Doing a PhD in an area of your passion and how to get there

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Why I Quit my PhD?” has been the most popular post in this blog since I wrote it last year, overtaking “Lost Islands of Singapore.” I think perhaps many, many people have found themselves in a PhD situation that they regret and are considering getting out of.

While there are many reasons why someone might regret doing the PhD programme, ranging from an unsupportive supervisor to unrealistic expectations of what the programme entails; there is one reason I hope to explore in this blog post. And that is that perhaps the person in question could have picked the wrong topic to do a PhD on.

The PhD is a chance to research deeply into a topic that resonates with your heart and find meaningful answers to questions that deeply trouble you and you have no answer to. But if you ask a PhD student why they had picked the topic that they did, you may hear other stories besides them being deeply interested in that topic.

You might hear them say that they found an advertisement in their area of specialization and didn’t mind doing it. Or that they chose a PhD specialization in a similar area as their Master’s research to tap on their past knowledge and network. Or that they picked something their supervisor was able to advise them on. These are all practical reasons where opportunity meets existing skill sets and experiences.

But how often do you hear about someone taking years to consider what topic to study for her PhD, not conceding to learn something just because it was convenient, but waiting to study something important to her. When she realised that this topic is not in her area of experience, she then took the required steps to gain the necessary exposure and experience to qualify to study for that PhD?

I am going to tell you a story about my friend, Hari, who did exactly what I just described, and so inspired me.

I met Hari in NIE when I was working as a research assistant. Hari was also a research assistant. She had completed her Masters in Applied Linguistics. Before coming to Singapore, she was an elementary school teacher. So she was very qualified in the field of education with both teaching and research experience.

In June 2020, Hari told me that she was applying for a scholarship to do her PhD in Special Education and asked if I could look at her research proposal. Initially, I was surprised as I never knew Hari had an interest in Special Education. As I read her proposal, I was impressed. It sounded like something written by someone who really cared about the subject and thought deeply about her research questions and methodology to answer them.

She recently went for the interview and just a few weeks ago told us the good news that she was accepted for the scholarship.

What surprised and amazed me about Hari was how she took a long-term view regarding doing a PhD in an area she was willing to invest her time and energy in. Rather than doing a PhD in any topic that was easily accessible to her because of her background and experience, she searched within herself to discover an area that motivated and drove her.

After discovering that area dear to her heart, she realised she did not have the required knowledge and background in this area of Special Education. Over a year, she systematically proceeded to gain the knowledge and experience that she needed to do a PhD in this specialization.

I will let Hari use her own words to share her story:

How I took a long term approach… It is because I experienced a few failures before submitting the first application. In the beginning, I did not think of special education, but a topic that is related to my M.A degree. I had a folder for this “PhD_2017”. In the second trial, I tried to find a topic related to my current research work (teacher professional development). I had another folder for this “PhD_2018”.

Both trials did not work because of some reasons – usually, family matters, like children. And for the last time, this “PhD_2019”, I took it more seriously because if crafting a research proposal and submitting an application required so much effort, then the topic itself should be something that I really want and need to work on.

I prayed. As you know, I am a Christian, so I prayed and talked to God about what I should work on. And I remembered my dream when I was in high school, which was to become a special education teacher. Then, I had the idea of pursuing a PhD in Special Education.

Once I chose my path (PhD in Sped), I thought to myself – What are my weaknesses, and how can I overcome them? My weaknesses were:

(1) I may not have enough time to craft the research idea if I still work as a full-time research assistant (RA)
(2) I do not have practical experiences as a special education teacher
(3) My papers or the conferences I had attended did not show my interest in special education
(4) I do not know a current research trend of special education and
(5) I do not have a supervisor, someone who I already knew, and who is an expert in special education.

After that, I tried to address these weaknesses.
(1) I do not have time –> I changed to 50% RA
(2) I do not have practical experiences –> I signed up for classroom support in Rainbow Centre, and also a befriender programme.
(3) My paper does not show any interest in sped –> I sent an abstract to the RPIC conference, and it was accepted –> I worked on the paper.
(4) (5) I contacted a possible supervisor earlier, and she allowed me to audit her MA class for one semester.

Along the way, while I was waiting for the result, I was tempted to apply for other jobs. But, when I prayed, I got a message (it is not a voice, but through prayer and song) that I need to wait for the result before proceeding. So, I waited patiently. I am not one who can wait patiently. I usually take action faster than my thinking. But, this time round, I tried to wait. 🙂

While waiting, I also tried to have a small goal to achieve before enrolling in the programme, for example, writing a paper. So that I have something to focus on.

Hari shared with me that her interviewers were impressed by her strong publishing record that she has attained over the years of working as a research assistant. And by the time she was in the interview, she had already through her considered actions put one foot into the field of special education. It was not hard for her interviewers to be convinced that Hari was serious about studying this topic – her passion was genuinely supported by the experiences she sought out and her thoughtful pursuit of her new area of interest.

Because Hari chose something inherently important to her to study as her PhD topic, she was willing to pay the price to get there. It took her one year of preparation to gain the required knowledge and experience to show up prepared at the interview as a strong candidate who knew where she was headed and has what it takes to get there. Having spent many years in academia, Hari knew what she was in for and that this was the career and industry she wanted to be in.

I share Hari’s story with you because it is a story that inspires me. Until today, I still have a desire to do a PhD. But this time round, I am not going to do it for the sake of doing it, even though I enjoy research, writing, and teaching. But I want to give myself enough time and space to discover something significant to me that I am willing to do a PhD for.

My new advice to people wanting to do a PhD? Give yourself time to discover what you want to pursue for the long run. Find something that makes you feel proud when you say you are an expert in that area. After you have found it, create a solid plan to prepare yourself by getting exposure and experience, and then going for it when you are sure!

By the way, if you like kimchi, you can make your own with Hari’s Kimchi Recipe!

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