Jennifer Star’s PhD was shaped by daily life and work in India

Jennifer Star OAM is passionate about empowering teachers and equipping the next generation with the skills they need to thrive in an uncertain world. Her PhD, ‘Pedagogic Encounters with India: The Potential of the Overseas Practicum’, explores ways to equip Australia’s teachers with global competence and intercultural understanding to both cater to and teach about the countries and cultures of Asia in their classroom. As a result of her contributions to international education, Jennifer was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2019, won the Australian Women’s Agenda Leadership Award (Not-for-Profit) in 2017, was named one of Australia’s 100 Most Influential Women in 2014.

Here she talks about the challenges of doing her PhD part-time online while working full-time and how her supervisors Associate Professor Michiko Weinmann, Dr Emma Charlton and Dr Ruth Arber were able to make the experience both stimulating and joyful.

Briefly describe your project and why you chose this topic

The overseas practicum, in which pre-service teachers undertake one of their teaching practicums in a school overseas – particularly in Asia and the Pacific – has become a popular component of initial teacher education in Australian Universities. My thesis explored the potential of the overseas practicum to India through three in-depth case studies.

When I started my thesis, I was an Australian teacher living and working in India. Over the six year period preceding my study, I had led 10 overseas practicum programs for Australian pre-service teachers to teach in my NGO’s schools in remote parts of India. I was intrigued by both the similarities and differences in the ways these young Australians would respond to, and make sense of, the assault on the senses that is India.

For my thesis, I followed three Australian pre-service teachers throughout their four-week practicum teaching in a school in rural India and then followed up with them a year later, after they had completed their first year of teaching. I wanted to see how they made sense of the experience both while they were in India, and then over time, and how it impacted their professional identity and practice.

What were you hoping to achieve?

As well as making sense of my own disorienting experience as an Australian living and working in India, and what that meant to me as a teacher, I wanted to challenge the assumption that short-term student mobility is a nice, neat linear learning experience that results in globally competent graduates.

Looking through the lens of post and decolonisation theory and situating it in the wider literature of the globalisation of education, I wanted to put forward new ways of approaching, thinking about and designing these types of experiences.

Why did you decide to do your PhD at Deakin?

I was living and working in India for the majority of my PhD. Deakin has had a presence in India for 30 years – the longest of any Australian University – and an excellent reputation as a partner. Coupled with a very supportive online study option (they even posted library books to me in India!), it allowed me to live my PhD rather than just study it.

How was your experience with your supervisors?

I was with my supervisors for a decade and there were lots of life events that occurred throughout my PhD on both sides – a wedding, three babies (and then those babies starting school!), multiple career changes, a retirement, international moves and a pandemic. My supervision meetings always went over time because they ended up being a catch-up – there was always lots of laughter!

As a part-time student, living in another country with a full-time job and eventually a baby, my PhD was often not at the top of my priority list. My supervisors understood this and seemed to know exactly when to apply the pressure to get things done or give me space to prioritise other aspects of life. Perhaps the most important thing about my supervisors was that they were excited by and valued my research – even after 10 years! This came through in my conversations with them and gave me the motivation to continue.

How was your experience completing your PhD part-time while working full-time?

The stress of squeezing three lives into one is not something I would advise long term! My PhD is finished courtesy of lots of late nights, missed sleep and large amounts of coffee and chocolate!

Working online, largely from another country/timezone was a very isolating experience. Throughout my degree, I visited the Deakin campus a grand total of three times. I had to be self-motivated and independent, and while this suits my ideal study environment, I know it is not for everyone. I think the keys to my success were a strong support network – my family, workplace and supervisors were flexible and supportive – and realising that my thesis was never going to be perfect – the best thesis is a finished thesis!

What were the negative and positive aspects of working while doing a PhD?

My PhD journey was always very focused on the outcome – the thesis. While I became a very efficient reader, writer and researcher, I didn’t have the time to really stop and explore the literature, thinking and big ideas that were adjacent to my study, nor was I able to engage in the human aspects of a PhD experience, such as a research community, reading/writing groups or conferences. This made it quite a lonely journey.

My PhD study was, however, very closely aligned with my work. As such, working while doing my PhD allowed me to bridge the worlds between theory and practice. Much of what I experienced in my day-to-day life and work shaped the way I approached, thought about and enacted my study. Similarly, my study influenced how I approached my work and the changes I made over time. I would not have been able to reach the same conclusions had I not been simultaneously immersed in the reality of my work.

Now that you have completed your PhD, what are your next steps and challenges?

I’m continuing to work in the international education sector across multiple projects and places, and I am also looking forward to undertaking a short-term fellowship at the University of Hong Kong to continue to explore ways to prepare Australia’s future teachers to meaningfully engage with and teach about Asia and the Pacific in their classrooms.

News 11 June 2024