concept of the diasporic academic was promising but also lamented that the current university climate viewed international doctoral students as funding and research targets more than transnational knowledge brokers. My initial enthusiasm was snuffed out quickly enough.

Recently, however, the term ‘diasporic academic’ began to resonate with me again. In the past six months, I’ve been translating my data, analysing it through translanguaging efforts (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012), that is, thinking in both English and Chinese to make sense of Chinese text and presenting the argument in English. I also finished a draft article on being a bilingual researcher, and presented about conducting cross-cultural research in an English-dominant environment. And then as I sat down thinking about who I was as an academic, what kind of narrative I was trying to write, the answer presented itself: I am a diasporic academic.

I am a diasporic academic, not only as a foreigner researching about international students in New Zealand, but also as a third generation Chinese Singaporean having to differentiate myself from other Chinese, both nationals and diaspora, to those unfamiliar with the ‘Chinese diaspora‘. I have to point out that ‘diaspora’ is a highly contested territory and many may disagree with how I have used the term. Nonetheless, I believe it is a term whose meaning is evolving with changing patterns of migration, whether temporary or permanent. And so the meaning I attach to being a diasporic academic will no doubt change in the course of developing an academic identity and career in the years to come.

 

References

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Developing its conceptualisation and contextualisation. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18(7), 655–670. http://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2012.718490

Surviving the PhD in an Age of Uncertainty


I’ve entered my third year of doctoral studies and looking back, I’ve learnt many lessons both pleasant and painful. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what has been important to me in ‘surviving’ but also at times ‘thriving’ in a journey beset by uncertainty.

Uncertainty lurks in all corners of doctoral study, including the research itself such as grappling with theory and data collection and analysis, as well as the supervision relationships. There’s also uncertainty in what comes after – what kind of career will my PhD lead to. There’s no way to avoid uncertainty, but there is a phrase my supervisor introduced to me at our very first supervision meeting that may help manage it – ‘ambiguity tolerance’.

When I first heard it, my first reaction was to shake my head. I didn’t give up a job and travel all the way here to deal with ambiguity. I came here to do research – unambiguous research! Looking back at my naive response,  I can now say that a good measure of ‘ambiguity tolerance’ will get you through uncertainty. If you’re willing to accept that answers don’t always come immediately and may change along the way, uncertainty doesn’t have to turn you into a train wreck.


I’ll frame my reflection about being (in)tolerant about ambiguity along three points: i) research, ii) relationships, and iii) results.

Research

Research is a long and intensive search for answers do I absolutely do not recommend flying solo. Sure, the PhD is about being independently developing new ideas and forming critical thought, but being independent doesn’t mean not using resources and resources include other humans, more specifically, mentors. These are not your supervisors but people who are able to help you make sense of your research.

Recent graduates help you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research groups that meet regularly help create a space for intellectual (and social) development. It think one of the most valuable mentors a PhD student can have are those whom the PhD student aspires to become – the academics or professionals in your chosen field. In my experience, they are all around you but challenging to connect with, especially when you’re a cultural/professional outsider. But they’re valuable enough for me to keep trying, even if it’s a brief coffee chat, or several failed attempts before we sit down face to face.

While establishing real life connections with mentors can be hard work without any assurance of success, connecting with virtual mentors, thankfully, is within your control and full of certainty! By virtual mentors, I’m referring to those whose work is about demystifying the PhD process. My top virtual mentors are (in no particular order) Inger Mewburn aka Thesis Whisperer who regularly blogs (and does research on) PhD issues, Pat Thomson who offers nuggets of golden advice on writing, and the ThinkWell team of Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner whose advice on achieving and maintaining high performance is spot on.

Relationships

Supervision relationships for me are really about changing identities over the course of dong the PhD. At the beginning, I believed I was an apprentice learning from the master, expect that it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to learn from the master. I simply felt thrown about by the waves of insecurity and feelings of being inadequate. After confirmation of the research proposal, however, I felt that I had finally earned the right to research and became a lot more confident. I was still ‘learning on the job’ and made mistakes along the way, but I saw myself at the steering wheel most of the time. Although my supervision relationships never really took on the apprenticeship model I had hoped for at the beginning, I feel that I’ve thrived in other ways. I had become more tolerant of ambiguity and allowed the ‘unknowns’ to drive me towards searching for clarity – one bit at a time.

Results

Now as I’m working on analysis and figuring out the meaning of it all, while being mindful of deadlines, I’m feeling I should be less tolerant of ambiguity. Yet, there’s still no escaping the process of discovery – one that takes time and patience. For example, the three weeks I had planned on analysing a data set eventually took double the time – and double the agony. I remember feeling that I needed to come up with an answer by the end of the day, but each end of the day seemed murkier than the previous one. But allowing the process of discovery to take its course – as well as stepping back from it to let the mind rest – was what yielded results.

Apart from the results of my research, I’m also concerned about what kind of person I’m becoming as a result of being intensively involved in research. Is life and its periods of illness and mood swings affecting my PhD, or is the PhD affecting my life? This is one thing I don’t want to be ambiguous about – I am not my PhD; it mustn’t end up controlling my emotions and self-image.

A quotation from C.S. Lewis sets me thinking about who I am beyond the PhD: “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” It reminds me that achieving a PhD is not the be all and end all of my life. That I – and my research – is really not the most important thing. That an all-powerful God is the one who gives me purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose – ambiguous to me for now – but will surely be revealed in His time. I can only truly be ambiguity tolerant if I can trust in an unambiguous God.