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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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.

Before this year ends

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So many ideas, so little time. There were books I wanted to read, experiences I wanted to share, things I wanted to say, and then there was life happening by the second, with other lives depending on mine. As I embark on my PhD in Education, the direction of this blog will change, reflecting less on teaching and more on research. Still, I am on the road less travelled and the sojourn never ends.

Here are some of my thoughts about what has been enriching me for the past year:

1. Coursera

I’ve taken three courses with Coursera to date and I’ve enjoyed the high quality materials and the ease and freedom in which I can access them. The video lectures has been the most important feature for me as I absorb information most effectively with both visual and audio working together. Now that I have greater family demands and I need to focus on doctoral studies, MOOCs will take a back seat for now.

2. Global Conversations in Doctoral Preparation (GCDP)

Earlier this year, I became involved in the Global Conversations in Doctoral Preparation web initiative. The team organises web seminars on topics related to the doctoral experience, with an aim to help doctoral students assimilate into the academy, and at the same time, the virtual platform is also a site of research of how virtual communities impact the experiences of doctoral learning and mentorship.

The work of GCDP includes discussing seminar topics and speakers, writing up calls for seminar presentations, as well as hosting the web seminars and doing post-seminar interviews, transcripts and so on. Between emails and real-time meetings, I’ve been impressed with the organising committee, as well as the how various individuals have been almost randomly drawn to this project and work together for its success.

3. PhD

I recently started on my PhD journey at the University of Waikato but the road leading to that has been a long one. I’m now in New Zealand with my family and as much as pursuing doctoral studies is a new chapter in my life, relocating from Singapore to Hamilton seems like an entirely new book altogether!

I’ll be focusing my research on international students at the local university and exploring how they adapt to their academic and social environments. The more academic sounding and official working title of the PhD proposal is: Literacy Brokering across Discourses: Identities of East Asian students at a New Zealand university. In the next six months, I’ll be unpacking what all those things mean and narrow down the possibilities of what I’ll actually be doing.

I’m thrilled at being able to pursue my dream and at the same time, it is a mountain that needs moving on a daily basis. It is a dream that is now real because God has made it so. And God will move the mountain of balancing studies, family and starting a new life in a new country.

As the year ends and a new one begins, may my research and this blog be a blessing to readers. I hope to be more regular with sharing research ideas and directions, as this also helps me in my own thinking and research.

Carpe Diem!