Unplanned Expenses

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Things to remind blogger Nadya Karimasari and other PhD candidates to be aware of unplanned research expenses lurking behind every moment of carelessness.

Unbelievable! When I was about to take a picture of my beautiful and fast-growing garden to show to my husband and son back home, the camera shutter failed to click. What’s wrong? Apparently there’s no battery inside my camera. How come? I remember that I’ve charged the battery just before I flew to the Netherlands. i have the charger is with me, so the battery should be inside my camera, but where did it disappear?

Of course, a battery would not disappear just like that. I lost it due to my own carelessness and less-than-enough obsessive checking of all my equipment. Damn! My family back home couldn’t find the battery. A new battery, another unplanned research expense. May I remind myself that this is not the first time?

During my preliminary fieldwork, I fully trusted the driver. Three different maps were kept nicely inside my backpack. Don’t expect any GPS, there’s no internet signal in this remote area – I’m looking at you my tech-savvy friends. He had brought me to the destination before. I should be able to sit back and relax because he would be much more knowledgeable about the route than me or my co-promotor, right? Wrong. I should’ve been obsessively aware and checking our map and asking people question along the way. That midnight, we should’ve reached our destination on the mountain six hours before. Instead, we were lost along the coast, where the road was broken and full of cracks from the water. And I had to pay the driver and the rented car for an extra day. I thought my co-promotor was almost crying! But at least I could use this information for the methods section in my proposal: the area was not chosen due to the damaged road and difficulty of access!

Last but not least, I lost my phone! This happened just before I returned to Holland after my brother’s wedding in Indonesia. It’s a cheap brick phone, but I love it, and it works best in my fieldwork location. I assume my elderly mother-in-law brought it back to her hometown, because we have exactly the same phone. You might know that a brick phone is synonymous with phones for seniors (I am not a senior – yet, but I also don’t use a smartphone; at least I don’t use a banana phone). I called her, but she said this or that grandchild was taking care of her phone and she had no idea. Things got complicated and I had to accept that I might not find my dear brick phone. Which means I lost most of my research contacts that I painstakingly collected during preliminary fieldwork. I double-save my contact numbers on my sim card and phone, but I should’ve made additional back-ups. There was a little bit of fear that if I backed it up and the police or the intelligence agency found it somehow, they would know the phone numbers of ‘rebellious’ farmers, so hey, let’s just memorize it the old-fashioned way. Anyway, I also lost the number of the VIP head of district and the person from which I was about to rent a family house for my fieldwork. Oh, man! Shit happens!

This story is for all of you who feel undeserving as a PhD because you don’t feel good enough. If you thought that a PhD candidate is somehow an exceptional human being who always got their shit together, think again. To err is human, to forgive is divine – so let’s do it all over again.

As seen in Resource

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Move?

Should I blog-move? (I mean, making a new blog or moving to a new address). I am a bit hesitant to continue blogging and uploading post here in wordpress.com because mine is almost full (97%). It shouldn’t be so surprising. I have been blogging here since the very first time wordpress.com was available for free, more than a decade ago. Of course, eventually it will be full.

Hfffttt, I’m supposed to upgrade it to a premium account but it will cost 99 dollar/year. I am really really unwilling to pay that much, although my salary from blogging at Resource will cover that pretty quickly. Having a paid blog makes me want to up my blogging game because … well, it’s not free anymore so it has to be at least not embarrassing! Other option would be moving to wordpress.org with a self-hosting domain and pay less – I don’t know how much? – and get unlimited storage. But, just thinking about self-hosting gives me headache. Last but not least, I am tempted to move to a new blogging service: squarespace.com for two reasons: 1. the templates look beautiful, and 2. as a Wageningen PhD candidate I will get 50% discount for the first year (discount, should I say more). But, I am a bit worried because I am not familiar with the squarespace system, and I don’t know if the slow internet connection in remote Indonesia (when I would be fildworking) would be good enough for squarespace. Also, I don’t know how worthy is my blog here in this address as I’ve been blogging here forever and I heard that the older your blog, the bigger chance it appears on the google search (like I care! but dude, I really know nothing about this, is it true?)

Blogging is the only thing that I’ve been consistently doing since the very first time blogging exists in this universe (that means since I’m in highschool, before wordpress even existed! I remember the good ol’ times of blogging with diaryland and I had to write all the html codes manually, what a learning curve!). If you count the times before blogging existed, I’ve been journaling or writing diary since childhood. Considering that, I imagine “not blogging” would not be an option for me. And, this blog also has landed me the best job in the world as a blogger at Resource online. But … it seems like my time is up for free blogging. Either way I have to pay. Hmmm, what should I do? Any suggestions on the pro and cons of (upgraded) wordpress.com, self-hosted wordpress.org, or squarespace? Thanks in advance!

Back

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Blogger Nadya Karimasari has just come back to the Netherlands after some intense physical and mental travel.

It’s good to be back in the Netherlands. My landlords are still as lovely, my 125-year-old home is still as charming and cosy, the cat is still fat, the sheep are still smelly, the birds are still chirping cheerfully and the rooster is still crowing. The plants in my small patch of garden started growing. I took a deep breath of the clean air of this idyllic Dutch countryside. Ahh, it’s so good to be back.

