Using your PhD in a non-academic job

… and staying true to your world-changing aspirations

Image by Raam Gottimukkala from Pixabay

It has been one year since attending my graduation ceremony at the marae grounds of the University of Waikato. It was a momentous occasion to mark the achievement of attaining a Doctor of Philosophy in Education. The preceding months of successfully defending my thesis and having my thesis bound and deposited into the library felt like a holding statement, and the graduation day was the public announcement that I had become a ‘doctor’!

Yet, I have to admit, it felt anti-climatic. The long hours of research, reading and painstaking writing did not bring me to the promised land of academic milk and honey. In fact, I had fallen out of love with the university and academia, almost like a jilted lover after years of unrequited love and adoration. 

Recently, I shared my story of how failure to secure an academic job led me to the public sector, seemingly by accident, but in hindsight, it was the right match for my interests and passion for social justice.

While I have indeed taken my PhD elsewhere, the PhD in me hasn’t disappeared completely. My academic reading habits have helped me scan wordy or lengthy documents for key ideas, and be sensitive to underlying epistemologies and critical of seemingly easy solutions. So while the PhD is not usually a pre-requisite for government jobs, or the vast majority of jobs for that matter, having the frameworks and skills of rigorous thinking has given me great tools for navigating rapidly changing landscapes. The challenge, however, is being able to do this as fast as possible to keep up with the changes!

My interest in good ideas and arguments hasn’t disappeared either. I’ve taken an interest in policy research and have been following the updates of policy think tanks such as The New Zealand Initiative and the professional organisation for public servants IPANZ to keep pace with the latest thinking in the public sector.

At some point, I would like to return to research and writing, but this time for a professional audience, and with the purpose of addressing the elephants in the room. I already have one topic in mind: The Case for Slow Thinking in Fast Places. And another: Is Multiculturalism All Things to All People? And to make a neat three: The Freedom to Act Justly and Love Mercy.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

Information seeking behaviour of a policy advisor

People whose networks span structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations, which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing good ideas. To be sure, ideas come over a variety of paths from a variety of sources …, but idea generation at some point involves someone moving knowledge from this group to that, or combining bits of knowledge across groups.

Ronald S. Burt, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 2 (September 2004): 356. https://doi.org/10.1086/421787

The quote comes from American sociologist Ronald Burt who is well known for his research on how social networks create competitive advantage in careers, organisations, and markets. Burt’s concept of ‘structural holes’ derives from the broader concept of brokerage in social network theory. Brokerage or brokering refer to individuals (ie brokers) who provide access to information, knowledge, and resources that others would otherwise find difficult to obtain.

My recent PhD research on advice-seeking (brokering) practices of first year international students used similar concepts from social network theory, particularly theories of strong and weak ties, and the dynamics of brokering relationships. My research was in the context of newcomers seeking information and advice from knowledge brokers in a culturally foreign environment. My key takeaways were:
– strong ties were often with peers with similar cultural backgrounds
– weak ties were more socially/physically distant but led to information that strong ties did not have
– peer relations were more accessible than non-peer relations.

Social network theory in action

Translating my findings to my work context of the public sector, I see similar patterns of behaviour in my role as an operational policy advisor. The culturally foreign environment in this case is the unfamiliarity or ambiguity of issues that come through my inbox. Notwithstanding my relative brief time with my organisation, being able to tackle issues often requires different areas of expertise. No one person has the full picture, and often the solution is reached through iterative discussions.

Turning to myself as a case study, I present some observations of how social network theory plays out in my work of gathering information. In the current situation of quickly evolving scenarios related to the lockdown, the complexity of issues are heightened, demand for advice has tighter deadlines, and access to the right brokers at the right time become crucial to timely solutions.

Recently I had to gather information about a policy issue that required information from different agencies. Under ordinary circumstances, I would look to immediate colleagues for quick leads (which typically involved walking over to someone’s desk to ask a quick question), and use their established connections to get to contacts at other organisations.

With remote working, gone were the incidental and casual conversations and serendipitous kitchen chats. The pressure of tight deadlines forced me to head straight for the most likely useful colleague. Thankfully, this was someone whom I had forged a good working relationship with over coffee chats, in other words, a strong tie.

Some advice and one contact later, however, I faced a roadblock. I then found myself turning to my cross-agency network of peers whom I worked with on various groups and projects. These were my weak ties – those who I interacted with much less frequently than workplace colleagues, but whose positions in other agencies opened up channels beyond my immediate reach. They were able to field my query further than I could on my own and in a much shorter time.

