I didn’t do a PhD to leave EAP, but that is what has happened

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A new post from Dr. Elaine Lopez, who managed to compress her PhD into a highly entertaining Pecha Kucha at the BALEAP conference in 2015!

Summer is nearly over, my corrections are complete, I’m officially a doctor, and no longer an EAP tutor.

I came back to BALEAP in April this year after a 4 year hiatus spent in my doctoral research cave. I was introduced to this blog but it has taken me several months to write this post. Most of that time was devoted to viva prep, doing my (thankfully minor) corrections, and finding a job. But some of it was spent soul searching, deciding whether I have anything to say to the doctoral EAP community. Because, for me, my life as an EAP tutor and my decision to undertake a PhD are not one and the same. My research was conducted in an EAP context because that is the world I know, but it was coincidental. My topic explored the relationship between formal linguistic theory and grammar instruction; any language teaching context would have done. Indeed, completing the PhD has led me away from the language teaching career that I loved so much. I am no longer an EAPer, although I hope that future research projects will engage with that context.

Unlike many people on here, I completed my PhD full time. I was lucky enough to get funding from a research council and gave up teaching to devote 3 years of my life to my studies. For me that was a relatively easy decision because I was an hourly paid EAP tutor with no guaranteed hours and no job security. I hoped the PhD would lead to job security, but almost as soon as I’d started there were a mass of permanent EAP jobs being advertised, any of which I would have been happy to invest my career in. So did I make the right decision?

I have learnt so much. The ‘teacher me’ of 2011 was a very different person to the ‘doctor me’ that I have become. My confidence has grown (with a lot of wobbles along the way), my knowledge of a very small and specific area of research has grown, my awareness of how much I don’t know has grown. It was lonely, it was challenging, and I put my family through immense financial hardship, but it felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Luckily it seems to have paid off. I secured a lectureship just 2 weeks after passing my viva, and this academic year I enter a terrifying new world of collaborative research, the REF, and bid writing. But there’s also the teaching, which isn’t so different from EAP and where my previous experience really helps. My MA students are mostly international and, although the native speaker undergraduates were intimidating at first, they’ve turned out to be a joy to teach.

So what is my message? Do a PhD and leave EAP behind? Or do a PhD to become more engaged with your specialism? I’m afraid I don’t have answers. The doctoral research journey is so personal and such an emotional roller coaster that I think it’s a decision that only you can make. I’m glad that there are people researching EAP, it’s a huge and important area that we need to understand more about. If you work in EAP then you’re ideally placed to spot issues and questions, and find research ideas. But will the process make you a more effective EAP tutor? And as more of us undertake research, will the PhD become a requirement for securing a full time EAP job? In answer to my second question, I hope not. 3 years away from the classroom hasn’t made me a better language teacher, although all that reading and what I have learnt feels invaluable when lecturing to my MA students.

Finding the time to complete a part time PhD or EdD whilst teaching full time does not sound easy. I can’t honestly say that I would have done this without the funding, and I admire anyone who is doing it. Even the 3 years I spent researching and writing felt like a lifetime. It’s undoubtedly a huge commitment, and one you should be sure you want to undertake before you start. Somewhat depressingly, in this competitive job market it won’t necessarily lead to a better job, you might have to be prepared to do the research for research’s sake. But if you’re motivated, there’s a topic that excites you, and you can see how you can fit it into your life, then go for it. I’ll be supervising my own PhD students in the not too distant future and I already wonder what words of wisdom I will find myself spouting in that very first meeting.

Dr Elaine Lopez : Experienced EAP and EFL teacher. Lecturer in TESOL, School of Education, University of Leeds.

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