The Pleasure of Being a Ph.D. Student

I have been approached multiple times after becoming a PhD student — people asked me about what is good of being a PhD student. Normally, I don’t think about this much, because, as an ongoing PhD student, I’m supposed to be embedded in all kinds of work and thus don’t have time to generate random thoughts. But today is a different one. I had the leisure to come up with a list of things that I enjoy about being a PhD student. Here it is.
  1. Think: Of course, right? (I take this for granted.)
  2. Read books/papers/articles: Yes, I really mean it. I know there are many people who don’t enjoy reading fictions, let alone scholarly writings. But I always love reading stuff, even though English is not my native language. Some scholarly works can be hard to digest and I’m with you here. I tend to read these works more quickly. 🙂
  3. Write stuff: Yes, I still mean this seriously. Writing is something that I started liking once I had done enough amount of readings of different kinds (e.g., fictions, poems, etc.). I simply like the feeling of seeing words flowing out on screens or paper. I admit that oftentimes writing academic papers doesn’t contain much fun, but I think pain is also part of the experience of learning, and learning is usually enjoyable.
  4. Accept hard intellectual challenges: This one almost goes without saying. One privilege of being a PhD student is the opportunity to be challenged intellectually. This doesn’t mean one won’t be challenged intellectually in other jobs, but one gets the chance to think about many deep and sometimes weird questions more as a PhD student. This can be life-changing, and I enjoy this process.
  5. Work independently (for a large portion of my working time): While this is not necessarily true for every scholar based on their discipline, this is true in my case. I like staying in a quiet space that helps me to concentrate on my task and thinking. Having to read and write a lot contributes to my independent work.
  6. Learn from wise minds: This is another privilege that PhD students get. What a joy of being able to listen to professors’ (who are experts in their fields) and wonderful peers’ discussions and grow from their conversations and actions!
  7. Review papers: This one goes together with the one above. Reviewing papers is a great way to see what’s going on in my community. And knowing that I also contribute to part of the process of generating more sincere knowledge is exciting.
  8. Take some cool classes: Same point as the two above. My institution offers many interesting classes. I can take them as my minor classes so that I can enjoy them even if they are not directly related to my major. One of these classes is Science and Technology Studies core seminar.
  9. Get to know and talk to so many different people: I’m especially referring to my lovely qualitative research methods (e.g., interview, observation, etc.) here. As an introvert who doesn’t really social a lot, getting to know new people can be hard for me. However, being a researcher who uses mostly qualitative methods, I am sweetly “forced” to talk to many people — people who I don’t imagine I will even have the channel to get to know if I were not a PhD student. Talking to people from diverse communities help me to know the world and reflect on my own identity. I’ll say this is the best part of being a PhD student (for me).
  10. A bonus: If my paper gets in, I can visit different places/countries: I don’t like being stuck on the plane for long hours, but I really don’t mind visiting new places that I have never visited before. (And drinking new beverages, and tasting new foods, and meeting new people, and more, and more…)
  11. Finally, there are always more to enjoy in the future! 😀
I think what I enjoy the most of being a PhD student, or doing research in general, is the possibility of pursuing my ideas semi-freely. I consider this as a sheer luck of mine, and it is definitely a luxury as well.

Reflection, on I2S Competition and groupwork

My team, Eating Right, won both Ideas Track Runner-Up and Best Poster awards in the 2016 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition held at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology on April 8th. This competition is intended to encourage current GaTech students and recent alumni to think about how to create a better world through feasible and concrete ideas. During the night of the 8th, all the finalist teams presented their posters and gave a 1-min pitch to the audience. I was so happy to see that there were so many projects that cared about issues of global relevance, not only in the United States. Initially, I didn’t really expect us to win anything, since I didn’t know if people valued this kind of work. However, it left me feeling deeply encouraged, because people did care, and they were even willing to spend money on this.

Just to give you context: our team, Eating Right, aims at creating a mobile app that will provide valuable and trustworthy dietary information for diabetes affected households in India by presenting entertaining cooking show videos. Our project started in October 2015( as a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India) ) , and Jasmine started working on it then. After one month, I, a Human-Centered Computing PhD student, joined the team. Recently in March, two more Human-Computer Interaction students (Sam and Tanisha) came on board.While Jasmine and I focused on the research aspects, Sam and Tanisha brought design expertise to the team. Prof. Neha Kumar advised us from the onset and helped us communicate with collaborators in India. All of us, including our professor, are women.

What makes teamwork impactful in our case?

