Reflections on a Successful Viva Voce

In this short blog post I will share general tips on preparation for the final PhD defense, as well as ideas on publishing en route to the PhD. I believe these tips contributed to my result of ultimately passing without corrections. I will not share the specific line of questioning that arose in the defense, since this is not particularly important, other than to indicate that it focused largely on philosophical debates around theoretical and methodological choices centered on, for example, Bourdieu, diffraction, post-humanism and new materialisms. From my post-viva standpoint it now seems to me that the focus was on identifying the threshold at which my knowledge on the subject ended in order to challenge me to think beyond the limits of my philosophical and methodological approach –  all the while remaining grounded in the literature, my methods and the data without presenting unsubstantiated claims. It was a challenging, humbling, constructive, and exhilarating experience.

Prior to the viva I expected that I would have at least minor corrections. To overcome my anxiety and prepare for the final viva voce, I followed four avenues of preparation to ensure that I was as calm and prepared as possible. I now believe that these four steps in part led to the positive result of no corrections – as the oral defense was strengthened through practice. I followed these four steps:

First, I watched three YouTube videos concerning a PhD defense. Each had a different focus: one on how to speak – in terms of inflection in the voice and how to position oneself in the room in terms of engagement, e.g., sitting upright in the chair and avoiding casually leaning backwards – and two more substantially on how to respond to questions, particularly those for which you are uncertain of the answer. You can find these here: The Perfect Defense, Oral Examination,  and How to Defend.

Perhaps the most important point I gathered from the videos was to listen carefully to the question (which may sometimes go on for several minutes prior to an actual question being asked). Once you are certain of the question, then pause and think for a few moments followed by a confident response that is supported by the data from your study – do not exaggerate – and then ‘zip it’. In other words, the videos suggest that you should not allow yourself to speak so much as to casually begin to editorialize points not supported by the study. In addition, if you didn’t understand the question at first simply ask for clarification rather than going off on an unrelated tangent. Asking for clarification will give you the time to prepare a more thoughtful response.

Another great tip in the videos explained that if at any point you are uncertain of the answer then focus on what you do know. For example, state, “You asked me, and I am not certain, but I think…” Or, “If I knew X, I would say Y.” Or, “I don’t know, but that question has interesting implications, for example….” I watched the videos several times over the two-week period leading up to my examination, reflecting each time on the main points outlined in the videos, and I certainly did use some of these strategies (presumably well) in my viva.

Having watched tips on the defense, the second thing I did one week prior to my viva voce was to re-read my thesis once with a fresh mind. I wanted the main argument and flow to be clear to me again. It had been over two months since I had submitted the softbound copy to the famous Red Door. Once I had done this, and I was confident that my work was defensible, and that I now knew strategies for responding to questions, I then began to answer a standard set of queries asked in various PhD defenses.

  • What motivated and inspired the research?
  • What are the philosophical assumptions?
  • What is the theoretical framework?
  • Could you have used a different framework?
  • What published work is closest to yours?
  • How is your work different, i.e., what does it contribute that is new to the field?
  • How did you translate the research questions into a data collection method?
  • What were the alternatives to this methodology?
  • How did you recruit your sample?
  • What are the weaknesses of your sample?
  • How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your data?
  • Do you think the data collected were most appropriate to answer your research questions?
  • Can you explain your methods of analysis?
  • Did you combine induction and deduction in your analysis?
  • Can you describe your main findings in a few sentences?
  • How do you know your findings are correct?
  • What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis?
  • How do your findings relate to literature in your field?
  • Do the findings confirm, extend or challenge any of the literature?
  • How does your research connect to your examiners?
  • How did you decide to order your thesis?
  • Where are you in this study?
  • What would you do differently next time?

(I did not generate these questions; I received them from a colleague. The original source is unknown.)

Although these questions did not arise verbatim in the viva voce, related questions most certainly did. My preparation of these points prepared me to confidently answer the varieties asked in the examination, and this put me at ease.

Third, the next natural thing for me to do in preparation was to practice speaking my prepared responses. This helped iron out the rigidity of the written responses and made them more fluid in speech. I participated in two mock viva sessions the week of the defense: one with my supervisor and one with a supportive colleague. These mock sessions assisted me in articulating my responses more succinctly and substantially, and they allowed me to practice the points covered in the videos that I had watched. Having done this, my supervisor then suggested that I also read my examiners most recent publications. The point was to be familiar with the types of academic debates to which they frequently contribute, so that the viva could become (as I presume many examiners wish) an intellectual conversation rather than a test.

Fourth (and please check with your supervisor first on this approach), in the months leading up to the viva I prepared and sent several chapters of my thesis to peer-reviewed journals (as well as to many close colleagues), so that I could get critical reviews to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of my work. The points raised in the papers reviewed – by both the blind reviewers and colleagues – helped me tremendously to identify the weaker (and stronger) sections of my argument, and to gauge the sorts of areas I might be questioned on. Indeed, I eventually was questioned on many of these areas.


