During my PhD career at Cambridge (September 2012 to July 2016), I spent around 95 per cent of my time in a magical sphere called the University of Cambridge Writing Group. In this space, I wrote nearly my entire thesis, published three peer-reviewed journal articles, won a Best Paper Award and landed a job as Lecturer in Education immediately after graduation. I now have friends who write to me from time to time to get my advice on time management, on job hunting and on work-life balance. While I keep emphasising to them that publication is the most important, I feel obliged to tell the ‘truth’ behind all these ‘hard facts’ or what some people would call ‘achievements’.
The truth is, when my current Head of School asked me how I found my experience at Cambridge, I told him that these have been the best four years of my life so far. This is the truth. Yet this is not all the truth. There were difficult periods throughout my PhD, moments of doubt, agony, and despair—this is no news to anybody pursuing or holding a PhD. What I want to share in this post, therefore, is how I have survived all the difficult moments. I want to offer three reflective moments.
Venue: Tea Room, Sociology Department, Free School Lane
Date: 31st December 2012
Attendees: Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma
Event: This was probably the second Writing Group session that I had attended. Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma were all senior PhD students finishing their PhD theses. These were the people that I later looked up to and often sought advice from. During one break, Moira made a comment about minding her ‘authorial voice’. This little phrase stuck with me ever since. I started to realise that the PhD experience (at least for social sciences) was really about developing an academic identity that is primarily represented by one’s written work.
Moral: This revelation was pivotal in that I made a conscious decision to frequent the Writing Group, because this was so much more than a writing space. It was a place for me to get inspiration, seek advice and develop friendship; it was my support network and my ‘security net’. I am not asking everybody who reads this post to join the Writing Group (although it is a worthwhile idea), but rather I am suggesting that buddies at the Writing Group were the ones who helped me survive all the self-doubts, agony and despair. It is essential for PhD students to feel secure and supported among like-minded friends. So, your first task is to seek such a space and grow with it.
Venue: Barbara White Room, Newnham College
Date: April 2014
Attendees: Writing Group buddies
Event: I received a notification from the European Educational Research Association (EERA) that my article had won the Best Paper Award and that it would be published in the European Educational Research Journal (EERJ).
Moral: Start publishing as early as you can. I learned about the EERA Best Paper Award competition when I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) in 2013. The prospect of publishing a paper at the EERJ was appealing. I carefully studied previous winning essays and prepared my article while I was conducting fieldwork. At that time, I only had some preliminary analysis of the first round of interviews. However, I wrote up my analysis and got helpful feedback from my supervisor Professor Diane Reay and my friends, including Dr Erin Spring, who was then a PhD student. This was my first article, published in early 2015.
When I nearly finished my first phase of fieldwork in March 2014, I wrote another article for a conference in Denmark. This article was based on more comprehensive analysis of the bulk of my empirical data. Although the analysis was relatively crude and broad-stroked, I gained some valuable feedback at the conference and my article was included in a special issue, published in October 2015.
As I was writing my findings chapters, I began to write my third article, which was submitted to the British Journal of Sociology of Education in early 2015. I received reviewers’ ‘ruthless’ feedback in July 2015, which, when I look back now, was hugely beneficial to strengthening the rigour of my analysis. I submitted my revised version in September 2015 and the article was accepted in February 2016.
To summarise, it is never too early to write for publications during your PhD. I began writing for publication as soon as I had some data at hand to analyse. I was constantly thinking about the next article and how I could make sure that I had a worthwhile message to communicate to readers of my targeted journals. My motto, which I have inherited from my wise Writing Group buddies, is that you write (a lot) to become a good writer and similarly, you write (a lot of articles) to become a good published author.
What I found most beneficial was that I had supportive but critical colleagues to comment on my drafts. At Cambridge I co-organised a reading group with Dr Selena Yuan in which we regularly critiqued on each other’s works and helped each other publish more effectively. Cambridge is a gold mine of talented and critical friends, so start building a network to support each other’s publication journeys.
Date: Some time in 2015
Venue: Origin 8 Café, FOE
Attendees: Elizabeth and Pu Shi
Event: I came out of GS4 and ran into Elizabeth and Pu Shi, who were having a meeting at the café. Upon learning that I was acting as a Teaching Assistant to facilitate a Master’s research methods class, Elizabeth commented that I was career-oriented.
Moral: Yes, I was quite strategic about gaining teaching experience during the PhD. Since 2013 I had been supervising Tripos Sociology papers and Research and Investigating projects. However, I ensured that such teaching did not take up too much of my time. Now that I think about it, I spent around ten to fifteen per cent of my time doing supervisions and acting as a teaching assistant. I also gave some guest lectures at different universities, such as the University of Northampton and the Open University of Hong Kong. These experiences proved instrumental for informing my pedagogical understanding and helpful in allowing me to construct a coherent narrative about my repertoire of teaching experience.
To return to what I set out to answer in this post: How did I manage my time during PhD in order to balance finishing the thesis, writing publications and gaining teaching experience? Firstly, I established an important network of support from which I gained inspirations, friendship, and a sense of security. Secondly, I began writing for publication as soon as the early stages of my data collection, and I kept writing for publications throughout the PhD journey. Lastly, I strategically sought opportunities to gain teaching experience, while ensuring that teaching did not take up too much of my time.
Dr Cora Lingling Xu graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Education in 2016. Her doctoral thesis examined the identity constructions of tertiary-level border-crossing students from mainland China to Hong Kong. She is currently a Lecturer in Education at Keele University. You can follow Cora on Twitter @CoraLinglingXu and find out more about her research on Academia.edu and Research Gate.
With thanks to Dr Cora Lingling Xu for her kind permission to re-post this article.