PhD Student Life 101

I have this feeling people wonder what I am doing on a regular basis in my PhD student life. I get this question on a regular basis. To answer your question, this blog post is for you.

Besides working full time, I live a parallel work life at night and on the weekends. I would argue this PhD student life is probably more hectic. This life consists of not only writing a dissertation but juggling conference and journal deadlines. On a daily basis, there is often no time to write a dissertation but rather I am working on more pressing items. For example, this past week I have been serving as a reviewer for a conference. It means that my nights are spent reading abstracts, scoring them and then I am providing detailed feedback. For those of that are teachers you will know that providing feedback is often a time-consuming and lengthy task especially when you want to provide constructive feedback.

Some nights I am working on my own writing proposals, writing conference abstracts or finishing up some piece of writing that is due the next day.

Of course there is RA (Research Assistant) work that often flies my way. These tasks have to be done relatively quickly so that means the rest of my to do list (including my dissertation) gets pushed to the back burner.

If you know me, you also know that I always have more than one project on the go. In addition to my dissertation, I am also juggling other projects.

Dissertation work consists of transcribing data (which takes hours…think 30 minutes of data potentially 6 hours plus to transcribe), analyzing data and (hopefully!) writing up dissertation chapters.

Now my life prior to going back to work full time was a bit different. I taught undergrad classes, so in addition to the list of items I have mentioned I was marking assignment, prepping lessons, and answering student emails. If I was teaching an online class, my to do list consisted of maintaining the digital environment (fixing links) and answering discussion forum posts.

Ultimately I haven’t listed everything I do on a daily/weekly basis. However, as you can see I do have my plate full and this is the social reality for most PhD students. If you ask any of my colleagues/classmates they will tell you the same. (haha, did I mention I also have to find time to read? I guess that happens in the cracks of time. I also didn’t add “Conference Season” into the discussion. That is whole other story).

Documenting the life of a PhD Student

I did this awhile back and I am doing it again. I just love taking pictures using my iPhone!

Working again. Yes, it’s a Saturday!

My new boss! He is supervising me while I work.

Can’t capture music in a photo. But my iTunes serenading me in the background.

Tea? This PhD student is cutting caffeine.

Catching up with the literature and enjoying a HK style milk tea. It’s only 5pm and the day is still young.

Another “workend”

I am visiting family this weekend in another city. As usual I am still working away on my computer. Apparently the work is never done. However, I am grateful for the doggie niece strolls along the river valley. 

My work has switched to “perfecting” (or trying to perfect) a few abstracts. It is interesting how restrictive word limits are. I spent about 15 minutes trying to omit 4 words from the word count since I was over the 300 required. Also, I often find that my ideas are better expressed if I change just one word. 

Regardless, I can’t believe it is already August. 

The Analysis begins…

My data collection is over. It was such a “magical” time of talking to kids and teachers and gaining the answers to my many questions. However, as with everything “good things have to come to an end,” and I am on to the interesting task of data analysis and beginning to conceptualize of how I will be writing up my dissertation. Wow! Another interesting stage in the quest to get a doctorate.

These past few months have been amazing. As I reflect back on my many conference experiences and getting an opportunity to share my work, I have gained a new love for the work that I am doing. Now if only I could clear off that darn “to do list.” Ironically none of the items on this list have anything to do with my dissertation. However, as I have found with PhD student life in general you spent most of the time doing work that has NOTHING to do with your actual studies.

What I have found most fun about the analysis process/dissertation quest is the opportunity to be multimodal. I am pulling out my coloured markers and sketch book to visually map out of my dissertation. It has been fun and also it has helped me to see the bigger picture in terms of where I need to go to complete my dissertation.

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Looking forward to sharing more about my analysis as they unfold.

Survived (?) Conference Season

Hard to believe that Conference Season is in full swing again. I can honestly say that past couple of months have been crazy. I have enjoyed the opportunities to discuss my early research findings. However, the number of hours devoted to prep for these short 20 minute presentations have provided this PhD student with a glimpse of an academic’s life or at least one angle of this life. Perhaps what has really stuck with me recently is this idea of entering the discourse. It seems rather simple a concept but actually it is quite difficult especially for a novice researcher who is still figuring out what the discourse is. 

