Doctoral Journeys: Alo Ehimiaghe (DPhil in Education)

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This is the third in a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex.  The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.

In this recording, Alo Ehimiaghe (DPhil in Development Studies) talked to Profolio 2008 participants.


So my name is Alo, and I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my experiences as a doctoral student, and how academic communities have played a part in my professional development. And, I find it hard when I use the word professional development, I’d never really thought about it until I started attending Profolio, and, true to its name, they’ve actually helped me make sense of my professional development and how my DPhil experience has really helped me become who I am as a professional today. So before I go on to really talking about my research management and the academic community networks, I’ll just tell you briefly about my research. I’m looking at perceptions of poverty and coping strategies of the poor, and I’m doing a comparative analysis of this between rural and urban areas, and like most people I have a lot of objectives for my research, but the central aim is to understand how poor people cope with poverty, and how their livelihoods and their social networks create a platform for their coping strategies.

So, I’ve divided my presentation into three areas: the first is the research management; the second is opportunities and constraints that I’ve had to face and come up with; and the final thing is the skills I’ve developed, and what I have planned for the next phase of my life.

So, on research management, the one critical thing – and I’m sure this is the same for many professions – is managing your time. One thing I found is that when you start your PhD, you think you have three years to do your PhD, you have forever to do your PhD, but it goes a lot faster than you think, and before you know it you find yourself in the final year thinking ‘Where has all that time gone to?’, so you have to really manage your time very well. And one of the things my supervisor (I hope I’m not speaking too fast…? Ok) made me do was to come up with a period plan, of when I wanted to have reached certain landmarks during the course of my research. And I know most departments have as a requirement for your research outline that you have a period plan at the end. But the thing is that most people do this on paper, and they don’t really imbibe their period plan in their head, and they’re not really conscious of it, but it’s important that you’re actually conscious of it. And you can manage your time on several levels: you can do it daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. Personally, weekly and monthly targets have worked best for me, and at the moment I have only a few months left to finish my PhD, so I’m having to really work on a very active target-led basis, because I have a very short time left.

Now the other thing about managing your research is managing the resources you have, apart from time which is probably the most valuable resource. You have your articles you have to read, you have your colleagues you interact with, you have your supervisor. And one thing about the articles, for example: in my first year, my research is covering three broad areas – I’m looking at poverty, livelihood and safety nets. But what I did was, I spent too much time on reading up about poverty and livelihood, and I didn’t really read much about safety nets. So now in my final year, I’ve had to go back and do more literature reviews to solidify my conceptual framework. But thankfully, a new article came out last year that has made modifications to the framework I plan on using, so it’s worked out in my favour, but I wouldn’t advise you to try that. It’s easy to just read so much on one particular area, and you don’t actually read as much as you can, and you’re just focusing on something, so it’s best to read as much as you can, and not just be too biased in your reading.

Another useful resource is the internet. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet, but my advice is not to get distracted with all the information out there. Try and get your ideas and your research topic really refined and focused before you go out looking for so much information, because it can actually confuse you more than even help you sometimes, so my advice is to stay focused and not get distracted.

And on your colleagues, I was saying to Catherine that I actually have this inner circle-thing I have in my head. You have your immediate environment whilst you’re doing your research, and the first and probably the most comfortable interactions you’ll have are with your colleagues; and not just your peers, but those who are higher than you are. One of the mistakes I made, one of the things I didn’t do that I should have done, was to have a mentor who was ahead of me and someone I could pick their brains on things, on challenges I’ve had to face and that they probably faced and have overcome. So it’s good to make friends with your colleagues at all levels from your peers to those who are higher than you, and share your experiences with them share your research tools with them, share conferences you’re planning to attend, or seminars you haven’t attended, or things that are happening within your research. For example, one of my colleagues told me about an online community called the Development Studies (??) community, and ever since I joined the community it’s actually been one of the most useful resources I’ve had within my focus. It’s kept me updated with how thinking patterns in my research are evolving, so it’s actually been a very useful that I wouldn’t have found out if I wasn’t speaking to my colleagues. And it was – we just had a normal office chat, it wasn’t any heavy contextual (?) chat, it was just a normal conversation, and he said ‘Oh, have you heard about this community?’ So it’s actually really useful to interact with your colleagues, both the ones on the same level, and the ones higher than you. The good thing with your colleagues on the same level is that they’re evolving just as much as you’re evolving, so they’re facing similar challenges, everyone is (???) to the whole research process, and no one is quite there yet, everyone is still changing. So it’s a comfortable area for you to interact with them.

