The journey of my doctorate- began with a single book…

2015 has been a significant year in my life. The year that brought me the docotral degree at the University of Bath, UK – the culmination of a journey of studying (hold-your-breath) 8.5 years as a part-time student! I share here highlights of this incredible journey with the aim of motivating those very many of you who are in the path of earning your doctorate…

The journey of my doctorate- began with a single book

My first international school teaching experience was in 2006, where I arrived with a bachelor’s and master’s degree, as well as nine years teaching experience. My education and teaching experience had been in a formal and very structured educational system (Indian system). I found the teaching environment at the international school very different from my previous teaching experience. My initial days of teaching in the international school, found me seeking solace in the fact that my teaching contract was only a temporary one. In my newly inducted environment, student apathy, classroom management and discipline issues, were all major concerns for me to tackle as a teacher, rather than the subject matter specifics.

Instead of my class of 21 Indian students (who all coincidentally aspired to be doctors or engineers) I now had a class of 21 students – the student body roughly represented by about 19 different nationalities – and each of whom aspired to be in jobs that I had never heard of. I wasn’t too sure my nine years of teaching experience was helping in terms of classroom management, keeping students motivated in learning and above all in deriving my own personal satisfaction as a teacher.

Convinced that I needed to better understand the cultural paradigm in which I was now teaching in, I wandered into the High School library where the librarian suggested that I read Dr. Mary Hayden and Professor Jeff Thompson’s book on International Education. (little did I know at that time that the same Dr. Hayden would be supervising my doctoral dissertation in years to come!). The book opened my eyes and spurred my interest in delving deeper into understanding new world of education – ‘international education’.

My personal background where I have been taught to validate understanding through engaging in rigorous systematic study, was instrumental in my decision to embark upon my doctoral studies. Encouraged by my school director, I began to search for a doctoral program, which offered a flexible part-time program, which was face-to-face and not online. For these reasons, I chose the University of Bath, UK – where Emeritus Professor Jeff Thompson, of IB fame and Dr. Mary Hayden the ‘guru’ of international education were professors.

Arrival at Bath

I arrived at Bath for the induction into the doctoral programme on a cold wintry January morning, in 2008. I had followed religiously the instructions to students attending the induction. I read each of the reading material three times (the last time was on the plane), came up with questions on each of the papers, as required of me. Surprisingly, I never tried answering my own questions. My Lecturers at Bath would do that for me was my belief. I have enrolled in the doctoral program, my learned professors will give me all the answers that I am seeking and all will be well. Easy, right? Well, nothing could be farther than the truth on this occasion.

To my utter disappointment, one session after the other during that week, pulled my thinking in so many directions, that I soon just gave up and sat still. Not one professor ‘came to class with all the answers’!! Instead they made us question more, debated on the different answers and perspectives of the participants, laughed often and left us with more questions. Where was I and what was I doing?

 As sessions rolled by, more uneasiness crept in. More often than not, sessions were contradictory than complimentary. The tussle had begun. By the end of the second day, I was totally lost, was unsure of my research question, even unsure if doing the EdD was a great idea at all!

I had a choice. I could go back to my comfort zone of teaching and doing things I in a way that I was so sure of, in a way that was proven successful in my own system of education. Or, I could continue this journey into the unknown realms of international in education.

I decided to stay.

Insecurities and Tensions of a Novice Researcher

My first paper presentation to an international audience titled “Insecurities and Tensions of a Novice Researcher”, was in the summer of 2009 – at the Research Students’ Conference at Bath. The paper articulated an Action Research project that examined the experiences, apprehensions and challenges that I encountered as a doctoral student inducted from a traditional teacher-centric learning environment to one where learning happens through questioning knowledge. Ever since then there has been no looking back.

My early education taught me the invaluable lessons of being systematic, regular and consistent in everything that I do. Teaching in an international school and enrolling in the doctoral programme at the University of Bath helped me appreciate the necessity of critical reflection and developing strategies to improve the actions. My induction into the doctoral program at Bath created a pathway to question predispositions and searching for a deeper meaning to hitherto held notions and beliefs. It was time to shift paradigms. It was time to realize that no one would have all the right answers for my questions. Summers in Bath provided enriched debates and conversations that I soon began to not only enjoy, but also look forward to!

