The first semester of a new doctoral researcher

My first semester as a doctoral researcher is almost finished, and it’s time to look back at what I have done and learned during this Spring. As I’m not really a student, the meaning of a semester isn’t as important as when I did my Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees, but nevertheless, I enjoy doing some reflection every six months or so.

My year started with an online meeting with my two supervisors, followed by my supervisor’s seminar where I introduced my plans. My goal was to finish three courses, get started with my systematic review, and plan for data gathering to begin in September. In this article, I will go through what actually happened and what I achieved, including some changes to the original plans.

My Ph.D. courses

I enrolled in three courses, all of which I could attend online:

  • Basics of Research Data Management. In this course, I learned how to plan, organize and protect my data. This was a challenging course, due to the topic being something I have never studied before, but that also allowed me to learn a lot about the technical and ethical aspects of research data.
  • Research Funding. One of the most useful courses as we learned how to write a good funding proposal and got individual feedback for our application drafts.
  • Ethical Issues in Educational Research. As my Master’s Degree was rather practical, I’m hoping to get a stronger scientific foundation with the help of this course that I’m still doing. The live lectures were very late in the evening due to the time difference, therefore I opted for watching the lecture recordings instead.

In the beginning, I was quite unsure which courses to sign up for and what I would be able to handle while working full-time. Also, it’s important to remember that our main job is doing our own research and the courses are there to support us. In the end, I found three courses to be the maximum I am able to manage while working and will keep that in mind for the future as well.

My research

The focus of my Ph.D. degree is of course my research. When I started to think about applying, I had many different topics in mind that I was interested in as a Chinese language teacher. Ultimately the choice was between linguistics and education. In the end, I felt more passion for education, and after I found an excellent supervisor (who later introduced me to my other supervisor), I felt the decision was clear.

My research is about the variables that affect Chinese language learning motivation. Basically, why and how motivation changes during a language course or a student’s whole learning journey. What are the reasons someone starts to learn Chinese and how motivation can be sustained over a long period of time that is required to master a foreign language. I have previously written about applying to a Ph.D. program, how I felt right before starting it, and why I chose the topic of motivation.

The goals for my first semester were:

  • Preparing the systematic review, including the research question, criteria, and search strategy
  • Conducting the database searches and starting the process on Rayyan
  • Inviting one or two other Ph.D. researchers to join the decision process of including the right articles
  • Creating a plan for my second substudy and data collection, including an interview guide, discussion prompts, and learning diary prompts
  • Piloting the interviews and focus group discussions
  • Starting preparations for my third substudy, including a list of motivational teaching strategies from previous research and designing an observation chart

I have mostly focused on the systematic review and have done the database searches and imported the results into Rayyan. I still need to review citations and other sources to ensure I find all the relevant studies for my review. Before I started I didn’t even know what a systematic review is! But with the help of professors on Youtube and a couple of books about the topic, I feel I have a good understanding of the work that needs to be done. In addition, I have read many systematic reviews and discussed my topic with two of my colleagues who are about to publish their systematic reviews soon.

Regarding my second substudy, I have interesting development, as I’m able to start data collection in two different places. First of all at my own language center with my own students, which was the original plan. But thanks to my friend at the linguistics department, I will also be able to invite Chinese language undergrad students to join in and gather important information on learning motivation from university students in Finland. At the moment I’m in the process of preparing interview guides and learning diary prompts so everything will be ready before August.

My third substudy is about motivational teaching strategies and this I haven’t had the time to even think about. For now, I want to concentrate on the tasks at hand and leave this third substudy planning for next year.

Applying for funding

At the moment I’m doing my Ph.D. research while working full-time at the language center I own. As an entrepreneur, I have certain flexibility with my schedule, but mostly that means I just work longer hours. Mondays and Wednesdays I often stay at the office from 9 am to 9 pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 pm to 9 pm and Fridays I have short days from 9 am to 3 pm so I get to pick up my daughter and take her to swim class. For entrepreneurs, these kinds of working hours might not be that shocking, but they definitely are for anyone working office jobs from 9 to 5 (or 8 to 4 in Finland).

As I don’t want to keep working so many hours, and most likely also can’t without getting a burnout in the long run, I have decided to apply for research funding. This is of course easier said than done. A few times a year there are Finnish foundations that open their application period for full-time research funding, there happens to be two deadlines now in May and another in September. Receiving such funding would mean I could concentrate on my research for a full year, while only teaching a few lessons on the side.

Applying for funding is a lot of work and the chances of success are not that high. In general, only about 10% of applications succeed. Each foundation also has its own requirements for the application and the accompanying research plan. I am starting to understand those scholars who say writing applications often take more time than actually conducting the research.

Surprising advantages of doing a Ph.D.

Just being able to learn new things and focus on a topic so important to me has been a treat and most of the time I find research a lot of fun! But there have also been other benefits I didn’t even think about before.

First of all, I have made so many new connections and budding friendships with my colleagues and with the larger network online. Our Department of Education has two doctoral programs and we have a joint WhatsApp group for discussing everything related to being a doctoral researcher. I have started a monthly Zoom call for everyone interested to discuss our own research and whatever comes to our minds. So even though I’m away from my university, I’m still able to form those connections and get to know everyone.

I have also joined Twitter, and by following only accounts related to research and the Chinese language, I have formed my own Ph.D. bubble there. So whenever I open Twitter I’m only seeing tweets relevant to my work and career. The circles in my chosen field aren’t huge, which makes it easier to make connections and I have found everyone to be simply extremely friendly.

As an introvert, I don’t like small talk that much, so it’s been a huge pleasure to be able to dive into deeper discussions about things that interest me and to find people that are interested in similar topics. Slowly I also try to grow my YouTube channel in order to showcase my research and my views on how to learn and teach Mandarin Chinese.

Pros and cons

Let’s sum up my first semester, first the pros:

  • Being able to focus on my interests and continue to make something that started as a hobby into my career and mission
  • Having a new challenging goal that I desperately needed, giving me direction in life
  • Making connections with people interested in similar topics
  • Having two such amazing supervisors that truly care about my research and me as a person
  • Being able to improve myself as a teacher and consequently being able to help my students better in the future
  • Building a plan B in case for some reason my language center can’t continue to operate or if I need to move away from China where I have built my career
  • Being able to see if work in academia is something that would suit me in the future

A few cons:

  • Combining work and research means some very long hours at the office
  • Actually, I can’t think of anything else!

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend combining entrepreneurship and doing a Ph.D. at the same time, while having a family life with kid(s), but personally, I am extremely satisfied that I chose this road and look forward to the many semesters to come!

Goals for the Summer

The ending of the Spring semester doesn’t mean that everything will stop, instead:

  • In May and June, I want to get everything ready for data collection to start in September
  • In June I can finish the last course I have left
  • In July I will be on HOLIDAY for the first time in 4 years and see my family in Finland that I haven’t seen since the pandemic started
  • In August while still in Finland, I will continue to do my research and set up meetings with my supervisors, colleagues, and other people in the field
  • Coming back to China at the end of August

To keep following my journey, consider subscribing to this blog, and follow me on Twitter or on Youtube.

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