The apprentice

It makes one year that I’ve started my PhD here in Scotland. To complete my previous post about how it has radically changed my life, I would also like to pay tribute to this academic year, as I realise today how much I have learned, not so much in terms of the knowledge I’ve gathered regarding the topic of my research, but more in terms of understanding what it means to do a PhD.

The main reason that lead me to move to Edinburgh was to start a PhD at the Centre for Social Informatics within the IIDI at Edinburgh Napier University. There are not that many universities in Europe where one can undertake a PhD in the field of Knowledge Management. Even less in the new field of Information Sciences. So when I found out that I had an opportunity to do so in Scotland, I didn’t hesitate for long. Of course, I had a rather broad idea of what a PhD consist of (a question I was being asked while applying for my studentship), but honestly, it is only when I started to live the experience of my PhD studies, that I realised what it was all about. I’m certainly not at the end of my discoveries, regarding the fact that it only makes one year that I’ve started.

What have I learned so far?

Journals vs. books

I’ve always considered  books as the ultimate source of knowledge (next to people, of course), and therefore, I thought I would have to read a lot of them. Well, it is not quite so, as the priority is to grasp what is being discussed in the academic literature among researchers. Books are still useful, especially those that compile scholars’ different point of views, or those which allow me to go back to the fundamentals of the theories I’m studying. However, none of them provides the live and updated discussion that I can find in academic journals, where the fundamental theory is being questioned, discussed, criticised, compared or investigated.

Criticism vs. description

To understand the difference between the two, and to realise that I had to adopt the idea of being critical in my writing rather than descriptive, has been one of the major shifts that occurred during my doctoral apprenticeship. Descriptions are sometimes still needed, but the point is to learn to position ourselves among the researchers, as we are meant to become one of them. This is not about being negatively judgemental, it is about analysing, evaluating and sometimes emphasising contradictions, but always with consideration for the scholars of course. I am still learning, and I really do feel like an apprentice to my supervisors who kindly and patiently try to bring me back to the right path of academic writing. It is a long journey. Often arduous, enjoyable at times, especially when everything starts to make sense. Despite the fact that I can’t imagine the final destination yet, I still have the hope that this process will lead me to the achievement of my thesis.

Room desk

Academic networking

I’ve always believed in networking, and have been practising it for many years. Quite naturally at first, because I’m a social type of a person: meaning that not only I don’t mind to meet new people, I even enjoy it.  Secondly, with the years passing by, I became more aware of its strengths, if not power, as I’ve witnessed so many times the numerous benefits it can bring (new partnerships, new jobs opportunities, counselling, support, etc.). To network within the academic context I am part of, has therefore been quite enjoyable. To me, the main objectives are:

  1. to be engaged within a community of scholars (Professors, researchers and other PhD students) who could one day potentially become my colleagues,
  2. to meet academics with whom I can (finally) discuss my research,
  3. to find potential ‘candidates’ who could be part of my empirical research,
  4. to discover the existence of similar studies close to mine.

Networking occurs in conferences, workshops, social events, but also on online networks such as Research Gate, Twitter, LinkedIn, or even Mendeley, to name a few. Today, we are lucky enough to live in a much more connected world than it used to be thirty years ago (before Internet was launched). I am therefore convinced that it is worthy to take advantage of these new technical possibilities which foster our social skills on a worldwide scale.

Academic writing vs. BBC style

The day one of my supervisors told me that my text was written in a BBC style, I was flattered. For a few second only. Indeed, I first thought it was a compliment until I realised that it wasn’t (after all, English is a language I had to learn as I’m a French native speaker). I guess I was trying to make my point by using a slightly dramatic tone which in academic writing doesn’t really has its place. Academic writing requires to adopt a specific style that demands a dexterity I am still struggling to learn. It is not about using complicated expressions just for the sake of it. It is rather about finding the right style that will allow me to discuss a complex and abstract topic, while being able to be clear and understandable.

There is a lot of debate among academics (and occasionally with the media) about how the academic literature can appear heavy sometimes. Not a long time ago, I read an article on the Atlantic that caught my attention as it precisely criticises ‘The needless [according to the author] of academic writing.’ I’ve had the chance recently to discuss the topic of this article with a lecturer (for whom I have a lot of respect) and who’s regularly available to help students with their own writings. He reminded me that ‘academic writing cannot be separated from its content and that the more complex the content often the more dense the writing is’ while a content that is poorly organised or communicated is of course not advisable. A point of view that I entirely share.

One of my supervisors also told me that I could be more passionate in my writing, which confused me and made me wonder even more… So here I am today, left with this question in my mind, as I keep on striving to progress: how can I make my writing both academic and passionate at the same time (and therefore not boring)? I guess time will help, and most of all, the ongoing process of writing until the day I will be able to find my own (academic) voice.


More skills will be gathered. I’m thinking right now about the empirical research I will undertake within a few months, with the semi-structured interviews and online surveys, and all the analysis process that will follow. Nonetheless, I’m glad to realise everything I have learnt so far, and look forward to move on into the discovery of this unknown path, sometimes scary, yet quite fascinating, of doing a PhD with the humbleness and curiosity of an apprentice.

One magical year

It already makes one year that I’ve started my PhD here in Scotland, so in order to pay tribute to the amazing time I’ve had so far, I will first express myself on a personal note, before writing a post related to my research.

A jump in the unknown

One year ago, I arrived in Edinburgh to start my PhD at the Centre of Social Informatics within the Institute of Informatics and Digital Innovation (IIDI) at the Edinburgh Napier University. An entire year might seem to be a long time to some people, but to me, these twelve months passed at warp speed.

© OshoInternationalFoundation.