Kevin Kester 

Furthermore, all of the papers reviewed were subsequently published (click here for the papers: JTED, GSE, and EPAT). This prepared me better for the viva, and it also taught me much about the publishing process. The positive by-product of this approach was that, in addition to strengthening my thesis, publishing during the PhD has jump-started my postdoctoral academic career (see also Cora Xu’s blog post). I would highly recommend this approach to all of my colleagues.

Finally, upon reflection on the viva itself, I have learned several points that I will share here. First, I now believe it matters immensely how the work is defended. It is not merely a formality, as I had mistakenly presumed. The defense gives the examiners the confidence (or not) to pass you, or request substantial changes, due to the responses provided. These are compared with the examiners’ initial impressions from their reading of your thesis. They might be debating whether to give minor or major changes, or no changes at all. The verbal explanation in the defense could confirm or challenge their previous impressions, and it could mean the difference between passing straightforwardly without corrections, with minor corrections, or revise and resubmit. In other words, you have the beautiful opportunity in your viva to convince your examiners of your depth and breadth of thought on the subject.

Second, you most likely cannot guess the specific questions your examiners will ask, as part of the exchange (at least from my experience) is to take you into uncharted territories, but you can prepare for the standard set of questions, which may form a variation of the actual question. The usual set of queries I reviewed above, along with the tips from the videos, helped prepare me to be confident and thoughtful in my responses during the examination.

Third, undoubtedly the viva is a narrative that you will share numerous times with colleagues, friends, family, and perhaps future students, whenever you discuss your PhD journey. Do prepare well (and be proud of) this story that you will inevitably share with many others. For me this has meant at least two dozen times in the first 10 days after the examination. Make the examiners and yourself the protagonists in the story.

Finally, these are obviously tips from just one person’s experience, and everyone’s viva will surely be different. I do hope, however, that you might find what I have shared here valuable in your preparation for the final viva. Whether this year, next or beyond – good luck for a strong and successful conclusion to your PhD! Do feel free to be in touch should you have any questions.


Kevin Kester completed his PhD in the Faculty of Education in 2017 with Dr Hilary Cremin. He is currently chair and research assistant professor of International & Area Studies in the John E. Endicott College of International Studies at Woosong University in Daejeon, Korea, and a research associate at the Institute for Development and Human Security at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. His research interests lie in the sociology and politics of education with a focus on the international system, social theory, and qualitative research methods. He teaches courses on the foundations of international studies; modernity, globalization and education; and peace and conflict analysis. To find out more about his research and teaching, see his Research Gate profile. Contact him at



If I were to do my PhD again …

Before 2011, I had never thought that one day I would choose to do a PhD.

But I did it! I have not suffered from ‘Permanent Head Damage’, though it is true that I find it a ‘Probably Hard to Describe’ experience. What I hope to share with you are some of my thoughts when I look back on my journey 2 years after my PhD viva.

I am not going to talk about the sacrifices that one has to make or the hardship that one has to endure (C’est la vie! Life is like a box of chocolate, and you know some of them are more bitter than others).

But I have drawn a list of:

1) things that I am glad that I have done;

2) things that I wish I had done

If I were to do my PhD again, this list can serve as a sweet reminder, and I hope you may also find something that resonates with you. Please feel free to comment your thoughts.

What I have done and would still do if I were to do my PhD again:

  • I would still start a PhD as a happily married couple

You would understand what I am talking about if you are doing a PhD and already have a lovely family. Of course, you can’t fully plan out your marriage or relationship status. But a romantic relationship and family support can often help you go through difficulties.

I know quite a few tough, highly resilient PhD students who have managed both their academic and personal life well. However, I know more PhDs who would find it impossible to make it on their own, and some even find inspiration while spending time with their children.

What I am trying to say is that having a family or a partner will not influence your PhD study in negative ways. On the contrary, you will enjoy being with your beloved ones while working on your beloved project.

  • I would still host/organise an academic conference and set up a reading group

Cambridge is full of wonderful resources and opportunities, not only in a pure academic sense. My experience of organising the annual Kaleidoscope Conference was really rewarding in that I had the opportunity to practise my communication and event organisation skills. It was indeed a challenging task, as I needed to arrange peer review of submitted abstracts, design the conference poster and programme, invite keynote speakers, coordinate a team of volunteers, contact catering staff, and not to mention the logistic on the day. But I received the support and help of other FERSA members as well as the Faculty of Education. It was one of those exhausting yet exhilarating periods.

