This week’s blog comes from Yi-Shan Tsai, one of our former PhD students.
If life is like a book, my PhD study definitely makes for an interesting chapter.
I came back to Cambridge in 2011 after three years of teaching in a primary school in Taiwan. I left my dream job because there was a voice in me that called me to pursue knowledge further. I decided to apply for a PhD in
Children’s Literature at the Faculty of Education where I did my MPhil study a few years ago. It all felt very familiar to me at the time – same faculty, same college, same buildings, same tutor, same accommodation, and same bedder. I was very excited about this new chapter of my life.
Very soon, I got the first task from my supervisor – narrowing down the research topic. She said, “Yi-Shan, you have got too many things on your plate,” so the topic of my proposed study changed from “Using picturebooks, manga and anime to develop children’s visual literacy and writing skills” to “Young British readers’ engagement with manga”. This was the first lesson that I learnt about managing a research project – keeping your plate of food simple and digestible.
I am glad that my supervisor taught me this lesson at our first supervision. Otherwise, I might have taken 10 years to get a PhD degree.
The best thing about being part of the Children’s Literature group in the Faculty of Education was that I got to work with amazing people. For example, I am confident that everyone from the faculty will agree with me that our librarians are like angels! They are always ready to respond to any enquiry from the students, be it a book request or a problem with an article search. Besides, they offer sweets!
The Children’s Literature research group is one of the most thriving groups in the faculty. With the enthusiasm of students and staff for this field, there are a huge variety of opportunities for everyone to explore their interests. There are regular PhD seminars where we can discuss interesting topics, articles and books; there is a book club for bookworms to share how they appreciate a chosen piece of literature from different perspectives; there is a writing group for writers to inspire each other about their creative writing; and there are various seminars and symposiums where guest scholars, writers of children’s books, and fellow PhD students and staff open up discussions on various topics. Indeed, this is an amazing place to undertake a PhD.
However, there were some problems.
Apart from some rare eureka moments that sustain most PhD students, there were many depressing moments and emotions that made me stumble:
Many international students start to feel lonely after the excitement for the novelty of the new place and culture recedes, and study stress can often make it worse. I remember pitying myself for struggling here on my own without family around in the first year. The long, dark nights in the winter made me even more depressed.
The more I pursued knowledge, the more I realised that I knew so little. There was a snowball effect when the known led me to more and more unknown. I started to worry whether I was capable of doing a PhD. Perhaps I was the odd one out among the group of geniuses here.
Self-doubt often triggers anxiety. “Can I produce anything with intellectual rigour? What if my supervisor thinks that there is nothing new in this chapter? What if I am not making any sense in the whole discussion here? What if my whole dissertation does not make any genuine contribution?” I often made myself anxious by asking these questions. Sometimes, looming deadlines for papers made it worse.
- Boredom and exhaustion
Having worked on the same project for years, it can become less and less exciting. I remember once asking my sister if she was afraid of giving birth to her first child when she was 9 month pregnant. She replied that all she wanted was getting this heavy child out of her belly. After three years of growing my dissertation baby, that was exactly how I felt.
So, how did I survive these ‘common emotions’ that many PhD student experience? There are some tips I picked up along the way:
- Talk to people
Talking to anyone who is also doing a PhD is always helpful. 90 per cent chance is that people who are at the same stage as you experience the same feelings. It can be very comforting to find that you are not alone. Talking to people who are at a later stage of their PhD can be helpful too, because they may be able to tell you that you will get over some difficult stages eventually.
- Change working places
Sometimes when you get really bored with work, a new environment can be refreshing. Places that I have worked at in the past include the PhD room in the Faculty, various libraries, coffee shops, college butteries, and my own room (which is a less than ideal place to work).
- Make plans
Set provisional deadlines to achieve various milestones, so as to keep yourself on a good track. It is very normal to miss one deadline after another. Do not give up, but continue to make new working plans. Try to find your own working pattern, and be as realistic as possible. You can get better at setting achievable targets, and feel good about yourself for meeting your goals.
- Explore other resources
There are a lot of interesting seminars and courses in the University. I personally benefitted greatly from attending various academic and non-academic training provided by the Postgraduate Development Programme. The trainers understand PhD students’ experiences, and they are good at giving advice and tips.
- Cultivate personal interests
It is very important to be strong willed to finish a PhD, because there will be many setbacks and a lot of rejections to deal with. Finding a way to pull yourself together is the key. Some people do sports, and some people travel. I usually regain energy from a nice feast. Personal interests can be good ingredients for the development of perseverance and resilience to survive the PhD journey.
Despite the fact that a PhD is a tough job, it is a worthwhile experience. I realised that a PhD is not just about pursuing knowledge, but also developing various soft skills. The biggest difference about myself, when compared to three years ago, is that I become more inquisitive, reflective, analytical, and critical of anything that I am exposed to. I have learnt to manage projects independently, look for resources to solve problems, structure complicated ideas and present them in an accessible manner, and to reflect on the potential value of every idea I propose. Although producing a dissertation that can convince examiners that they are qualified to be called a doctor is the primary goal that every PhD student strives for, the valuable knowledge and skills that they accumulate along the way is what a PhD is ultimately about.