Education Blog

Meidi Sirk came up with her doctoral thesis idea during conversations with students

Meidi Sirk, who defended her doctoral thesis entitled “Vocational teachers’ changing professionality”, discusses how she came up with her doctoral thesis topic, what was the source of her consistent motivation and how her doctoral thesis will change the world.

Meidi Sirk

How did you come up with this topic during your studies?

I began to teach a course entitled ‘Guiding and Advising in VET’ in 2008 which also covered the topic of course teachers in vocational education institutions. When I was teaching this course, I was able to have a great dialogue with my students about the essence and professionality of vocational education and training (VET) teachers. During these engaging conversations, I got an idea to look more into the nature of VET teachers. Although I had studied to become a VET teacher and worked in this profession, I felt that the other VET teachers’ experiences were very different and varied.

After a while, I took a quite a bit of time off work and when I returned, I was even more interested in researching this topic. Back then, I realised that if I want to conduct research at the university, I would have to continue my studies as a doctoral student. So the two ideas intertwined: doctoral studies and researching VET teachers.

When I came back from vacation, we had a new colleague in our Master’s programme, Krista Loogma, who had researched work-based learning. She was participating in writing a project for institutional research funding, one of the focuses of which was VET education and the professionality and professionalism of VET teachers. I kind of smoothly became connected to that project as well. That new colleague soon became my supervisor. I began to write a thesis plan for my doctoral studies under the guidance of my supervisor. In conclusion, I came up with my doctoral thesis topic thanks to my previous interest and my supervisor’s project.

Then the hard work began. Since I had worked hard on my doctoral thesis plan with the help of my supervisor, I knew exactly what the focus of my research was and this enabled me to consistently continue with my research. Some people tried to persuade me to research the topic from another angle, but my supervisor encouraged me to stay true to myself. She explained that you always need to look at the professional background of the person making suggestions – they are looking at the research from their own viewpoint and they might want to profit from it.

Writing a doctoral thesis is a huge task and definitely needs constant self-motivation. What’s your trick? How were you able to consistently work on it to achieve a successful final result?

First and foremost my doctoral thesis plan, which was the base of my whole doctoral thesis, helped me stay on track. I also motivated myself, I was always telling myself “I need to write one article this year, the second on the second year and then the third.”

Time management also definitely helped me. For example, after my first year of doctoral studies, I took an academic leave and was away from Estonia for a year. I had a clear aim to finish my first article during my time abroad. I always maintained some level of pressure within myself to make sure things got done.

I was helped by my sense of responsibility being one of my core strengths – when I make a decision, my goal is to complete it. Unfortunately, I had to give up a lot of wonderful things and my family members suffered the most from it. They had to do a lot of stuff without me. Fortunately, they were very understanding and supportive.

It was also important to divide family tasks – it’s not that I am the wife and the mother and need to only cook, take care of the children and clean the house. My husband understood me and our family life was well balanced. But there were times when the balance slipped, like times my husband had to make dinner for our family all week. This happened especially when I needed to study late at night or had to make quick revisions in my articles.

How was I able to be a full-time lector and doctoral student? The key was also working and writing during the summer, unfortunately. My free time during the summer was filled with reading and writing the analytical overview for my thesis. I had to make sacrifices. For example, I don’t remember the last time I went to the cinema or the theatre... But I hope that now after completing my doctoral studies, I can get entertainment and cultural events back into my life.

Please describe a memorable or funny event that happened while you were writing your thesis.

I recall writing my first research paper. This was a complicated process for me because I had never done anything like that before. What is more – I was away from Estonia and I wasn’t able to communicate directly and frequently with my supervisor. It was difficult to find a time that suited us both due to the big time difference.

Thinking back, I was very bold back then. I wrote my first research paper in English and I submitted it without getting it professionally edited. I just didn’t know how to get a grant for editing. But since I had a clear aim that I needed to submit the first manuscript for my article before coming back to Estonia, I sent the unedited paper to the journal.

Just two of my friends whose mother tongue is English read my first draft but they had no clue about writing a research paper. Today I’d say that was a bold act!

I am glad my article wasn’t rejected because of that. But they mentioned in the review that the article needed professional editing. I want to emphasise that those reviewers were very supportive in giving feedback – they brought out the shortcomings and I didn’t feel like now I needed to sit in a corner and start again from zero.

How is your research going to change the world?