Similarly, I organised a reading group on Dewey’s Art as Experience. Though it was a small group of only 3-4 regular members, we were all glad to have the chance to push ourselves to finish the book on schedule and to exchange ideas and discuss our views on the details and theoretical implications of such a hard-to-chew-yet-classic piece. I started it simply by pasting a small poster on the faculty board. FERSA is always there to offer help, and the faculty and colleges have plenty of rooms that can be booked for meetings. If existing academic events do not fully match your demands, why not set up something new yourself?

  • I would still stick to something that can take my mind off serious work

I started to cook during my master’s study in the UK. At first, I cooked my own meals for two simple and straightforward reasons: 1) to save money; 2) to reward myself genuine home style food that I could not possibly find in college cafeterias and restaurants. But later, I discovered that it was also a soothing and relaxing experience, as playing around with ingredients and kitchen wares helped to take my mind off academic work from time to time and forced me to leave my desk and engage myself in a different kind of ‘creative’ task.

  • I would still write and publish journal articles

I did not plan to write and publish journal papers at first, as I had not thought about finding a job in academia and it was not part of the requirements for the degree. My supervisor had encouraged me to do so in a subtle way, and once showed me a ‘call for paper’ notice of a special issue whose topic had some relevance to my research. I talked to another research staff in our faculty and co-wrote the paper with him and my supervisor. The paper was accepted and I got some very useful feedback from the editor and then revised it for final submission.

It can be  good to push yourself to write something other than the thesis. It also helps you to gain a sense of achievement, as the turnaround time is much shorter (than a thesis). And you can always start practising by submitting to a student-run journal and gradually build you way to high-profile journals.

  • I would still read books and go to academic events outside my particular area

It is always helpful to go on a ‘wild safari‘ and get to know current research in different areas. Who knows? Maybe one seminar about studies in another discipline can stimulate your ideas and offer unanticipated inspiration, which you might never get by just reading books on your own topic.  Visiting a new and unfamiliar environment is itself a gesture of ‘stepping out of your comfort zone’ and can often bring surprises.

  • I would mark and follow a few academic-related blogs

You won’t feel that ‘lonely’ when getting to know that others have been in the same situation as you. Some scholars also offer very practical advice as well as insights on their blogs. Patter is my favourite one. Why not find the ones you like and keep a bookmark folder for these blogs so that you visit them regularly?

  • I would still keep a blog

On my PhD-related blog, I wrote random thoughts, little poems, and reflections on life. The blog helped to alleviate pressure and to document instant ideas. And what was best about writing such a blog, was that it helped me to free myself from academic-style writing for a while. It was liberating and empowering, and it offered me time and space to listen to myself and to express myself in a freer way.

  • I would still make a critical friend

A critical friend is someone who can switch between writing with you and offering you critical, constructive and detailed feedback that you don’t usually get (even from your supervisor). Who can offer you advice when you are frustrated? Who can mark out grammatical problems in details for you? Who can give you critical comments in a not-too-polite way? And who expects you to simply ‘pay’ him/her back with some of your comments on his/her work?

A critical friend can be someone whose research is in a similar but different area, and it works best when you can meet regularly to read each other’s work and talk face to face (ideally once in a month or every two months).

  • I would grasp opportunities to gain teaching and outreach experience

Whether you decide to stay in academia or work in other industries, it is essential to cultivate the ability of transforming your own expertise into more engaging and understandable language and formats. The faculty offers opportunities for PhD students to supervise undergraduates; the university recruits volunteer and workshop leaders for two festivals (Festival of Ideas and Festival of Science); some colleges also need people to work on access programmes. And try to explore other things that you are interested in as well!

  • I would still attend workshops and events offered by the Careers Service

The Careers Service offers a wide range of workshops, talks and activities. They are extremely patient and professional and can offer you insights into improving your job application profile and planning your career.

Curated a Cabinet at the Museum of Cambridge

Selena Yuan

What I have not done and would encourage you to do:

  • I would keep a more detailed log during my PhD

I did have a blog. I did finish the PhD log as required by the faculty.

But beyond that, I really wish that I had kept a ‘muse’ diary where I could have made ‘mind maps’ at different stages of my PhD research. It would probably have contained some handwritten notes, illustrations, collages, etc. It would definitely have facilitated my own thinking process and would also have served as a precious ‘souvenir’.

  • I would join a student society and go to events more regularly

Well, you know how all these societies sound really amazing, and I filled out a few forms and signed up to a few newsletters. And then I got drowned in all the academic work and never made it to the events …

But I know if I had truly committed myself to just 1 or 2 of the societies, I would have learned something and met some new friends with similar interests, and not to say the pure fun of it! Many of the activities are free and low-cost compared to what you can find outside of campus.

  • I would learn more about the history of my college and of Cambridge

It is true that I went to some walks arranged by my college. I also did some basic research in order to introduce Cambridge and its colleges to overseas groups when I was working as a part-time tutor in summer and winter schools. But I truly wish that I had gotten to know the history and interesting facts about Cambridge and particularly my own college. After all, it was expected from my friends and family, who would love to hear those stories from me, someone who lived in this lovely town for 4 years! I was later able to get first-hand resources and link that to my own experience. I should have kept a database on this, ideally during my PhD.

