“So what will my typical day look like?”
It was a little over a year ago, I’d just arrived in Leeds and was meeting with one of my brand new PhD supervisors for the first time. Suspecting I was going to overwhelm him with a bunch of questions, he wisely told me to ask him the three most important ones. Worried and lost as I felt at the time, I thought getting a picture of what my next three years would look like sounded smart enough, so I asked.
I’d worked as an EFL teacher, a translator and an interpreter for a few years: all I knew (or all I felt I knew, anyway) was how to juggle three jobs, how to speak English and how to stay awake and active from my first class at 8 am to the end of my last class at 9.30 pm. It took me over two years and studying for my DELTA to put together a decent enough research proposal to get funding, but that didn’t mean I knew what I was doing – or, more importantly, what I was supposed to do to get my PhD.
You hear all sorts of things about what it means to be a PhD researcher so when you’re lucky enough to finally become one, you may not really know how you’re supposed to feel. So for all of you out there who are considering doing a PhD or are just curious about what it means, here are some urban myths I wish someone had debunked for me before I started! Experiences vary, of course, so this is just based on mine:
Urban myth #1: you spend all your day at the library
Erm, nah, not really. If you’re lucky enough to do a PhD in the UK, like I’m doing, then yes you may have access to some amazing libraries, but there’s a good chance you’ll also have access to a workstation, loads of cafes on and off campus, a common room in your own school… not that there’s anything wrong with the library, of course, but you have some freedom to decide where to work.
Urban myth #2: getting funding is hard
I can attest to this: before I managed to get my fees + stipend scholarship, not only did I mull over my proposal for two years, but I also applied to 7 different universities. Oh and yes, I got funding from one only. It can be very competitive; however, bear in mind that you can get different levels of funding (e.g. fees only, stipend, maintenance) and do it part-time (which means 6 years instead of 3 in the UK). Also, you can start looking early and choose the university you want to apply to not just based on the research expertise and areas, but also on which scholarships you’re eligible for based on your nationality, background and other (sometimes crazy) criteria.
Urban myth #3: you have to start your PhD as soon as you finish your Master’s or you’ll be too old
This may be true in other fields, but I find that most of the people pursuing PhDs in Education have some form of previous experience teaching or working in education. Research projects in this field can be highly contextualised and include fieldwork based on classroom observation, interviews or interventions in classroom instruction, so if you know first-hand what the issues are that you are dealing with, it can only help keep your analysis and discussion relevant and potentially useful to someone in the context you’re researching.
Urban myth #4: you need to have a strong research proposal
You do and you don’t. You need one to show your potential, but after you’re accepted, it’s there to be changed. You work on it, you think and think and think about it some more, you discuss with potential supervisors, and then you inevitably change it along the way. It can be scary, but it also makes sense: your first year is meant to be a way for you to read everything you can about your topic, narrow it down, identify the best methodology for it and refine your understanding of the issues at hand. It is perfectly normal to change your proposal accordingly.
Urban myth #5: you end up working by yourself all the time/it’s a lonely experience
Although this is certainly a personal issue, it’s no secret that a PhD can be lonely. This was definitely my first impression of it: you read, you sometimes go to a conference, then you read some more, then you go home. However, things have evolved since the old days: universities now try to offer PhD students a range of opportunities to mingle, network and learn from each other. I found that even just going to research methods classes with the students from my cohort helped me make friends and feel a little at home. Also – if you do a PhD, do go to the seminars: there’s a hell of a lot of free food, it would be silly not to take advantage of it!
Urban myth #6: you will have to stay in academia
This is controversial. While more and more people are being awarded PhDs, fewer and fewer have been able to secure academic jobs, especially of a tenured nature. Does that mean that with a PhD in Education, you should only be looking for jobs in academia? I for one disagree. There’s very few decent academic jobs out there, and with the ELT world offering so many opportunities (from teaching to teacher training, materials writing, online content writing, consultancy and so on), I feel it’s limiting to only look at academia. Plus, you learn lots of transferable skills with a PhD (eg working independently, thinking creatively, writing extensively and to deadlines, public speaking, data analysis) that can come in handy in jobs outside academia.
Urban myth #7: you have to get published
Strictly speaking, in my experience you don’t have to get published during a PhD in the humanities/social science in the UK. Many students from overseas have their PhD paid by the university they work for in their home countries, and they may have that publishing requirement; however, to get a PhD you normally have to show that your research is original and has the potential to be published.
Urban myth #8: you need lots of side jobs to stay afloat financially
Let’s be honest – most PhD students I know do this, myself included. I have a tendency to have different projects going on at the same time because I get bored easily, but that doesn’t mean it’s not taxing or can’t take its toll on someone’s mental health. In my experience, a big part of the PhD experience is learning to say no to things, both paid and unpaid, in fact, and achieve a good work-life balance.
So really, I think I can now answer my original question... what does my typical day look like? It includes lots of reading and writing about literature on my topic (first year), collecting and analysing data (current year) and it will involve writing my thesis in my third year. It also includes going to conferences (for which I’m allocated a small yearly budget), presenting my work, talking to my colleagues, drinking coffee, going to seminars and training courses, meeting with my supervisors, teaching English and being a teaching assistant on a module, tutoring MA students, trying to get published… all while eating all the lovely, free food I can find in the School’s common room!
Photo by Burst on Unsplash
Today marks the end of the pilot phase of my doctoral study. In MA and doctoral research in education, one is normally expected to produce an original piece of research, which often entails researching teachers and learners. As any MA or PhD students in TESOL will know, some of the most widely used research instruments in our field are classroom observations, interviews and questionnaires and before starting to use them, it is common practice to trial them and refine them. After piloting a teacher background interview, a classroom observation sheet, a learner questionnaire, some learner interviews and a video-stimulated recall interview, here is everything I've learned, including some spectacularly trivial and seemingly needless but actually helpful things I wish I had been told before.
Technology can be your friend, but..
Working with teachers and learners is incredibly interesting, however..
And now for the obvious that's not so obvious..
For more on this, see:
Baker, A. A. and J. J. Lee (2011). "Mind the Gap: Unexpected Pitfalls in Doing Classroom Research." Qualitative Report 16(5): 1435-1447.
I am an ELT teacher and I am currently pursuing my PhD in Language Education at the University of Leeds. I have taught in the UK, Spain and Italy and am now investigating beliefs and listening skills in ELT in Italian secondary schools.