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.

Interviews

I guess it’s fair for me to say that my June and July have all been spent on interviewing people: I did sixty-eight interviews in total. Some of them were short, some of them were long. I have never talked to so many people during any summer in the past twenty-five years. Interestingly, neither have I ever answered so many questions in two months.

I interviewed people who were old, who were young, who were men, who were women, who lived in rural villages, who grew up in urban cities. I asked them how they used their mobile phones, what they did with WeChat, how they played around with emojis and stickers, how they learned farming knowledge, and how they communicated with their children abroad. People answered my questions. Some of them answered in hasty, so I often had to repeat my question. Some of them were super talkative and energetic. They led the conversation, while I had to find my own way of asking them questions, if possible. Sometimes people were quite nervous when hearing the word “interview”, so I ensured them that there would be no provocative questions and they were all protected by the law in the U.S. (people laughed when they heard this). A common reaction that I got was that people felt they had nothing to offer: “I don’t know anything. I don’t really use smartphone/WeChat/emojis. I don’t know how to use them. You probably should interview that guy, he knows more than me.” When I said I would love to know why they didn’t use those things, they were usually more confused – anyway, why does one want to know why other people don’t know a certain thing?

I interviewed people in days and at nights. I visited them by walking, by motorcycle, by car, by bus, by subway. In rural villages and the small town, I simply went and visited without bringing anything other than my notebook and pen. Instead, people offered me watermelons to eat generously (because it was summer). Occasionally, they even invited me to lunch or dinner, and they were sincere. For urban citizens, I paid for their coffees, milk teas, juices, snacks, etc. Basically, I paid for their time so that they could answer my questions. In the city, it was not unusual for me to spend more than half an hour to get to the location for interviewing. However, in rural regions, all I needed to do was to walk or hop on a motorcycle – it wouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to greet someone in person. Because of the interviews in rural areas, I was able to do some exercise by walking. Because of the interviews in urban areas, I was able to enjoy various beverages.

Was I nervous? Was I afraid of anything as a first-time interviewer (an interviewer, how dubious!)? Certainly! While most of the time I was confident and well-prepared (in my opinion) to both ask and answer questions, I became infinitely nervous when people asked me this question: “So, what are you doing these interviews for?” There was a more intimidating version of this question: “What’s the meaning of these interviews?” I worked hard to try to calm myself down by blattering whatever I could think about at that moment: “… You know… I’m interested in how culture affects people’s use of technology and how technology affects people’s lives… I study how you use your mobile phone so that I can improve these phones…” People were confused. They twisted their brows and lost in thought, trying to translate my nonsense into human language. Later I became tired of explaining my “research objective” to people: “I need to write a paper. It’s my summer homework. That’s why I have to interview you.” People were more convinced by this answer: “Wow, you still have to write a paper? You study so hard! Why not just send out some questionnaires or get some data online? Take a break young girl!” My latter answer worked better, because people were more open when they knew this was for my homework, not some mysterious research projects.

I have to confess that I was tired of traveling around and talking to people from now and then. But, I always felt happy talking to people and listening to them sharing their thoughts and feelings with me. Here was a new person, somebody I didn’t really know about, yet he/she was willing to communicate with me. Sounded like magic. Each of them had an individual world with them. I was fortunate enough to visit sixty-eight different worlds in two months, and I was pretty satisfied that I now had a chance to understand the larger world through so many diverse lenses. For some of the worlds, if it was not because of the interviews, I would never be able to imagine them. Communication is indeed beautiful.

Again, on Situatedness

I have mixed feelings towards Chapter I in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life[1], written by Erving Goffman. This chapter, Performances, talks about different ways people perform under various social conditions. Some of the words truly resonate with my personal experiences, while others are more surprising in a negative sense. Example for the latter one includes how Goffman talks about women on Page 61 (“… but there are many social contexts in which it would be improper for a woman not to misrepresent herself as being more youthful and sexually attractive than is really the case”). I decide to understand these ideas as typical productions of its time, which is more than 60 years earlier.

I’m both impressed and disturbed by this statement on page 57:

“Under our published principles and plighted language we must assiduously hide all the inequalities of our moods and conduct, and this without hypocrisy, since our deliberate character is more truly ourself than is the flux of our involuntary dreams.”

Even if Goffman explicitly states “this without hypocrisy”, I am still able to sense the uneasiness of putting on one or more social masks. This is because I’m the kind of person who often feels anxious of my own performance when there are people around. Thoughts revolve in my mind are like “did I just say something improper”, “oh I hope I didn’t make that gesture”, “I really have to be aware of my behavior next time”, etc. This anxiety can be intensified in strange environment or when facing somebody with more power or higher social status. However, what comes together with anxiety is a longing for being my true self under any kind of situation, and then hopefully being accepted and loved as who I truly am. I believe I’m not the only person who dreams of this.

Technology and HCI have a saying here. They contribute to people’s being themselves by supporting new technologies that allow people to reflect and improve, such as apps for focusing and fitness tracker. But this go beyond simply developing apps or devices. Allowing people to reveal themselves truly without fear and anxiety means technology should be less intimidating and more inclusive. This again goes back to the idea I mention throughout this entire semester: situatedness. To design and develop technology with more empathy requires a close look on different persons. How do they behavior under different situations? How can technologies support people more situately?

Why I am so much into situatedness is because I think this world can be improved by people’s awareness and acceptance to each other as different individuals. I strongly believe that technology has something to do here. Therefore, I am responsible of taking care of this as a researcher, no matter how little I can actually contribute.

[1] Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, New York, NY.