  • I would try more formal dinners

‘Formal dinners’ can seem posh, but they really are a unique experience that you will never get outside of Oxbridge. They are so ‘surreal’ as well.

If I had gone to more formal dinners, I would have had the chance to try different kinds of food, and visit different formal halls built in different times and in different styles (for example, the formal at Queens’ College’s old hall was really a treat! The food was ok, but I got to see the interior design by William Morris).

  • I would indulge myself to more work-free days

Sometimes, you feel stressed and can even suffer from anxiety. We all know that! And we can push ourselves too hard. My supervisor occasionally encouraged to me talk a stroll and just leave work aside for a whole day. That was good advice! I just wish I had spent more work-free days enjoying what nature offers, or going on more short trips. After all, life is not just about doing fieldwork and writing the thesis, right?


Selena Yuan completed her PhD at the Faculty of Education in 2015. She worked as an Assistant Professor at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in 2016 and is now a freelance educator and independent researcher based in Shanghai. If you want to find out more about Selena or her research, which touches upon museum education and arts-based methodology, please contact her at or visit her profile on Research Gate .

A tiny clinic for the soul?

I visited the British Library in London a few evenings ago to listen to a talk given by Alberto Manguel, the author of The Library at Night and A History of Reading. Manguel, no stranger to poetic metaphor, described libraries as a “clinic for the soul” and spoke of learning to read as “akin to falling in love, like an epiphany or a contagion.”

Listening to someone talking with passion and authority about the places and spaces where readers read is something that I treasure, partly because it is so rare to hear anyone mention the built environment in connection with reading or even with learning but also because the primary research question for my doctorate is: Where do beginner readers read in schools?  This question has led me to explore the concrete spaces where beginner readers  read in schools and I have been poking around in dusty school corridors where children are to be found reading aloud to classroom assistants, and anyone else who happens to be walking by. At the other end of the spectrum, I discovered  thoughtfully-designed, child-scaled reading corners that are comfortable and secluded.

ReadingNook2 (1).jpg


I’m especially interested in the materiality and physicality of reading. The avid reader often “seems lost in a textual world, cut off from the life of the body and the real world that surrounds it” (McLaughlin, 2015:1) but in my thesis, I argue that this erasure of the body in order to focus on the text is not a simple matter for the inexperienced reader. Reading involves a variety of complex physical procedures such as turning the pages of a book, moving one’s eyes in the right direction and sounding out the letters or words of the text. All of these tasks, when they haven’t yet been incorporated by the reader, can distract from the meaning of the text and as a consequence, the possibility of self-abstraction. So while avid readers can erase, or at least dull, their own physicality and surroundings to dive into an absorbing text, inexperienced readers may need a little more support from the environment in which they learn, for example, with the provision of seclusion and privacy;  qualities not generally associated with the school building.

I’ve co-designed a freestanding reading nook for my research: a tiny library or den about the size of the seating area inside a small car. The reading nook is made from toughened cardboard and has an abstract, blank quality to its design that means that children can project their own imaginative interpretations onto it: the five and six year old children who are using it in their classroom have described it as being like “a toy shop”, “a cottage”, “a tent” and “an igloo”. Three or four of them can sprawl across “the fake grass” with their books.  The doorway is deliberately designed to be too small for adults to use comfortably, although, of course, it must be accessible to them too. I’ve been surprised by how much of a sense of ownership the children have over the space and how much they love the dimness of the light inside. I hope that at least sometimes it feels like a tiny clinic for the soul for the children in their bright and busy classroom, where many hours each day are spent working at their desks.


I’m using a design research methodology adapted from a framework by Fallman (2008) which has encouraged several iterations of the reading nook in collaboration with an architectural studio in London and a manufacturer of postural support products for children in Sheffield. The realisation and installation of the reading nook has allowed me to observe how it is actually used by children and what they and their teachers have to say about it. The manufacturers of the model expected it to be demolished by the children within a week or so and yet it remains pristine and, it seems, cherished by the class. The class teacher and I both suspected that when she began to also designate it as a space for ‘time-out’ by sending a child there to calm down, then it might have negative connotations and be seen as a punishment space but that hasn’t been the case at all and the children are as eager as ever to use the reading nook and claim ownership of it. Above all, the children’s sense of pride in their own secluded place for reading in the classroom remains undimmed, despite the fact that the reading nook has been designed by me, an avid, experienced reader rather than the beginner readers themselves.

So that’s what’s next on the agenda: reading nooks designed by beginner readers. How different might they be?



McLaughlin, T. (2015). Reading and the body: the physical practice of reading. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Fallman, D. (2008). The interaction design research triangle of design practice, design studies and design exploration. Design Issues 24(3), 4-18.