At the same time, these weak ties had the advantage of being peer relations. I find it difficult to make cold calls to designated senior level experts and managers – hierarchy doesn’t flatten easily when you haven’t had a few coffees. But I found it easy to reach out to my cross-agency peers – we had ongoing work projects, often helped each other with requests, and perhaps we shared an implicit bond of doing the work of brokering – plugging the knowledge gaps and giving the best advice we possibly can.

Policy advising as social network theory

My information seeking behaviour as a policy advisor can be summed up in Burt’s words: ‘… idea generation at some point involves someone moving knowledge from this group to that, or combining bits of knowledge across groups’. Generating good ideas and sound advice would not be possible without tapping on strong ties with workplace colleagues, weak ties with sector wide peers, and cultivating reciprocal relationships with like-minded public servants.

Perhaps policy advising could be reframed as maximising the opportunities presented by structural holes. Using our networks generates more leads and different perspectives. Growing our networks will be the gift that keeps on giving. How else can we solve the wicked problems of our day?

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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Being optimistic through academic networks

I start off this year with several goals, the biggest being completing my PhD. One of the main reasons for doing a PhD was to start an academic career, which I now realise, after several years of PhD-ing, is what James Burford recently referred to as Cruel Optimism (drawing on Lauren Berlant’s 2011 work). Briefly, cruel optimism describes the doctoral aspiration for the academic good life in spite the depressing reality of scarce academic positions and short-term contracts.

Admittedly, I am an optimist, even in the face of the ‘precarious’ academic existence (see this article for example). Job stability is, after all, not a defining characteristic of many contemporary jobs and careers. A friend in an administrative role in New Zealand remarked to me that since graduating about five years ago, she has had five different positions in two different organisations. While she would have liked a more stable job, she has come to accept that positions come and go as companies restructure, chop and change. Her conclusion: Build and maintain your reputation. It was personal recommendations that enabled her to move from one position to the next.

I have taken her advice to heart and my other goal this year is to build and maintain my reputation. But then I start asking myself, what exactly is my reputation about? To answer this question, I turned to recent ‘how-to’ books on being an academic: How to Be An Academic by Inger Mewburn from Australia (aka The Thesis Whisperer), and Optimising your academic career: Advice for early career scholars by Carol Mutch, a New Zealand-based academic. Their advice has affirmed what I’ve been doing to build my reputation as an emerging scholar.

From Mewburn, I learnt about the academic ‘gift economy’ where giving gifts (e.g., sharing a journal article, donating time to a project) has unwritten rules about timing, expectations and reciprocity. So building a reputation could be about building social capital where the giver gets to be recognised as expert/generous/etc., and the receiver gains something valuable/solve a problem/etc. through various social relationships. But what if someone in the lower rungs of the academic hierarchy attempts to give gifts? What kinds of gifts would be appropriate and accepted? What kind of capital can be built through experiences and other relationships? Are the actions of gifting necessarily calculative? And do lower status givers eventually run into the cycle of cruel optimism?

These are questions for one or several PhD topics, but my tentative response is that building relationships come first before getting involved in the gift economy. This was especially so as I had relocated from Singapore to New Zealand for PhD study, and did not have much of a Kiwi social circle to begin with. My experience with academic relationships, or social relationships for that matter, were initially disappointing. It seemed hard to connect with people or get the momentum going for more lasting relationships beyond the friendly his and byes. The faculty didn’t seem interested in engaging doctoral students in the wider academic community either, especially with restructuring and staff movement humming in the background. But over the years, having learnt lessons of patience and endurance, I’ve developed positive academic connections, some at the university, but mostly beyond my immediate physical location. As one academic shared with me, it’s unlikely that you meet a whole bunch of like-minded souls in the next room, or next corridor, or even the next building. Networks need to be built outside your immediate affiliations.

I have done the usual route of conferencing, and depending on which conferences, some were more rewarding than others in terms of finding my ‘tribe’. But as Mewburn notes, social media is an underrated and underused resource for building social capital, reputation and relationships. I’ve been a techie of sorts since high school and I embraced social media several years before I started thinking about academia more seriously. While I do not expect any sort of close friendships through social media, various channels have enabled me to build an academic network with relations of varying closeness. Facebook helps me keep in touch with conference buddies, some of whom have become friends. Following various academic-related people and organisations on Twitter has led me to staying in touch with trends and the latest research. ResearchGate, the social media networking site for academics, has done exactly that for me – I follow academics of interest, and participate with everyone else in a mini gift economy: sharing and recommending articles with the wider network.