I have been ‘all over the place’ lately, not only in terms of location, but also in terms of experience. Earlier this year, I did my preliminary fieldwork in Indonesia. My admirable long-time friend whom I used to stay with when I was in Jakarta visited Leiden from Harvard. We shared an uninterrupted day walking and talking. In Spring, I was a teaching assistant for Rob Fletcher’s Research Methodology course. I have a fond memory of the experience and the students. Then, a sudden death. The next day, with trembling knees, I went to Toronto for a Summer School with Nancy Peluso, Peter Vandergeest and Libby Lunstrum. The North American graduate education system was completely different than in the Netherlands. Afterwards, I organised a panel at the international conference of the Center for Space, Place, and Society at the Wageningsche Berg and gave a (chaotic) presentation, met my co-supervisor from Melbourne and other new and old friends. I also gave another (chaotic) presentation for my proposal at the office. Last but not least, I went to my brother’s wedding in Indonesia where I met most of my extended families. And back I am.

For many of us, doing a PhD is a cultural experience too, with a lot of moments of ‘taking up challenge’ and first-times that may or may not be directly linked with our research and may or may not be having an immediate ‘productive’ effect for our writing process. On the other hand, life goes on beyond our research, and a lot of times, it’s hard not be taken over by momentary shock. As a PhD student, it’s equally hard to ignore your research that is poking you and saying hello from the back of your mind from time to time. The result is a mess. But, it’s okay. We’re gone, and back, and we’re always where we’re supposed to be.

as seen in Resource online

Academic Celebrities

Many academic celebrities in the social sciences visited Wageningen University and Research in the past year. Blogger Nadya Karimasari shares her latest encounter with one of them.

I’ve lost count of how many academic celebrities I’ve met at Wageningen University and Research. I couldn’t imagine a better timing to do a PhD. Earlier this month, James Ferguson, a well-known anthropologist from Stanford University, USA, gave a public lecture at Orion about share, presence, and social obligation. A couple of days after, other famous names participated in the two-days Hauntology seminar on psychoanalysis and political economy. Don’t ask me about the seminar, I swear I have no idea.

While having my daily dose of sunbathing on the outdoor bench in Leeuwenborch, a participant of the hauntology seminar casually sat down next to me. My half-closed eyes were transfixed by his beautiful shoes. They must be expensive, I guess. He opened the lid of his cigarette box and asked me what I thought of the seminar. I looked up and my jaw dropped in disbelief. It was Erik Swyngedouw, a world-leading political economist from Manchester University.

Keeping my cool, I answered him in shameless honesty, ‘I didn’t understand a single word.’ Why pretend, not everyone is familiar with Lacan. A slight smile curved up in Erik’s face, ‘I still remember what that’s like.’ And that’s the beginning of our jovial conversation.

‘When I was teaching at Oxford, I was a regular participant at the monthly seminar of Amnesty International. I was a supporter. I always attended their seminar in order to purchase the ticket so they would get money’, he said. ‘In 1998, Slavoj Zizek was one of the speakers. I came out of the seminar, thinking: what a bloody circus!’ he told me.

‘I owned two books by Zizek because everybody said he was so good, but I just read the back covers and put them right back on the shelf. That day, after the seminar – I remember it vividly, it was May – I went straight to a very beautiful bookstore …’ I cut him off, shortly, ‘Blackwell, was it?’, ‘Yes, Blackwell’, he continued, ‘I bought more than ten books by Zizek and paid around 400 pounds.’

‘Later, during the summer holiday, I spent three months reading all his books at a house by the sea. I read from morning to evening, just having a break for lunch, and I still didn’t understand most of it. Only around ten years later, in 2007, did I start to understand half of it. And now, once I got it, I can do whatever I want with it’, he said animatedly with his hands flipping up and down.

‘Learning is slow’, his words sounded like music to my ears. ‘Sometimes, students would think I’ve got it all easy. They only see me now. But I was also a student like them once. Nothing is easy. It was also difficult for me. I also took a long time to learn to finally get to where I am now’, he confessed.

‘The most important thing is to not give up on our enjoyment, and not give in to fear’, he added passionately. ‘I remember when I studied Marx when I was a student like you. Everybody said it was an academic suicide. But, I am still here’, he smiled victoriously.

‘I followed my enjoyment, and do not give in to the fear.’

as seen in Resource online

Don’t Panic

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Don’t panic when things don’t seem to fit. It might be your contribution to science! – Self-talk

Today as I finished my proposal I’m freaking out and shedding tears – woman, the joy was very brief, shit, okay back to – … tears because I am looking at my two different set of papers, one is my proposal and one is my reality notes from preliminary fieldwork, in which both seem to be world apart and not relating to each other at all (underlined, bold, highlighted, italicized: at all).

What the hell am I going to do with this piece of concepts that I’ve just written, what the hell am I going to do in my long fieldwork. Why was I painstakingly writing theoretical concepts if it didn’t seem to resonate with reality or it might be tentative or it might still be very vague or it might not be directing and narrowing my focus in any way during fieldwork. Maybe I’m still confused about what the hell is a proposition and why do I have to think about proposition at all, and the proposition might collapse in the field and right now I can’t be relaxed about that very inevitable thing going to happen.