Emma Dyer is in her fourth year as a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, as part of an AHRC-funded collaborative doctorate with SCABAL architects. She also co-curates a blog with Dr Adam Wood of Florence University and warmly welcomes contributions about the complexities of lived school design. She is on Twitter at @Emmamolim.


How to manage your time during the PhD: Balancing the thesis, writing for publications and gaining teaching experience

During my PhD career at Cambridge (September 2012 to July 2016), I spent around 95 per cent of my time in a magical sphere called the University of Cambridge Writing Group. In this space, I wrote nearly my entire thesis, published three peer-reviewed journal articles, won a Best Paper Award and landed a job as Lecturer in Education immediately after graduation. I now have friends who write to me from time to time to get my advice on time management, on job hunting and on work-life balance. While I keep emphasising to them that publication is the most important, I feel obliged to tell the ‘truth’ behind all these ‘hard facts’ or what some people would call ‘achievements’.


Cora Lingling Xu

The truth is, when my current Head of School asked me how I found my experience at Cambridge, I told him that these have been the best four years of my life so far. This is the truth. Yet this is not all the truth. There were difficult periods throughout my PhD, moments of doubt, agony, and despair—this is no news to anybody pursuing or holding a PhD. What I want to share in this post, therefore, is how I have survived all the difficult moments. I want to offer three reflective moments.

Moment 1

Venue: Tea Room, Sociology Department, Free School Lane

Date: 31st December 2012

Attendees: Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma

Event: This was probably the second Writing Group session that I had attended. Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma were all senior PhD students finishing their PhD theses. These were the people that I later looked up to and often sought advice from. During one break, Moira made a comment about minding her ‘authorial voice’. This little phrase stuck with me ever since. I started to realise that the PhD experience (at least for social sciences) was really about developing an academic identity that is primarily represented by one’s written work.

Moral: This revelation was pivotal in that I made a conscious decision to frequent the Writing Group, because this was so much more than a writing space. It was a place for me to get inspiration, seek advice and develop friendship; it was my support network and my ‘security net’. I am not asking everybody who reads this post to join the Writing Group (although it is a worthwhile idea), but rather I am suggesting that buddies at the Writing Group were the ones who helped me survive all the self-doubts, agony and despair. It is essential for PhD students to feel secure and supported among like-minded friends. So, your first task is to seek such a space and grow with it.

Moment 2

Venue: Barbara White Room, Newnham College

Date: April 2014

Attendees: Writing Group buddies

Event: I received a notification from the European Educational Research Association (EERA) that my article had won the Best Paper Award and that it would be published in the European Educational Research Journal (EERJ).

Moral: Start publishing as early as you can. I learned about the EERA Best Paper Award competition when I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) in 2013. The prospect of publishing a paper at the EERJ was appealing. I carefully studied previous winning essays and prepared my article while I was conducting fieldwork. At that time, I only had some preliminary analysis of the first round of interviews. However, I wrote up my analysis and got helpful feedback from my supervisor Professor Diane Reay and my friends, including Dr Erin Spring, who was then a PhD student. This was my first article, published in early 2015.

When I nearly finished my first phase of fieldwork in March 2014, I wrote another article for a conference in Denmark. This article was based on more comprehensive analysis of the bulk of my empirical data. Although the analysis was relatively crude and broad-stroked, I gained some valuable feedback at the conference and my article was included in a special issue, published in October 2015.

As I was writing my findings chapters, I began to write my third article, which was submitted to the British Journal of Sociology of Education in early 2015. I received reviewers’ ‘ruthless’ feedback in July 2015, which, when I look back now, was hugely beneficial to strengthening the rigour of my analysis. I submitted my revised version in September 2015 and the article was accepted in February 2016.

To summarise, it is never too early to write for publications during your PhD. I began writing for publication as soon as I had some data at hand to analyse. I was constantly thinking about the next article and how I could make sure that I had a worthwhile message to communicate to readers of my targeted journals. My motto, which I have inherited from my wise Writing Group buddies, is that you write (a lot) to become a good writer and similarly, you write (a lot of articles) to become a good published author.

What I found most beneficial was that I had supportive but critical colleagues to comment on my drafts. At Cambridge I co-organised a reading group with Dr Selena Yuan in which we regularly critiqued on each other’s works and helped each other publish more effectively. Cambridge is a gold mine of talented and critical friends, so start building a network to support each other’s publication journeys.

Moment 3

Date: Some time in 2015

Venue: Origin 8 Café, FOE

Attendees: Elizabeth and Pu Shi

Event: I came out of GS4 and ran into Elizabeth and Pu Shi, who were having a meeting at the café. Upon learning that I was acting as a Teaching Assistant to facilitate a Master’s research methods class, Elizabeth commented that I was career-oriented.

