By Alvin Leung, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

A conversation that repeatedly happened in my second year of PhD, usually in the corridors of the Faculty of Education:

‘Hey Alvin, how’s your fieldwork?’

‘Hmmm, actually… there isn’t any.’

My dissertation contains no interview or survey data, even though I was a journalist and should be good at interviewing. This option – a theoretical study – appeared to be a relatively rare one among my PhD colleagues. It certainly has its own perks: you don’t need to worry about travel plans and other fieldwork problems, and your friends will probably be jealous of you, because to them you are just sitting in a library all day. 

But, is a theoretical study necessarily easier? No. Sometimes I found it overwhelming to live in my own head in dead silence. Sometimes I doubted the practical value of my theoretical work. Sometimes I worried about my employability. Despite these perpetual worries, I am glad that I passed my final viva with no corrections.

University Library Reading Room

In this first post of two about my PhD journey, I will share with you three things that I learnt from doing a theoretical study. If you are thinking of going down the same route, you will know you are not alone. Even if you are not, these tips are also applicable to writing a literature review. In the next post, I will tell you about an eclectic mix of things that I did to ease my worries with conducting a theoretical study.

Ask whether it answers the research question

Alvin Leung in Scotland

Let me start with something that guided me through my MPhil and PhD: a research question. I was intrigued by the use of ‘national values’ in education policies in recent years; to use my work as an example, the use of ‘British values’ in the UK and ‘Chinese national qualities’ in Hong Kong. Why is ‘respect for teachers’ branded Chinese in curriculum? Why are ‘British values’ as British as fish-and-chips? In short, why were these ‘national values’ and its corresponding ‘nation’ used in education policy texts?

To answer the research question, I could have decided to collect interview and survey data. I could have spent time in schools to observe the implementation of the policies. I could have interviewed teachers and policymakers to map the power relations and their intentions. I could have conducted a survey on Britishness.

While the above options were possible, I didn’t think they could answer my question sufficiently. They could not explain why ‘national values’ and ‘nation’ were used in the texts. I believe that policy texts, as well as curriculum documents, can tell us a story of ‘our nation’. They want us to believe in it. They speak a governing discourse. The existence of a research question was important throughout my study. I kept a notebook and took it with me to the library every day. On a page with a yellow flag sticking out, there was the question – and under it the sub-questions – that I wanted to answer in my PhD study. Whenever I was unsure, I flipped to that page and asked myself, ‘am I answering my research question?’

Explore wildly, map your exploration

The major challenge of undertaking a theoretical study is that it requires a different mode of enquiry. It feels like writing a literature review, one that lasts for three to four years. It could feel like you are on a small boat in an immense ocean of knowledge and can easily be carried away. After spending a day with books or reading on your laptop, you feel you have achieved nothing. It is overwhelming, and that is why it is important to keep going back to that page with a yellow flag and your research question. It keeps you focused.

My notebook also contained a log of what I read. The interdisciplinary nature of my research meant that I would be better off if I read materials in areas outside education (such as international relations and geography) and make creative connections among concepts. However, as you might imagine, one could easily get lost in exploring unfamiliar concepts (say, in my case, risk and pre-emption in relation to nation and borders).

To better keep track of my progress, I wrote down on my notebook the names of the books and articles that I read, and I arranged the articles downloaded to my computer by month. Since we, as researchers, may not see the impact of our work as quickly as others, this is a good strategy to remind ourselves of what we have achieved and learnt. Alongside the log, I also drew mind maps to link up articles and concepts, which helped me see new connections between concepts and disciplines.

Talk to people, tell a different story

One major drawback of a theoretical study is that it could be seen as not being in touch with ‘reality’. This is particularly the case for theoretical studies as there is no empirical data such as interviews. My writing on nation and nationhood could thus be accused of being a product of my own ‘imagination’.

One way of overcoming this is to talk to people, not least your ‘critical friends’. I went to conferences both within and outside the area of education studies (political scientists taught me a lot). Reading groups are also very helpful; I shared my understanding of borders in the CPGJ group at the Faculty of Education and received useful feedback – not only from those who supported my viewpoints but also from those who challenged them.

I believe writing a theoretical thesis is similar to writing a story, which might be due to my journalism training. A good story needs to be relatable and partly familiar, as well as exciting and original. In the mind maps and the log of my readings, I found a storyline to answer that question I’d written on that page with a yellow flag. I supported this storyline with as many materials as I could, and then I connected this story with timely events like Brexit and Hong Kong separatism.

A theoretical PhD study contains no interview or survey data, but, in everyday life, many people offer you insights and challenge your thoughts and theories. You probably cannot quote them in your thesis, but you can write down the insights in your notebook, add them to your mind map, and include them in your story.

I was convinced that borders are to estrange newcomers but, at the end of my study, after my holiday in Turkey, a conversation with a border agent at Heathrow challenged my view. He said while stamping my passport,

‘Went on a holiday? Welcome home, Alvin. Well… not home-home, but yea.’

‘Thank you (chuckle).’

Alvin Leung was a Cambridge Trust Scholar. He completed his MPhil in 2014 and PhD in 2018 in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. His work examines the ideas of nation, citizenship and border in education policies in Britain and Hong Kong. During his time in Cambridge, he worked for Underground Mathematics as an Evaluation Assistant. Previously, he also worked as a financial journalist and a schoolteacher. You can know more about his work on his LinkedIn page and contact him by email.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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