Doing a PhD in context – reflections on the first 6 months.

Hello there,

My name is Dylan Williams and I’m a PhD Eduction in context student (the context being South Korea). I’m at this stage half way through my first year of a 6 year offer and I’m writing this to reflect on my first 6 months in the hope that it might be an insight to other students who are considering doing a PhD through this mode of study.

The first thing to note is that doing a PhD in context is not a common method. In terms of a TESOL pathway I am the 6th cohort to have undertaken this mode of study. So as you can see it is not a common pathway. However, having said this, this mode of study is in its infancy and it is a mode of study which is expanding.

These are some things which you need to consider when doing a PhD in context:

You need to be proactive. The PhD training is not necessarily easily structured for PhD in context students. You need to be aware of this particularly during the training period. As mentioned above I’m from a TESOL background and I actually did my TESOL with Manchester all through distance. However, for my PhD training I’m taking units which are taught on MSc Education. In other words, the TESOL MA caters for distance, but the MSc units as such does not.

So in order to be proactive you need to visit the campus on site. There is a mandatory 2 week induction period that you need to visit for during the fall semester. However, due to my employment commitments in context I could only visit for 1 week. Also, I visited at the beginning of this term (Spring) also for a 2 week period. So in both these times I had the opportunity of course to meet my supervisors, but also the opportunity to meet and establish a relationship with the tutors for the modules which I have been and will be undertaking as part of my training. Also, I got the opportunity to meet a few of my cohorts. So far my visits have given me a grounded perspective for the program as well as the school and the university and in a way has given me an impetus to pursue my studies; in other words, I felt motivated as a result of my visits as it made the experience more tangible. So if undertaking this mode of study plan to visit the campus about twice a year. This is imperative in the first year of your training but after this it is a matter that can be discussed with your supervisor.

In terms of workload the PhD is doable. I should mention at this stage that I am in full time employment in my context and also I have 2 very young children. So despite my hectic work and family life it is possible to find time to focus on my PhD, but of course in order to find this time you have to self-sufficient, organized and motivated. That is why doing my PhD over 6 years part time works for me rather than doing it in 3 years onsite full time.

Also, I should note that if you do pursue a PhD in context then you are not eligible to apply for any funding opportunities associated through the school. Thus, it is up to you to fund your studies or perhaps you might get some luck through your context. Having said this though you may qualify for funding opportunities to attend conferences through the School of Education at Manchester.

When studying the modules at a distance my advice to you is try to find your focus early in the assignments and then pursue this avenue as you progress through the on site taught modules. My advice to you is take out from the taught on site modules what’s relevant to your focus and then pursue this directly with the specific tutor of the course for instance by having a tutorial F2F on Skype.

Some of the previous taught sessions that accompany the modules have been recorded and have a rich BB content as well. However, by being an in context student you miss the interaction which occurs in class and this is not something which occurs on BB either as it does on the MA distance courses. Alternatively, if the time zone differences work for you it might be possible for you to be Skyped into some of the sessions; however, when I did this there were some issues with the audio with feedback and so on from the classroom environment.

During your early visits to Manchester make yourself known to the onsite students. There is a facegroup page which can be useful to join to enable you to interact with them. Moreover, make sure that you liaise with the Debbie Kubiena who is the Postgraduate Research Administrator as she can help you to settle into the program as well as connect you with all of the tutors etc.

After you have completed training (BTW to pass you need an average of above 60% in all of the taught modules) you will have to go to panel so that your proposal is approved. My panel is to take place in June 2014 and for this I will also need to attend on site. Even though you will have written a proposal to get onto the PhD program this does not necessarily mean that you will stick to the letter of this proposal when you go to panel. This is a situation in which I’m currently finding myself as the outcomes and directions of the modules which I’m taking as part of my training are taking me in a different direction to my original proposal and I don’t know currently what I’m going to write as my final proposal which I will present to panel.

My initial proposal wanted to explore how autonomy awareness training affects the way students choose to use L1 when focused on L2 oral pair work tasks. However, research linked to this has now led me to explore the styles of learning students are exposed to in high school and also the success of L2 medium courses at universities in EFL contexts. So, I’m being pulled in different directions at the moment and I’m undecided; however, whatever you present / propose to the panel has to be followed through to the letter.

When undertaking an assignment as part of your training try to make the content relevant to your eventual proposal. For example, even though as mentioned above I’m being pulled in different directions they are all inter-related. For instance, I thought it would be an opportunity in my generating qualitative data paper to collect data on the history of my students which I teach at university level to explore if the styles of teaching they were exposed to in high school has any impact on choices they make later when they exercise autonomy in use of L1 when collaborating on oral pair work task at university.

Furthermore, I have extensively researched L1 / L2 use in the classroom, but I felt that to get an all encompassing view of L1 / L2 use at university level it was necessary for me to research whether L2 medium taught courses are a success for students at universities. So all of these directions are relevant to my original proposal as I’m researching the history of my students’ L1 / L2 use as well as the policies which have instigated English medium taught courses at universities located in EFL contexts. As mentioned, whether I decide to continue with my original proposal or pursue one of these newly researched areas as my eventual PhD proposal is something which I have not clearly decided upon yet.

To help you reflect on the progression of your studies there is an online service called eprog. This is mandatory for all students and as I said a good opportunity for you to reflect on your progress. Progress needs to be recorded monthly and thus myself and my first supervisor meet every month and myself and my second (as well as my first) meet every 3 months. While in context we meet F2F on Skype but when on site we can meet in person.

In terms of my progression so far I have received feedback on what I’ve already undertaken and I’ve successfully passed. Bear in mind that it can take a while to receive feedback on some courses undertaken the results don’t get released at the same time. I received feedback mid March on a paper I submitted mid January.

So these are my thoughts up until now and then in the future I will post more as I progress on my pathway.

I hope this was insightful to some of you an helped to answer some questions which I myself had around this time last year.

Best Wishes, Dylan