The researcher occupies a position of privilege, and it is a privilege – I have come to realise, half a year into the PhD journey – which resonates even more loudly within the social service or the social work (or social welfare) sector. Vis-à-vis the beneficiaries and the social workers whom we work with, the benefits of research work such as publications or policy papers accrue disproportionately to us, the researchers. In fact my everyday experience as a PhD student has been a tremendous privilege too: Waking up in Los Angeles excited for work and classes, ploughing through the literature to plug my knowledge gaps and to plan for pilots or future research projects, and having control over my routines for exercise and blogging and reading and other non-school endeavours.
There are challenges, no doubt. Besides the oft-cited imposter syndrome, learning how to deal with critical feedback or contrarian perspectives has not been as easy. At the end of the last quarter the nine of us, navigating through the PhD programme as first-years and having just completed an in-class peer-review exercise, had a great discussion about processing criticisms. Criticism is part and parcel of academia: Redoing papers and proposals, getting peer-reviewed comments, having colleagues and advisors question your use of theories, sampling, assumptions… Yet getting used to that routine can be tough. It can also be an exhausting enterprise having to balance different commitments, from family to peripheral administrative work to other unexpected demands.
Even so, now at 27, I feel like I have entered one of the most productive phases of my life. In the past year I graduated from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, completed a talent management project with the Asia Philanthropy Circle and continued my work as a volunteer researcher, and oversaw as an advisor the seventh United Nations Association of Singapore Model United Nations Preparatory Conference. I have been able to read more widely and to write more actively – starting a weekly newsletter and churning out more substantive pieces on this blog, with the two on Singapore’s class divide and the Chinese Singaporean identity as my favourites in 2018 – while making sure that my professional work remains on track. Taken together, these experiences build upon 26 years of mistakes, missteps, and disappointments, and build towards the aim of working for the social service sector in Singapore and in Asia.
There is still so much to learn and to achieve, as I continue on this personal race to chase my own hero, who is always ten years away. And in this twenty-seventh year I resolve to continue trudging forward, one step at a time.