Moral: Yes, I was quite strategic about gaining teaching experience during the PhD. Since 2013 I had been supervising Tripos Sociology papers and Research and Investigating projects. However, I ensured that such teaching did not take up too much of my time. Now that I think about it, I spent around ten to fifteen per cent of my time doing supervisions and acting as a teaching assistant. I also gave some guest lectures at different universities, such as the University of Northampton and the Open University of Hong Kong. These experiences proved instrumental for informing my pedagogical understanding and helpful in allowing me to construct a coherent narrative about my repertoire of teaching experience.

To return to what I set out to answer in this post: How did I manage my time during PhD in order to balance finishing the thesis, writing publications and gaining teaching experience? Firstly, I established an important network of support from which I gained inspirations, friendship, and a sense of security. Secondly, I began writing for publication as soon as the early stages of my data collection, and I kept writing for publications throughout the PhD journey. Lastly, I strategically sought opportunities to gain teaching experience, while ensuring that teaching did not take up too much of my time.

Dr Cora Lingling Xu graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Education in 2016. Her doctoral thesis examined the identity constructions of tertiary-level border-crossing students from mainland China to Hong Kong. She is currently a Lecturer in Education at Keele University. You can follow Cora on Twitter @CoraLinglingXu and find out more about her research on and Research Gate

On 2 May 2017, Cora is organising a British Sociological Association funded Early Career Forum event on Transnational Education Post-Brexit at Keele University. You can sign up for this event here.

On being an ethnographer

I’m writing in the arid, breezy shade outside my £10 per night hotel in northeastern Uganda. This weekend I’m taking a break from PhD life. Not really. I’m actually here to interview alumnae from the secondary school where my research is based.

Profile me crawling

Jacqueline Gallo in Uganda

Being an ethnographer, everyday and every moment can be a research moment.  There is taking a break, but not turning off. My master’s supervisor, Dr. David Mills, with Morton, describe on the first page of their book that ethnography is ‘being, seeing, writing.  Simple participles that belie the complexity of their meanings.’ (Mills & Morton, 2013). They write about education in the broadest sense of the word, including formal and informal education settings.

My research brought me to northeastern Uganda for the year studying how secondary school girls are preparing to exit school and embark on a life beyond their all-girls, Catholic-founded boarding school. I am writing this post for students considering, preparing for, or interested in ethnography in education.

So, why I am staying in a hygienically challenged hotel only thirty minutes from my home site? I’m here because life is blurred. I am not from this land and although adopted by members of the local Karamojong people, I am not one of them. If ethnography requires seeing, being and writing, then I am embracing it entirely.

This year I am working at the oldest school for girls in this region as a teacher while also researching there. This school is in the heart of an historically war-torn region that today is ‘peaceful’ so long as ‘peaceful’ only means that tribal cattle-raiding with AK-47s and roadside ambushes are a thing of the past. Today, severe food insecurity, chronic poverty, forced marriage, and the highest gender-based violence statistics in the nation plague the region still (Irish Aid, 2010). Only 2% of girls here have completed lower secondary school and a mere 1% have completed upper secondary school (UNESCO, 2011).

2 Girls Nakiru, Regina

Two illiterate sisters, part of the 99% of girls who do not step into a secondary school, rest after they’ve completed a sowing job.

If I am to study how prepared these girls will be for life after secondary school, then I must know more than just who they are and how they feel now. Ethnography demands context and genuine immersion into others’ lives.  I need to move beyond just their school environment. Immersion is mandatory into the whole of their situation. This means meeting school alumnae, parents, learning their language, and getting to know the women who came before and those among them who lead challenging lives without having had formal education.

During preparation for this and my previous ethnographic study, well-intentioned people inquired about my ability to cope with the basics of moving abroad. But this isn’t just moving abroad, this is research. And this isn’t a personally removed form of research. This is immersive, full-on ethnography which is full of vulnerability, risk, complication drowned in enduring questions:  Is this moment ‘research’ or just my life right now? Does this new knowledge belong in a travel journal or my research journal? Perhaps the most difficult…are we becoming friends or am I still a researching?

There are no easy answers because your ontological and epistemological underpinnings and the context of everything, matter. The best answer I can give is to advise budding ethnographers that the research ‘hat’ is always on. I like this metaphor, albeit cliché, because Ugandan President Museveni loves wearing big cowboy hats with a string around his neck – this signature style is plastered on worn, bright campaign shirts throughout the region. It is the same for the ethnographer; the hat is always on. You might complement the hat with a decorative feather like Karamojong men or take it off your head to have small moments to yourself, but the hat is at least around your neck if not fully on your head.


A worn out but still worn campaign shirt of President Museveni in his signature cowboy hat

I imagine this is easier for me as I am researching in a country where I do not have previous work experience nor did I grow up here. I offer this metaphor because keeping the hat on, I imagine, would be especially challenging if performing research in an environment that was previously known to you. Caution is advised!

