Category Archives: Education

When did you start your doctorate?

By Professor Emeritus Vernon Trafford

President Truman in Oval Office

Vernon’s PhD grew out of his professional work on an interdisciplinary, collaborative project

How often have you been asked that question?  What do you say?  Is your answer always the same?  If it varies why is that?  For some people the answer is easy; it is the date when they were accepted by or enrolled at a University.   For others, the answer is more complex.  I am in the latter category. What follows explains how I now view the question as well as how it links to my choice of my doctoral topic.

After leaving school I had various private and public sector jobs before studying for a BA at Liverpool University.  Then, lectureships in three polytechnics exposed me to the practicalities of my primary disciplines – political science and organization theory.   An invitation to be part of a British Council educational development project in Bhopal, India, was an opportunity to apply my learning in a new context.

Based at one of the four Indian Technical Teacher Training Institutions, the project comprised five sub-projects including education management. For eighteen months I contributed to the education management sub-project, working with counterparts to design, undertake and report on various small-scale research projects.   This involved travelling throughout the three states in the Western Region of India, presenting at regional or national conferences, providing management development workshops for polytechnics and writing detailed reports for the British Council.

Then I became the director of a new sub-project looking at institutional evaluation.  The purpose of this project was to improve the practice of evaluating polytechnic performance.  For years this function had been undertaken externally by ‘inspectors’ who checked regulatory compliance and seldom acknowledged positive achievement. Discussions at the State level in technician education resulted in twelve Polytechnic Principals being seconded to develop an appropriate evaluative instrument. They were the group from whom Polytechnic Evaluation Teams would be chosen.

In this project I was responsible for planning and delivering each stage of the developmental/training workshops, selecting and involving specialists in key aspects of the project plus editing drafts of working papers and operational manuals.  My filing cabinets in Bhopal and UK quickly filled with working papers and British Council reports.

As a result, it became apparent to me that the project was:

  • interdisciplinary at a time when this was rare in international development projects;
  • designed and operated as an evaluative process which replaced one that had been imposed by the prevailing technical bureaucracy on the polytechnics and so had been judged to be ‘not-fit-for-purpose’;
  • exemplifying successful international collaboration between the twelve seconded Polytechnic Principals and the small team of expert advisers;
  • converting an untried theory of institutional evaluation into a practical instrument and training professional education managers to use it.

Since my academic work in a business school also involved educational management developmental projects in Europe, I knew that the Indian project was quite unique. I concluded that it was suitable for doctoral level study and could make a contribution to knowledge.  Thus, my choice of the topic for my doctorate evolved naturally out of my professional practice with me as the insider researcher.

Foolishly, I believed that having a potentially worthy topic for doctoral research would instantly appeal to a university.  I put forward my case in a two-page synopsis outlining the international, cultural, technical, micro-political, behavioural and educational aspects of the project.  Appropriate sources were included to locate these components within their respective theoretical perspectives. Also, an agreed five-year time line illustrated the resources and schedules that would sustain the project.  My part-time research would be inductive, insider-based and use multiple methods to collect and interpret the data. This document was approved by the British Council, my counterparts in India and academic colleagues in UK.

My first application was to my Alma Mater. A beautifully phrased letter from them regretted that my proposal erred too much on ‘the practical aspects of your very interesting project’ and they wished me well.

My second application went to a business school that had international links in Europe.  They rejected it because ‘we have no educationalists on our staff.’

My unaltered proposal was then sent to two other universities.  It was rejected by a centre of development studies because it was ‘too educational’ and was also rejected by a school of education because it was ‘far too international for us to handle’.

My first interview was in a faculty whose Department of Education had institutional links with other countries.   I arrived with high hopes and was armed with my two-page outline, examples of the evaluative materials and some photographs too!  The staff member who saw me instantly launched into explaining why I should drop my ‘little project’ and join his team of econometricians who were studying longitudinal educational development in other Indian States.  I listened in silence until he finished and then refused his ‘kind offer’. . . .

Two weeks later I saw an advertisement in the education press to study for Ph.Ds at the University of Southampton.   Applicants were invited to provide a three-page outline of their intended research and a short CV.  My project outline was extended and submitted.  I was invited to the University for a sequence of meetings that commenced with the Faculty Doctoral Admissions Officer – a retired academic.  He obviously understood my ideas and for an hour asked searching questions about why I wanted to study for a doctorate, the origins and future of the institutional evaluation project, my conceptual understanding of multidisciplinary research and the difficulties of undertaking research in another culture and country.  By the close of that meeting my choice of a topic for my doctorate had been justified to his satisfaction.

