Friday, September 15, 2006

PhD – to pursue or not

By Dr Christine Lee Siew Ken

Doing a PhD? It all began in 2002. Actually two of my ex-colleagues broached the idea to me. One of them is a PhD holder, whereas the other one was pursuing it. Both seem to have more confidence in me, than myself. They gave me some ideas on the areas of research as well. Now, my main question is to pursue or not to pursue. Why should I do it? The commitment is considered long - about three years. Moreover, I may be starting a family on my own soon.

Here are some thoughts. Pursing the PhD will enable me to enlarge my borders and to have more opportunities to meet people with similar research interest. Being in the education line, it is a natural progression for me as well. I was not seeking for greener pasture. I was and still am very much contented with my current position.

After much pondering and prayers, I finally decided to start some research and just wait for open doors and opportunities. I needed the right research area, the right University, and supervisor.

I began to read up articles and journals on the Internet, and did a bit of research on my own. Eventually, I discovered my interest in Intelligent Tutoring Systems. Since I have been lecturing C++ programming for quite some time (11 years now), it was natural for me to design and develop an Intelligent Tutoring System to teach C++ programming. So, my scope of research is better defined. My first choice was to pursue the PhD with one of my College's partner University. That didn't materialize because of the high tuition fee. By faith, in 2003, I applied for the College Staff Study Grant, and the grant was approved on 17 March 2003.

As part of the Study Grant, I was paid RM1500 a year for book allowance. During the period when I was pursuing my programme of study under the Study Grant, I was given a day a month as special leave to conduct my research or meet up with my supervisor. I was also given a special 3 weeks at the end-stage of my study programme to enable me to prepare my dissertation. The book allowance and the study leave have benefited me much during my study period. Incidentally, I was the first PhD student to be sponsored by the College.

After signing up for the Study Grant, I was still seeking for an open door - University and supervisor. Then, something happened. I became pregnant. I was feeling really excited - to be a mother and doing the PhD at the same time. However, it was not the right time yet for a baby. I had a miscarriage. It was a painful experience. I felt the emptiness and lost tremendously. With my family and church members encouraging me, I was able to experience joy again. After resting for a few months, I carried on with my research.

Months passed by. The door was finally opened. My friend Yoke Lai introduced me to her supervisor at the University of Malaya (UM). Surprisingly, her supervisor has the same research interest - Intelligent Tutoring Systems. I sent him my proposal. He accepted it and within a month or two I registered myself with UM. That was in July 2003.

So, I officially started my research after my registration. I conducted literature review for about one year. With the encouragement from my supervisor, I commenced the writing of the dissertation as I reviewed existing research. Eventually, I came up with a proper problem statement.

2005 - God gave us a surprise gift. I was pregnant again! I was actually more fearful than excited when I first discovered the pregnancy. I had doubts as well. Is this for real? Am I going to lose this baby again? Thankfully, I got through the first trimester of the pregnancy. Miraculously, I didn't suffer much morning sickness. I continued with my research.

As the development of the system continued, more and more bugs appeared. Things looked discouraging and I was looking for breakthroughs in my research. There were times I wanted to postpone my research or even give up entirely. Two other things kept me going...my baby and my Study Grant. If I failed to complete my PhD within the stipulated time stated in the Grant, which is 3 years, I might need to pay compensation to the College! I couldn't afford that. So, I must complete it. The baby growing within has also motivated me to finish it once and for all. During times when I had to work late, I would tell my baby this, “Mummy needs to work. Please behave yourself and be patient”. He seemed to understand and didn’t give me much problem.

Little by little, I experienced breakthroughs in my research. My research was accepted for presentation and publication at two major conferences. The first one was at the 18th Malaysian Educational Technology Convention, Kuala Terengganu, 16-19 September 2005. Because of my pregnancy, I was reluctant to travel to Kuala Terengganu. My supervisor graciously agreed to attend the Conference and present the paper on behalf of me. So, I prepared all the presentation slides for him. It went well and the paper was eventually selected for the Special Issue in the Malaysian Online Journal of Instructional Technology (MOJIT).

The second conference (Frontiers in Education 2005) was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, from 19-22 October 2005. The date is actually about 2 months before the delivery of my baby. Even though I was not fit to travel so far, I’m thankful that my College willingly sponsored the conference registration fee so that my paper could be published.