Today  I was invited to the mud home of a promising alumna whom I interviewed a few weeks ago. I was challenged, asking myself if the hat was still on or were we becoming friends? This kind, talented woman is helping me connect with other school alumnae and will serve as my interpreter for interviewing parents. Hat on – snowball selection. But how firmly placed and solitary is this hat?

I choose to think of this budding relationship as professional and perhaps the start of genuine friendship. When she and her mother invited me to visit her sick brother in the local missionary hospital, I believe I was invited as a friend. But just as President Museveni wouldn’t take off his hat in the blistering sun, I did not take mine off either because the hospital visit is an opportunity to learn about life’s challenges here. I think of this visit as wearing my hat but putting a decorative friendship feather on the side.

Man Hat

Typical man of the region with his knitted hat and signature stick of the pastoralists. Men sow their own hats here and decorate them with ostrich feathers.

I encourage others to consider this hat metaphor because you may think you already know how to handle this immersive and holistic methodology just as I thought I knew when I arrived in Kenya for the first time. However, looking back at field notes from my Master’s study, I am still shocked at how isolated I felt during deep immersion. My isolation and despair is exemplified from this troubling field note:

I am never alone. I…take walks into the valley and hide under bushes or trees to have a moment of silence. This doesn’t work. Before long…a Maasai herder will spot me across the valley and come to show me his cattle – after a short session in pantomime, we sit in silence but together. I must accept I will have no time to myself and make the most of my time outside the home, albeit never alone, at the Maasai church on Sundays or with market women who teach me beading. I am a spectacle anywhere I go with curious and sometimes suspicious stares my way, being shouted at by passers-by, or politely exchanging pleasantries with curious, friendly Kenyans when all I want to be is invisible.

When all I want to be is invisible. I can see now that I did not yet know how to wear the ethnographer’s hat. It was new, awkward and not fitted to my head. Now, I am learning how to decorate my hat whilst keeping it on. In the rare instances where my internet is strong enough, I will watch a little American TV to relax. I don’t take my hat off entirely but keep the string around my neck because even these moments of relaxation, moments of home, help me learn about myself as a researcher and what I need so that I may never desire to be invisible again.

IMG_5184 (1)

I often visit these women in the village. We take a photo each time to see how we change. They know I’m a researcher and encourage photos to share their lives with the world “ulayá ” or abroad.

How will you wear your hat? Take the hat cliché to heart my dear ethnographers; it will save you from isolation, loneliness, and becoming too comfortable.

The last thing to mention here is that whilst writing this post from the shade behind my palace of a hotel, a goat jumped out from behind the building less than a meter away with a big BAAAAH! I jumped in surprise almost throwing my computer into the dirt beyond my blanket. I saved the computer and remind you to be ready for the unexpected and keep your hat on a string!



Irish Aid. (2010). Country Strategy Paper 2010 – 2014 Summary Uganda.

Mills, D., & Morton, M. (2013). Ethnography in education. London: Sage.

UNESCO. (2011). Global Education Monitoring Report. Retrieved from


Suggested reading for budding ethnographers:

Abu‐Lughod, L. (1990). Can There Be A Feminist Ethnography? Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 5(1), 7–27.

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing Against Culture. In R. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (pp. 137 – 162). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Burke, J. F. (1989). Becoming an ‘inside-outsider’. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 20(3), 219 – 227.

Burke, J. F. (1992). Research in a post-missionary situation: among Zairean sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 23(2), 157–68.

Geertz, C. (1975). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Hutchinson.

Ong, A. (1988). Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re- presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies. Inscriptions, 3(4), 79–93.

Stambach, A. (2010). Faith in schools: religion, education, and American evangelicals in East Africa. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Walford, G. (2008b). The nature of educational ethnography. In G. Walford (Ed.), How to do educational ethnography (pp. 1 – 15). London: Tufnell.


Jacqueline Gallo is a second year PhD student in the Faculty of Education, spending the year researching in the Karamoja region of Uganda. She is a member of the Education, Equality and Development research group.  She invites your comments and will respond when the internet is strong!  Follow her on Twitter at @jgallovanting.

The PhD and reading in the digital age

My research focuses upon how we read on screens, compared to printed pages. It’s a topic I’m profoundly interested in because of how our reading habits are changing right under our fingertips — this is especially so at a time when it seems that printed books are surpassing ebooks in terms of our preferred reading medium.

Digital Reading

The topic of digital reading comes up quite a bit while doing PhD research. We all tend to read a lot of articles, often in PDF form, and if you are a tablet owner, a good PDF app is essential. (I’m constantly tinkering with apps but two favorites are: PDF Expert and iAnnnotate. They sync across devices using Dropbox, iCloud, etc. Both of them are paid apps, but trust me that they’re a lot better than the free options).