But, as I am writing this, I ask myself, why am I worried, why? … This is why I’m worried: this proposal doesn’t fit and I will be left with nothing (conceptual lens) to comprehend what’s going on during fieldwork. In other words I might be lost and return to a blank page without a clue of how to make sense of what happened during fieldwork. And also just the horror of having to cramp up a new write up on the theorization in two weeks (because that’s just how I did it). I have done it twice so why am I wasting energy. That was what I thought ….

Then just while writing this post status I see a silver lining. I am writing the conceptual framework to learn new things – well at least it’s new for me. It’s not about applying that conceptualization to reality. No. It’s about understanding that the concepts – as they are presented right now in the academic literature – is still very full of holes and unclear and contradictory etc. My job is to try to understand how and why the academic understand it that way – and differently, where’s the difference and why, etc, and then use my preliminary understanding as a tentative shadow that still needs to be furnished more and more through dialogue-ing it with fieldwork.

And in the field, when I am trying to comprehend stuffs, as people do stuffs or say stuffs, this universalized concepts in my mind are being refurnished and refurnished again and constantly to make it contextual and incorporating the lively mind and action of the people that I will be interacting with on fieldwork. Hence the people’s knowledge would gain a little bit more of a level-playing field in relation to the dominant academic way of thinking. It would enrich our understanding and trim the paralyzing conceptualisation and perhaps poke the power relations that keep those misunderstanding and misrepresentation persist overtime.

So, I really do need to understand the abstract spirit of concepts, to let it enter my intuition and hence provide a lens that will make me notice stuffs that might not immediately seem to relate, also to have a dialogue to say why it doesn’t relate, what’s missing. So, anyway this is the reason why I had to write and learn that damn theoretical concepts, keep learning and might be rewriting it all over again from scratch or whatever. Destructing, constructing, it’s never a waste of energy, and I thought the process would be like laying one brick over another, but no, it’s not.

This piece of mind is also tentative though. Now, drinks. Thanks mom for loving me unconditionally.

March for Science

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As a scientist, did you join the March for Science last weekend? Blogger Nadya Karimasari shares her thought on this first-time event.

Some of my friends in Wageningen, like Suzy Brandon, Lea and Tabi, went to Amsterdam last weekend to join the March for Science. This event was a protest against Trump’s administration in the US that routinely shows a blatant disregard for science.

Looking back, I would like to scrutinise what kind of science I would wholeheartedly march for. Will I march for science? It depends. Just using the word ‘science’ is not specific enough for me, because there are awful, unethical and dangerous forms of science – and I do not mean the subversive type of dangerous, but the lethal type of dangerous. I will share my personal experience on this matter.

When I finished my master’s degree, I was asked to assist in research on the social-economic recovery of disaster victims in my hometown, where a mountain had just erupted. I was shocked when during my first meeting, the scientists of this research team – mostly economists – complained mercilessly about how stupid and lazy the disaster victims were. ‘They have a beggar mentality! They are too dumb to understand our intention to help them!’ said these economists.

According to them, this was the reason why their business plan to recover the economy was rejected by the community. My blood was boiling when I heard them loudly scorning, condescending and blaming the disaster victims. I wanted to pour lava into their filthy mouths and minds. And they said they were scientists.

In disbelief, I wonder what kind of science allows them to behave as such. How their label as scientists could let them get away with such an attitude that does not hold the slightest spark of empathy. What kind of science buries them in such ignorance of their own scientific flaws and limitations. What kind of science makes them perceive themselves as know-it-alls in their narrow-mindedness. What kind of science restricts them from comprehending that actually, the problem was their faulty business plan, and the community was too smart to let their economy be wrecked by another, not any less destructive disaster.

I wouldn’t want to march for such science.

Social Science @ WUR

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In the spirit of New Year’s celebration, blogger Nadya Karimasari looked back on what she thought Wageningen University and Research was and compared it with what she has experienced so far.

After completing my master’s degree in Den Haag, the Netherlands, I always wanted to come back, but I never thought that it would actually happen. And I never imagined that I would return as a PhD candidate at Wageningen University and Research. As an agricultural university, WUR is a famous place to study natural science, but it is not traditionally associated with social science.

That impression no longer lingered after I experienced first-hand what it’s like to study social science at WUR. I came to know that social science in Wageningen is famous with its distinct ‘Wageningen style’ or ‘flavour’: a strong tradition of actor-oriented approach, pioneered by (Em.) Professor Norman Long. I am still trying to understand what it entails, especially from the numerous social research it brought about, but of course, WUR hosted several other approaches too. I’ve also started to recognized that some of the literature that I’ve read for my master’s syllabus were written by great social scientists based at WUR.

Although the grade of social science at WUR is lower than that of natural science, it does not matter to me. What matters more is the interaction that WUR stimulates, not only between social scientists, but also between social and natural scientists. This interrelation and multidisciplinarity are what WUR is currently striving for.