One year ago, my life has totally changed, since I left behind my work and my colleagues, my friends and my family, my flat and my hometown; in short, my country. It was my choice of course. However, it was also a jump in the unknown. In fact, it wasn’t completely my choice, I would rather specify that  it was my decision to say ‘yes’ to what Life had unexpectedly put in front me: to start a PhD in Scotland. I’ve always had the intention to visit this beautiful land, thinking that it would make a nice destination for holidays, but never did it cross my mind that I would live here one day. I did consider to start a PhD a few years ago, but after having failed to make my wish come true in Amsterdam (for severe health issues), I pushed this idea to the back of my mind, considering that it was just a nice dream which already belonged to the past.

I was wrong.

The force of the network

A fortunate look at my LinkedIn group newsletters one morning, allowed me to come across one ad that immediately caught my attention: a full-time studentship was offered to PhD candidates by the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University within the Center of Social Informatics directed by the Professor Hazel Hall, in areas related to ‘knowledge management‘ and ‘information sciences‘, my professional fields…

As much as the idea of going to Scotland seemed illusory at the time, I felt deep inside that there was ‘something’ there, that couldn’t simply be dismissed. It took me two weeks to decide if I would apply, as I first needed to check if my application was likely to go through the selection process, and if those who are close to me were opened to the possibility that I would actually establish myself in the UK. Finally, I had two weeks left to submit my thesis proposal and application, (taking into account that I was working and busy during the week-ends). To my surprise, I was invited for an interview, and as I couldn’t adjust my schedule to meet the professors face-to-face in Edinburgh, I had no other choice but to do it via Skype.

Skype interview

I will never forget how much I was worried about the risk of not being able to understand what would be discussed (not only for the  content of my thesis, but also for being able to understand the varied English accents, something I was expecting to be quite challenging, or any technical issues that could occur in the middle of the talk). It was a weird feeling to see these five professors talking to me while I was sitting in my kitchen (even more weird to discover the room where the interview actually did occur afterwards), but the funniest anecdote that I will never forget is how I tried to (hopefully) look properly dressed up on the visible and upper part of my body, while I was actually dressed in a home edition, and barefoot. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stand up during the meeting, and had the good idea to quickly remove my cookbooks just before being logged in…

The moment of choice

I was at work when I received the e-mail from the Director of IIDI, and could hardly believe what I was reading: I was being offered a full-time studentship to start my PhD in Edinburgh, starting in October 2014. Needless to say that I was feeling exhilarated by the news! Following my partner’s advice, I still allowed myself to sleep over it before confirming my will to accept the offer and move on with the expatriation process.

This moment was the most important one to my eyes, because I could still say ‘no, thanks but actually no, I rather keep on with my life…‘, but when I did put myself in the position of saying ‘yes’ (a simple but efficient Gestalt technique), I felt like a powerful life stream was going through my back, inviting me to just let go, to  go with the flow. Even though I was well aware of what it meant (to leave everything behind me, and deal with all the administrative, concrete and emotional efforts it would imply in the three months to follow), even though I had no idea where I would land, even though I was scared by the unknown, I intuitively knew, that it was the right decision to take. Some may call it an act of faith, for me, it was simply saying yes to Life. And of course, I didn’t regret it…

flat4

Where the magic happens

The price to pay for the happiness I’ve gained, was to accept to be away from those I love. Not an easy choice at a first sight, but when I recall all these years where I’ve been desperately longing for a major change to happen (which implicitly meant that it had to be abroad), and when I realise that my life has indeed improved so greatly in so many levels since then, my heart is filled with gratitude.

Magic happens out of our comfort zone‘, to quote the famous (and anonymous?) saying. Indeed, this year has been magical, despite the inevitable ups and downs that one needs to face on a daily basis. As soon as I stepped out of the plane, I knew that I was home. A feeling quickly confirmed (if needed) by the gigantic ad that one can admire when coming out of Edinburgh airport that simply writes  ‘this is home’.

Welcome

I can’t emphasize enough how much my life has improved since I arrived in Edinburgh. I live in a beautiful flat (3d floor, with a view on Arthur seat, the castle and the Meadows), in the lovely area named Marchmont (feels like living in an old village, a bit like Greenwich in NYC, but without the noise), only twenty minutes walk from the university campus (no need to endlessly commute in public transports anymore); I work with such great and so friendly colleagues with whom I’m happy to share my student life, including the over-heated room and the drinks (wink).

I’m fortunate enough to be supervised by my amazing director of studies whose reputation and academic expertise are as big as her loving support and kindness, and lucky enough to benefit from a second supervisor whose wise advises and endless trust in my abilities are certainly comforting; my health has improved as I’ve discovered the unexpected joy of going to the gym (it’s amazing how many fitness one can find here in this city), and my finances, despite the rather low income we get with our studentship, is better than it has ever been, since I finally managed to get out of my financial struggles in Switzerland. Oh, and let’s not forget the proximity of nature, the beauty of landscapes, the seagulls that remind me that nope, I’m not dreaming, I really do live next to the sea (!), the kindness of Scottish people that I keep on finding disarming, and last but not least, my recent engagement with my partner who will join me here, hopefully very soon.

Meadows

Of course, this new life isn’t always smooth and easy: to undertake a PhD is a challenge by itself, the topic I chose isn’t quite easy to grasp (but which one is?), moreover I have no choice but to do it in English. And even so, it is unbelievable how much I have learned in one year (more of these learning outcomes will be presented in my next post).

The future remains unknown, but I’m not afraid of it. Despite the fact that I’m not sure why I’ve landed here, I’m actually excited and curious to find it out. In such environment, in such magical city, in such a sacred land, surrounded by so many beautiful people, I suspect things are likely to go pretty well.