What our students say

Reflections on the PhD/MPhil Study

Dr. Yijia Zuo: Studying a Masters degree followed by PhD study at the School of Education

Photograph of Yijia ZuoI came to University of Sheffield in 2011 for studying a Master degree in psychology and education. The master course is so well-designed and content-rich that stimulated my interests in studying psychology-related topics. I started to think about doing a PhD degree at the middle of my postgraduate study. As soon as I identified my interests, I approached Professor Tom Billington to be my supervisor because the topics I was interested in are in the field of his expertise. Therefore, it was a natural progression for me to pursue a PhD degree in the area that I am keen to explore.

At the beginning of my PhD study, I did not have specific expectations but only looking forward to the DTC course provided by the faculty of social science to train new PhDs. The course offers a series of seminars such as foundation of social science, qualitative and quantitative methods for social science, and research ethics and integrity, which are very helpful for new students to start their own PhD journey. In fact, the University not only met my previous expectations but also offered me something that I have not imagined but I am very grateful.
Firstly, I received high quality tutorials regularly from Tom throughout the whole process of my PhD study. He always gave me adequate and effective advices and challenges for not only keeping me on track, but also encouraging me to follow my own research interests and play with different ideas, theories and arguments from various disciplines such as sociology, psychology and philosophy. At the meantime, he also provided mental support for me to cope with my emotions especially when I was frustrated during my study. He created an optimistic environment in which I could work efficiently and have a sense of fun and enjoyment about my study.
Secondly, doing PhD at Sheffield gave me an opportunity to communicate with people who come from different backgrounds and study in different areas. For example, I went to several international conferences in which I had chances to communicate with and learn from other professionals who have different research interests and knowledge. In addition, the School of Education holds writing groups regularly for students to communicate with lecturers and professors. PhD students also organise research students’ conferences in social science for students to share ideas about each other’s studies. The Centre of Psychology and Education in University of Sheffield that I am in holds academic activities for people from both academic and non-academic areas to work with each other. Communicating with different people opened my mind and helped to think wider and deeper about my own research.
Thirdly, University of Sheffield provides opportunities for PhD students to do part-time teaching job. I have taught Mandarin language as a language teacher in Confucius Institute and School of East Asian Studies, BA programme (Child Psychology) in School of Education, and supervised Master students’ dissertations. In doing so, the practical skills such as teaching and supervising students are well developed.
In sum, the PhD training not only met my needs but also provided more than what I expected.


There are so many highlights during my time studying in the School of Education. Firstly, I enjoyed the transformative process of my research which was full of uncertainty and unpredictability. My research, which explored self-constructions/transformations in a transcultural context via looking at the second generation Chinese immigrant young people’s narratives regarding their life experiences in the UK, was driven by my research interests, research questions, theories, and data interpretations, all of which have been through a process of transformation. The research questions guided me to adopt social constructionist approach and psychodynamic (mainly object relations theory) via which the data were interpreted. However, one more research question emerged from the research outcomes that guided me to integrate Chinese philosophy with the Western theories that I adopted, which means the theoretical framework has been changed after data interpretation. In light of this, the thesis writing feels like a jigsaw puzzle game, in which all the theories, methodology and methods, and data interpretations need to be structured in a way that make sense to both the researcher and the readers. In addition, as an international student who conducted research in a transcultural context, I had to cope with linguistic and cultural issues. For example, my interview transcripts are in three languages – English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, how to retain the meanings of participants’ narratives to the maximum possible extent and interpret them with consideration of different cultural values was the challenge I faced to. PhD study was a difficult journey because it was hardly to predict the next place you will go and what kinds of difficulties you will meet. However, uncertainty is exactly the charm of it because through PhD study you will explore your potential, improve your ability, and construct better self.

I had a very enjoyable viva with very minor corrections. Having Dr. Penny Fogg as my internal examiner and Prof. Richard Smith as my external examiner, the viva feels more like a lovely talk about my thesis in-depth rather than an ‘examination’. The recognition and admiration I got from these two experts has hugely stimulated my confidence as being an independent researcher and a thesis writer. Their comments and suggestions about my thesis are hugely helpful for me to not only to make the thesis better but also plan my future career.
I always looked forward to tutorials. My colleagues always said I look happier after my supervision. Tom is very knowledgeable, gentle, and caring. What I learnt from him will have a profound impact on the rest of my life.


