Challenges and Joyfulness of being a Research Student in Australia

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The experiences/reflections from academic life that I am going to put here are mainly from my own and partly from other research students that I have talked to. Therefore, I use “we” instead of “I” sometimes. Mind-set People often resist to changes and we are not an exception. At the beginning of our candidature, some of us have a very vague idea about what we are going to do and how we are going to do it, particularly with those who have no prior experience in research. It becomes even worse when a series of questions thrown to our head from our supervisors as they would like to know what we are interested in doing and they often assume that we know something about what we are talking about. The situation is also not better with those who have some prior research experience. Doing a PhD research study is basically different from that of a minor thesis in an undergraduate or Master program. Our research perspective needs to be widened, our understanding of the literature needs to be extensive, and our critical thinking needs to be justified. Unfortunately, many of us do not have any of these, but we are often proud of our successful mini research in the past and think that we know a lot about doing research. Therefore, we always complain that the supervisors do not understand us and that they do not help us do what we like. Actually, we are resistant to what they say and the way they say it because it is (very) different and sometimes far away from what we think and often hear about. Allowing ourselves to open our view to research perspectives through digging deeply into the literature helps us familiarize with our supervisors’ language gradually. We do experience this process as later we find it rather easy to predict the candidature stage of a student when discussing with him/her about a research project. Critical vs. Absolute Answer The basic difference in teaching and learning philosophy between our home country and Australia is the most serious heart stroke. Coming from Vietnam and China (I am not sure about other countries in Asia), we are accustomed to discussing a problem and listening to the RIGHT answer from the teachers. There may be other alternatives but the one from our teachers is the best and everyone should employ it in his/her studies. Therefore, we always expect a RIGHT answer from our supervisors for our problems. However, it is not what a research student in Australia should expect from his/her supervisors. A good supervisor here always gives us a number of suggestions for a problem, a number of references for us to read, or some experts/consultants to talk to… and we need to come up with the best possible solution after negotiating with our supervisors. We are not expected to wait for an answer; we have to look for it and are responsible for our critical analysis process. Responses to Students’ Writing Many of us have complained that our supervisors do not respond to our writing work, particularly the literature review chapter in the first phase of our candidature. We always think that we have completed some good work and expect our supervisors to have comments or feedback for each section. Unfortunately, we often get nothing and become frustrated because we think that the supervisors do not care about our work. Later, when our literature review becomes extensive and many new sections are added in, we realize that what we had written before is not worth reading and we would have been very ashamed if the supervisors had given us specific comments! Conflict between Supervisors Conflict between supervisors is both a plus and minus. If the conflict is challenging enough, it is a wonderful situation for us to grow up. We can take ideas from two contradictory perspectives into account and struggle for a suitable argument. However, many of us are desperate, hopeless, and stressed because of this situation, particularly when we have gone toward the end of our candidature, writing up everything and a supervisor suddenly says that our work is not worth doing for a PhD project although the other supervisor is ok with that. The immediate consequence is that cries come and we have to give up our daily work for a few days, even a week, to gain our motivation and intelligence back. Research Method Class Research Method class is an excellent opportunity for research students, especially if it is organized in such a way that attending students can see different ways/methods of tackling research problems. Learning from different guest speakers who have very different research perspectives significantly helps me with shaping my argument and research methodology. In addition, involving in a group of people who have different academic backgrounds and research experience but are all interested in doing research provides me a strong sense of belonging. It also gives me a wonderful chance to practice talking about what I am doing. Commenting on others’ works and receiving feedback from different people is just about everything that a research student like me needs. Research Students Groups and Seminars Forming student groups with certain interests creates a wonderful environment for cooperation. I have taken part in a writing group and a quantitative method group and benefited a lot. Reading others’ writing and sending them my writing for comments is extremely useful. It sometimes turns my head backward, forward and even around but finally I often come up with something better than my previous version. In addition, having a good chance to talk to people with similar interest such as the SPSS group provides me more insightful ideas and increases my level of confidence in dealing with my problems.

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Tin Dang

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