The Value of Finding your PhD Tribe

I’ve just come back from a gathering of 80 Māori and indigenous PhD students at Puketeraki Marae at Karitāne in North Otago. We’re all members of a national PhD scholars’ network called Te Kupenga o MAI (the net of MAI); the acronym stands for Māori and Indigenous, and there are MAI groups in most of the universities in Aotearoa.

The network is financially supported by the Māori Centre of Research Excellence, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and thanks to Ngā Pae, from a Thursday afternoon to a Sunday morning, we gathered to present our work to each other, discuss the challenges of the PhD journey and share our research tips and perspectives as Māori and indigenous peoples in universities.

I was there as a member of MAI ki Aronui, the AUT arm of the network. MAI ki Aronui is the tribe that helped me get through my PhD. At the conference, we numbered 19, mostly Māori. But my tribe also had two Pacific people, two Latin Americans, a Yemeni, a Mauritian and a Taiwanese.

Being at the conference and enjoying the company of like-minded people got me thinking about the need for every PhD student to find his or her own tribe to stay the course. Every doctoral student needs fellow travellers who understand what a PhD is, who can help them through the inevitable up and downs, and with whom they can speak academese (ontology and epistemology and methodology, oh my!)

When I started my PhD in 2016, I didn’t have a tribe; MAI at AUT had been in abeyance for some years. When not on fieldwork, I was at home on my own, writing; I ran a home-based business to pay the bills, so I needed to be there rather than on campus. It meant that I wasn’t meeting many other Māori doctoral students. Although I have a fabulous husband who is a PhD-qualified statistician and therefore understands the doctoral process, I was often isolated physically and socially.

Massey researcher Marion Lara Tan summed up her experience of isolation on that university’s doctoral blog, The Scholar’s Lounge, and it’s worth repeating: “Often I experience isolation in two forms: Perceived isolation, feeling that no one else understands what I am going through and actual isolation, distancing myself from peers or supervisors. These two forms of isolation develop into a vicious cycle.”

She added, “As a student, I tend to distance myself from peers or supervisors if I feel I do not have sufficient progress; nursing the sentiment that I need to figure things out for myself before involving others. But the lack of engagement causes others not to understand my work; hence, feeding the perception of being misunderstood. Then this increased feeling of isolation makes me hesitate to approach others, creating a dangerous reinforcing loop.”

Marion broke this loop through finding a peer network of other PhD students. In early 2018, when MAI was revived at AUT by Te Ara Poutama lecturer Dr Jani Wilson, it became my PhD tribe. MAI aims to support, nurture and challenge its members, who come from a range of disciplines, to become exceptional PhD graduates through capacity-building activities and friendship in an unapologetically kaupapa Māori environment. So on the agenda at our monthly Saturday morning meetings at the AUT marae, Ngā Wai o Horotiu, there might be a mock PGR9, a talk from an experienced academic on a PhD-related topic, or a discussion of the issues that arise on the doctoral journey. And because it’s kaupapa Māori, there’s haka! All members perform, and we have also learned songs in the languages of our Mangarevan and Samoan members.

MAI meetings take place on the same weekend that Te Ara Poutama (TAP), the Māori studies faculty, runs its catered block courses for masters students, and we are very grateful that TAP feeds its lovely lunches to MAI members as well. Having both masters and doctoral students on site to share kai (food) promotes useful whakawhanaungatanga (relationship-building). After lunch, although our MAI hui (meeting) is technically over, it’s not unusual for informal study-related activities to continue in the whare kai (dining hall), with, say, some one-on-one PGR9 coaching taking place at one table and discussion of a joint conference proposal at another.

The benefits of belonging to a research community like this include a greater likelihood of completing one’s PhD; completing the degree in good time; and making the journey more enjoyable and less stressful (Conrad, 2006). MAI has given me a safe space to be my authentic Māori self, and in its embrace I have made firm friends, tested out presentations, sought feedback and built my confidence as a fledgling academic. The week of the conference, two of us submitted our theses; our colleagues’ delight for us was genuine.