  1. People. All four of us have sufficient background in Human-Computer Interaction design and research, which makes it easier for us to communicate. Although we have similar backgrounds, we do hold diverse skill sets. Sam and Tanisha were originally from India so they can speak different Indian languages and draw on their understanding of Indian culture. Jasmine had done fieldwork in India, and could anticipate the challenges we might face later. I am a researcher who has read a lot about ICTD and have a deep understanding of how to approach this research using human-centered design. Together we are advised by Prof. Kumar, who is an expert in ICTD research. We are also supported by our collaborators in India, who offer first-hand data about users and valuable inputs for our research and design outcomes.
  2. Work ethic. I believe this is important in every field, not only in teamwork. Nevertheless, to keep a good work ethic can be really challenging when there are too many things going on at the same time, which is often the case for a graduate student. We face this challenge bravely and deal with it professionally. We rely on emails to communicate most of the time and all of us are very responsive – to emails, text messages, or phone calls. Because we are invested, the project is able to make steady progress. We stick to deadlines as best we can. If we cannot keep our promise, we let all team members know.
  3. Coherent understanding, all the time. We communicate in timely fashion to make sure that everybody is on the same page. This not only covers work assignments, but also high level objectives. For example, we do believe that user research can make a difference and design should be based on specific contexts and users’ needs. Communication sounds tedious and time-consuming sometimes, but it can foster understanding, which allows the entire team to work more effectively.

These bullet points above address some things that good teamwork should include, but they are not enough. What I find amazing in the Eating Right team is that we are all open to making mistakes and we learn through failure – the working environment we create is a safe learning environment, not a competitive one. When one of us says something that sounds not so right to others, others will ask questions and start a discussion. No one is offended. For instance, I’m not familiar with Indian culture so I have tons of questions (I know some of them must sound naive to Indians). My teammates are always willing to explain whatever detail I’m looking for. I try to do the same. I believe, because of this positive learning environment, people’s skills are leveraged, good work ethic is acknowledged and followed, and a coherent understanding can be nurtured.

Certainly, we are all motivated and passionate about this project from the bottom of our hearts.

I used to be a believer of individual work, but my experience in the Eating Right team changed my mind. When a team works well, productivity will be high, and everybody on the team can learn. It is amazing when teamwork presents its power, and I hope to experience more awesome teamwork in the future. Of course, to make this world a better place, you need a team, or maybe a larger team. 🙂

Conflict, in learning and in constructing identity

I would like to explore the notion of “conflict”. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Lave and Wenger talk about how learning takes place under various situations and how newcomers are able to become old timers through learning. On page 116, authors introduce conflict as follows:

Conflict is experienced and worked out through a shared everyday practice in which differing viewpoints and common stakes are in interplay.

Here, it is easy for readers to take “differing” and “common” as words referring to differences and commonalities among different individuals. What I’m arguing is that conflict also exists in one individual’s mind. Differing viewpoints and common stakes mentioned in the quote above can be presented in one single individual’s mind when one is growing and learning. Sometimes this kind of conflicts can be supportive, other times they can be truly destructive, in terms of destroying one’s identity.

When I first came to United States, I thought I would engage in great learning experience as a master student in HCI. I looked forward to doing some really design and humanistic stuff. I never doubted my learning ability or my English level. However, it turned out that I was not nearly as correct as I imagined. I thought I could convey my ideas pretty well, but when I couldn’t recall common expressions in group meetings I then started doubting myself as a proper English speaker. What was more, I encountered both minor and major cultural differences here and there in my life. I was afraid to ask questions and to bring confusions to other because of my unfamiliarity to United States. Conflicts, presented as cultural differences, were in fact the gaps between my previous identity and the new identity that I was still struggling to construct at that time. Although people kept telling me there was nothing wrong with me, I later still questioned my identity really hard, because I looked so inferior, drastically different from who I used to be.

Therefore, I appreciate Lave and Wenger since they mention change of identity as part of the learning process in their book. In addition, I feel grateful about their statement on page 51: “Participation is always based on situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world. This implies that understanding and experience are in constant interaction – indeed, are mutually constitutive.” I could have offered myself a little bit more understanding at that time but I didn’t. Looking back, I guess what I was lacking was also an appropriate level of introduction to even the boundary of participation. How was I able to legitimate peripheral participation when I didn’t know where to start? I wish I had read this book earlier to make myself feel more comfortable and confident.

Therefore, learning can be fulfilling when the learner is welcomed and willing to participate. As I see my own identity changes through my learning process, I keep reminding myself to be more understanding when communicating with other people. Learning is a lifelong journey that we as humans learn to understand ourselves and be with ourselves peacefully under various situations. As people come from different backgrounds with different values, it is fair that everybody has a right to be understood situatedly.