Wednesday, 7 May 2014

RQ Series: Academic mentoring through your PHD

I strongly believe in all kinds of mentoring and coaching approaches that enhance one' capacity to deliver and develop in their careers. In fact, I find myself doing this all the time. My list of mentees keep growing every other day.  But in the PHD context, I have been actively looking out for mentoring/coaching opportunities through this journey.
Those who have met me in the last five months, might have noted my words: "This is the most selfish project of my life". You barely listen to the outside world- unless of course its your supervisor. The project is yours, you practically own your assistant’s ideas, and whatever he/she do in the field, is dependent on the instructions you give them. For a social researcher like myself, I even own the conversations. 
How then do you allow an external figure to mentor/coach through such a personal and private academic venture. Here is how I have been managing. 
1. I talk to other people. A lot. I actively look out for mentoring/coaching opportunities by sharing what I am doing in my research, especially with people whom I think might be interested- for academic and professional purposes. The most important action for you to be able to do so, is to always have your one-minute research pitch on your finger tips. Their responses have always had a significant contribution to my research and academic life.  The context of where you meet them, and how the conversation starts does not really matter, as long as they are able to constructively respond to your research pitch. I remember when I was assisting a senior government officer with social media platforms, we got into the conversation of my theoretical framework. He at length, gave me advice on how to work around it, and assured me that this will forever be work in progress. At least I no longer feel guilty that I have never finalized my theoretical framework, and I have been now read his PHD thesis to understand further what he meant. Another incidence was when I was trying to address research ethics procedures (permit letters and all that stuff) at one of the government offices, we went for hours with one of the staff discussing why I was doing this research and of what relevance it would be to the county government. I was surprised that, despite her busy schedule she later on followed up with a phone and email conversation on the issues we discussed. Happy me!
2. Be ready to acknowledge critique in your research- especially when its coming from a more experienced person. Last week, I met this senior consultant with an American company who challenged my research methods. On hearing that I was a UK PHD student; because we actually met at a strategic meeting for NGOs! He wanted to hear clear details of my methodology. Of course, it would have been o.k. for me to snob  him, after all he is not my supervisor, and I might never interact with him again. I nevertheless took the effort to try explain to him that I was a Qual' researcher, and I was using Content analysis. "Bullshit!" was his response which made me instantly na├»ve. I then took the opportunity to get a free research methods coaching lesson over his lunch, which was later followed by a list of names of authors, websites etc that would help me quantify my qualitative data. I now have enrolled on an online research methods course, I am reading on how to categorically analyse my data - so that I will emerge with both qual' and quant’ research skills at the end of this PHD. I think this is the best impromptu mentoring I ever got! I would be quite offended by how he confronted me, but I did appreciate his frankness- and even his willingness to help me assemble my datasets into workable variables- mind you he is not working as a researcher, he just happened to like helping desperate students in #phdcrisis 
3. Listen to your supervisors- not because they supervise you, but because they also qualify to be mentors. During the last meeting with one of my super supervisors I was challenged to address the issue of terminologies I have been using in my research, redesign my research to address sampling techniques and generalizability of my findings. I was struck by the immense advice I got on these areas- an effort that I think went beyond supervision. I could only appreciate the effort to take this as a mentoring opportunity (and not a supervision session) to my ability to understand when someone is giving me confidence to improve on my weak areas. 
4. Keep in touch with professionals practising in your own field. I barely have time for myself- I mean I am myelf alreay J. Maybe its because the few free days I have are spent meeting people practising in my field of research. Not only do I get challenged by what is currently happen on ground, but our conversations also get to sharpen my research ideas and their perspectives. I would call this a sort of peer mentoring as it benefits both of us.
5. Not everyone is a positive influencer. It is good to know from a start that not all those who appear to be good mentors will actually deliver. There are those who are only going to give you a dark end for your research and will challenge you to do less. There are those who will not be comfortable with your research, but have nothing better to offer. Be keen, and only listen to those who have something constructive to contribute to your #phdcrisis.
6. Read widely- Including reading from www.phdcomics.com        

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