PhD study at Sheffield is a great preparation not only for my future career but also for my future life. Professionally, the course successfully trained me to be an independent researcher who can not only think critically and work efficiently, but also enjoy the research and study. The research and writing skills I have learnt from the course will help me to publish my work and develop my future academic career. Personally, the knowledge I gained from my study helped me to be more confident in other aspects of my life. It opened my mind and encouraged me to give dynamic interpretations about life and human beings for which I am very appreciate. In sum, the journey of my PhD study allows me to understand that there always are challenges and opportunities behind uncertainty and unpredictable difficulties to enhance my capacity of self-development.

Dr Jeannie Hill Bulman, PhD/MPhil Study

Photograph of Dr Jeannie Hill BulmanWhy did you choose your course at Sheffield?

The University of Sheffield was my first and only choice for the completion of my PhD. The reason behind this was the quality of the tutorial support that I knew I would receive. I had previously read the work of, and been involved in projects alongside, Professor Jackie Marsh. As soon as I had identified a focus for my research, which was in the field of Professor Marsh’s expertise, I approached her to be my superviser.

What expectations did you have of the course, and how did it meet those expectations?

I wanted to complete a longitudinal study which involved tracking a cohort of Key Stage 2 pupils for four years. I realised that the support that I would require for this would need to be specifically tailored. I expected to receive a number of tutorials in order to keep me on track, as well as support and challenge my thinking. These expectations were by far exceeded. The tutorials were arranged at convenient times at relevant points throughout the research period. I was directed towards relevant literature and provided with support and direction for the project. Professor Marsh also provided the appropriate challenge to encourage me to think wider and deeper about my research, as well as helping me to consider the structure of the final thesis. As this was a longitudinal study, a wealth of data was collected. I was helped to stay focused and in track in order to avoid the research becoming too general and superficial.

The course was completely tailored to my needs and far exceeded expectations.

What were the highlights of your study?

I always looked forward to my tutorials. Also, although this may be unusual, I actually enjoyed my viva. The examiners (Professor Andrew Burn and Dr Julia Davies) had a thorough knowledge of my thesis, and despite the ‘trepidation’ of an exam, it was great to be able to share my findings and talk about my research in this depth.
As well as the time spent at the university, I also thoroughly enjoyed my research visits into school. Each visit was focused and felt quite ‘cutting-edge’ at times, as the pupils in the focus group guided my findings and further developed the progression framework.

What knowledge have you gained from the course?

The knowledge gained is two-fold:

I have experienced and developed a range of research methods throughout the study. This has enabled me to support other students with their research (when working last year on the Masters course at the University of Sheffield). Completing the PhD has considerably deepened my knowledge of research in general.
I have also had an interest in digital literacies, visual literacy and the use of film in the primary curriculum for many years. I have worked on various projects with schools in this area and completed my Masters on researching the impact of film in the curriculum on writing. It had been identified that one of the areas in need to further research in this field was a structure of progression. With this in mind, I decided one of the most effective ways of attaining a progression in children’s reading of film, and how this relates to the reading of print comprehension, would be to track a cohort of children across a key stage. As my PhD research was routed in a true passion, it was exciting to design and deliver the project, then analyse and write up the findings. As a result, I feel I have gained an in depth knowledge in this specific field.

What have you achieved since graduation?

My background is in primary teaching and I have been an English Subject Leader and Deputy Headteacher in two primary schools. I have also been a Teaching and Learning Consultant in two local authorities.
Since graduation, I have set up my own successful training and consultancy business (J H Bulman Consultancy). This is now in its second year and provides training and consultancy on a regional and national basis to primary schools, through presentations at conferences, writing and delivering courses and inset days, and bespoke consultancy for all English curriculum needs.

I also worked part time at Sheffield University for a year, providing tutorial provision for Masters Students.
Publications – I currently have a UKLA Mini-book due to be published in Autumn 2017, co-authored with Dr Becky Parry entitled ‘Film Education, Literacy and Learning’. My own research from my thesis is also due to be published by Palgrave McMillan later this year – ‘Children’s Reading of Film and Visual Literacy in the Primary Curriculum: A Progression Framework Model’.

How do you feel the course has prepared you for your life after University?

My course at The University of Sheffield served as a launch pad for my career development. Receiving my doctorate added to my credibility as an expert in the field of primary phase English and gave me the confidence to establish my own training and consultancy business. In addition, my profile in the literacy community has been raised through invitations to speak nationally and internationally about the research which I undertook as part of my course. This benefit will be enhanced further when the research from my own thesis is published later this year. I also find myself in a position where I can disseminate the skills and knowledge of research techniques, which I have acquired during my course, to other educational professionals through training sessions and individual support. Moreover, I hope to use these skills and techniques to carry out further research projects in the future which will be aimed at improving the attainment in English of pupils in the primary phase.