The next meeting was with a possible supervisor whom, I was told, ‘normally has twelve doctoral candidates and last week one completed successfully so he could take you on.’  His questions then, and during the following years of our relationship, were Socratic in style and intention.  He helped me to understand the depth and complexity of my topic.  Although he was neither an expert in educational evaluation nor institutional management he was highly skilled in helping people, including me, to think.

Looking back, I realise that my undergraduate and graduate studies had each enabled me to start thinking like a researcher through the lens of disciplines and theories. Then, directing the institutional evaluation project had sharpened my research skills and appreciation of the interconnectedness of parts in a system.  Perhaps, sometime before the University of Southampton registered me for a Ph.D. I had already ‘chosen and started on my doctorate’.

Hopefully my experience of rejection letters and that first interview(!) are atypical of current recruitment practices.  Having now admitted numerous candidates to their doctoral studies and supervised over fifty to completion, it is fascinating to hear applicants’ answers to my question ‘When did you start your doctorate?’

Vernon Trafford is Professor Emeritus at Anglia Ruskin University. After working in the private and public sectors, he gained degrees in public administration and political science.  In 1978, he registered at the University of Southampton for his PhD in “Developing a critical success factor system of evaluation for polytechnics in India”. But, catching hepatitis and a substantial research grant in UK, plus writing a book, delayed his thesis being submitted until 1987 (Editor – that’s 9 years).   He has undertaken education-related consultancy assignments for QAA, OECD, the British Council, the World Bank and various governmental agencies. Since 2001, his research and publications are into the nature of doctorateness. His book with Shosh Leshem, “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate”, was published by Open University Press in 2008 and has been reprinted three times.  Visit his website at


1 Comment

Filed under Business and Management, Education, International Development, Organisational Theory, Politics

Understanding the Dialectic

When I was at school, my favourite subject was Latin. I liked learning languages in general, but Latin stood out. Maybe it was the teacher, Mr Shaw, who was unforgettably unique. Maybe it was because I had a thing for the Romans. Or maybe it was the relationship between Latin and English. Or all of those things. Anyway, after GCSEs, I knew I wanted stick with the classical subjects for A-level. However, I was advised to do more useful subjects so that could get a job.

I ended up studying mathematics and computing. Don’t get me wrong, I liked these subjects too and was just as good at them as languages. They were technical skills. But I didn’t see them as technical skills but as forms of expression, creation and communication. They were languages. Ever since I was 6 years old, I loved messing around with programming languages and writing programs; what fascinates me most about maths is its role as a universal language. Any problem could be expressed mathematically. There was a creativity in both that depended on the terms or constructs used. So I then went and did a degree in mathematics and computing science. But that is as far as it went. Indeed, all I remember now is the basics and I do so with regret.

Why did I stop? After all, when I look at my transcripts, I can see that I was good at it and was on course to get 2:1 after two years. I think I was attracted by the glamour of journalism. I thought that I had got bored with my degree subject, but on hindsight I don’t think I had. Again, I was good at it and I even had my fair share of exclusives, which was always an ego boost. But what I did really like about journalism was the combination of creativity and communication. Then, I went into law, for various reasons, but what I liked most was the interpretation and analysis of law and understanding what was meant.

All of which brings me to my PhD. Ostensibly, it is about how law is used by the government to encourage recycling and the relationship between the state and the individual. But what I have discovered is that I have been drawn to a Hegelian theoretical framework because I am interested in law as the dialectic between the State and the individual. Law – and I take quite a broad view – is how the state and individual communicate or converse, with their own respective dialects.

This blog started because I believed that a PhD student’s research topic was influenced by a person’s life. Whilst the PhD is a distinct task, it grew out of what went before. But now it seems that at least my PhD is just the latest manifestation of a lifelong project to understand how people and entities communicate and, in particular, how people communicate with their environment. And so, this blog is an attempt to understand how PhD students communicate with their environment. Indeed, studying Hegel has helped me to evaluate my own political views and understand many of the paradoxes within my faith.