It is also funny how,­ whenever I bump into someone, it seems like that person is always doing some form of fascinating research that relates to my own research in various ways. But maybe it has something to do with the fact that my research topic is agricultural and environmental issues, a topic that is the specialisation of WUR. Sometimes, I am still in awe and disbelief when I casually meet legendary social scientists at the bike rack, the photocopier, the coffee machine, the lift, or in the canteen. I feel incredibly lucky to be in Wageningen because it gives me the opportunity to learn as much as possible from the people I admire academically.

I came to WUR at the right time, when a lot of exciting events were taking place. I’ve met important yet humble social scientists from around the world. ‘Emerging’ is the word I would use to describe social science at WUR, not ‘hip and happening’. It’s great to be part of the process in which social science at WUR is still trying to find its shape and identity. It’s the sign that social science is developing and growing, not stagnant nor declining.

Masochistic PhD

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‘Why are most PhD candidates unhappy?’ blogger Nadya Karimasari was asked by a student. In today’s column, Nadya reflects on the culture in academia that unintentionally encourages unhappiness.

‘The ability to constructively deal with criticism is one of the most important traits for a scientist,’ said professor Jan-Willem van Groenigen during a general PhD course last month. Being critical about oneself is a good sign for a PhD candidate. It means she is aware that her knowledge and capability are limited. This great quality would encourage her to be open-minded, stay curious and learn deep and wide. Jokingly, Jan-Willem gave an example of one of his best students who was almost masochistic in the sense that when she didn’t receive enough criticism on her paper, she thought the reviewers had not read it well enough. ‘However, I am not like that and neither are most people,’ he added.

Unfortunately, sometimes unintentionally, there is a culture in academia in which professors discourage PhD candidates who do not seem to be unhappy enough. It is as if something is wrong when the PhD candidate is not agonizing over how lost, confused, and incapable he is. Perhaps it is a pedagogical approach to remind PhD candidates to be humble. But it suggests that you distrust and underestimate the ability of the PhD candidate to judge his own research capability in a balanced and proportional way. When taken too far, it contributes to bringing PhD candidates to the brink of mental depression. It also normalizes the general aura of unhappiness among PhD candidates.

Of course, Jan-Willem was not advocating for academic masochism to PhD candidates. Jan-Willem himself is a very positive and exuberant person. But it is quite widespread among professors and peers to give students the impression that a good PhD candidate is very self-critical and treats themselves as if undeserving of any good comment on their work.

Other professors practice daily criticism on their students in order to train them to perform convincingly. Being able to have a ‘convincing performance’ is a useful skill to survive in academia. By treating PhD candidates in a way that encourages her to doubt herself, it is expected that she could develop the reflex to push back and be convincing.

‘I never read her comment on my paper before I sleep, because I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep afterwards. I would rather sleep and read it in the morning,’ said one of my PhD friends about her professor.

Peter Tamas, a professor of qualitative research methodology, mentioned the common personality traits of PhD candidates and scientists in general, in which they tend to be internally insecure and are in constant need for external validation. PhD candidates who are prone to identity crisis would look up to an image of the good PhD candidate. It is a pity that the image provided is often of a somewhat masochistic PhD.

Life after Deadline

‘Life in academia is a life of catching up,’ said a professor of blogger Nadya Karimasari, which is why people in academia have to get used to the feeling of being behind.

As a first year PhD candidate, I was often told ‘you still have plenty of time!’ But I am wondering: why has it never been my case?

It seems like PhD work has been intense from the very start. My schedule is comprised of deadline after deadline. I tried hard to work efficiently and meet all the deadlines, but sometimes I just couldn’t make it. Having a young child with only two days at day care that sometimes gets sick and needs extra care, and a husband who is also writing his dissertation, made me absolutely aware that I have to be protective of my time. I have to figure out ways to be smart in using my time, but sometimes I am still feeling behind of my schedule.

Other PhD candidates told me that we all have to get used to the feeling of being behind.

I am not alone in this. Other PhD candidates told me that we all have to get used to the feeling of being behind. Not only being behind on schedule, but also being behind on the current developments in our academic field.

One of my professors in the Sociology of Development and Change chair group, Rob Fletcher, said ‘life in academia is a life of catching up.’ It instantly makes me feel less alone in this. He said he always has so many things to do. Things will only get done when he makes them into a priority, which means a lot of other things could never be done. ‘I have been working on my next book for years and it’s still not done yet.’

Life in academia is a life of catching up

Another professor at the University of Amsterdam, Laurens Bakker, told me how much he loves cooking, ‘because cooking has a start and a finish, and we can eat our result at the end of it. While in academia, the work never ends. You thought you’ve finish a paper, but you have to write another paper, and then your previous paper needs revision, you need to do more research, more reading, things completely change, and your work … it’s never finished!’

At this point, I wonder how would life be after deadlines. Maybe it’s going to be beautiful, but it could also be boring.

featured photo: aesthudent

Seasonal Change

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Blogger Nadya Karimasari needs some tips to enjoy the breezy autumn.

Summer is officially over. For someone from the tropics like myself, to let go of the glorious summer days is easier said than done. The night comes sooner and the morning is terribly dark. I have to bring a flashlight to the bus stop, otherwise the bus driver can’t see me. This is my first lesson on how to survive autumn in Wageningen.

