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.

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.