And then you have your supervisors. Personally, I’ve been blessed with a very good supervisor, she’s very understanding, and I’m probably one of the very few people that only have one supervisor. Most people I know have two supervisors, it’s actually a requirement that you have two supervisors. Some people cope well with having two supervisors, others don’t cope just as well, but again my advice is to be open to their suggestions because they’ve been in research longer than we have been. They’re more aware of what’s out there and how – what is expected and what (???). And they’re thinking of the examiners as well, and they have their reputations to think about as well. So be open to their suggestions, but at the same time, stay focused on what you want to research on, and don’t let them make you deviate so much, but be open to them changing your pattern changing your pattern or just sharing their own advice to you, don’t just block them completely.

On seminars, my advice is to go for as many seminars as you can, especially in your first year. What the relevant seminars, and the seemingly irrelevant seminars, go for them, and one thing they do is, they help you identify yourself as part of an academic community. You start to see familiar faces every now and then, and you know each other’s, you know, researches within this field. So go for them as much as you can, especially in your first year, because that’s when you have probably the most time you’ll ever have during the course of your PhD. By the time you get to your final year, your research topic has been defined, you’re more precise on what you’re researching, and you have more experience, so you can be more selective about the seminars you go to. But I would encourage you to make it a very welcome part of your schedule, so go for as many seminars as you can. It opens up your – it expands your horizons and it helps stimulate your thinking as well. I just came from a research gateway that SoCul organises and Professor Richard Black was saying to us that a lot of his ideas actually came from attending seminars and thinking about things, and it’s never actually been from his head, like organically, it’s actually been come from interactions with people on the corridors, over lunch, in places you probably would never even think about. So welcome these interactions as much as you can, they really help make a difference in your research development. And another thing that seminars and career talks and things like Profolio do for you is, they help expand your breadth and deepen your depth as an academic person, so you’re more exposed to what is expected of you, how research is evolving, how thinking patterns are evolving in your research and if you’re on the right path that ??. It really helps keep you in check almost, it’s a very, very useful resource to have as a PhD student. And the other thing is, the PhD process is as isolating as can be, but you don’t have to isolate yourself. There are opportunities out there for you to make use of. Sussex is a really wonderful place for resources. They have even – if you want to know how to use Excel, for example, or Powerpoint, whatever it is you need to know, you don’t have to isolate yourself from these opportunities that are out there, they’re out there and you just need to find them and use them and go for seminars and talks like this.

Interrupt if you have any questions or anything you want to say.

Another thing: I’ve talked mainly about the local opportunities. There are also a lot of opportunities nationally as well, and the internet is probably the most useful resource for that. Join communities, even other universities, if there’s a research institute join their mailing list, so you get weekly emails or however often they send emails, just to keep you aware of what ?? are happening, the things that are happening outside your institutions, so you’re not just limiting yourself to Sussex, but other institutions that are doing leading research in your field, so you’re not just staying within the local setting, you’re opening up yourself, and comparing yourself – not necessarily comparing like seeing if you’re better than other people but just knowing what’s happening out there, not just limiting yourself really.

Then, there’s also – there are many books you can read, for example I’m reading a book called How to Author a PhD by Patrick Donleavy, and it’s a really useful resource on how to structure your PhD, how to organise your thoughts, how to disseminate your findings. It really helps you bring out your PhD a lot better than you probably would have if you’re not reading books like that, or using resources that help you organise your PhD. So I advise reading books – self-help books if you like – to help you really do a good PhD.