The post was inspired a the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson below but not in the way I expected. Robinson says that, as a result of industrialisation, a hierarchy of subjects has been established, with subjects more closely related to jobs being valued more highly. As a result, children are pushed towards a particular direction – not out of malice but out of a desire to prepare them for survival –  without thinking that the child may not be suited to that subject and hence stifling their creativity. At first, my post was going to be how this has happened to me and why this was relevant to doing a PhD. But as I started to write and really think about why I liked Latin and languages and what it was I did like about mathematics and computing that I realised that there might be another possibility. Whatever the reason I have done what I have done, they all seem to have been ways of answering a deeper question. Perhaps this is the problem with our education system at the moment, not that it kills creativity but that its fragmentation silences those deeper questions that we have. Maybe.

But maybe I am completely wrong on this. But, until today, I have always held onto a bit of resentment towards those who advised me regarding my A-levels for not understanding my needs at the time. At least, after writing this post, I am able to forgive them.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Languages, Law

Giving children a voice on education

By Dr Narelle Lemon 

Children play chess

children learning, captured by Narelle's children-researcher-participants (supplied by Narelle)

My doctoral thesis was a huge learning curve, personally and professionally – perhaps one that could even be said to have had quite a number of pot holes, cliff hanging moments and resistance (and of course there were great moments of celebration and reward). But its origin and the why remained consistent. I wanted to make a contribution to the voice that young people and children have, to empower them and offer opportunities for them to share their experiences of learning and teaching.  I did this through encouraging them to be digital photographers of their learning and teaching experiences. Throughout an entire school year, the young children I worked with in a year one classroom captured their learning through visual narratives: their own digital images with their reflection and voice of the stories they wanted to share. What was important to them highlighted even further that young children, and in my doctoral study these were 5 and 6 year olds, are capable photographers and amazing sharers of their meaning making when trusted, empowered and listened too.

So to go back a few steps and frame where I had come from. I am an educator, trained teacher in music education. My teaching experiences allowed me to move between teaching high school students and in primary schools as well, and now I work in teacher education in the university context. My original thesis topic was to be on music performance and how students interpret their experiences. It emerged in the work I was doing at the time in a kindergarten to year 12 school and largely influenced by the changes I was noticing through teaching 3 year olds and then a class of 16 year olds on the same day.

My Masters had been in the area of music performance anxiety and I was noticing a few overlaps. In meeting with a potential supervisor, who had been one of my influential undergraduate lecturers, we soon unpacked that I was perhaps destined to research in another area. She gave me the best advice so early on in the journey, ‘Narelle, I think you are thinking too narrowly. Where do you really want to be in 5 years time? Will you really be teaching just music in a school? What do you actually really want to research?‘ Now this may sound a little harsh but in reality out conversation was nurturing and one where my tendency to go off in tangents and become excited about all things reflection, learning and teaching was dominating my enthusiasm, not my thesis proposal. So after a great heart to heart, and advice to go and chat with some of her colleagues, I met an inspiring researcher who would become my first supervisor. She introduced me to the world of image based research. What really excited me was listening to learners’ worlds, and understanding and appreciating their meaning making this way. Matching this to participatory teacher-research and photography was quite a momentous ‘ah ha’ moment. The turning of my eventual thesis topic.

At the time of wanting to study further and taking on the doctoral thesis journey, I had moved from teaching music into the generalist primary classroom. The passage of learning and teaching is one that has no ending. For me, my music teachers had characteristics about them that as a student I found enchanting. The teachers who impacted me significantly were engaging, enthusiastic, and they got to know me. They became my role models and have profoundly shaped the way I teach. In undertaking my doctoral research I wanted this to shine through as well. It was important for me to make a contribution to the field but also the children I was working with. I like to be creative and I like to challenge myself. My learning is ongoing and one that is very much open to learning from the children I work with. It is this way of thinking that has allowed me to have a career where I have taught music across the spectrum from early childhood to those in tertiary institutions. Opportunities have come along for me to challenge my notions of learning and teaching including being given the opportunity to teach in the year one classroom where my doctoral thesis study was set. This was a huge honour and a beautiful gift that also led me into looking at children’s narratives. The classroom, researched as part of my doctoral study allowed me to shift how I saw myself. It was the classroom where I moved from being a teacher to a teacher-researcher.

