can self-help books help?


Why is it that when colleagues or friends discover that you are beginning that journey into higher educational research that they immediately assume you will find everything you need in a good solid research book? Don’t get me wrong two of my prized reads were given to me by friends who are academics. One is Micheal Crotty’s“The foundations of Social Research” and the other Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s “Decolonizing Methodologies”. Great research reads. Inspiring. Technical and focused. But… they only feed the research intellect… what about a good cartoon? comic relief or better still a survival guide to the phd?

O.k. so I was raised the typical Pacific child to be strong. Emotional displays were seen as a sign of weakness and you had to put on a brave face and just deal with it (whatever it was!) quietly and in the privacy of the family circle. In this context, the whole notion of self-help books is seen as a ‘waste of time’ and I can hear my mother’s voice in my head saying “Did you really need to spend that much money to find out something you already knew?” But of course, we all need affirmation and in the capitalist economy we live in today never more has the need to reach out and feel “human” been so important. I must say at this point that I am not a touchy-feely person and I love my personal space… but there are just some things that reaffirm the human condition – some words that touch you in ways that you never though possible and remind you to take stock, to breathe and to purposefully transform your actions and life.

A couple of years ago I got my hands on a second hand copy of Robert Fulghram’s “Maybe, Maybe Not” and thought hey this is great! Then a friend alerted me to “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten” and again it was a “Aha!” moment. Wonderful. Light and brilliantly human. I was hooked. My next stop a full year later, was discovering Dwayne Dyer’s “You’ll believe it when you see it”. I found myself both intrigued and troubled by the fact that I could relate completely to a middle aged white man whose life experiences were quite disconnected from my own and yet… so markedly similar in the human condition and the quest for personal transformation… the desire for something better than this!

Anyway, so I began the PhD journey convinced that I must devour as much as I could on my selected topic and related topics and issues but it was quite a dry, technical and truth be told, an isolated process… (hence the blogging!) The last two years have been years of avid reading of the like and yes o.k there have been moments of excitement at finding a great journal article or chapter in a book that screams something connected to my stream of academic consciousness and yet.. there has been something missing.I think I may have found what I was looking for…

Last night I stumbled across “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” by Gordon Rugg & Marian Petre (2004) and immediately downloaded a copy. Today, the first thing I did after a two-hour micro-teaching class, I printed and bound sections and began to read.. what  a GEM! Thank you to the authors.. with powerful everyday metaphors that even a P.I (Pacific Islander) can relate to… Some examples include “having the right cup of coffee” (p8) (which is itself important);  “bad habits” such as “learned helplessness:  (p28) and “dealing with your supervisor”(p37) I am definitely going to be looking for a personal copy of the paperback version of this. (Yes I am one of those old-school readers for whom nothing quite replaces the feel and smell of the crisp pages of a new book growing into well loved smoothed sheets (with at least twenty post-its!).

If you haven’t yet read this.. you must get a copy! It is the only researchers guide that I have seen written in coffee-talk language that gets simple and to the point information across that every student should know but no one ever told us. It has got to be the researcher’s response to “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten”… Everything you need to know about the PhD journey is touched on in “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research”.

Wohoo!! Finally a how to PhD book that humanizes the research journey and makes you laugh as you learn.. what more could you ask for at the beginning of a tumultuous ride?

how on earth did i get here?


The key words I fear are stamina and flow… not necessarily in that order. So I completed the MA in 2002 and despite constant pestering (and it really was pestering!) to begin the PhD from colleagues, I was adamant that I would know when the topic was right. So off I went digging a well deeper and deeper into academia.. teaching large classes of no less than 100 and up to 300 at a time in my curriculum courses; getting into community work; rushing off to present at conferences; conducting small research projects and beginning to publish. But the apple (or coconut in my case) never fell from the tree.. it hung there suspended like a golden fruit waiting to be picked – just out of reach. Most days it was simply out of sight out of mind.

I kept the dean happy by convincing her that I was “actively” searching for a topic and went as far as enrolling in a postgraduate course on Script Writing for film in 2006 and then a year later in Advanced Social Policy… I considered at least twenty possible topics and debated which discipline I ought to study in and which University and in which country and why? With my large classes it began to register as a “something I must do” “one day” like learning to swim or drive.

In retrospect, 2006 was an eventful year and a number of milestone events took place. My mum passed away and I truly felt like the orphan thrown into the driver’s seat. On the work front, the University was identified as a Regional Centre of Expertise and Centre of Excellence in ESD by UNU and ACCU-UNESCO respectively. I was added to a project team and my Education for Sustainable Development Journey began. I soon forgot about the PhD and got deeper and deeper into my ESD work.

At the back of my head, the idea was that if I had to do the PhD – it had to be difficult!  should choose a challenging topic and it should be painful…I should go away to another University and identify a topic that few would understand and I would look important and feel important and perhaps be important in the process. How wrong I was!

When the topic came to me it was 2008 and I found myself suddenly re-examining traditional symbols and their significance as metaphors of indigenous life philosophies. It dawned on me then that if I wanted to study something specifically ingrained in Pacific epistemologies, I need to be right where I was.

I even have the perfect supervisor in Professor Konai Helu Thaman, UNESCO Chair in Culture and Teacher Education and ESD Advocate. Why on earth would I go to some seemingly exotic place to conduct research on people who are literally in my back yard? And why should I settle for a second best supervisor who may only know the Pacific from what s/he has read in books?

The idea stuck but I didn’t quite get my act together until 2010 when out of the clear blue sky, a topic formulated and a proposal followed soon after. It was accepted and I enrolled for my first semester in January 2010 but my teaching load was such that I could not enroll in semester two… then in 2011, I tried again  and enrolled in the first semester.. and again was unable to enroll in semester two.. so here I am … hoping its third time lucky… enrolled in the PhD program for my third semester as a part-time Pacific islander student trying to make sense of the madness that is a sea of words floating in the abyss of my head.. fighting to find their way onto a crisp white page.

My research examines indigenous notions of sustainability and resilience in the Pacific islands and explores the concept of “Va” or relational spaces as a life-philosophy that is central to learning about (or education for) sustainability (and sustainable development). My supervisor is awesome and in the short time that I have been enrolled I have churned out four draft chapters!!!

so does it have to be difficult? I don’t think so. Does it need to be complicated? I have discovered that the simple things are the most profound.

And do I feel important? Lord NO! It’s become a personal journey of reflection and discovery and most days that I find time to work on my chapters the end game or piece of paper is the last thing on my mind.

It’s become the excitement of connecting dots and finding gaps, identifying new dots on the map and reconnecting, disconnecting and navigating my way through what promises to be a very nerdy academic rush.

I am braced and positioned to enjoy the ride because by all indications there are rapids ahead and for someone from the islands who hasnt learnt to swim – well that just means gearing up with a life-raft, a life-line and family and friends on the look out preferably with hugs, chocolate, good coffee and the occasional umu (earth oven feast) to sustain me.

Hello world!

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Hello world!

In the throes of my own dissertation process, I have discovered the need for reflection and dialogue so here I am a Pacific Island full time academic and PhD student struggling to find the space(s) for reflexive thinking, writing, and above all else the elusive “flow”. I am urged on by Nietzsche who reminds us that “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star” and the inspirational Hau’ofa who cautions Pacific peoples to “not allow anyone to belittle us again, and take away our freedom”. So without apology I search for answers and blue doors opening to possibilities.

Someone said that blogging is a great way to meet like minded people on similar journeys so here goes nothing… Just another PhD blog adrift in the vast Pacific Ocean of ideas, dreams and trying to find that one perfect word to complete a sentence.