And if you have opportunities to teach, it’s a really good opportunity to teach, because it helps you go back to the basics of your field, and how you disseminate your thoughts and your experience or your findings, your knowledge about certain issues, to younger minds, if you like. And it’s a good opportunity to practice communication skills or interpersonal skills, especially when you have a wide variety of students. One of my classes, I have a very cynical student, and I always have to bring him back in line. He has a way of making the class deviate from the topic we are talking about. I always have to find a way of bringing him back. It’s a really good opportunity for you to manage people. On the skills I’ve developed, I think the one thing you get from doing a PhD is you become a really good project manager. And the thing with the PhD is you become your own internal authority, so you’re the one setting your targets, you’re the one planning your time, planning how your research will shape you, you’re like the CO of your own research. You have to move from a student to a CO, so you become a manager of your own project. So it really helps develop your project management skills, and it helps you use resources effectively. You also learn how to coordinate things, because you’re having to do different chapters, you’re working on one chapter today, and the next thing you’re working on another chapter. You have to make everything be in sync with one another, so it helps enhance your coordination skills.

For me I’ve had to learn IT skills. One of the packages I’m using is an econometric software called STATA, and it’s a useful resource. For example in the World Bank there’s a unit where they use STATA extensively for the research they do, so I’ve had to learn – I used it on my Masters degree but (??) as advanced as I’ve had to use it now. So having to learn how to use that package was very useful for me. So there are many skills you develop: IT skills, interpersonal skills, and most of the skills you develop actually come from the opportunities you open yourself up to. If you don’t teach, or you don’t go for seminars, or you don’t come for things like this, it’s really hard to make sense of any skills you’re developing, so it’s actually – things like this help you make sense of it, or make it more concrete or develop it better, make you understand the skills you’re developing and how you’re evolving as a researcher.

Finally, there are some questions they sent me that I shall answer as a way of – to inform this presentation. One of the questions was: have I had to overcome any difficulty over the course of my research. The main difficulty I’ve had to overcome is in my motivation and my drive in the PhD process, especially after having dealt with a family tragedy and coming back to the PhD process. I had a break, intermission, so (??). I had a really understanding supervisor – supportive friends and family, so now I’m back on track. That’s the main challenge I’ve had to face, dealing with my motivation and my drive. The other challenge was fine-tuning my data to meet academic standards, because my supervisor’s an economist, they’re very thorough in their standards, so I’ve had to really meet very thorough academic standards, and not just do things off the top of my head. I’ve had to prove that I’m doing some serious academic work and sometimes it’s a bit too much, but I just want to discuss what’s in my head, I don’t have to meet what some researcher has done before. So having to fine-tune my data to really thorough academic standards has been one of the challenges I’ve had to face. But thankfully I’ve done a lot of reading, and the more you read actually the better it is for you, and one way you know you’ve read enough is when you start seeing the same thing over and over again, you know you’ve read enough on that issue so you can move on to the next thing. And you have to think as well, like, always think, share your ideas with people, brings so many people, because it’s one thing to think about it in your head, it’s another thing to actually interact with people and tell them what you’re thinking about and see what they think about it as well. It’s good to have a bit of a mini-community or someone else you can brainstorm your ideas with. So with a lot of thinking and interaction with people, it helps you overcome certain challenges that you might be dealing with.

Another question they ask is, tips I’ve learnt along the way. And one thing I would say is always have the bigger picture in mind. Another thing is, if you can, get a mentor, get someone you can brainstorm with, don’t be so isolated, like I said already it’s a very isolated process. Try to interact with at least one person, or be part of a community. And, finally, welcome challenges and opportunities. The PhD is not like it’s a problem-solving – it’s a process, you’re evolving, you’re getting better, you’re confidence is increasing. It’s not some impossible task, it’s something that can be done. And if you’ve been allowed to start it, if you’ve been counted worthy to start a PhD then I’m sure you can see it to the final end; to be open to the challenges, the opportunities, embrace as much as you can whilst you’re doing the PhD.