I don’t know if it will change the whole world but my work will impact researching VET teachers and supporting their professionality. When reading previous research related to VET teachers, many authors acknowledge that the profession of VET teachers is very varied, there is no one model for it and no one has come up with one. Now my work provides one.

I wrote the analytical overview of my doctoral thesis in Estonian but my aim is to complete an article of my doctoral thesis in English by next year so that I can also share my research results (including the VET teachers professionality model) on an international level.

Secondly, during my defence, I discovered that the VET teachers professionality model I created could also be a basis for researching other education teachers. The practical benefit is also that if various VET institutions directors, educational directors and head teachers read my work, then maybe it will give them some ideas on how to make and develop their organisation culture to be more cooperative, as this will support the professional development of VET teachers.

How much are the voices of scientists and young researchers heard in our society?

I think this depends on the young researcher’s own wish to be a public figure and communicate with people. I have mainly presented at conferences but I have also given 1 minute lectures and written articles. My concern is that even when many things get done, I don’t see that they are being shared a lot. Perhaps different organisations could support and share research results more? In order for researchers’ voices to be more visible and heard.

I have also submitted my work to national competitions in educational sciences and two of my articles in Estonian (that I wrote with my colleagues) have been recognised. One won second place and the other even got first place. Through these competitions, my aim has been to introduce my research topics and make people read my research results.

I think that people would listen to researchers more if they wrote articles for the wider public, but I feel that the academic system discourages this because they do not value writing to the public as highly. Thus, I have not had the motivation or time to do it a lot. I set my priorities as a researcher through what will be evaluated at my thesis accreditation and what is important for the organisation.

My suggestion is that journalists could interview researchers more often and write articles that summarise their work. I struggle with writing them myself because it takes a lot of my free time and my primary task is writing research papers.

What are the most important values and beliefs that you live by?

To be honest, I have many beliefs and they change with time and life experience. For example when I began my doctoral studies, I also entered a new period of my life in regards to health – I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Because of this, I needed to reevaluate many of the things I valued in my life and my health became one of my key priorities.

Although I needed to give up a lot of things while writing my doctoral thesis, I didn’t give up exercise. I can’t do mental work if I don’t take care of my physical health. Thus, the pillar of my health became the balance between mental and physical activity. And health is the most important thing – if you don’t have that, then you can’t do research. You can’t do anything.

I value my family, thus it holds the top position in my life. If everything is well with my family, then I can also focus on other things. Family needs to be your safety net, where you can get help, understanding, support and protection.

I am also honest. If I don’t know something, I ask. I will not hesitate to ask for what I need. I believe that this honesty comes with experience. Understanding how much knowledge exists in the world helps you admit that you don’t know everything.

Honesty is also connected with commitment and a sense of responsibility. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. If someone has trusted me to complete an activity or task and I have agreed to do it, then I am responsible for doing it according to the agreement and that is what I will do.

I also find tolerance and general respect towards others important. It is also important in my work – all students are different and it’s important to me to be tolerant, broad-minded, kind and respectful to each one of them.

I also value kindness in general. For example if I notice bullying, I intervene. These kinds of situations have come up in my life. Or if I notice that someone needs help that I am capable of offering, I do it.

Lastly, I am a person who believes and proceeds from the belief that if a person wants something badly and works hard towards it, it is possible. Personal development plays a huge role here.

Please tell us about a book that you recently read and would recommend to others. Why would you recommend it?

Oh, my God! If I start thinking about the last book I read, then it was about andragogy. It wasn’t a thriller or a literary work. It is a bit sad that I haven’t had the time to read great books. Research literature and papers have replaced books for me. Recently, I read a bunch of articles about the entrepreneurial mindset.

Besides research papers, I can think of children’s books. For example, Elwyn Brooks White’s warm-hearted book ‘Charlotte's Web’ or Emily Jenkin’s young-adult novel ‘We Were Liars.’ I have read these children’s books to my children or discussed their content with them. Occasionally when my children need to read books for school, they will share them with me so that I would read the books to them.

The last book that I read myself was Marko Jakimenko ‘Nerd’ (‘Nohik’.) I’d recommend this to all the teachers and parents, so that they can know how to notice, understand and support children at all ages. Unfortunately, what you can see might not always be the truth. You just have to talk to your children and students like you would talk to a friend. But we tend to forget that and then end up not understanding children and teenagers.