After much difficulty, the errors in my system were finally fixed and I started the evaluation of the system in October 2005. Thank God that the results were positive. Otherwise, I would not be able to submit my dissertation on time. With that, I commenced the writing of the remaining chapters of my dissertation. During this time, my mum was the greatest supporter.

My mum reminded me of a saying that goes like this: “A journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step.” Until today, her words of advice remain fresh in my memory. ‘If we want to achieve whatever goals we have set at the beginning of a journey, we should just do our best and persevere no matter what difficulties we may encounter in life.’ With this in mind, I became fully determined to carry on and bring to fruition a task, seemingly impossible for me at that point in time. She came all the way from Kota Kinabalu to Petaling Jaya to help me prepare the birth of her first grandchild. She even spent late nights with me to proofread my dissertation, and gave me ideas for my Introduction. A super Mum indeed!

All this while, I hoped for the perfect delivery time for my baby boy Jordan. I was afraid that he would want to come out earlier but he didn't. He was late but a wonderful timing. He seemed to be waiting for me to complete the dissertation. He was with me as I spent long hours at night writing my dissertation. He had probably complained because I often experienced minor 'earthquakes' in my tummy area.

Finally, I submitted my first draft to my supervisor almost one week before I gave birth to Jordan. My husband Seng Chor helped me with the submission. One week after Jordan's birth, my supervisor gave me the feedback.

With God's strength once again, I made all the changes and additions during my confinement. It was not easy as I had to breastfeed. The decision to fully breastfeed my baby is something that I would never regret. I enjoyed every minute of it. It was tiring but once again my family members and friends were there to support me, and I managed to make all the necessary modifications within two days. I remembered the confinement lady constantly advising me take rest, but I persisted.

Before that, my husband actually had to meet up with my supervisor regarding the modifications. My supervisor explained to him all the required changes. Obviously, my husband didn't really understand the whole thing, but he just nodded, and related all to me. Amazingly, I submitted the final draft on 23 December 2005. Once again, my husband went to the University to process my submission. He had to go up and down my Faculty to get the necessary forms signed and photocopied. There was no lift, just stairs. It was a good exercise for him, and I heard that his shirt was drenched with sweat. He just took time off, and went back to work after that. Because my supervisor advised me to submit before Christmas, I didn't have to pay for another semester's fee. That was just the first hurdle. Two more hurdles have yet to come – presentation and viva.

Towards the end of my maternity leave, I received an email from UM to present my research to the Faculty members and postgraduate students. Initially, the date of the presentation was scheduled before the end of my maternity leave. Thankfully, it was postponed to 17 February 2006, and I resumed work on 13 February 2006. I was able to use the five days to prepare my presentation. If it was not postponed, I would not be able to prepare well as I was still breastfeeding, and the baby needed a lot of attention.

The 40-minute presentation went well. Though the audience was small, there were some tough questions that I had to handle, and it was a good learning experience for me. So, the second hurdle was crossed. The third and most difficult hurdle is the viva.

On Monday, 12 June 2006, I was on leave - just wanted to rest after the Singapore trip over the weekend. In the morning, I received a call from Ms Pappu, Faculty of Computer Science & Information Technology, University of Malaya. She informed me that my viva would be on that coming Friday, 16 June 2006 at 9:30 am. I was surprised at the short notice, and I exclaimed, "so fast?". She replied that it was delayed already, which is true because it was supposed to be 1 - 2 months ago. This is it. The VIVA that I have been waiting for has FINALLY arrived. I started to panic a bit. Then, I quickly sent sms and email for prayers…sent an email to my supervisor for advice. He asked me not to worry, advising me to review the latest research for my area. Glad that I took his advice.

Thankfully, Seng Chor was supportive. He missed his meetings and badmintons to take care of Jordan while I revised. So much to read but so little time. In the end, I had to cut down a lot things and focussed on a few key areas. Seng Chor gave a very good reminder actually. The viva is about defending your project work. He said "Just explain and defend". This prompted me to look into any 'loopholes' and 'patch' them with the appropriate answers. I managed to read my entire thesis once through and practise the presentation quite a number of times. I came to realise that I can never be fully prepared for anything. So, that was a comforting thought and I was more relaxed.

Below is what I wrote in my journal for that day:
16 June 2006 (Friday)
PhD viva at 9:30 am in UM.
Reached UM 9:00 am. Went straight to see Ms Pappu to have my presentation installed. Then, she surprised me with 2 statements: Yours will be short, probably 1 hour (My thoughts, “hmmm…sounds good or could be bad”).
After the viva, wait in this room. They will call you in to let you know the results ("Wow! So fast can know the results").