While going social for academic purposes has its drawbacks such as potential time wasting, privacy issues, risk of having intellectual property ‘stolen’, I’ve come to embrace the benefits, mostly because I recognise my limitations. I came into academia relatively late in the game and I do not have an established professional network in New Zealand. Being an outsider and precarious on various levels, social media became for me a more level playing field. Even though there are clearly more established and experienced players in the academic social media space, it seems easier for me to navigate the rules and boundaries within a virtual space than the world of ‘real’. Some of my peers, however, see no immediate benefit in getting involved with multiple social platforms. I agree – the benefits are not immediate, and sometimes not even obvious. I’ve only seen the fruit of my social media ‘investment’ in the past year, after engaging with various academic others in the course of the PhD work of conferencing, publishing and the like. For example, through a conference call going around Facebook, I tested the social waters for interest in doing a symposium. After a few hits and misses along the way, our symposium made it to the 2017 New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Annual Conference.

Going social has also helped me shape my academic identity and find my niche, a topic that Mutch devotes a chapter to in her book, Optimising your academic career: Advice for early career scholars. In that chapter, she takes us through a series of questions such as: Why is it we want to do research? What is our passion? What makes us excited? What disciplines and areas does our research relate to? What do we want to be known for? Where do we want to go from here? It’s not an easy task to answer these questions by myself because sometimes the answer is: I don’t really know. But surveying research interests on social media leads to other topics, other strands of thoughts, and sometimes leads me to the answers to Mutch’s questions.

So what can I conclude about my academic networks? Firstly, they are both real and virtual, one reinforcing the other. Sometimes the face-to-face relationships gets reinforced in the virtual, sometimes the virtual appears in the real. Sometimes the virtual will likely stay virtual, but who knows when a conference might change that. Secondly, my networks have grown alongside my PhD journey, again, one feeding the other. My PhD work not only results in the ongoing drafts I have to write, but also reflective blog posts, publications, and conference presentations. These more public endeavours lead me to virtual chats, meeting actual people, and expanding my sources for calls for papers and collaborative projects. Lastly, whether or not we call it social capital or gift economy, there is a sense that networks thrive because of everyone else believing that there is value in networks – the belief that you will find out about important information more readily, that you can throw up topics for quick discussion, and that you might find a gem or two (or a much needed recommendation) among these virtual conversations. And not to mention the sense of belonging to a wider community of scholars interested in the things you are.

While the thought of a difficult and uncertain future after the PhD seems truly cruel, my experiences with social networks tell me that shares, likes and comments, plus longer and deeper conversations elsewhere, go a long way. So I choose hopeful optimism to start this year–and for the years to come.

Conference Season 2017

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The year-end was a bumper crop of conferences, varied and productive but for different reasons. At the beginning of 2017, I had only planned on presenting at one conference, but along the way, other opportunities came along that were hard to turn down. Despite working up a hectic schedule of five presentations at four events over three weeks (and managing sore throats in between), it was an extremely rewarding period of connecting my work to a larger audience, establishing new connections, and reinforcing existing ties.

My first conference was the annual NZARE (New Zealand Association for Research in Education) held on home ground at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, from 20 to 22 November. This was my first NZARE conference and actually hesitated submitting an abstract because I had the impression that my field of international education was not of particular interest to an audience focused on domestic issues in New Zealand schools. However, being in contact with the ‘Students and Emerging Researchers’ caucus group representative led to several conversations on Facebook and I was able to gather some momentum for an idea to propose a symposium on international education in New Zealand.

Subsequently, I rounded up two other postgraduate colleagues who had similar research areas, and called on my supervisor to be our chair for the symposium. Preparation for the symposium took some effort to coordinate, such as tying our different research topics together and doing our own internal peer review of abstracts and presentations, mostly through email or online meetings I’m glad to report that we worked well together and our symposium attracted a warm and cozy audience of about 15 or so people. Although international education has yet to catch on as a special interest group or an important theme within NZARE, I’m pleased that I’ve made a start in raising the profile of this particular aspect of education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

nzare_symposium

Nzare_symposium_Slee
Presenting on my research on international students

I also presented another paper at the NZARE conference, not based on my research, but on my personal experiences as a PhD student in New Zealand, titled “The promise of diasporic academics: Potential partnerships between the local and global”. More about this presentation here, but would like to add that the presentation resonated with many in the audience, especially the postgraduate students. This then led to interactions with new postgraduate friends from other universities in New Zealand and Australia. Connecting with other emerging researchers in education was certainly one of the highlights of the NZARE conference, and I hope future iterations of the conference will consider having a larger focus on postgraduate students.