Fast forward to April 2015. I successfully defended my thesis with none other than Emeritus Professor Jeff Thompson and Professor David Phillips from Oxford – and I cleared my viva without any changes or modifications on my thesis. While I owe much of this success to the resilient, patient and immaculate guidance of my supervisor Dr. Hayden, I give below some reflections that made my doctoral journey at Bath both rewarding and enjoyable. I hope some of this may be of help to new aspiring students who enroll for the EdD at Bath and at other universities around the world.

Some thoughts to share

  1. Try to brainstorm some ideas on what your assignment would focus on before  attending taught modules. While there is no need to have an articulate research question ready, brainstorming some areas that are of interest would be highly invaluable in optimizing your time.
  2. It is important that you work backwards from your submission deadline and aim to submit at least two working drafts before the final submission. It is worthwhile to remember that extended time granted on special situations to complete an assignment will eat away time available for your final thesis. Time saved in assignments will serve preciously towards writing your final thesis.
  3. Writing and submitting working drafts enable your supervisors to point out any critical gaps in sufficient time before final submissions. I have cleared all of my assignments at the first instance not because I am a good writer (I can write a whole new blog on how terrible my writing skills actually are – particulalry academic writing is not easy!), but only because all of assignments were submitted following two, three, or sometimes even four ‘rough drafts’. All of my supervisors, (without a single exception) welcomed the drafts. This is invaluable opportunity that not many universities offer– but make full use of it if available.
  4. Read-read-read. Good readers make good writers. Period. Spend quality time reading latest research publications on your chosen field. Allocate at least 20-30 minutes every day to read. It could be during your morning coffee, or while you take the metro- but find the time! One thing to make a note of is that your professors (particularly at the University of Bath) are not only learned, they are also well travelled. They are often engaged in practice-based research at international schools around the world and bring in a good mix of research-base and practice together- so don’t’ try to ‘fluff around’ in the assignments.
  5. A few weeks before sending in your draft write to your supervisors send a ‘heads-up’ e-mail alerting them that you will be sending in a rough draft soon. It will help them plan their diary and also notify you if they will be away at a conference so that you can have some extra time. If you are ‘too busy’ for such planning, it may be helpful to remember that your supervisors are busy people as well.
  6. It has helped me to have framed my research assignment questions around the areas of my everyday routine – Action Research on my teaching practice, leadership, concept-based curriculum etc. It helps you stay connected with everyday working life and at the same time get better at practice through reading relevant literature and writing about it.
  7. Your 40000 word thesis- it is never too early to start thinking what this area of topic would be. Brainstorm as many ideas. Write to as many professors as you have made contacts with over coffee breaks. Everybody in my experience helps willingly and wholeheartedly. I wrote to at least 5 different professors, before identifying my broad area of topic.
  8. Keep a copy of the EdD handbook readily available. Much as this seems obvious, often times we forget to refer to the essentials and then have to re-work things which takes longer.
  9. Present your ideas to an audience at every available opportunity. Organize Brown-bag lunch meetings at your workplace, present after school, at local and international conferences – seek out and present – present-present!! The only reason I attribute to having cleared my viva without any changes or modifications recommended is because what I brought to the table that morning were the voices of the very many attendees who had already challenged my thinking and ideas in innumerable ways before the actual viva. I had ‘defended’ my thesis at least 10 times before the actual viva.
  10. Don’t give up! Cliché as it may seem – it is worth every step. And don’t forget to smell the roses along the way – the journey is equally as rewarding as the destination. There is nothing like receiving your doctorate degree after the endless nights of being awake and all the sacrifices you made along the way- but absolutely worth it!

Good luck to all those who are in this journey – you can do it !!

Questions and thoughts…more than welcome!

Dr. Sudha Govindswamy (Sunder)

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