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My PhD Journey: Reflections and Lessons Learnt

by Tan Kim Lim

Earning a PhD can be seen as a daunting task to many. The three to four year journey may seem like aeons. Having gone through the journey myself, I realised that one does not need to spend the full three or four years. With good support, determination and by staying focused, you can finish your PhD in a shorter time and make it quite an enjoyable journey.

Now that I am on the tail-end of my PhD journey, I can reflect on all that I have been through and the many lessons that I have learnt. It is also an opportunity for me to express my sincerest appreciation to all those who have supported me in one way or another throughout my journey.

It is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration

I can totally relate to what Thomas Edison said about achieving success: "Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration." He also said, "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."

Indeed, the journey to a PhD may not be as smooth as one would expect. There will be twists and turns as well as unexpected obstacles. It will make you perspire, and sometimes, push you to depths of despair.

It is therefore very much a matter of being passionate about what you are doing. When you have a passion for the topic you are researching, it is no longer a chore and instead can be quite enjoyable, knowing that you are working towards a significant goal.

I have also found comfort in what Professor Shih Choon Fong, Founding President of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, once said, “Perspiration is more than working hard, it is working relentlessly and passionately.” What has kept me going is the ability to stay focused, and at the same time, keep reminding myself why I wanted to pursue a PhD. Setting milestone objectives that are measurable and following them closely also helps me make sure I stay on track.

Having understanding supervisors

A PhD is a huge undertaking where you attempt to push the boundaries of knowledge and commitment over a period of few years. You may think the world revolves around you, but the truth is life goes on regardless. The demands of everyday life are always present. For mature students with family commitments like me, your presence is needed at home and your children will often demand your undivided attention.

At such times, having supervisors that can empathise with you and your situation is key. I am lucky to have very good supervisors. Their support has been critical in helping me to balance my commitments. They understand my role as a son, son-in-law, husband and father. This is especially important when I need to make urgent trips home, or am unable to get back to the university on time. The ability to work well with them and share your struggles outside of the academic realm allow them to support you better in times of need.

The encouragement of peers

Even with understanding supervisors, a journey towards a PhD can still be a lonely process. I would be lying if I said otherwise. Faced with never-ending reading and writing, there will be times where you would seriously doubt your capabilities or harbour thoughts of quitting.

Fortunately, I have a group of peers that constantly motivate each other. We communicate frequently, texting one another to ask how everyone is doing and checking on one another’s progress. It might seem insignificant to some, but simple words from my peers like “How are you?”, “Hang in there!” and “Do not give up!” have constantly reminded me that I am not alone on this journey.

The importance of support systems

Doing a PhD is not just about being a keyboard warrior. It is about exposing yourself to the larger ecosystem of research that allows you to establish networks and keep abreast of the latest developments.

When I started searching for the right institution to pursue my PhD, one of my key criteria was good support systems. I made a good choice in Curtin Malaysia as it has supported me in attending conferences and training, as well as provided scholarships and consumable allowances to manage my out-of-pocket expenses arising from research. Such support demonstrates the university’s commitment to establishing a conducive environment for students to pursue postgraduate research with peace of mind.

Concluding thoughts – If I can turn back time, would I do a PhD again? The answer is a resounding yes! Though it has been challenging, it has been a fruitful and interesting journey. I was not born smart; it was my hard work that brought me to where I am today. I am glad I chose this path. My PhD journey has made me more resilient and optimistic about the future.

Tan Kim Lim is a Singaporean pursuing his PhD with the Faculty of Business at Curtin University Malaysia. His research interest is in work engagement, meaningful work and job burnout. Kim Lim can be contacted at tan.kim.lim@postgrad.curtin.edu.my.