For most of Wageningen people, nothing is more normal than seasonal change. But as a person from a different part of the world, I can’t help thinking, why can’t the sun just rise and set at the same time throughout the year? It is hard to deny the gloomy feeling that comes with not seeing the sun as much as I used to. I tried several things like using brighter lamps and eating warm noodles, but these things don’t help that much.

I tried several things like using brighter lamps and eating warm noodles, but these things don’t help that much.

Instead of telling myself, ‘just get over it and get over it quickly’, I would like to embrace this gloomy feeling for a while, because it signifies where I am coming from and the distance that I have to go through. It brings me to a small realization on how we tend to forget how far we’ve come because we only see how far we still have to go.

As students, we are coming from different places and background, not only in spatial terms. Most of the time, the school only sees students from our ‘output’. There is a general ‘finish line’ and a universal standard that all students are expected to achieve.

But sometimes the school doesn’t see how each student goes through different distances to get to that line. For some students, reaching the line is a no-brainer because of their default proximity to it. Other students, who are coming from a very different starting point, feel every little step is a milestone.

We shouldn’t limit ourselves to view only how far the line is. We should also take some time to look back and look into ourselves, and appreciate all the process that made us this far.

Organizing PhD Research

While attending summer school at Zurich University, Switzerland, blogger Nadya Karimasari got some inspiration on how to organise her PhD research.

Zurich gives me the impression of being very organised, orderly, and extremely detailed. It aims for the greatest accuracy of predictability. It tries to anticipate and minimise any possibilities of things going wrong. Hence, people’s daily life can run as smoothly as possible.

Public transport
This high degree of order and organisation manifests at its best in how the public transport works. The trams buses, and trains are absolutely on time. They also have a monitor inside the vehicle that shows how many minutes away you are from your connecting trams or trains. So, you could predict and anticipate how fast you should run to your next tram, or whether or not you have enough time to grab some coffee and a croissant before continuing your journey.

I wish I could be more like Zurich in terms of organising my PhD research.

I wish I could be more like Zurich in terms of organising my PhD research. Perhaps it is good to have a set of predictable working routines. It is also significant to allocate some time to relax, otherwise PhD candidates could burn out, feeling stuck, having difficulties in finding inspiration, and need longer time to recover before getting back to the groove and having those juicy flows (or hops) of thoughts again.

Small goals
Another thing that helps is to set small goals that build up to bigger goals. These can be monthly, weekly, or daily goals, depending on how detailed you want to be. By setting smaller goals, PhD candidates could lay out what tasks actually need to be done in order to create the final “product” of a good research. By making the small tasks visible, it becomes more manageable.

At the end of the day, every person has their own style that fits and works best for them. The point of making a better organisation of our research is to help us maintain our sanity while doing intense research, and avoid getting entangled in a disarray of having to do too much while having too little time. Hopefully through a better tasks organisation, we could avoid unnecessary stress and enjoy our research process – and life in general – a bit more.

featured photo: timshel

Summer Break

What’s the thing about summer break? Blogger Nadya writes her observation.

“How was your holiday?” That’s the opening line coming from most of my colleagues these days. The new academic year is around the corner. My next holiday season will be around Christmas and New Year. No wonder people are taking long breaks before summer is over, before being caught up in the demanding, hectic rhythm of academic life.

Dutch people are notorious for being the example of good work-life balance. I don’t know if it’s true or if it is just another stereotype. Dutch people are also known for not having as much stress from work as compared to people from other countries in the world. According to recent estimates, Dutch people in average work 29 hours a week, get around 8.2 hours of sleep every night, and guaranteed a paid vacation.

Holidays are something to be proud of.

Based on my limited observation, for Dutch people, holidays are something to be proud of. Because I am used to how Dutch people perceive summer breaks, I felt surprised when I noticed my office mates from other countries tried to avoid sharing their summer vacation stories. When one of my professors asked about our holidays, the room was suddenly quiet. Everyone started looking at their shoes. I was wondering why. If they were Dutch, they would’ve showed off their amazing holidays right away. They went to Basel, Munich, England, Czech Republic, and Croatia to name a few. Their holiday were really quite something, but instead of being proud, they felt guilty.

When one of my professors asked about our holidays, the room was suddenly quiet.

“I haven’t been working on my research proposal for a long time, that’s why I feel guilty about my holiday,” one of my colleague confessed. “I really don’t get what’s all the fuss about summer break. Apparently, here, summer is such a thing. My friend who went on vacation to the beach abroad was being laughed off by his friends because he didn’t come back with a tan,” added another. “In my country, people just went to see their family and help with errands during holidays, so it’s not a big deal like it is here,” one of them concluded.

I believe such guilt is unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong about enjoying holidays. We should feel normal about enjoying our precious summer breaks. I just wish the vacation continued a little longer.

PS: Summer break for us:

Food glorious food at Ben White’s summer home:

Cherry picking:

 

3 lessons for PhD candidates

Her 1.5 year old toddler taught blogger Nadya Karimasari how to do a PhD properly.

Trust me when I say my PhD process is not going as well as expected.
To my surprise, my 1.5 year old son really helps to understand how I should do a PhD. Most of the time, I feel like things just fall into place. Thanks to my son, who gives a day-to-day example of the best attitude on learning and from whom I try to learn.

