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 dreamingselena@icloud.com or visit her profile on Research Gate .

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 http://www.education-inequalities.org/


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. http://doi.org/10.1080/07407709008571138

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.

A good educational read

Education is an interdisicplinary field. At the Faulty of Education in Cambridge, you will therefore find sociologists, historians, economists, psychologists, linguists, and literature scholars working side by side. Via Twitter we asked some of these scholars for book recommendations. Which book would they recommend to research students of Education and why? Not surprisingly, we received a wide range of suggestions from across different disciplines!

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Which Education books would you add to this list? We would welcome suggestions in the comments!