Study from home. Photo by Juerong Qiu.

Starting and continuing a PhD overseas: Interviews with PhD students at different stages

Juerong Qiu

Pursuing a PhD is a massive undertaking that requires a long academic commitment and dedication. The stressful wait for PhD students stuck overseas during Covid-19 and the struggles to connect with peers and supervisors while working remotely have produced new challenges in the PhD journey. The struggles are unique from those that PhD students might have experienced in Melbourne.

Juerong spoke with three PhD students at SOLL – Takumi Kosaka, Yiming Liu and Carrie Peng. Takumi just confirmed his candidature in November, while Yiming and Carrie are heading towards the third year of candidature. They shared their experience and reflections about their pursuit of a PhD during the pandemic outside Australia.

What’s the biggest challenge for you when you started your PhD?

Takumi: I started my PhD in March 2021 fully online from Japan. Since everything can be done online now, I did not have any technical issues. But that also meant everything was happening only on the Internet. The situation made me feel like “I am not a member of the school community” because I didn’t have any physical access to it. Regular meeting with my supervisor was the only opportunity for me to talk to someone. Getting motivated was the hardest part for me.

Yiming: I started my PhD in China about two months before the first round of Melbourne Lockdown in 2020. Maintaining a stable mental state was the biggest challenge. The border policy in Australia was changing every day and there were rapid increases in new confirmed cases nationwide in China. It was overwhelming and I didn’t know whether I could go back. I was torn.

Carrie: I started my PhD in March 2020. I couldn’t go to Melbourne because of the border restriction. The biggest challenge during these two years is the isolation. I studied at home, and I don’t know other PhDs, so I can’t talk to anybody about my project except my supervisors. We meet fortnightly. The second thing is that I’ve never been to Melbourne. I received my master’s degree in the UK. I’ve never met my supervisors in person. In the beginning, I was a little bit intimidated. I had to be very cautious every time I contacted them because I didn’t know their working styles and routines. It turned out to be okay. My supervisors are super supportive. I received constant feedback and they showed me a lot of empathy. I feel more at ease now when I talk to them.

How did you adapt to online learning when there was no access to the library or public study space?

Takumi: The university offers the students plenty of online resources, so I did not have to adapt to online learning or have any serious issues caused by the limited access to the library. I appreciate the online system of the school a lot. But one thing that I felt was difficult was that when I had a group activity, it was hard for us to adjust the meeting time because we all lived in different time zones.

Yiming: I can do my tasks efficiently when I’m studying from home. I don’t like to study in libraries in the first place.

Carrie: That was also one of the difficulties I dealt with. Most books and papers are available online. However, there was a book edited by my supervisor. The e-book was unavailable, so I submitted an inquiry to the university library to order the e-book. It took almost half a year to get the e-book version. Also, studying alone requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline. Although it may reduce peer pressure, it was challenging to get motivated. I don’t have a study room at home, so I bought a bigger table and a chair to make me feel more comfortable when I study. This helped me increase my productivity. I am used to studying at home now. The positive side of studying from home is that I can organise my time flexibly. Since I stay at home alone, I don’t get disturbed, so I can concentrate on my work.

What’s your research topic and how did this research project come into place?

Takumi: My research focuses on how the chunking ability of language users helps language processing and acquisition and how the ability can be improved by educational interventions in a classroom setting, particularly in Japanese English education. I have had the idea since I started learning English as a foreign language in Japan at thirteen. As an English learner, I was trying to figure out how I could understand English sentences more fluently. After I graduated from my undergrad, I started working as an English educator at a Japanese middle school. I witnessed a situation where all Japanese middle school students experienced the same problems as I did. Then, I decided to work on the problem in a PhD program.

Yiming: I investigate teachers’ feedback practices and students’ responses to feedback in the second language writing classroom. This was inspired by an article written by my supervisor, Prof Neomy Storch.

Carrie: My project is about second language writing. The participants are Chinese secondary school students with preliminary language proficiency in English. I examine how particular feedback processing modes can enhance their writing abilities. I had this topic in mind when I was doing my master’s degree. I did a short-term research project back then. I felt like I could do a long-term project in my PhD focusing on different types of feedback.

Have you experienced any forms of COVID-related disruption during your candidature? How did you overcome the disruption?

Takumi: I had a serious problem related to my ethics application. When I tried to obtain ethics approval to conduct my research, I was required to submit a form that you can get only in Australia. To get the form, you must “physically” visit an office in Victoria. Although I was given some alternatives, it was quite difficult to solve the problem. I am glad that it was resolved.

Yiming: Almost no disruption. The data was collected at schools in China. By the time I started collecting data, the situation was under control.

Carrie: I was very lucky. I had some connections with the local secondary schools. Initially, I planned to collect data in China in my second year of candidature. The data collection started in March this year to July. Before collecting data, I was a bit worried about the COVID situation because I was not sure whether the teaching mode would be moved back online. Luckily, there were no local confirmed cases during that time.