He has no fear of failure. He never thinks he’s silly, ridiculous or not making any sense. He has a steadfast trust in himself.

First, he’s never afraid to make mistakes. He has no fear of failure. He never thinks he’s silly, ridiculous or not making any sense. He has a steadfast trust in himself. It’s okay not to know things, that’s why he is here to learn. Never mind what other people might think, he simply enjoys learning new things. No matter the result, for him the joy of the learning process in itself is enough of a reward.

Second, repetition is fun. Every little thing is exciting for him. He likes to do things again and again until he’s good at it, and better. And, always with a big smile on his face. I must admit that I might not be the most efficient PhD candidate because I often have to go back to a document many times over. But I always think about my son who never gets bored doing peek-a-boo game for the umpteenth time.

A lot of PhDs read academic paper not only to understand what is written, but to imitate the method

Third, he’s a very active observer, and he imitates even before understanding the meaning of what he’s imitating. Not long after, he gets the context and see the pattern, thus he can do it at the right moment. He starts to understand the meaning of what he’s doing. He’s learning very quickly by imitation. Similarly, a lot of PhDs read academic paper not only to understand what is written, but to imitate the method of how the author builds up an argument and brings evidence to come to a conclusion.

So, next time you don’t understand an academic paper, try to imitate it and you will get it eventually. Don’t forget to have fun repeting things and never be afraid to make mistakes.

Too hard to impress

Blogger Nadya Karimasari will reveal the secret of making a good impression in academia.

‘How are you, Nadya? Have you been trying hard enough to impress everybody?’ said Wolf, one of my supervisors from University of Melbourne, Australia. He recently visited Wageningen for a conference at de Wageningsche Berg. His snarky remark was, as usual, on point.

The syndrome of ‘trying-too-hard-to-impress’ can occur at every stage of the academic ladder. It can happen to both young, aspiring academics (a.k.a. PhD candidates) and senior professors.

The syndrome of ‘trying-too-hard-to-impress’ can occur at every stage of the academic ladder.

During the conference lunch, some PhD candidates reluctantly ‘humble-brag’ about their publication. ‘Ah, this journal is very slow in their review process!’ or ‘That journal never got back to me but suddenly published my article on their special issue!’

One senior lecturer popped up in my office one day and talked about – what else could it be – publication. ‘Finally I got a reply from a journal, about an article that I sent three years ago!’ After complaining about how unserious the reviewers were, he said, ‘I have to withdraw, of course!’ Every occasion becomes an opportunity to tell about publication. It can be a paper that is actually published at an obscure low-rank journal that no one has ever heard of, a paper in review, or in the process of being written.

This is what we do. We write papers that nobody reads, and we think we are doing something important!

Getting the paper to be read and cited by other scholars is another, daunting problem. My colleague sarcastically advised me once, ‘This is what we do. We sit down all day writing papers that nobody reads, and we think we are doing something important!’
Interestingly, those who are well-published, well-cited, and have a good reputation – at least in academia – seldom mention their publication. They don’t need to, and perhaps they’ve lost count of each paper that they’ve published anyway.

When I asked her how she met her husband, prof. Rosaleen Duffy from SOAS (London School of Oriental and African Studies), rightly pointed out our shared sentiments of this ‘trying-too-hard-to-impress’ syndrome. She said: ‘We (she and her husband) were both new staffs at the university. We sat together at the registration desk and we managed not to talk about our work all day. Sometimes academics keep talking about their work and it gets boring. Sometimes we’re interested to know more about each other as a person.’

I totally agree with her, and with Wolf who made me take notice of this acute syndrome. As Wolf bid farewell he said, ‘Skype you later! I have to pack and … write a paper!’ Same here, Wolf, I also have to write a … blog.

featured photo: s-dav

Support System

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No PhD candidate is an island. PhD research is as much a collective effort as it is individual, blogger Nadya Karimasari discovers.

PhD candidates are often seen as someone who works in isolation, like a hermit. They are living inside their mind or busy with their hectic schedules in the laboratory, with deadlines upon deadlines of paper writing.

They are very focused, slightly obsessive even, with their research and find social life an exhausting burden or a waste of time. This narrow perception of PhDs overlooks the collective aspect of doing research.

Collective work
As much as each researcher is individually responsible for what she/he produces, every research is a collective work. From my experience as a beginner, the process of doing a (social) research is often not linear.

A lot of factors cannot be predicted nor anticipated beforehand. Element of surprise is always expected, and it is a good thing. Most of the times, happenstances play key role in making the research move forward. Without a support system, it is difficult to deal with each challenge that comes along.

Another unexpected perk of working on my research project was the new laptop the university provided me with.

I get a lot of support from the very start of my PhD journey. Besides paying monthly allowance, the scholarship that I receive from NWO also covers my research expenditure and book spending. It also provide money to organize a national seminar in my home country at the end of my study.

Another unexpected perk of working on my research project was the new laptop the university provided me with. It makes me so happy to finally have an organized way of accessing my files and folders; which is very crucial for managing my research efficiently.