So what about my research? As I have mentioned in the past, my dissertation examines the literacy practices of Elementary aged English Language Learners in a Technology-Enhanced classroom.  What is particularly fascinating for me is that glimpse into the various purposeful choices these students make when engaging in meaning making. My participants engage in a variety of different literacies (digital and non-digital) in both classroom setting and outside. Looking forward to sharing more soon. 

Wait!! My iPad apps read to me! Yeah!!!

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Another snowy day in Alberta. After being on the west coast for sometime, it has been a shock to my system to be back in -20 degrees Celsius and below territory.  Today it’s frigid and the snow keeps coming. I have already been out once in my “fancy” snow gear (my trusty grade 6 hot pink snowpants, purple ski jacket and green ski hat) to shovel the snow.

So my post isn’t about the Canadian winters. Yesterday I discovered that my Goodreads app (in the latest update) on my iPad reads PDF articles to me. I also discovered that my Kindle app has a similar feature. All I can say is, “yeah!!! I can spice up my reading now.” As a PhD student, I am sure many fellow students can attest, your eyes are exhausted when you read. It is nice to have an alternative mode.

Of course, this discovery has really got me thinking about how this app could work in a classroom. In particular the assistive technology potential for kids that prefer an auditory mode of learning or need it. It might mean scanning class handouts and uploading them into the app so that the child can annotate or have the app read the document out loud. So many ways to use these apps within a classroom context. Looking forward to sharing more of my ideas at conferences in the future.

What does a PhD student do all day?


I often get asked what I do all day. Although I am at home and physically not leaving for a “place of work,” my days are pretty hectic. I spend a lot of time in front of my computer. Usually I am answering emails, writing abstracts or writing a paper. I might also be checking on my online class or doing some data analysis. There is never a dull moment in my day.

For example, although I have over a month until my first conference of the year, I am already busy getting ready for it. I have pulled a variety of articles from the library and I am preparing to dive into the literature which will guide my presentations. Today I had to create   a  sub-website for my conference presentation.  I had the usual technical issues which required me to call my web hosting company. As I create this website, I am outlining my presentation and considering what I will be speaking about. Interesting to note that while I am waiting for the installation of various applications on my website, I am multitasking and finishing up an abstract. I am also checking into my online class (answering a student message) and responding to emails that comes into my inbox.

As I type this blog post, I still have half of my day left. I am mentally planning what I need to to get done (e.g., the emails that need to be sent, the writing that needs to be done, etc.).  After I “post” this blog entry, I will begin reading the articles I have pulled. However, I can’t do this until I have checked my email to make sure there is not anything urgent that needs to be responded too.


The Tale of the Unpublished


One of the major hurdles has been this notion of “publish or perish.” When you are a new (and hopefully!) emerging scholar, your survival depends on publishing or not. Perhaps this is one of the most frustrating aspects of my PhD life is publishing my research (or in my case the battle to publish with no prior research). It is a never ending negotiation of what to send in, what not to send in, and where to send it. As I have alluded to already the major challenge that has emerged for me is my lack of data from my Masters. Unlike other PhD students, I came into this PhD process with no prior research under my belt. Of course, I can naturally argue that I have much more practical experience especially in K-12 then many other researchers because of this tradeoff. However, the lack of data does pose an issue especially when your dissertation study has not officially started. Naturally it has caused me to be more resourceful when it comes publishing my work.

My writing issues haven’t been just about “data.” I have struggled with my identity as a “writer.” Before I came into this, I thought I was a writer but apparently I am not because the measure of a writer in academia is one that publishes. It is about finding the right words to express yourself (or at least the words that people in your field understand and appreciate). It also about taking on a register that is not quite you but in order to be successful you need to learn it well. It may also mean taking on an identity that does not fit.

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend. English is not her first language and she expressed her frustrations with learning to write in “English.” She commented on how it might be easier for me since English is my first language. However, what she does not realize is that “Academic English” is often not anyone’s “first language.” I might be a native speaker of English but I spend hours learning how to mold my sentences in the “right” academic way. It is a “new” language for me. I need to learn the structure, lexicon and the right ways to say things.