So in thinking about the thesis, the challenge was set for me, unexpectedly by a colleague, when she remarked in the months preceding my teaching the year one class of my doctoral study. Good luck with these kids, you’ll have fun with some of them. It’s a mixed bag of students who have a lot of special needs especially x, he’s a handful. There’ll be days when you can’t do anything with him and you’ll just have to sit him in the corner.  I was horrified. What sort of teaching was this? And what on earth did this colleague think I was going to do? There was no way I would ever let that happen but there was certainly definitely no way it would happen after a comment like that. As a teacher I believed it was my role to inspire every student to experience success and to achieve their potential.

My idea to use a digital camera in the classroom emerged as a tool to encourage students to be out of their seats, to move around the learning environment, to be creative and to reflect about their learning and teaching experiences.  I was excited and couldn’t wait to see what would happen. And the learning that occurred together was one of the most empowering experiences of my career. Through the digital camera I was invited into the world of each of my students; a world where each individual shared a part of their heart and allowed me to learn so much from them. It was a beautiful gift, one that I will treasure forever, that allowed me to see life and learning in such a different way.  It was with these realizations, and enthusiasm for what could be possible, that the thesis topic was chosen.

As a teacher-researcher I was fascinated by the concept of being able to change from what is often called a specialist teacher to generalist classroom teacher, and thus my reflective practice was running at full speed. While I was reading literature about digital technologies in learning, curriculum and assessment, I was also addressing my inquiry into pedagogy. I was also led towards reading further about reflective practice – what I was doing, what I was looking at and how I was developing my own understanding and knowledge of the thesis. So alongside the thesis learning curve, learning to be a writer and researcher, I learnt an incredible amount from the young children who allowed me to actually be their co-researcher during their growth as communicators of their lived experiences of learning and teaching.

Dr Narelle Lemon works at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia where she lecturers in Arts Education and the interdisciplinary field of Teacher Education. She completed her doctoral thesis at the end of 2010 and is now writing in the areas of Arts education, image based research, community of practice, and social networking. She tweets as @Rellypops and blogs at Chat With Rellypops



Filed under Art and Music, Education

Spousal Support

By Nathalie Sheridan

Wedding couple

Where would Nathalie's PhD be without her husband (Picture of random wedding couple)

The moment that you had the idea and decided it was something you wanted to research (your Archimedes moment):

My husband saw an advertisement for a PhD scholarship at — and this really was the moment. He told me that this project is tailor made for me. I had to read it several times because it seemed as if someone had known me very well and designed a scholarship place only for me. Strange experience. At that point, I had been looking for a scholarship for about five months because I could not have afforded to undertake a PhD without funding.

My PhD topic was creative learning processes of refugee children & their peers (and the impact of social capital).

How your background and experience may have led to your choice of PhD topic, no matter how tenuously?

I worked since I was 16 in the culture education sector and studied education. So somehow all my part-time jobs  fell into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was not so much intention as a perfect conjunction of circumstances.

How your reading and research may have been shaped by things by extra-curricular or non-academic factors:

I remember one particular situation. I worked as a tour guide for a small museum of the National Trust of Scotland after my Masters. When I left and began my PhD, my boss contacted me and asked if I would be interested in developing an education strategy and school (family) programme for the museum.

As project manager, I had to manage and train a team of staff to take over education projects. So I initially approached the management in the typical “I make the strategy, develop the workshops—you learn how to do it” attitude. Well, this does not work when most of the staff are at least 15 years older than you. I had a major eureka and ‘slap my forehead’ moment after a dreadful staff training day.

My PhD reading at the time had focused on creative learning, which is about control, ownership and relevance of learning processes. I had to combine my reading with my management style.

I completely turned this around, brought in a volunteering drama lecturer from my department at the university who also brought along an actress. Both helped the staff to relax and get familiar with role play and costumes.

Then I continued opening up the project development so that the staff could take ownership, control of the projects and find relevance in what we were trying to achieve.

After the project, I came back half a year later. Two of the staff members, who were very reluctant and shy initially, had set up and developed their own Christmas event for children. Very happy me!

Dr Nathalie Sheridan has been a clown in a children’s circus, student worker at Roland Berger in Munich (HR department), business apprentice, team leader in community projects, museum guide, education officer, sold delicatessen at Peckhams Naturally, taught IT, English and pedagogic courses, managed databases for CA Content and worked for the Medical Research Council, all this alongside full-time undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

Her experiences and continuing quest for projects to manage and plot, staff to train and occasionally teach, combined with the black hole that is the job market in her field led her to start up the GECKO educational consultancy, a specialist consultancy for  education, heritage and culture. 