Budget
The university also allocates a “self-development” budget per annum for each student. This funding is used to pay for summer schools, workshops, or conferences. With this support, I can register to any classes or events necessary to stimulate my process of creating a good research project.

It doesn’t have to be directly linked with the theme of my project; it can also be about general skills that I consider useful. I am thrilled to be selected as a participant of a summer school highly relevant to my research topic with top quality tutors in Zurich this September.

Budgetary support is important, but the core support system is the people. Building collegial bonding is an ongoing process and I would like to see more work done to strengthen this aspect.

Guilt-free Policy

Academics are prone to the constant plague of guilt-feeling. Is it true that the Dutch are different? Blogger Nadya Karimasari tries to find out.

Pressure

It’s common for students in Wageningen to have lunch with their professors, during which some wholehearted confessions were being exchanged. Some stories that I gathered from different professors were about the subtle pressure to stay on top of the game.

The pressure is high in most universities in the world, especially in the best universities, including in the Netherlands (read: Wageningen). Being part of the Wageningen University and Research means having to constantly strive for the best. Such pressures manifests in guilt-feeling that creeps in if one does not work all the time, not producing enough publications, not teaching enough classes, etc. It is such a contrast to the image of professors having flexible working time and managing their own workload.

Guilt

The guilt is especially pervasive on academics on the tenure-track system. They will have their performance evaluated in four years. Either they would reach the “standard” or they would be out. Some of them internalized the pressure and secretly compare their list of publications with other academics, and then they feel bad about themselves for being lagged behind in the competition.

But do not worry! There is a Dutch quirkiness that contradicts the plague of guilt-feeling. It is called a high-level of “compartmentalization” between life and work.

“Last week I didn’t check my e-mail at all. It feels so good,” said one of the new professor in my chair group. He noticed that a lot of people who work in Dutch (universities or elsewhere) often does not replied to e-mails during the whole summer. “I didn’t know that it is okay, to just shut yourself off like that, not even replying to e-mails. But I figure it’s quite normal in the Netherlands,” he added.

It is a good illustration of a strict life-work compartmentalization, but it means people have to try their best to finish work-related communications before summer.

For overdriven people who feel guilty whenever they’re not “productive” enough, remember, it’s summer. Go soak up the sun, right now – says me who stay in front of the computer all day long.

Research Location

Ethnography is increasingly popular among social researchers. Blogger Nadya Karimasari is undecided about her ethnographic research location.

How do social researchers make a decision about where to conduct their research? I guess it depends on their research question, proposal and design. Are they trying to do research at national level, global level, or a more localized one?

Right now, I am developing my research proposal. I am doing my PhD under an umbrella research project with two other PhDs. We have an overarching research theme and methodology predetermined for us. In total, each of us will do around sixteen months of ethnography in our respective countries. Later, our supervisor and a post-doc will make a comparative analysis of our research.

I have been longing to have a long-term ethnographic research, so this opportunity is a big deal for me. I have done long-term research before, but mostly on policy and bureaucracy at national level. When I got local, grassroots-level research projects, it was only for a couple of months. Often I didn’t stay on the research location but went back and forth from my home to the site.

When I asked my colleagues at the Leeuwenborch on how did they choose their research location, most of them said they had been in that location before their PhDs. They might have done their master’s theses there and find further research questions that piqued their interests. They might also had worked in that location before and found a lot of puzzles that motivates them to do a doctoral degree.

Well, such is life as a PhD candidate. Decisions has to be made.

I have such location in mind, let’s say location X. Previously I have been engaged with the people in X for years. Gaining their trust would not be such a big hassle. I know there is a great research problem that could only be investigated in X. It will be a great contribution for the academic discussion. I am feeling confident and comfortable to do my research in X, but I have a little worry about “managing my bias” as I have been very much “on their side” for some time.

On the other hand, I have another possible research location, Y. This other option is interesting because very limited studies had been done on Y. Doing research in Y, anyone would be somewhat a pioneer and bound to find interesting things. A lot of happenstances are also pointing me towards this location. But I don’t know if they would accept me and be open to share their life stories with me. I barely know anything about Y, so I was making a lot assumptions when I was developing a research problem for Y.

Well, such is life as a PhD candidate. Decisions has to be made. I am sure there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

Anthropology of the academic conference

An academic conference is a social event and so much more, concludes blogger Nadya Karimasari after attending a symposium at Oxford University last week.

Subscribing to academic list-servs, checking call for papers, getting in touch with panel organizers, submitting abstracts, and finally presenting research findings at academic conference have increasingly becoming a ritual for both emerging and seasoned researchers. Such events are expected to circulate ideas, broaden academic network and boost the outreach of research.

When I was in Oxford (and at other conferences in the past), most symposium participants wore their conference name-tag outside the venue. It is not clear whether their mind were too preoccupied with research knick-knacks hence they couldn’t bother taking it off, or is it a deliberate act with hidden meaning.

Conference name-tag serves as a symbol to distinguish the wearer from ‘other’ random passers-by, tourists, or jobless ramblers. Perhaps it resembles a much-deserved badge of honour worthy of showing off to the world. It might also be worn like an imaginary shield to soothe and temporary protect the researchers from their own constant horror of being irrelevant after long and painstaking research process.

