Stocktake- PhD Life Updates

Summer 🌞 One thing I really like about university life is chunking the year into seasons. This makes looking at the year and goal-setting more manageable, and creates natural moments to take stock.

This post is partially meant for social workers (or those in similar professions) who are considering whether to embark on a PhD. Oftentimes, I hesitate to introduce myself as a social worker. While I am still a registered social worker, am I still fulfilling the profession’s mission to enhance human well-being? An important thing to consider if you value your professional identity- after all, most of us chose this profession for a reason. So in this stocktake cum PhD life updates, I’d be writing about the things I’m currently involved in- and how they are guided by my personal-professional values and beliefs about working for the common good in society.

First up would be the purely academic stuff that give me the space and reason to pursue the other stuff. For this reason, I rank the PhD as one of the top priorities in my life now. What this means isn’t that I am constantly thinking about it or rushing to complete my dissertation. Rather, I do well enough in my qualifying exam and have ‘enough’ to account for my progress in the annual progress reports- which gives me the flexibility to pursue other things in my time as a ‘PhD candidate’.

I am lucky (?) that my department doesn’t require a whole lot of publications as a graduation requirement. Again, this gives me the flexibility to do what I want- which largely does not involve writing/proofreading manuscripts or doing data analysis on the computer. Of course, I don’t hate research. It is one of those *super* difficult things that gives you much frustration in the process, but also innate satisfaction when it clicks into place and you see the results. It can also be exciting to think about how I am contributing to knowledge creation in a ‘frontier’ area, as when I am researching on a relevant social issue like suicides among non-residents in Singapore or supervision of social work supervisors. It is a privilege to be able to work on these side-projects with more experienced field experts and academics; not least because of the access to data that is so difficult for a young researcher like me!

Outside of my direct research area, I also try to read widely so that I can gain knowledge and perspectives in a broad range of things pertaining to advancing the common good in society. Sounds super nerdy, but I do enjoy learning 🤓 Some current reads:

  • Homo Deus (reading this as a continuation from Homo Sapiens)- I think the author oversimplifies a whole lot of things but it presents an interesting worldview on world history and future. Notably, it has got me thinking about bioethics and how society as a whole would need to (re)negotiate limits to technology to upgrade one’s body by those with resources and ensure that social inequality is managed.
  • Building Resilient Neighborhoods in Singapore: The Convergence of Research, Policies and Practice– Still halfway through. But I like this book for its multidisciplinary perspective on building social resilience in neighborhoods. Also how it highlights that for all the proliferation of non-spatial communities like interest and religious groups, the spatial neighborhood is an important form of community. Incidentally, I am hosting a workshop on Singapore’s ordinary-extraordinary neighbors as part of a ground-up National Day party!

I’d be introducing zentangle along the way for the workshop too haha… feels a little crazy when I’d just picked it up at random 2 months ago! My participation in this ground-up party came from my recent membership in A Good Space, Singapore’s first cooperative uniting diverse people who care about tackling the social issues in our midst. Basically they are all the people that my research on civil participation is interested in 🤩 That aside, more importantly I joined it to be plugged into this civil society space where I can observe the different initiatives, tap into possible collaborations and overall find my space in this entire tapestry.

When I applied for the PhD and got the scholarship for my program, it reinforced my desire to contribute back to the society in Hong Kong in some way. 2019 as a new arrival was a difficult time, as I sought to make sense of what was happening in HK. Perhaps that was also why the NGOs I reached out to didn’t get back. And then COVID struck… But come 2021, I was really happy to finally find an NGO where I could put my professional skills into some use and that aligned with my values as well. I have been involved in outreaches to sex workers and managers in the red-light district, befriending them so that we can be the channel to link them to help and resources. I feel especially happy to hear of sex workers who were forced into the industry for different reasons rediscover their passion in other things. At the same time, this volunteering experience has opened my eyes to the intersection of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and poverty. Some of the ladies come from countries where large swathes of their populations live in poverty, while others fell into dire straits and felt that sex work was the only option to support their families. Oftentimes I’d feel quite overwhelmed hearing about their stories, and yet inspired that so many are mothers who’re working hard to provide for their children/families. It makes me think about how the NGO could also focus on fixing the broken system rather than this ‘slow’ person-by-person approach.

This conundrum of aiming for policy/systemic change which tackles the conditions that create or perpetuate the social issue, VS helping individuals and families affected by the social issue is something that constantly returns to me. How effective is advocacy in influencing policies? How many of the individuals and families helped would be ‘successful’ in leaving the cycle? These are big questions that deserve examination by both academia and civil society actors.

Reflecting on all these, I guess I’m pretty happy with where I am now; albeit slightly anxious at the state of progress for my research (only 10 survey responses at present 😨) + the uncertainty of whether I can find a good career fit after this PhD that resolves the inner tension from the above conundrum. Ending this post with a reminder for those who are questioning/exploring like me:

She laughs because she knows we will not find on the other side.

Oh no, what we’re looking for? We find as we go.

Morgan Harper Nichols, in How Far You Have Come

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