She describes it as an education consultancy developing education strategies (schools, families, life long learning) for companies & public sector and mediating between companies and public and third sector institutions to pull  resources together to make projects sustainable. You can follow Dr Sheridan via her blog I, me and PhDZilla  or on Twitter @ConsultaGecko.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education

PhD: A Mission in Itself

By Suanna H. Davis

I was awarded my PhD in 2000. My major field was Rhetoric and Composition, which is a subset of English, focused on writing theory, practice, and pedagogy.

My dissertation topic [was] a rhetorical examination of the missionary newsletters of the Churches of Christ.
It has been so long ago, that I have no idea when I decided upon the topic. I remember that I was frustrated with the theories presented in my rhetoric courses, which all presupposed the lack of God, something I personally disagreed with and still feel is an issue with many theories. I remember that I wanted to pursue a topic that was experiential, and my other choice was very emotionally traumatic; the death of my chair for that topic allowed me to change the topic without repercussions.

When I began, I was a young (according to Dr. Lauer) PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at Purdue. Usually graduate students will find a dissertation that combines both of their major fields. My first field was rhetoric and composition and my second field was Old English languages and literature. I was unsuccessful in finding a topic that interested me and combined both Old English and rhetoric. After two promising ideas were exploded because “You won’t be able to research the topic,” I abandoned Old English studies entirely in my quest for dissertation material.  

Instead my background and experience prior to Purdue lead me to my dissertation topic. 

I wrote on the rhetorical construction of missionary newsletters for the Churches of Christ, a small, non-hierarchical group with quite a few missionaries for their size. The Churches of Christ have no missionary organizations and each individual missionary must find an overseeing congregation and raise funds themselves. There is no funnel for would-be missionaries, little help, and limited education in how to write, raise funds, or keep in touch with the congregations. I know a lot about the churches and their structures because I am a lifetime member of the Churches of Christ.

My work experience was one of the reasons I chose my topic. Before graduate school, I spent two years overseas working as a secretary in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland with the Spanish-speaking church of my denomination. While there, I also translated articles for and typed an international Spanish-language church magazine. My boss was a missionary to the Spanish-speaking immigrants and I was considered a missionary apprentice. While I was in Switzerland, I wrote my own missionary newsletter to supporters and colleagues. Then following my return to the States, while working as a high school teacher and in graduate school, I did some editing work for a missionary newsletter and a missionary magazine. So I had personal experience both as a short-term missionary and working with missionary writing.

My educational experience was also instrumental in choosing the dissertation topic. While I have a BSEd with majors of History and English, an MA in English, and a PhD in English, I also have taken twenty-one graduate school hours in missions-related classes, including six which I took following my first year as a PhD candidate. Both my rhetoric and composition courses and the missions classes helped me to examine and understand the newsletters I was scrutinizing.

Originally I was hoping to see how the missionary newsletters impacted the local congregations, but I found they didn’t. In fact, many members within the congregations did not even know their congregation supported missionaries. This lack of knowledge was so pervasive that at one of the larger congregations, even staff members did not know that the church financially supported missions. 

Because I could not see or show any change in the local congregations based on the newsletters, I had to find a different approach. Because of that, I looked at the genre of newsletters, theories of discourse analysis, genre analysis, and social epistemic rhetoric. I also did an audience analysis and looked at what factors increased the congregations’ awareness of their participation with missions. The audience analysis was useful in practical ways, but not particularly useful for the dissertation. However, the other aspects were sufficient to develop a dissertation from.

My significant involvement with my church and the work of missionaries -not simply my own experience – led me to desire to study the main communication venue (at the time) of missionaries on the field. Obviously most of the factors that went into my decision to study this topic were extra-curricular or at least not related to my graduate degree program. 

Until I finished my PhD in 2000, I had moved about every two years (on average) for my entire life. Because of these moves, I had been a member of over fifteen churches, some with very different views of tradition, dogma, and missions. This allowed me to see that the congregations were different based on beliefs and actions and I categorized churches based on what I knew of them and chose congregations from different categories who were known within the Churches of Christ for supporting missions.

