Five Lessons As A First-Year (Social Welfare) PhD Student

By Kwan Jin Yao

After passing the first-year oral comprehensive examination, I am moving on to my second year as a PhD student. The three quarters have flown by so quickly, and there is still the summer to come, but I wanted to document five reflective lessons:

1. The (social service or social welfare) researcher occupies a privileged position.

Unlike the social workers who work directly with the beneficiaries, and who – by extension – bear the burdens of these beneficiaries, the social service or social welfare researcher works from a distance, and through the research process benefit disproportionately from the research outputs too. Beneficence is one of the key ethical principles for research involving human subjects, and while researchers try their best to maximise benefits to the participants and to minimise the costs (or harm), more often than not the overall research gains in terms of conference presentations, publications, and career prospects are most likely to accrue to the researchers. The added privilege of my PhD journey thus far, moreover, is staying alone without immediate familial obligations and being able to focus on my own work.

2. Learning about rejections or failures is one thing, but experiencing them – and bouncing back from them – is another.

Getting used to disappointments is probably part of the job description as a PhD student (or even as an academic), and it starts from the moment one applies to the graduate schools. Notwithstanding the truly exceptional, these rejections or failures are likely to apply to PhD applications, funding proposals, conference calls for papers – all of which happened to me in this first year – and learning how to dust them off has been an experience, especially with the knowledge that this will continue to be the norm in the future. The first thing I have been doing is to keep track of both successes and failures, to stay grounded and to have perspective. The second, for now, is to seek out as many opportunities as possible, so that I can chalk up little victories in spite of the odds.

3. “It takes a village”.

Related to dealing with rejections or failures is to have a strong support system. The cliché of having a village – in the context of a PhD or academic programme – means having a network of colleagues and peers, professors and advisors, as well as counterparts in one’s area of (research) interest. The academic programme has its shortcomings, but I have been blessed with an incredible class of first-years who are open about our learning experience and our struggles, and my professors and advisors have been generous with their time and insights. As with the best teachers, these are the individuals I would like to model after, to pay it forward in the future.

4. Shed the arrogance and the overconfidence.

I was selfish and eager to please or impress in the beginning of the programme, because I felt like I had to overcompensate in the classroom as an international student, and also because I was carrying over some persistent insecurities. I also did not understand that scholarship and research are collaborative endeavours, not necessarily zero-sum games in which one’s success is premised upon the failure of another. Even more importantly, perhaps with social welfare in particular, the long-term goal of empowering beneficiaries and social workers or their agencies should ground the researcher to their needs, rather than the needs of his or her own.

5. Mix a disciplined and rigorous PhD routine with projects beyond the school.

The PhD routine is important, yet it cannot dominate one’s life. Relaxation and letting loose and the personal life aside, having projects outside the PhD programme has been critical (and it’s a bonus too, if these projects are tangential to the academic work). Having a daily and weekly routine means staying on top of readings and assignments, and consistently keeping track of what is to come.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 19 June 2018. It is reproduced with permission.


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