Many of us would be happy to hang up our graduation hats upon obtaining an undergraduate degree, eager to leave burning of the midnight oil behind. But for some others, going further in academia serves a specific purpose – to fulfil an intellectual pursuit and to play a part in making an impact in their chosen fields.
We speak to 4 women about embarking on this postgraduate journey, who make no bones about how challenging the journey is, but ultimately, one they have learned to navigate and grown to love.
Punitha Silivarajoo, out of the court and into the woods
Punitha’s journey has followed an interesting path. Her story started in the field of industrial and organisational psychology, in which she obtained a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. This was followed by a degree in law and the Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP). Serendipitously, she chanced upon her true passion – environmental conservation – in a job she was posted to by the sponsor of her Master’s degree, the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water (KeTTHA).
“I started learning about the environment, the threats it is facing, the role of humans in causing such deterioration, and how green technology can play a part in mitigating those impacts,” she says. This ultimately encouraged her to pursue her studies in the environment.
Being an American graduate, Punitha didn’t plan to study in the UK. However, a series of events led her to a PhD in Environmental Policy and Law in London: the appeal of a 3-4 year duration to complete the course compared to 5 in the US, the geographical proximity of the UK to Malaysia, and the reputation of Imperial College London, particularly in the area of natural sciences.
She also shares the challenges she faced. She moved to London with her family, including her 72-year-old mother who needed frequent medical attention. Despite that, Punitha is grateful for how everything came into place: her husband left his own career behind to make the move with her so that he could spend time with their daughter, and her mother always helped out with household chores despite her age. “Without a good support system, it is nearly impossible for me to have completed by PhD journey,” she concludes.
Punitha’s key takeaways:
Have an open mind, never think you know everything, and have a good study-life balance because it’s not about torturing yourself – it’s about enjoying it.
Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif, the anthropologist with a passion for people and places
Having grown up in various places in West Africa and South Asia, Huda has always had a passion for the social sciences. On completing her Honours thesis on polygamy in Malaysia at the University of Western Australia, she says, “I felt like I had unfinished business, and wanted to expand my research.” She discovered anthropology, which she describes as “as much an intellectual pursuit as it was a journey into reacquainting myself with my motherland.”
This led her to a PhD in Social Anthropology at Queen’s College, University of Cambridge. Similar to Punitha, she picked the UK because she wanted to complete it in a shorter period of time, and Cambridge was also was home to one of the leading centres in anthropological teaching and research in addition to some of the founding figures in the field.
“Conducting 14 months of fieldwork – which involved planning, implementing, and budgeting your research project, entirely on my own – was when I matured as a scholar and anthropologist,” she says. She had the impression that doing a PhD involved a lot of reading, writing, and research, but she discovered that it was largely about networking, sharing, and exchanging ideas with others. She found a close group of friends with whom she could have coffee and also discuss the progress of their research. She credits these interactions for helping shape her final thesis.
Huda also stressed on the importance of cultivating interests beyond her PhD, as it gave her something different to look forward to. This is because a PhD is so much more than an intellectual endeavour as she had learned: “It is also a test of the resilience of your spirit, of how well you work under stress, and most importantly, your self-discipline. Much of the work involved in the PhD is self-directed, so you need to keep a sustainable routine, and maintain your level of self-motivation at an optimal level.”
Huda’s key takeaways:
Find something you’re passionate enough about to invest several years of your life in, work on something that’s interesting not only to you but also to others, and choose your course and supervisor well – and she adds, “Basically, consider yourself married to your research!”
Rowena Abdul Razak, woman of the world
From her undergraduate days, Rowena always knew that she wanted to pursue a life in academia. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in History from the School of Oriental & African Studies in the University of London and a Master’s in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London, continuing to a PhD in the UK was a natural choice. In addition, her research interest in British-Iranian relations required the usage of archival material in the UK and being in close proximity to the National Archives at Kew Gardens, the British Petroleum Archives at the University of Warwick, the People’s Archive, and the Labour Party Archive in Manchester was immensely useful. She also chose to go to the University of Oxford so she could work with two particular researchers, who became her supervisors. Plus – you might have guessed it – a PhD in the US would have taken longer too!
Along the way, she found that “a PhD opens many other doors – from international exposure through conferences to amazing opportunities.” While studying, she lectured at the London School of Economics as well as Oxford, and she also wrote for the UK-based history magazine History Today.
The recipient of the Hadid doctoral studentship believes that in order to complete a PhD successfully, one needs three things: “perseverance, patience, and willpower”. She admits that a PhD can be tough, but that “it is a wonderful experience and privilege, not just academically but also personally – you’ll come out knowing yourself really well.”
Looking back, she has a couple of practical tips for PhD hopefuls: “Think hard. Think really hard. Choose your favourite subject. Read three – maybe even more! – relevant books cover to cover and if you’re not bored of it, then you can seriously consider doing a PhD… Also, I wish someone had told me to keep track of references! I got quite lost trying to look for page numbers and full bibliographies.”
Rowena’s key takeaways:
Be ready to be disappointed, and be open to change. She adds, “[Don’t] feel guilty about enjoying life and take in the surroundings – the UK is a perfect place for day trips!”
Iman Ibrahim, the engineer turned environmentalist
Like Punitha, Iman’s path to her PhD was not a straightforward one. She began with a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering, but found her passion over a year later when she ventured into environmental consulting. “Through this experience, I decided that I wanted to specialise in Environmental Policy and Integrated Catchment Management,” she says. “Undertaking a PhD would equip me with the knowledge and skillset to achieve this ambition.
Having been brought up for several years in the UK while her father did his own PhD, Iman decided to return to London, for its rich history, culture, and diversity. “I chose Imperial College because it is one of the world’s top universities,” she explains. “The Centre for Environmental Policy offers great industrial links for research, while providing exposure to experts in all sectors of environmental science from all over the world.”
And she certainly made full use of this opportunity! She first took on her MSc in Environmental Technology there, and ended up doing her research project with a UK water company. Her research was later expanded into a PhD, of which she says has broadened her horizons as she learned how other countries manage the environment through their policies and innovations, as well as the role society plays.
For those thinking about going down this path, Iman recommends to look into the following things: your research topic, the university you want to go to, the supervisor you want to work with, and your funding options. And equally importantly, realise that independence and discipline are two non-negotiable traits required of a PhD candidate. “Doing a PhD can be a very isolated experience, even when you are around other researchers,” she says. “This is due to the fact that only you know the fine details of your research, and the reality is that you will spend many hours of your days over the next three to four years being devoted to it.”
Iman’s key takeaway:
“Always remember that the “Dr.” title in front of your name is a perk, but the true value of a PhD is your contribution to the body of knowledge as well as making a difference.”
To learn more about doing your PhD, head over to the Study UK Malaysia exhibition for a free seminar on 3 March 2018 conducted by Dr. Eric Lou of Manchester Metropolitan University.
Admission to the entire exhibition is free, but online pre-registration is highly recommended – attendees stand a chance to win a ticket for a round trip to London! Click here for the full list of seminars.