Survival kit for International PhD Mums: It’s a Whānau’s Journey

On the 1st of October 2019, I will submit my final doctoral dissertation entitled ‘My Baby Deserves Love, Not HIV’ to my supervisors. It is the best 80,000 words and 220 pages that I have written under my supervisors’ guidance, and with the kindness of New Zealand Scholarships and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

I want to reflect my own journey as an international student from Indonesia, a mother of three little kids, a wife, and at times a pregnant woman, to survive in this four-year journey of scholarship. I share three main survival tips for my fellow PhD mums and dads, and for those who guide and supervise international PhD students at AUT.

1 – Don’t be shy to ask for help

Being a Ph.D. student, we are learning to write, think, critique, and reflect; to argue confidently in our writing and in discussion with our supervisors. Here are some tips to go through this intensive journey to learn about your research topic.

a. Use your voice: be honest if you do not understand

I was raised in an educational culture that insisted that my teachers were mostly right, and I may be wrong. When I made mistakes or could not achieve good marks, I felt shameful. I was not raised with ideas such as “there is no right and no wrong”; “every one is unique”; and “failure is a good teacher”. I had to learn how to survive in a Western academic culture. Supervisors also need to understand our challenges as international students with different academic styles in our home countries.

I needed to be brave to say to my supervisors “I do not understand”; “I am confused with both of your comments”; “I need help”; and “my kids are sick, I need a rest”. You need to state your needs clearly to the supervisors who accompany you on your long journey. Be honest and do not be shy. They will help you if you use your voice. You also will learn to make decisions about what is best for your own writing and journey.

b. Mutual understandings

Our supervisors also need to be aware of their students. Students are not hard like stones. We are more like kites, ready to fly high. Supervisors sometimes let me fly as high as I can, but they will watch out for me. They will help me if I fly too far or fly too low. They will control the kite in a safe manner.

c. Supervisors’ comments: signs of love

You will work each chapter from its first draft to its final form. It may take 10 revisions. Our supervisors will comment on those drafts with love. Be patient and learn to love your supervisors’ comments. You can argue for your own ideas too; there’s no need to be shy. There is no right and there is no wrong. There are no stupid questions or arguments. You will see how amazing your writing is on the final draft.

d. Ask for one-to-one meetings with learning advisors and join peer support groups

In my journey, I needed help from other people than just my supervisors. I needed to work one-to-one with AUT learning advisors. They became my ‘third parties,’ after my supervisors, to resolve my confusion, provide tips in critical writing, and to link my challenges to my supervisors. “All will be fine, Najmah,” said Quentin, one of AUT’s learning advisors. Ask your supervisors to refer you to learning advisors for extra help. There is also free online academic help through Studiosity, available via Blackboard. You can use Studiosity to get proofreading help on drafts.

One-to-one meeting: Dr Quentin Allan taught me how to write great Introduction, Review and Discussion chapters over four different meetings.

I also need my peers to share their diverse experiences in academia. My PhD student peers are insiders in my journey. For instance, there is a peer support group for NZ Scholars and ASEAN students. They listen, share, and motivate me. Please, join some peer support groups in AUT. You are not alone.

2 – Be kind to yourself

AUT, like other universities in Auckland, provides every international student a ladder to learning during the PhD. We as international students need to be resilient to go through this journey. Be kind to yourself as you work toward your achievement.

I always remember what my supervisors, learning advisors, AUT scholarship officers, AUT lecturers, and peers said to me:

  • “Do not kill yourself with work, we are here to help you”
  • “Have a walk, and have time with your kids, keep strong”
  • “Almost there!”
  • “Take a deep breath, you will be okay”
  • “Trying to communicate findings that are so personal is like wrestling a crocodile”
  • “It is fine to cry, release your worry and then seek help”
Smiles in the first year: me, and two Indonesian PhD students (Dr. Hanny Savitri Hartono and Dr.Dinar Lubis) and my supervisors, Dr Sari Andajani and Assoc Prof Sharyn Graham Davies (photo by Jazz Robinson)

3 – Use all facilities for parents

When my peers asked me “where is your PhD room?” I answered: “in the parent room in AUT library.” Librarians recognised me when I came with my kids and prepared the parents room key for us. My kids called this parents room ‘Mummy’s school.’ There are toys, CDs, and a big television to watch. It is enough to keep children calm and they can make noise too, as they have their own world.

Studying with kids is part of my journey. I, like other students who are also parents, balance my time to drop my kids to school, pick them from school and childcare, and prepare their food. We get used to sharing these roles with our spouses, who may also be working to earn money to live in the great (but not cheap) city of Auckland.

There are lots of other great resources for parents who are studying at AUT:

Scholarship officers support us at AUT

We choose this journey toward the PhD, and we need our survival kits along the way. The parent’s journey to the PhD is a whānau’s journey – whānau, in Māori, meaning extended family.

Thank you AUT for providing a safe and family-friendly environment for those of us who have different gender expectations from our diverse cultures and countries.

Thank you New Zealand.

Clockwise from top left: Parents room at AUT City; parents room at AUT South; breastfeeding room at AUT City

About Najmah Usman

Najmah is a lecturer at Sriwijaya University in South Sumatera Indonesia. She is currently a PhD candidate at Auckland University of Technology (with a New Zealand ASEAN scholarship). She is also a writer, blogger, and a feminist. She is an expert in both quantitative and qualitative research and has published four books related to Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Previously she was awarded an Australian Partnership Scholarship and a Netherlands Fellowship Partnership.

4 thoughts on “Survival kit for International PhD Mums: It’s a Whānau’s Journey

  1. Terima kasih for sharing your journey. AUT is our home and always tries its best to accommodate our needs! It is an honour to be part of AUT’s whanau! The story tells us that a PhD is a unique yet rewarding journey! Sometimes we forget ‘to be kind to ourself’ – we focus too much on the outcome and forget to enjoy the process. Good luck with your thesis submission, Ibu Najmah!

    1. Pak Stenly, thank you to be part of peer support leaders of NZ Scholars and ASEAN scholars, you are so brilliant, we are lucky to have your support in AUT, as our peer with great expertise in academic and real world in your international expertise in United Nations, you taught me real recommendation for the world of my work…

      Any scholars, please seek help any where, including to him

  2. Wow! Words fail me to express. Thank you. Thank you for this blog. Thank you for taking the time out to write this blog for people like me. I so resonate with everything you say and I have taken notes. I wish you all the best as you submit your thesis. You have come a long way and you have a bright future ahead of you and the babies you are a voice for

    1. thanks Blessing, your voice is here, thank you for your kindness to reply on my email about this topic hun…

      “no panic” you will be fine

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