Pursuing a PhD at Trinity | Constant growth and enrichment

Pursuing a PhD at Trinity | Constant growth and enrichment

For Mr Neil Van Heerden, the road to a PhD has been a long time coming and his interest in furthering conversations around educational practice have been woven into the very fabric of his career. 

Starting with an Honours project as part of his undergraduate degree, he undertook a case study of Australian tertiary educator perceptions of ‘the drama teacher as a moral agent’. Through this work, he had the opportunity to travel across Australia and New Zealand for speaking engagements – formally and incidentally – alongside top academics and thinkers about all things ‘drama pedagogy’ and ‘drama education’. 

A few years into teaching, Mr Van Heerden took up a role in a Hanoi private school as the International Vice Principal. Through this role, he helped the school and its teachers to facilitate the creative pedagogy reform within the school. It was this opportunity that saw him reconnect with colleagues he’d met while writing his Honours thesis and some old friends that were also PhD candidates. 

That’s when the idea to pursue his own PhD candidature was born. 

“Creative pedagogical reform is happening all over South East Asia – less in Australia, but Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong are embracing it on a large scale and there’s a lot of investment into it,” he says. 

“But the investment was often creating a different kind of creative pedagogical vision or a different kind of product within the actual classroom space … a lot of teachers thought they were teaching creatively or teaching for creativity but they were producing something different. We can use fancy buzzwords, but not really understand what they mean – the nitty gritty, the science and literature behind it.” 

Closing the gap between the theoretical and practical experiences of teachers became something that Mr Van Heerden was fiercely passionate about and he found a space within academia where these conversations are inciting change from the top down. 

His undergraduate efforts saw him awarded Honours (Class 1) which was the key to opening the door to his PhD, offering him a space to jump straight in. But that doesn’t mean that he threw caution to the wind. He was sure to start reading and investigating the best approach to undertaking a PhD, having conversations with colleagues to understand how they went about the process and what worked for them. 

Finally, in early 2021, he applied to begin his PhD course at the University of Sydney and is now nearly two years into the seven or eight year degree, studying part time as he digs into creative pedagogies in South East Asia using Institutional Ethnographies. 

Mr Van Heerden says that Trinity’s support has already been critical to the process. 

“Trinity is supporting me ideologically,” he says. “They really value research-embedded teaching and learning, and they really want their staff to go on and pursue intellectually challenging pursuits.

“It’s also important to have very open and transparent conversations about what you want and what the School is happy to give you. I’ve had positive conversations with Executive staff about mutual goals and interests. They are keen for me to complete [the PhD] so how can we partner together in this to get it done? And how can I contribute to the School and the culture of the School through the PhD process?” 

Obtaining a PhD is a long road, particularly when juggling full-time work alongside study, and Mr Van Heerden is still only at the beginning of the process. As he looks towards what’s ahead, he’s conscious that the course could take him in any number of directions. 

“I see it as a key that opens a range of other doors. It helps me to refine how I think and write and engage with people and ideas. Even if it doesn’t become a rocket boost in my career trajectory, it will have made me a stronger thinker and communicator. My hope is that I won’t lose the intellectual gains that I’ve made.” 

At every step he knows that Trinity is there to support him, with strong structures and a community that is so focused on growth. 

“People are just really interested in your life and who you are as a person,” he says. “They want to see you grow and they want to help you grow. Trinity is a big advocate for teachers extending themselves and challenging themselves to be intellectually stretched and be a model to the students. You don’t just finish your degree and then go and live your life; your life is constantly enriched by learning interesting things, reading interesting things and talking to others about them.” 

In 2024, Mr Van Heerden shifted to take on a role at Trinity’s Field Studies Centre as the Residential Operations Co-ordinator in order to balance his work and studies. 

“The move was largely intended as an opportunity to stretch my capacity, and as a ‘sea-change’ for my young family who were yearning for a bit of a country experience,” he says. “Trinity thankfully is a large organisation with lots of opportunities for staff, and this came up as one that seemed equal-parts exciting and challenging. The role would also afford me time to be able to continue my part-time study and undertake professional development in leading organisations.”

“My family and I have loved the move so far – the Shoalhaven is a beautiful part of the world to be sure!”

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