Category Archives: Grad School

Contemplating a Pursuit of PhD

Particles of desire ready to form

I am in the process of preparing an application for PhD programs in linguistics. The biggest question that I need to answer, in order to move forward with it and also to write in the statement of purpose, is what I want to research and why. I knew I have this lump of desire for it, but I have been struggling to see the shape of it clearly. It’s still a cluster of particles getting ready to become a planet. I decided to read and watch materials on people who do linguistic research, hoping that they will provide some ideas to reflect on. Why do others research linguistics and why do they pursue doctorate degrees?

What PhD programs entail

The first video I watched is Things about a PhD nobody told you by Laura Valadez-Martinez on TEDxLoughboroughU. Dr. Valadez-Martinez shared pieces of truth and advice that she picked up during her PhD program that she didn’t know before lauching into it. Fortunately I already knew most of them after going through a master’s program myself and having witnessed a PhD candidate’ life close by. But I could imagine that many people do not know about these before they enter a PhD program. Graduate school throws new types of challenges that students haven’t experience in other environments. It was true for me and other members of my cohort. We were shocked and overwhelmed by its rigor, let alone a PhD program.

There was a period of time that I was afraid of pursuing a doctorate degree because I knew how intense it is and how much work it entails. However, I’ve come to peace with it over time. My success in writing a master’s thesis and defending it along with all the joy (and pain) that I felt in each stage of that journey made me feel confident that not only I can do a doctorate degree but also I might be able to enjoy it. Of course I will suffer, but that is part of the package. You can get that much joy out of it because of the level of the challenge. My experience of master’s program also taught me a lesson that I will use for my doctorate program: build and use your own support system and a self-care routine. Sitting with my computer for many hours of transcribing my recorded data, writing drafts, and editting them, I learned that I will need a companion animal if I ever do this again: a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a pig, any living and sentient being that I can interact with and feel accompanied when I’m doing my solitary work at home.

The joy of connecting with people

This is one of my biggest joys in life: connecting with people. When I earned the grant to travel to Korea to interview people for my master’s thesis research, I was so focused on how to do it right, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of my own experience. It turned out I greatly enjoyed it. I love meeting people in general, and my interviewees were mostly people that I already had a relationship with but haven’t seen for awhile. The interviews gave me a chance to talk with them one-on-one, which was a rare case for relatives because we usually gather as a group. Also the goal of capturing the speech of my interviewees allowed me to focus on what they had to say instead of what I wanted to tell them. I got to really listen to them and they got to really express what’s on their mind.

This joy of spending time with my interviewees and listening to their stories was revived when I started transcribing. I was reliving those moments of honest talks, laughters, and exchanges of thoughts and feelings during my interviews. The tast of transcribing 25+ interviews, at least an hour long each, was daunting at the beginning; however, it became an experience that I enjoyed more than I had feared.

In The Joy of Sociolinguistic Fieldwork, Dr. John R. Rickford at Stanford University shares his experience similar to mine. His interviewees were not from his personal relationships, but he built relationships with them, which is indeed one of his tips for sociolinguitic fieldwork: Treat them like human beings that you would interact with authentically, not just as a source of data; enjoy the visits and accept their offers of connecting more such as conversations outside interviews, foods or drinks; be aware of who else is in the interview space since they might influence the comfort level and authenticity of the interviewee; and help out in the community you are entering for your research. These are all very useful tips that I can relate to looking back at my fieldwork experience. Interviewees are people. They want to know you enough to trust you with their stories, and that takes time and effort.

Shaping ideas

I’m slowly shaping ideas on what I want to research in my PhD program: something related to linguistic imperialism; how it is damaging to South Koreans and how they are resisting it. I’m already excited by the idea that I might be able to go into the community and meet these people who are resisting: people who are thriving and celebrating their own language in the face of colossal invasion of English. Oh yes, I’m going to pursue a doctorate degree in sociolinguistics.


The first dive in the phonetics world

kakaotalk_20170111_140129107I fortunately secured a few days of cleaning up and getting ready for the new semester th
is week. While organizing notepads I used last semester, I found several pages of notes from the first phonetics class. (There were plenty more notes, but most were disposed of last December.) Some were IPA transcription from dictation practices, and some were notes I made reviewing for the final test.

Ah… phonetics. The class brought a whole different level of challenges that I hadn’t experienced before: listening to unfamiliar sounds and identifying them. Maybe I had been introduced to the foreign languages I’ve learned gradually. I don’t particularly remember having such difficulty of distinguishing different sounds while learning them. Or I didn’t realize that I couldn’t distinguish them until this class. The notoriously similar pairs from English, according to my ears, were [ɪ]/[i], [d]/[ð], [æ]/[ɛ], [ʒ]/[dʒ]. I got them incorrect so often in class that even my classmates became aware of my weak spots. Ironically I taught a low level phonetics ESL class in the same semester. It was a constant switch of hats between the one who suffered hearing problems and the other who inflicted suffering onto the learner.

Learning a variety of non-English sounds was also enlightening. I was a fish in a bowl! Going through implosive, ejective, clicks, and etc, broadened my limited perspective of world languages. Believe me. Speaking (sorta) four languages, I used to think I was well-exposed to different languages. Wrong and wrong!

At the end of the semester, feeling defeated with some sounds that I never succeeded in identifying, I forwent the idea of pursuing phonetics as my area of concentration. However, all the noble challenges and knowledge that I got showered with were definitely worth taking the course. (It was a requirement though.)