{research reflections} 10 Secrets to surviving your PhD shared on Language on the move

Language on the move (ISSN 2203-5001) is a peer-reviewed sociolinguistics research site devoted to multilingualism, language learning, and intercultural communication in the contexts of globalization and migration. Language on the Move aims to disseminate sociolinguistic research to a broad global audience.

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10 secrets to surviving your PhD

By       January 31, 2021       Research reflections

After 3 years of hard work, today I hit the “submit” button on my PhD thesis

Today, I’ve submitted my PhD for examination – a major milestone on my PhD journey. Time to take stock of the value of investing three years of my life into this rigorous academic endeavour.

I’m going to do so through a thematic analysis of my research journals. In these notebooks I have scribbled information, reflections, research ideas, questions, and inspirations from lectures, readings, reading group sessions, and supervision meetings with Distinguished Professor Ingrid Piller and Dr. Loy Lising. 10 lessons stand out that helped me not only survive my PhD but thrive and grow as a researcher and person.

  1. Listen more. This is the advice my parents gave me on my first day at Macquarie University. It is a reminder that I am a learner, the world is my classroom, and every person and moment that becomes part of it has something to teach me. So, I try to listen for brilliance in formal lectures of experts as well as conversations with 6-year-olds. I also pay more attention to my health now and listen to my body. I don’t check my email on Sunday, I frame each day with prayer, and I cap the year with a silent retreat. These habits of creating more silence around and within me helped me regularly recenter my otherwise easily anxious mind.
  2. Go outside your comfort zone. For me this meant being more sociable than I normally am and investing time in building relationships with people whose life and work inspire me to be better. This also meant volunteering, actively seeking out opportunities, and braving the challenge of trying new things (like joining the 3MT!) and exploring new places with new people or, sometimes, by myself.
  3. A bit over 3 years ago: first day on campus as a new PhD student with my parents and my new supervisors

    Surround yourself with people who believe in you. This wisdom from Dr. Loy was an important lifeline in moments of self-doubt. In moving out of my comfort zone, I have found new safe spaces, like the Language on the Move reading group that Prof. Ingrid has created for her current and previous PhD supervisees. These like-minded researchers have become my academic family. We support each other by sharing research and life milestones, mentoring each other, and encouraging one another to keep writing and reading.

  4. Read good books. The Language on the Move yearly reading challenge has taught me the value of reading beyond my research topic and my usual interest. For instance, I wouldn’t normally read about cyberspace, but I did for my first reading challenge in 2018 and wrote a review about a book on multilingualism on the Internet. Reading widely has stretched my thinking, challenged my own views, and enhanced my writing. Remember to check out our reading challenge for this year!
  5. Write every day. This is an advice that worked for Alfredo Roces, a respected Filipino artist and author who wrote a daily column in the Manila Times for 12 years. “Magsulat ka. Gusto mo, ayaw mo, magsulat ka.” (Write. Whether you like it or not, write.) “Write with passion and honesty.” I did my best to do the same, aiming to write at least a few hundred words every day. Of course, it has happened several times that I revised all those words the next day. But no matter, the point is making writing a habit, like brushing your teeth.
  6. Members of the Language-on-the-Move team were there to witness my Sunday submission

    Be flexible in a structured way. These words from Livia Gerber, one of my PhD sisters, beautifully captures the attitude and approach that thesis writing (or any kind of purposeful writing) calls for. Planning is always an exciting stage for me, but now, so is re-planning. As Stephen Krashen said, “Rigid outlines are an enemy of creativity. Good writers plan but they’re willing to change their plan.”

  7. Reflect. “Reflections on life feed into our research and our research feeds into our life” (Ingrid Piller). Diarizing my plans and thoughts about my progress has helped me stay grounded and cope better with unexpected changes. For example, I learned an important lesson on resilience when the travel restrictions in 2020 cancelled my much-awaited research trip to the US, for which I had received highly competitive funding from Macquarie University. In retrospect, I see how finishing my PhD during the time of pandemic has enriched my research experience in a unique way. Auspiciously, it even extended the relevance of my study, which also looks into work communication practices of offshore accountants working from home, a now-normal situation for many professionals across the globe.
  8. Celebrate complexity. One of my early mistakes was trying to paint a simple picture of my data. My supervisors were quick and patient to show me that human beings, the way we use language, and the institutions we shape and that, in turn, shape us are all gloriously complex. The beauty of ethnographic research is that it brings this complexity to light, and it is my duty to be truthful to my findings. My PhD project has been a special opportunity to outgrow my own biases about people and their communication practices and views. Indeed, research has helped widen my understanding of what it means to be human.
  9. My supervisor taught me that it takes innumerable carefully placed stitches to create a beautiful whole

    Do one stitch at a time. The PhD is the biggest academic project I have ever undertaken in my life so far. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the idea and to get caught up with the goal of turning in the perfect thesis. But as a wise person once said: there are two kinds of thesis—perfect and submitted. Prof. Ingrid Piller offered different metaphors to capture the sense of steadily working towards completing quality work rather than fixating with the elusive notion of perfection. My favorite metaphor is weaving. Etymologically, the word ‘text’ means ‘something that is woven.’ To produce a big text, the key is to focus on the big idea and to work on one small stitch at a time, steadily chaining the thread, being careful not to drop any stitches, until the idea is finally woven into a whole. Thinking of my work this way helped make it a more manageable and meaningful process.

  10. Keep moving. “The PhD is a point on a journey, not the pinnacle of achievement” (Ingrid Piller). Certainly, it is a big milestone. But life goes on after pressing the “submit thesis” button. It is equally essential to anticipate life after PhD. I am grateful to the Macquarie University HDR mentors for organizing a seminar about this and especially to my supervisors, who continue to mentor me as I prepare to go back to my home university in Manila, where I hope to pay it forward.

So should you bother to do a PhD?

For me, it has been a way to become a better version of myself for the world. While not everyone is called to do a PhD, it is a specific path to grow in knowledge of oneself and others, and in virtues of the mind as well as the soul. I am very grateful for this three-year vocation.