Things I knew now that I wish I knew in my first year: I started with a very ambitious research plan, I was over-ambitious, and I had to narrow it down. I spent a long time re-thinking, ok, do I want to look at this or look at that. Because I started so ambitious I had to spend some time narrowing down, but the narrower you can get your research the better for you, because it gives you more time to focus and to really expand on that particular thing you’re focusing on. So, if I had know that it would have been better. And the other thing is, I wish I had taken my PhD as seriously as I’m taking it now – I was so relaxed, it seemed really easy in my first year. The Masters was a lot harder than the first year PhD, so I was really relaxed. I wish I was a lot more serious than that in my first year than I was then. Now I’m more aware of the expectations of a PhD student. On the one hand there are a lot of expectations for you to do a really good job and a thorough academic job because you’re basically joining an academic club at the end of the PhD, so they want to be sure you’ve gone through the initiation rites and you’ve actually become, you know you’re worthy to be called an academic, so there are expectations from you. But on the other hand, they’re not expecting a Nobel prize winner, they just want you to show you’ve gone through the rigours of research and you can carry out independent research on your own. I’m more aware of the expectations of a PhD student now than I was at the beginning, so it’s helped shape how I’ve done my research and how I’ve gone through the process. And you can think of the PhD as one way for you to take off your career from.

It’s a beautiful experience I have to say. At the end of (??) I’m still smiling because it’s a – I don’t know, it’s been a good experience. I enjoy the flexibility of the PhD (?) – it’s really a flexible process. You can work at your own pace. If you’re not a 9-5 person, for example, or you don’t like people telling you what to do, a PhD’s one thing you can do by yourself, and no one interrupts your processes so much, so it gives you that flexibility.

I hope I’ve not spoken too much!

It’s not so beautiful sometimes, but the end justifies the means.

I’m in my final year, I have ‘till September, so about five-six months to go now.

Oh yeah, every day I’m writing.

It’s intense, because I’m having to think every day. I’m always editing and editing throughout. I’m reading as I’m writing as well, so it’s not bad.

I’ve had to do some parts of my literature review at the end, but I advise you do as much as you can in the first year, because it helps you design a better fieldwork process, like your questionnaires, or however you want to collect you data. Because it’ll be worse if you collect your data and you find you didn’t collect data on certain things you really want to answer, so the more literature review you can do at the beginning, the better your fieldwork, the better your data collection, and the better analysis you can produce out of the fieldwork process. For example, now I’ve done my safety-net literature review so many questions I wish I asked in my questionnaire I included but I didn’t include because I didn’t do as much thorough literature review at the start.

I get a lot of emails about job opportunities but I just never respond to them because I can’t combine working and doing my PhD at the same time, but I realise that at the end of my PhD, I don’t want to come out looking like I’ve just done one thing and I haven’t really had a diversified portfolio if you like. So I saw a job opportunity for a researcher, on a project about African migrants, and migration is something I’m interested in as well, so I applied for the job. Basically what I need to do is to recruit a sample of Ghanians and interview them and speak to them about their life histories and how, if their lives as migrants in the UK now has changed; if they had stayed on in Ghana for example, and how, what it’s like living in the UK as a Ghanian, for example, as an African, because it’s supposed to inform African migrants but they’re using Ghanians as an example. And so my fieldwork experience has helped me with this job, conducting interviews and dealing with people being impatient and asking them questions they really don’t want to answer, and things like that.

They say about 18 hours a week, but it’s still really flexible. Right now I’m probably just doing 10-12 hours a week. And the research, the writing up. It hasn’t been exactly easy, but I think I’m trying.

The Sussex Centre for Migration.

It means I’m sleeping a lot less now. I love my sleep, but now I’ve had to cut down. Also Margaret Thatcher only slept for three hours, so I’ve had to cut down my sleep now. I’ve had to give up my sleep, that’s the one thing I’ve had to really cut down on now. I used to sleep a lot before, but now it’s probably six hours. Otherwise I have only, I don’t know, 16 hours a day or even less to work with.

Thank you.


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