I waited at the Postgraduate room.
I was called in at about 9:30 am. There were 6 people in the room including my supervisor, Dr Sapiyan.
Presented using PowerPoint for about 25 minutes.
Q&A for half an hour by the external examiner.
Then, went back to the room to wait.
Within 10 minutes, they called me in.
“… Christine, we will recommend to the Senate that you be awarded the Doctor of Philosophy.”

Wow! My heart was pounding. It was such a relief.

After that, had some discussion with Dr Sapiyan until almost 11:30 am. He told me that my presentation was good and my report was organised well for the examiners.
Then, I returned to College after getting the Examiner’s reports from Ms Pappu. The reports were encouraging.

My heart was still pounding with excitement for a few hours after the results. It was so unbelievable. There were altogether 3 examiners for my thesis - 2 external examiners (local and overseas) and 1 internal examiner from UM. All three agreed to the conferment of the PhD award. One of them did a thorough examination on my work. She spotted all my minor mistakes with my references and (oops!) spelling mistakes as well. She's cool. She has also made other recommendations to improve some sections of my thesis. Another examiner recommended that I add in some more discussion on future work.

I was given one month to complete and submit the changes to my supervisor. To cut the story short, I managed to submit the FINAL thesis on 6 July 2006, just in time for the Senate meeting on Friday, 14 July 2006. Phew! Otherwise, my convocation would be delayed to next year 2007.

Few days after the viva, I flew to Hong Kong to present my research paper at the International Workshop on Artificial Intelligence Applications (IWAIA), International MultiConference of Engineers and Computer Scientists (IMECS) 2006, organised by the International Association of Engineers (IAENG). My paper was nominated for the Best Paper Award in the IWAIA. Once again, I am thankful to my College for sponsoring my trip to Hong Kong for the conference.

Pre-Convocation Butterflies
The Big Day is - 8 August 2006. I was feeling excited. I was nervous. I just couldn't stop thinking about it. Hmm...did I feel like this on my wedding day?

I was at the rehearsal on Saturday, 5 August 2006. Found out that PhD graduates will be receiving the scroll from the UM Chancellor – DYMM Paduka Seri Sultan Perak Darul Ridzuan Sultan Azlan Shah, and to shake hands with him too, our ex-King (Agung). Wow!
So many protocols...
Bow when getting up from the seat
Walk to the stairs on the stage, and wait
When your name is called, walk to the marker
Bow, then, take a step forward to receive the scroll with both hands
Shake hand with the Sultan (only for PhD graduates)
Say "Menjunjung Kasih Tuanku" or "Thank you, Tuanku"
Take a step backward
Bow again and walk away.

I hope I can remember to do all the above. Hope I don't fall or trip or make a fool of myself in anyway.

On 8 August 2006, I attended the convocation. I remembered all the necessary protocols. After the ceremony, Tuanku stayed back to take photos with us. What a privilege!

Some of my students came. I got a bouquet of red roses from them. How lovely! More wanted to come but I sort of discouraged them because of the limited parking space. As a PhD graduate, I was invited to the UM Convocation Dinner at PJ Hilton hosted by the Sultan. How privileged!

Looking back to the auspicious and memorable day, I realised that I have gone through a lot, and there were good and bad memories in my journey to excellence. I suffered a miscarriage but was later blessed with a beautiful baby boy. I still had to lecture, administer the degree courses and deal with my students at the College daily. But it was not just all work and no play. I still found time to relax – went to a few Island trips, Kuching, Singapore and even China for a holiday. Amazingly, I was able to complete the PhD within the minimum time frame, which is 5 semesters – 2 and ½ years. It was my initial target and I have managed to meet that.

The whole PhD study period was an awesome learning experience. But it has strengthened me and helped me to develop my analytical skills as well as skills in research and development. The experience gained throughout the research has been overwhelming and fulfilling. And most of all to be able to share this rewarding experience to others for motivation. The important thing is not to give up, and have family and friends to rely on.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to God, my husband, parents, supervisor (Associate Prof Dr M. Sapiyan Baba) at University of Malaya, KBU International College, relatives and friends who have made my dream come true.

1 comment:

dolly said...

Hi Christine! I haven't congratulated you officially...
Congratulations! Well done! Great achievement - man! (I can still recall you were contemplating To pursue or not when we were doing Experiencing God) & so much has happened... much cause for celebration! Cheers!
dolly