Māori postgrad journeys: Do you think ‘PhD is life’ is a thing?

Do you think ‘PhD is life’ is a thing? … Or perhaps the postgraduate journey of indigenous students, is also one of transformation. This is not necessarily a new concept. We know that in general there is good data (apparently) to show that PhD students have high rates of divorce. This, I assume can be attributed to the student having both some realisations about their identity and positioning and therefore life choices, but also that PhD students are isolated ‘wierdos’ lol.

However, there is another undercurrent that happens, or seems to happen for Māori (and perhaps other indigenous students).

One is that – the demands of the PhD journey are immense. These demands are complex and include major commitments including: time, money, thinking, upholding responsibilities to whānau (family), hapū and iwi (larger ‘tribal’ family groupings), sustained endurance, thinking, research, writing, data collection, analysis, more thinking and writing etc.

We know most of this.

But other things happen as well.

During the journey of postgraduate study – we learn about colonisation. And through this process we start to reflect on how colonisation has impacted our lives and the lives of our whānau (families) and our peoples of our own indigenous home lands. At this stage, we learn about disparity, and racism and we can’t unsee it – ever again. There are mixed emotions here. Anger is one.

We inevitably start to see how colonisation and racism operate within the institution (given we are engaged in this space) – and start to develop indigenous networks, and challenge racialised processes in small (or big) ways. We probably start to challenge people around us, particularly non-indigenous white people, media, or organisations, as we increasingly identify unfair and unjust treatment of our people.

We start to plan how we can take over the world and make a difference.

We start to explore and understand theory and the influence of knowledge and research on power and control. We start to understand how colonial and racialised systems operate, and we start to formulate our place within this world. Our place, we increasingly understand to be, of an indigenous worldview, firmly established in the woven universe. We start to understand what position and role we might play in this picture, and how our voice can be one of strength in the face of the oppressors.

And these experiences are tools of empowerment.

But alongside these ‘academic’ parts of the journey, lie our own personal reflection, realisation and experience. And sometimes this is a particularly challenging one. The reality of our mahi (indigenous research work) is that we do not participate in this context for money, accolades or fame. We do not participate for the love of our own voices or to gain positions as ‘experts’ or knowledge holders. In fact, quite the opposite. We are the first to step back and promote others to have a voice. The real reason that we do this work is because this work is our lives and the lives of our tamariki (children), our whānau, hapū, iwi and indigenous whānaunga (peoples). And this is our ‘world’, Te Ao Māori, that we are both a significant part of, and responsible for. And because this is about our lives, our well-being, our survival – we take on board that which is our mahi (work), and we are motivated to pursue our goals, and we are emotional and we are passionate.

But throughout this journey there are multiple and significant moments of realisation that take a significant toll on us. At times, the process of emancipating ourselves from mental and systematic slavery concurrently bears the burden of the revealing of the significance of this slavery. Despite our best efforts to stay our path, and uphold our ‘leadership’ roles, at times, we feel like falling. There are moments of lowness. There are moments of devastation. There are moments where it feels like there is no hope, that the challenges we face are overwhelming and questions about whether what we are doing will make a difference at all.

These moments are not just focused on our postgraduate research topics. In fact, our realisations impact on our positioning and reflections in every facet of our lives. Once we begin to unpeel the layers of colonisation and oppression, we start to create space for exploring and defining who we are for ourselves. We start to unpack what values, skills, knowledges and theories are most meaningful to us and we start to push back on things and people that do not align with these things. This process is both liberating and traumatic. It is not easy to let go of long-term ties. It is not easy to separate ourselves from false supports that we have become accustomed to. This is particularly challenging when these systems are sometimes sources of sustainability in terms of income, friendships and other supports. And in the process of letting go, it is scary to take leaps into the unknown – a space that is ours to determine and yet is simultaneously unfamiliar. We are so used to having our pathways mapped out for us that this process feels unsettling but also exciting and liberating.

This is the point at which our real pillars are needed to hold us up. Quite often these pillars come in the form of other postgraduate indigenous students. Partly so because we are all transitioning together, and hence together we are able to discuss and explore what realities this transition might present. These pillars are crucial to our survival through the transition phase… pillars that are able to withstand the pressures of this world, this context, and the realisations of our realities. These pillars, in these instances, also tend to provide a type of support that we have never had, nor needed to rely on before. A unique type of support – offered by those going through, or having been through this transition already. And these pillars are the ones that give permission to be us; that give permission to cry, to sleep, to struggle, to think, to explore, to reject, and to shape our own worlds. These pillars are unpeeling their own layers and in doing so, can see that judgement, boundaries and set guidelines no longer fulfil the needs of us… those that are transitioning. And so for the indigenous PhD student, this journey is one that is not just PhD, it is not just decolonisation. PhD is life…. in all its ugliness, and all its beauty. Something realised not alone, but alongside those who journey with us….

What then is the next step in the Māori postgraduate journey? I cannot yet say. But what I can do is share the advice of one of my strongest pillars, who often reminds me that: “the challenges we face today are there to prepare us for what our tupuna (ancestors) have in store for us in future”. And that, for me, for now, is enough.

Erena Wikaire (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine).


‘PhD is life’ is the culmination of the brilliant minds of Māori and Indigenous postgraduate students who have not only taken the time to listen, share, discuss, laugh, cry and laugh some more with me, but have been there over and over again when the journey got too hard to continue on alone. Hence it is with special acknowledgement to the MAI network that this piece is shared. Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu.   

Erena is a Māori doctoral student at Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, the University of Auckland. She hails from the Far North, and descends from the Wikaira whānau from Whirinaki, Hokianga, and the Hoterene whānau from Mōtatau, Peowhairangi. She is completing a PhD in Public Health (Māori Health) investigating “Māori participation in traditional Māori health practices (rongoā Māori)”. 


  1. Amber Nicholson

    Amazing reflection. I have just hit another significant moments of realisation in this PhD journey – it is so reassuring to know I am not alone. And that there is a way up!


  2. Abigail McClutchie

    Kia ora Erena, that is such a familiar story to my experiences. Maybe the ‘kaupapa is life’ for me, and the PhD is about the kaupapa and helps the kaupapa. Mauri ora!


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