Had MAI not been revived, I might have looked at the list of groups that the Graduate Research School (GRS) supports and joined one of those. There’s plenty of choice, with 13 groups at present, ranging from the Distance Students Group to the Art & Design Queer Reading Group through to the MH206 Whānau, a new group for PhD students based at South campus (the name comes from the postgraduate room where they meet). Or I might have taken the advice of Fisher (2006) in creating a tribe of my own (talk to Anaise Irvine if you would like to do this).

I asked my fellow MAI members the benefits of the MAI tribe as PhD peer support, and here are some of the comments:

“MAI is the whānau you never knew you always needed, giving you connection on a journey that’s often quite isolating.”

Deborah Heke, Ngāpuhi

“MAI whānau is about tautoko [support] and manaaki [care and compassion], a safe space while navigating Western academia. We get inspiration and strength to do research in our own native ways.”

Diana Albarrán González, Mexico

Discovering MAI has been like being tossed a lifeline while drowning at sea. I am very grateful to find my MAI whānau. They accept me as I am, although I am rough around the edges, and give critical feedback in a safe and caring way. We are strong, together.

Cecelia Faumuina, Tonga & Samoa

When I started my PhD, I was enthusiastic and excited about my study. Then, along the way, the study got hard, and I felt stressed and deflated. The MAI whānau embraced me (manaaki), helped me find my passion for my study again (tautoko), and reminded me that the PhD journey can be fun; that’s how it should be. I think the value of MAI to me isn’t just for me as a student, rather, MAI helps me develop into a more compassionate person and a better scholar. I am lucky to have a whānau like MAI ki Aronui.

Chien-ju Ting, Taiwan

“MAI teaches you everything that isn’t in the Postgraduate Handbook.”

Toiroa Williams, Te Whakatōhea, Ngai Tai, Te Whānau-a-Apanui
MAI ki Aronui members outside Te Pūrengi, the whare nui at AUT. Photo: Simon Smith
Being in MAI means haka! Practicing our waiata ā-ringa MAI ki Aronui, which was written by coordinator Dr Jani Wilson (front right). Photo: Simon Smith

Below, pictures of MAI ki Aronui members from the conference Te Kupenga o MAI, Puketeraki Marae, Karitāne, North Otago, November 14-17, 2019.

Having a sing outside Huirapa, the whare nui at Puketeraki Marae.
Rumen Rachev, Toiroa Williams and Chien-ju Ting. Photo: Atakohu Middleton
In the whare kai, Maririhau, at the MAI doctoral conference. Clockwise from bottom left, Diana Albarrán González, Rumen Rachev, Jani Wilson, Jenni Tupu, Cecelia Faumuina, Toiroa Williams, Nabil Sabra and Natascha Diaz Cardona. Photo: Natascha Diaz Cardona. 


Conrad, L. (2006). Countering Isolation: Joining the Research Community. In Denholm, C.,  Evans, T. (Eds.) Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand (pp. 34-40). Victoria, Australia: ACER Press. 

Fisher, K. (2006) Peer Support Groups. In Denholm, C., and Evans, T., (Eds.) Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand (pp. 41-49) Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

About Atakohu Middleton

Atakohu Middleton (Ngāti Māhanga, Pākehā) spent 20 years in English-language print journalism in Aotearoa and the UK before embarking on her PhD, which explores the influence of tikanga and the language revitalisation agenda on the practice of Māori-language journalists. She is a video ethnographer, using digital film alongside qualitative interview to gather data. Her supervisors are Dr Helen Sissons (School of Communication Studies) and Professor Hinematau McNeill (Te Ara Poutama), who are no doubt mighty relieved that Atakohu’s 100,000-word tome of a thesis has just been submitted for examination.

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