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PhD in a Pandemic

Ah hahaha, a PhD in a pandemic, you say? Crazily enough, my current reality — and I almost laugh about this in incredulity or in bitterness at different points in time. So, so much has happened since the last time I properly updated about my academic studies here on Wording Art since October 2020, and I feel like now is the right time to sit down, a cup of tea on the side, music playing in the background, and reflect on everything. I just went through my old Academia posts beginning from 2018 (see this category here), and it’s amazing how my sentiments then still remain true — making decisions and planning for the future with Prospect and Refuge in mind, and drawing from the wise and amusing words of Lewis Carroll time and again.

Perhaps the one-line summary is this: Doing a PhD is always going to be difficult, and doing anything in a pandemic makes everything more difficult still — but I recognise how incredibly blessed I’ve been with all the people, opportunities and support I’ve been surrounded with, and I truly value all of these.

Now let’s rewind to October 2020: I’d shared that I’d passed my Qualifying Exam for my art history research master’s at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in early September that year. That was only the beginning of the gruelling process that was converting my master’s to a PhD. I’m not sure if this practice exists in other educational systems, but I’d also think that it’s not usual or easy at all. I didn’t share about any of this earlier, because there were just so many moving pieces hanging in the balance and I didn’t want to jinx anything LOL!

Very proud of the work and research that has gone into my PhD project so far!

In October 2020, I then sat for my conversion exercise (yet another report and presentation), prepared a PhD research proposal and had an interview in November 2020 (similar to what I did when applying for my masters!), and then waited… The news came through in mid-January 2021 that my conversion was successful, and a week later, the news that I was given a NTU scholarship sent me over the moon! Took a deep breath to take it all in, before finding out that I was going to have to dash for yet another qualifying exam in April 2021. Went into a happy daze (just briefly, the PhD life waits for no one) when I was confirmed as a PhD candidate in late April!

Going up the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) roof earlier this week — only took me 3 years to do it!

Luckily, the timing worked out well as all of these happened when the Covid situation was doing much better, and it was a lot easier to go into campus to get my writing done. Things got more cautious from May, and flitting around many different things — classes, conference applications, assignments — to the background of restless Covid definitely takes its mental toil. I love that canvas print of Which step have you reached today, which I saw at Chapter 55 (restaurant in Tiong Bahru), up above in the cover picture. Almost every day, I go from ‘I won’t do it’ to ‘I’ll try’…

But! I’m now heading into my final fourth year of my postgraduate studies, and what a time to celebrate the good things and the breakthrough days when I get to the top three steps of that ‘do it’ staircase.

Views from the top of the ADM roof

So, I think one thing I wanted to put in words (so I can remember it for posterity) is why I decided to go for a PhD and a conversion. I don’t think anyone has asked me about this in an official capacity, and what I really appreciate about postgrad interviews is that they keep the focus on research. The seed of this conversion idea was planted early on in my first semester (thanks to my professors’ foresight), and it was really in May 2020 that I fully committed to the the plan and went full-out to fulfil the crazy schedule outlined above.

Funnily enough, my main two reasons for doing the PhD conversion remained within the same two ‘categories’ that also made up my decision to take up my master’s at NTU. The first, primary reason is related to my own research: I knew I was — and still am! — in the right place to do the research I want to do (Angelica Kauffman’s self-portraits + eighteenth-century British art) as I seriously do have the best supervisor and advisory committee, and I’m comfortable in this environment and NTU’s fantastic facilities. You could say that the UK would perhaps be more fitting because the art and the archives that I need to see are located there, but the unexpected twist in the story with Covid meant that museums and archival centres had to close, and many things shifted online… And as it became more apparent that the pandemic was going to go on for longer than anyone could have expected, I was feeling uncertain about expecting to finish my MA in mid-2021.

Yunnan Garden in NTU with an actual waterfall

And on my research, it only seemed that I was getting more engrossed in it all the time — and this is probably the most important factor to me in doing a PhD and sticking it out. I’d kept to the same topic throughout the MA and in converting to the PhD, but the research kept growing in many interesting ways and I wanted to keep the momentum and take my topic further by upscaling it into a PhD. I have mentioned before that there is often the initial feel to build a super-broad topic for the research proposal and the feedback you get is always to narrow, narrow it down! And then when you get accepted into the MA/PhD program and work on it further, the topic grows and changes in ways unknown yet again… It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s definitely what I’ve experienced!

Set up my work cubicle with my essentials and London souvenirs…

Another thing I’ve noticed is that my research seems to be getting increasingly personal — the appeal of working on Kauffman and eighteenth-century London in the first place was that there seemed to be no relation to my actual twenty-first-century life in Singapore/Hong Kong and it was refreshing to be working on a clean slate. Yet I realise that my interest in looking at Kauffman’s London self-portraits and my approach in doing so reflects my own thoughts and feelings… I’m not too sure how to explain this, but maybe it will become clear to me when I’m finally done writing the dissertation in mid-2023?

The second main reason, on unavoidable, pragmatic terms, is related to costs and financial matters. Any postgraduate degree is pricey in one way or another (plus opportunity costs), and I was hoping to leverage on ‘saving’ a year in completing a PhD by converting my MA. In any case, receiving the news of my scholarship made it the best night of my life and it’s really been life-changing, and I don’t take it for granted at all. So, so thankful.

Replica of the old Nanyang University gate in Yunnan Garden

Now that I’m doing a PhD — which still feels surreal — what other highlights then? Turning things online has been so helpful in opening up access to hearing more talks, participating in events, etc. across the world for free — although I openly profess I’m still a Zoom noob (I like MS Teams more).

The biggest highlight of 2022 would definitely be finally making it to London to get my hands on the archives in May! I’m also (slowly) sharing more of all the art and museums I saw and visited during my time there on the blog, which was just such an immersive experience.

The original old Nanyang University gate is at Yunnan Park, which is some distance away from the NTU campus in the Pioneer/Jurong West area!

Ah, so now it’s a matter of writing and completing the dissertation, putting my thoughts together… Let’s see what other thoughts I’ll have about the writing process in the coming academic year!

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