During my own research project, I’ve noticed that my own reading habits and practices have evolved to become much more medium agnostic. That being said, we all have our preferences: most of my academic and nonfiction reading occurs on my iPad because of the ability to sync my notes across devices, back them up safely in the cloud, and to search documents when I can’t remember exactly what it was I read eight months ago. But I feel that I simply think better in print — for fiction reading, and for books that I am heavily engaged with, paper is still my default.

Recent research at Stanford University shows what happens in the brains of graduate students while doing close reading (although most of us don’t read Jane Austen novels while in MRI tubes, it’s fascinating interdisciplinary research, nevertheless).

If you’re interested in learning more about the digital reading question, I highly recommend this link which has an excellent collection of studies, research, and surveys on digital reading habits from the UC Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning: “Recommended Sources for Digital Reading.”

Digital Notes

Cornell note taking

Speaking of note-taking, patter’s advice on keeping a reading journal is a must-read: “managing the #phd –  keeping a reading journal.” I alternate between Microsoft OneNote as a PhD notes solution as well as Evernote because of their multi-platform support and many useful functions and power user tips. (Personally I like OneNote’s notebooks structure for my personal writing project).

But, is digital always better than analog? Maybe. And sometimes maybe not (for example, NPR: “Attention Students: Put Away Your Laptops“).

For those of us that prefer old school pencil and paper, I use my own modified version of the Cornell Method. Of course, the choice is rarely an either/or proposition — sometimes the best tools are the ones that we have at hand, and a combination of print and digital resources can in fact coexist peacefully.

note pay attentionDigital Distraction

What about our attention and digital distraction? Based on some interesting research from Larry Rosen, it would seem that we multitask a lot, perhaps even more than we realize. Not only are distractions everywhere, but articles on distractions are everywhere. For one example, here’s a good run down on some of the relevant research, via the New York Times blog: “How to deal with digital distractions.”

It’s all well and good to tell ourselves to simply pay attention. Sometimes that works, but sometimes we find our digital habits to be so ingrained that we’re not even aware when we are digitally wandering. Luckily there’s apps for that, too. Apps like Freedom are behavior controls we can use to really limit what we do on the Internet and when.

But what kinds of things work for you? Would love to hear what you think in the comments!

Tyler Shores is a second year PhD student at the Faculty of Education, researching digital and print reading as part of the Centre for Children’s Literature Research. For more generally on the print vs. digital topic, feel free to visit his blog at: or follow Tyler on Twitter: @tylershores

Finding my research interest


C.J. Rauch

Graduate students learn very quickly how to perfect their elevator-pitch, the generally accessible, succinct description of their research. It is employed at conferences, social situations in college, and even family gatherings—Aunt Muriel always seems to ask, “Remind me again what exactly it is you do?” I usually say that I look at pre-service teachers’ (i.e. students studying to become teachers) epistemology (philosophy of knowledge, knowing, and learning) and beliefs about teaching. Aunt Muriel tends to respond by inquiring, “And how exactly did you decide to do that?”

My research interests grew out of my own personal background as well as prior research. In undergrad, I studied education and completed my teacher training; I then went on and taught high school social studies and history in my home state of New Jersey. There, I came to see the many different paths my colleagues took into teaching. Some, like me, studied education as part of their undergraduate degree—in programmes with a variety of sizes, structures, and emphases. Some earned a postgraduate teaching certificate. Still others entered via alternate teacher education programmes. For some, teaching was a second or third career. I began to wonder how these different experiences may have led to differences in teaching styles or educational philosophies.


Jesus College Graduate Student Conference

 As I embarked on my master’s research at the Faculty of Education, I took this interest and honed in on one particular philosophy. I was on the then-named Politics, Development, and Democratic Education MPhil route, so I was naturally curious about beliefs about democratic education. In studying pre-service teachers’ beliefs about democratic education, I stumbled upon a chapter that discussed a little bit about epistemology. It quickly led me down a rabbit-hole that would become the crux of my doctoral research.

It was not long before my readings led me to the works of William Perry, Marlene Schommer-Aikins, and Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich. I was fascinated! I had some exposure to political and education philosophy in undergrad, but never would have thought much epistemology at the time. I felt it was a crucial element of teacher education, but quickly came to realise that there was a significant gap in understanding teachers’ epistemological development. It is in this gap that I attempt to situate my research.

I have no idea what future research interests may crop up as I continue my academic career. I have found drawing from my experience and my past research to be particularly helpful. It keeps my work interesting to me, as well as connected to the larger corpus of work. Plus, an appreciation for the element of chance adds an element of excitement!


C.J. Rauch is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching pre-service teachers in undergraduate teacher-education programmes in the United States.  He is the former president of the Jesus College MCRYou can follow him on Twitter at @CJRauchEduc or read his research blog at