Hi, my name is Derk and I am a Malaysian PhD student at the Faculty of Education (EdFac), University of Cambridge. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are about to matriculate for the Master in Philosophy (MPhil) programme at our Faculty. I was in your shoes two years ago, and that’s why I was asked to write this blogpost.
I am sure you are very excited to be in Cambridge, and, knowing that the MPhil degree is really very short (about 10 months), you must be keen to find your feet quickly and make the most out of your limited time. Here’s some advice based on my experience, supplemented by insights from some of my friends*. Please read on:
1) Research Methods Strand (RMS), Thematic Routes & Writing. At our Faculty, we are introduced to research methods and the central concepts of our thematic route in a structured, densely packed way. The workload is manageable, but needs managing. To tackle the RMS, Mike suggests that you should not be shy in asking for handouts and course material beforehand. That way, you can save time documenting content, and jot down notes in a more analytical way, ‘around’ the spine of the session’s content. Explore your Moodle platform, once it’s up and running. Dora advises you to not be afraid of speaking up even if English is not your first language. Ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid of looking silly – participate for the sake of learning and contributing to the group. Oh, and look out for academic writing sessions organized by your College and the Faculty too – they are a great help. Carmen says that those sessions helped her keep on top of her essays, well ahead of deadlines.
2) Supervisions. Your supervisions (one-to-one meetings with a Faculty academic) are a precious resource. Please remember that your supervisors are extremely busy people. Help them by being well-prepared and well-organised, deciding beforehand what kind of note-taking system you want to use to pen down the rich ideas that can come from your conversation. One friend of mine asked permission to record supervisions so that she could play them back later to have a good think. I used to send an agenda to my supervisor before each meeting, listing down the things I hoped to cover – whatever works best for both of you. It really is a working relationship, and for it to succeed, you have to build trust by being timely and responsible.
3) Relationships. My friend Ryan felt that most of what he learnt at Cambridge happened in a more unstructured way, through conversations and chats with friends and academics at the Faculty, College and through student societies. You could try to seek out opportunities for this to happen, by getting involved in extra-curriculars or just going out more. Don’t stay holed up in your room! During my MPhil, I was unable to afford eating out or going to bars much, so I soon learnt to cook and invited friends for meals very often. This became a cherished hobby of mine, and my cooking became generally tolerable. Moreover, out of all the people you meet, also be on the lookout for critical friends whom you can develop a more sustained relationship with. Critical friends are trusted people whose opinions you value, who offer perspectives and are ready to challenge and push you. Gabi, Ellie and Dora all emphasise the importance of investing your time and attention into these friendships. You reap what you sow, so be generous.
4) Extra-curriculars. The best thing about Cambridge is that there are so many things going on, so there will always be something for everyone. This is the ‘worst’ thing about Cambridge too, because it can be so hard to choose. No matter what your interest, you’re sure to find something that’s for you. Alister and Gabi point at the sporting opportunities available at both College and University level, so whether you’re as sporty as them or as
klutzy as me, there will always be a sports group ready to cater to your level. Ellie encourages people to get involved with the Cambridge Union (the debating society) which features renowned speakers. Also, every college has an MCR, which represents graduate students and organises social events. Besides these, don’t forget that there are things in the city not directly affiliated with the University. Ryan volunteered as a tour guide in a local museum. During my MPhil, I was an active member at St Andrew the Great, a church in the city centre, and volunteered for the Royal Commonwealth Society. Both gave me a community to come back to for my PhD, even after most my old friends have graduated.
5) Mindsets. Cambridge is a terrific institution that you really have to respect. It will give you a lot of opportunities and connections which take your professional development to a higher level, if you make the most of them. I came to Cambridge having done my undergraduate studies at a new and still-unknown university in Malaysia, so I can attest to the ‘Cambridge effect’, after which things will no longer be the same. In the same breath, however, I want to say that no place is perfect, and eventually, your ‘Gods’ will become ‘men’, so to speak. People will be people. By all means, make the best of your time here but don’t be overawed by it. It’s just uni – there’s more to any human being than academic affiliation.
With that, I’d just like to say congratulations and welcome to Cambridge! Feel free to say hello if you ever bump into me.
Derk Tiong completed his MPhil in Education in the Educational Leadership and School Improvement thematic route in 2016, after which he spent a year as a practitioner researcher in Westlake International School, Malaysia. His research is being published as a monograph, due to be published by end of 2017. Thanks to the generous support of Yayasan Khazanah and the Cambridge Trust, he will be matriculating as a PhD student at St Catharine’s College, under the supervision of Dr Riikka Hofmann. He keeps a blog to document his thoughts and experiences as a PhD student.