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Navigating Between Research and Teaching: Diversifying and Maximizing your Ph.D Experience

Sally ‘Tianfang’ Wang, Lecturer

Writing Programs

University of California, Los Angeles

In graduate school applications, many of us declared a focus for our entire career, hoping that our devotion would be appreciated by the admission committees. As soon as we start our Ph.D. programs, we are on our way to becoming that one person who, in my non-academic friend’s words, “literally knows the most about a specific topic in the whole world.” In my program, supportive professors and classmates frequently referred to new Ph.D. students by adding the word “person” to their research areas-- “L2 writing person,” “metaphor person,” “CA (Conversation Analysis) person.” This gave me a strong sense of accomplishment. It felt that I was positioned as an expert and an equal to my more knowledgeable colleagues.

As I was thrilled to grow into this “person” with expertise in my research topic, part of me wondered—what would I gain from taking courses that are not directly relevant to my focus? Would it be frowned upon if I take the time to publish or present on topics in different sub-fields? Will a more diverse research and teaching profile reflect well on me or rather suggest that I am easily distracted? There is no definite answer to these questions, as each person’s context, resources, and goals are different. As a recent graduate, I speak from my personal experience and would like to share a few ways you might benefit from diversifying your research interests and enriching your teaching experience.

Turning term papers into conference presentations

You might be required or have the opportunity to take courses outside your field of interest. This was the part of the coursework that I most appreciated, as I knew that I would not get opportunities like this to systematically learn about a topic outside of my interest once I started working on my dissertation. The professors, classmates, curated reading materials, and the structured process of writing term papers are all incredible resources. You may find it worthwhile to develop a paper on an interesting topic, seek the professor’s feedback, and submit a conference abstract based on it. If it is possible to collaborate with your peers on the term paper, working on a co-authored presentation could also be a rewarding experience. Presenting at conferences could be your first step in joining the professional conversation as an applied linguist. Submitting to different strands of AAAL, presenting at conferences or working group meetings with a specific focus outside your sub-field can help you get to know Applied Linguistics as a field.

Expanding your research toolbox and situating your research in the field

As a graduate student, expanding your repertoire of knowledge in various fields goes beyond taking courses outside your primary research area. You might learn about another theory while flipping through an edited volume to see the other chapters after finishing the ones that you are most interested in. If you intentionally look to expand your research interests, you might regularly read prominent journals to see how people analyze data differently or experience using new analytical methods while participating in research group meetings. These practices expand your research toolbox and help you put on different lenses to examine your topics. Given the interdisciplinary nature of applied linguistics, it is also likely that you will find another theory, approach, or data analysis method relevant to your research, which helps you strengthen your research by bringing together pedagogy and linguistic theories, qualitative and quantitative analyses, macro and micro of aspects interaction, and so forth. The breadth of knowledge also enables you to better situate your research in Applied Linguistics and become aware of the current expectations and needs of the field. It helps you anticipate your committee members’ and reviewers’ (e.g., for conference proposals, journals, and grants) comments.

Developing a more diverse teaching profile

Throughout graduate school, you might find opportunities to teach various topics, ranging from first-year writing, academic communication, and world languages to TESOL and applied linguistics courses. In addition, you might lead workshops and give guest lectures. Being knowledgeable in multiple areas of research can directly contribute to your teaching. The experience of learning and doing research in multiple areas gives you credibility in teaching various subjects. It gives you the confidence to explain theories and topics in a more nuanced manner. More importantly, it prompts you to reflect on how the theories can inform your teaching practices and how different strands of research are relevant to your students’ learning and their lives. As a graduate student, I enjoyed teaching writing using genre-based and concept-based pedagogy, collaborating with my professor and colleagues in developing and teaching a CA-informed ITA speaking curriculum, and reaching out to professors to co-teach Cognitive Linguistics, SLA, and TESOL courses that have a focus on my interests. This Fall, I am teaching English composition at my new position. My lessons revolve around the theme of language and justice and are informed by my understanding of multilingual identities, conceptual metaphors, critical discourse analysis, translingual practices, and different pedagogical approaches.

Entering the job market

When you enter the job market, the aspects mentioned above become parts of your package and can be highlighted depending on the specific position you apply for. For academic positions, in addition to the strong record of research in your specialized area, your experiences in researching and teaching various topics might make you stand out if they align with the department’s needs. Also, having experience working on research topics your future colleagues specialize in will be appreciated and can lead to collaborations. If you plan to apply for a non-academic job, your diverse experience can possibly be translated into the ability to master new methods of research and to work on new topics with tailored approaches.

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