The missionary newsletters I examined were not only from the Churches of Christ and from missionaries who were overseen by supportive congregations. I also chose congregations from the state of Texas, where the Churches of Christ are particularly strong. In addition all of the missionaries whose writing I read were overseen and supported primarily by churches in cities, rather than rural or town populations.

The work was engrossing, especially as at the time I was still considering returning to the mission field myself.

Since I was a homeschooling mother of two when I finished, the work took longer than it should have, twelve years, and I am particularly appreciative of Dr. Lauer’s encouragement and help. When I talk to graduate students now, I recommend finishing the dissertation first. While I wouldn’t trade my husband, whom I married during my coursework at Purdue, or my children, who were born after my coursework was finished and I was in a job which would convert to tenure-track upon the completion of my dissertation, the dissertation is definitely easier to finish if your only commitment is to finishing the dissertation.


Suanna H. Davis is an assistant professor at Abilene Christian University where she teaches rhetoric and composition. She gained her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University (US) in 2000. Her blog Teaching College English focuses on aspects of teaching, but includes her life as a voluntary and then job-hunting adjunct, her  job search, various presentation and publishing sagas, and a more complete biography. You can follow her on Twitter @DrDavisTCE.


Filed under Education, English, Rhetoric and Composition

It’s all about the language

by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

My PhD idea came to me after a mugging on a beach in Cambodia.  No, seeing a knife pointed at me didn’t make my life flash before my eyes. The adrenaline didn’t help my brain rush to some shocking new insight.

What changed things was that my passport was stolen. Getting a new copy wasn’t a problem: I had a photocopy and a digital copy saved to my Gmail account. Getting a new visa for China, where I had been teaching English at a university, would prove more difficult. I soon learned that I would have to return to the US and go through the same process I had before to get my visa initially.  It would take more time than was remaining before the start of the semester.

I decided then that my career as an EFL instructor had reached its end and that it was time for me to pursue a PhD. My experience teaching EFL, however, led directly to the project I would propose.

Elizabeth with students

Elizabeth with some of the students of whom teaching shaped her research (Photo submitted by Elizabeth Kate Switaj)

After finishing my MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in Poetics and Creative Writing, I had moved to Japan where I started teaching English at one of the infamous Eikaiwa (English conversation) schools – the one with the evil chicken-beaked pink bunny as a mascot. My experience at the now-bankrupt company was unusually positive: during my first year there, I worked at a small branch with very little supervision and during my second year, I rarely set foot in a branch as I taught in elementary schools through the government contracts program. After I left Japan, I spent about a year in New York teaching English to immigrants in the evening (and writing copy for an online kimono retailer two days out of the week  – but that’s another story). Then, I moved to China where I taught composition, oral English, and movie courses to English majors for three semesters.

Along the way, I continued writing and publishing my poetry. I was checking my email in a (literally) freezing Beijing hostel while on break from the university that I found out that Paper Kite Press was going to publish my first collection. The language of those poems – the language of all my written work – had been deeply influenced by my teaching experience. My understanding of the mechanics of the English language had been refined by having to explain them and by discovering which idiosyncrasies of language produced by my students interfered with communication and which did not. I also found that other poets of my acquaintance who taught the language in which they wrote (many but not all of whom I had met through a monthly open mic in a British pub in Tokyo) could trace similar influences in their writing.

This understanding of how language teaching can shape literary work led me to wonder whether similar connections could be found in the work of earlier authors. And when circumstances convinced me that it was time to return to academia and pursue a PhD, I decided that I wanted to apply this inquiry to the work of James Joyce. Not only did Joyce spend years teaching English to speakers of other languages, but also, his famously unique uses of language made his work seem particularly well-suited to being considered from this angle. Going into the third year of my research, I still think that’s the case, though I’ve also found a related pedagogical streak in his works that goes deeper than I had realized.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast and an Editorial Assistant for Irish Pages: a Journal of Contemporary Writing. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. You can find her creative writing at her website or follow on her on Twitter at @EKSwitaj


Filed under Education, English

Engineering a research topic

By Jennifer Harlim


A PhD can be a feat of engineering (Photo submitted by Jennifer Harlim)

I wished I had come up with my PhD topic via an Archimedes moment. Unfortunately, the way I ended up with my research topic was pretty unexciting. I came up with the topic because of the supervisor that I chose to work with.