Conference name-tag serves as a symbol to distinguish the wearer from ‘other’ random passers-by, tourists, or jobless ramblers.

Or, maybe, it is a sign that researchers are secretly expecting to be found. To be recognized. To be discovered instead of discovering. Although, it is yet to be known whether wearing such symbol would ignite conversation with people or shoo them away.

Other researchers had enough of academic conference. They are not eager to unwittingly spending time for long-distance travel that could otherwise be used to simply sit down and write. ‘All this effort, just meet each other and talk’, as my colleague phrased it.

Yet, the mystique of academic conference have magnetic power that does not easily wear off. Researchers delve deep into their topic and specialization, making it harder to find other people who gets them. All the extra efforts to ‘just meet each other and talk’ would hit the jackpot when they finally find ‘academic soulmate’ who share the same level of enthusiasm on similar topic.

It is not easy to find ‘the one’ who ‘just clicks’, but it’s worth the try. Hanging that shiny little plastic name-tag might just be the key for researcher to get noticed. Keep trying.

Challenge my supervisor?

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We expect you to challenge us, not the other way around. That’s the message blogger Nadya Karimasari gets in a meeting with her co-supervisor.

My co-supervisor, Wolfram Dressler, visited Indonesia a couple of weeks ago to do fieldwork in Berau, East Kalimantan. Thereafter he came to Bogor to present his findings. This is where I met him.

We had agreed to meet inside the majestic Bogor Botanical Garden, a vast area of approximately 87 hectares established in the 18th century that today contains more than 13,983 specimens of trees and plants. A tinge of freshness hung in the air; the grass and leaves were a bit wet; light rain had just stopped falling. We sat at a café near the orchidarium. Wolfram, in need of some energizing liquids after a workout session, ordered a cup of double espresso, a glass of mango juice without sugar, and a bottle of plain water.

After a while, I asked him what he thought about my research preparation so far. At first he replied: ‘Really? I thought we were just going to socialize?’ I couldn’t help it. I am eager to start my PhD research. Wolfram, who was an Associate Professor at Wageningen University for two years before he moved to University of Melbourne, Australia, gave me some advice. Among other things, he emphasized the need to balance meta-theory, meso-theory, and fine-grained empirical data. Also, he pointed out that it is important to not only work the whole day. ‘Go to the beach when you feel like it.’

We secretly expect you to challenge us

Because my PhD research is part of a collaborative team project, I also asked him how I could make sure my PhD proposal would fit well under the umbrella project, to which he replied: ‘We secretly expect you to challenge us.’ I paused, transfixed by that eye-opening line. ‘Otherwise, what would be your contribution to science? You have to come out of this PhD as your own independent mind’, he said. I was still without words, trying to absorb what this meant. As my research is on nature conservation in Indonesia, he added: ‘You are Indonesian. You have to tell us about your country, not the other way around.’

Take away message noted: I have to come to terms with this new perspective. My supervisors don’t intend to tell me what to do, which would be so much easier, instead they expect to be challenged by me. How am I supposed to challenge ‘giants’ when I am standing on their shoulders? It’s a huge task, indeed. I have to study really, really hard.

featured photo: Autumnal vibes in Oxford — © Stephanie Kelley 

My baby prepared me for a PhD

The seemingly daunting combination of an intense PhD programme and taking care of a baby doesn’t terrify blogger Nadya Karimasari. Instead, having a baby has unintentionally prepared her for her PhD research.

Before the NWO scholarship interview, I practiced several mock-interviews with my husband. One of his main question was how to balance the PhD programme with motherhood. To our surprise, during the “real” interview that question didn’t appear. This simple gesture was quite a telling moment evidently showing that the interviewers did not perceive motherhood as a major hindrance in pursuing a PhD.

Perhaps it has to do with the Netherlands being the best country for children’s well-being, according to UNICEF. Combining a PhD trajectory with motherhood might be more common than I’d thought. My former lecturer at ISS Den Haag, Ben White, who became a dear friend and mentor, mentioned a colleague who was always highly productive and consistently publishing books during her pregnancy and maternity leave.

I similarly feel that having a baby, instead of restricting me, has prepared me for my PhD. Firstly, my time management skills have improved a lot. I have become a morning person, thanks to my son who always wakes up at 6 a.m. or earlier. My husband and I share the responsibility of caring, yet still the time I can allocate exclusively to research is limited. I cannot afford to wallow in endless whirlwind of self-doubt that paralyzes my writing flow. I better be strict and quickly brain-dump (a.k.a. write) my thoughts on paper. Forget about perfection, it could always be revised later.

Secondly, baby-caring is such a humbling experience. My son is always a step ahead. For example, when I finally got the gist of making puree, he was no longer interested. He had by now decided that he preferred to feed himself with finger foods. He made me aware that I need to be constantly open-minded, flexible, and adaptive. Like research, not everything can be planned ahead. I always have to be prepared to improvise.

Thirdly, a PhD could be a stressful experience, but my son has been uncompromisingly reminding me to have regular cuddle time to lower our cortisol levels. It is essential for my endurance, puts things into perspective, it’s restorative and fun. Thank you son, for being a generally happy baby and allowing your mom to make the best of herself.