The next couple of events took place at the University of Otago in Dunedin, an institution which I’ve long admired from afar. On 26 November, I attended the Education, Migration and Translation Research Symposium organised by the Centre for Global Migrations. The one-day multi-disciplinary symposium was varied in its presentations ranging from the classroom, to community, to larger ideological issues operating in diasporic and multiethnic spaces. Despite the wide-ranging topics, I enjoyed and learnt from the high quality presentations, not least the keynote presentation by Professor Michael Singh who demonstrated strong theoretical and historical links among the three big themes of education, migration and translation.

Dunedin_Symposium
Education, Migration and Translation Research Symposium organised by the Centre for Global Migrations, University of Otago, 26 November 2017

This one day symposium was truly an unforgettable experience where we spent most of that Sunday in one seminar room, not only sampling a large array of research, but having rich conversations with one another. In contrast to the intimate setting of the symposium was the NZASIA Conference held from 27 to 29 November, also at the University of Otago. The disciplines represented at this conference stretched widely from studies on various Asian countries or cultures, in both the humanities and social sciences. The wide spectrum, however, meant that it was challenging to connect with others working in a similar field. In fact, only a handful of presenters were researching educational issues and were dispersed in various session across the conference.


Paper presentation at NZASIA Conference 2017

While the intellectual engagement was not as rich as I had experienced at the symposium, the pre-conference postgraduate workshops facilitated by representatives from Asia New Zealand Foundation were practical and immediately useful. In particular, the workshop on engaging with the media stood out for me as I learnt about how to interact with the media productively and how to maximize my social media presence. Something new I learnt was that Facebook is by far the most used social media platform in New Zealand, and that Facebook videos are becoming more mainstream in showcasing new ideas, policies and products.

The final conference I participated in was the ISANA/ANZSSA Conference held in the Gold Coast from 6 to 8 December. This was the one conference that I had planned on attending just as the last ISANA conference ended last year. The International Education Association ISANA conference is the one conference that brings together practitioners and researchers in the field of international education in the Australasia region. Having participated and benefited from the 2016 conference, as well as being involved with ISANA in New Zealand, I was looking forward to the 2017 edition, this time co-hosted with its ally organisation, ANZSSA (Australian New Zealand Student Services Association), the peak professional organisation for staff in the post secondary sector in Australasia.

The Gold Coast setting was probably popular with many, especially those who love the beach. Admittedly, I am not a Gold Coast fan and was missing previous conference venues such as Dunedin and Wellington. I did enjoy, however, staying at the Meriton Serviced Apartments which felt more like a 5-star hotel with its excellent amenities and service. Waking up to the 4:30 am sunrise meant I had several hours in the morning to do my rounds on social media and email, work on blog posts, and have a leisurely breakfast – all in the comfort of an air-conditioned living area.


My paper presentation was scheduled during the Doctoral Consortium breakout session on the first day of the conference. While I was not expecting a huge turnout as there were several other practitioner-focused breakout sessions to choose from, there was an enthusiastic response from the audience who asked questions relating to both practical and theoretical aspects of my research.

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The many faces of conference presentations

Apart from presenting my paper, I also managed to connect with various delegates from both Australia and New Zealand, and getting a sense of the nature and scale of international education business at different institutions. I also managed to meet other postgraduate students and academics with similar research interests. As brief as our encounters were, our conversations nonetheless sparked the possibility of future collaborations.

My conference season ended on a high with my paper being awarded the IELTS Student Bursary Award for Best Paper during the conference dinner. What made this award extra special was that previous award winners were two female academics whose work I admired and whom I also looked up to as role models in academia. This was definitely a positive step towards my aspirations to be a researcher in international education!

It has been a whirlwind ride of seminar rooms, coffee breaks and networking, but I’ve been enriched by the many different conversations in the past three weeks. To mark the end of conference season, I’d like to give out my own awards for the following:

Best conference city: Dunedin, New Zealand. The lovely weather sustained throughout the five days I was there was simply unbeatable.

Best accommodation: Meriton Service Apartments. The Nespresso machine won me over in an instant. Uninterrupted wifi came a close second.

Best intellectual engagement: Education, Migration and Translation Research Symposium organised by the Centre for Global Migrations, University of Otago.

Best response to my presentation: NZARE Conference presentation – “The promise of diasporic academics: Potential partnerships between the local and global”.

Most relevant for my PhD research: Doctoral Consortium , ISANA/ANZSSA Conference.

Most conducive for postgraduate networking: NZASIA Conference. While I did not meet many in my field, there were plenty of opportunities to meet other postgraduate students during coffee and lunch breaks.

Not sure what conference season will look like next year but here’s hoping for similar, if not better experiences!