I’m researching in the area of engineering problem solving. Specifically, I’m looking at the transferability and measure of engineering problem solving knowledge. While knowledge management deals with transfer of knowledge between individuals and/or the retention of knowledge within an organisation, I was more interested to see if people having solved problem A, would be able to solve problem B, which is in a completely different field. Modern engineers are expected to be able to transverse between different engineering fields (and even at times outside their field) and the education of engineers are also very much focused on problem solving. So I was curious as to what extent education is successful in creating the ideal engineer. However, like most PhD research, it is starting to evolve into something completely different. To measure transferability, I needed to investigate what it is that young to expert engineers consider being aspects of good problem solving and I think the definition stage alone seemed to occupy my whole research.

Anyway, here’s the interesting bit. I’m not an engineer. In fact, I’ve got a BA (Hons) in Textile Design and Masters in Business Administration. Doing a PhD research within an engineering school was one thing I never expected. However, the journey that got me there was certainly interesting. It’s mostly down to circumstances. After completing my BA degree, I started freelancing as a textile designer and that led me to the decision, to be able to run a freelancing business I needed the business know-how. In my opinion at that time, the shortest possible way to get that knowledge was to do an MBA (1 year compared to 3 years of a business undergraduate degree). After graduating, I fell into research when someone I know asked me if I’ll be interested in being a research assistant for an academic in an engineering school. Coming into the meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an engineer-led research. To my surprise, the research had nothing to do with technical experiments. The research was in the area of engineering education. Specifically, we were evaluating a self-reflection tool as to how it assists with learning.

After completing that contract, I got a full-time research assistant position in the business faculty. Interestingly, again, the project that I got involved in seemed to be in the area of learning. Though the project deals with non-academic learning, it was looking into evaluations of micro-finance programs. I think the defining moment when I decided to do a PhD was when someone said to me since I enjoyed research, I should consider being a research assistant all my life. That thought kind of horrified me. Research is fun for me but, like in any other jobs, things are quite different when you are not the decision-maker. Being a research assistant meant doing someone else’s research. I thought the best way to be able to be a researcher in my own right was to do a PhD.

Initially my PhD topic was in the area of social entrepreneurship within the business faculty. As I had run my own freelancing business, I was interested in business start-ups. Why social entrepreneurship? I think this was more to do with the values I have. I was very much interested in the concept of businesses giving back. I did a number of volunteering placements when I was in school, university etc. I wanted to do a topic on the sustainability of social entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, due to supervisor issues I had to drop the topic even before I started. I ended up choosing to do my PhD with the supervisor that I started with in the engineering school. I felt, given the focus of his research and mentoring style, I would probably gain the best value out of PhD years. So I allowed myself to “find” a topic that would suit his area after my transfer from the business faculty. I don’t have any regrets though about choosing a topic that would suit the supervisor that I chose to work with. At the end of the day, the learning goes on and I’m actually enjoying my PhD despite the ups and downs.

I actually found this whole process writing this blog post interesting. I just realised that despite how much I said, “Oh this topic is because of the supervisor”, perhaps parts of the decision-making was informed by personal beliefs and past experiences. When I was doing my MBA, we had to write down our epiphany stories. It was part of a personal development exercise. I guess that is the Archimedes moment, isn’t it? We were doing all these exercises based on the works of Bandura and Cervone on personality architecture, and how sometimes the choices that we make can be explained by our past experiences. When my lecturer read my exercises, he mentioned to me casually, would I ever consider going into education? I said no, I’m not really interested in academia and I want a job in industry. And yet, here I am, 4 years or so later after doing those exercises, sitting in a university, doing research that covers learning, education, cognition, reflection, etc. When I think back on that incident, where this particular lecturer asked me that question, I thought at that time he must have seen something in my writings that indicated that I am more suited to academia.

If I reflect back on what my research topic is…I actually went through it, didn’t I? The whole transferability thing…I mean I did learn in various different fields. Whether it made me a better problem solver, I don’t know. But the experiences I went through certainly, unconsciously, informed my decisions that got me to where I am today. Also, I seemed to highly value the experience of learning a lot…which again seemed to be linked to my own research topic.

Jennifer Harlim is a PhD Candidate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) in Australia. Her research topic is in ‘Problem Solving for Engineers: Measures and Transferability’. She is also interested in the area of research methods. You can follow her on Twitter at @me_udesign. She blogs about design at


Filed under Education, Engineering