The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research

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Rugg•Petre The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research The Unwritten A breath of fresh air - I wish someone had told me this beforehand. PhD student, UK This book looks at things the other books don’t tell you about doing a Rules of PhD – what it’s really like and how to come through it with a happy ending It covers all the things you wish someone had told you before you started: • What a PhD is really about, and how to do one well PhD Research • The "unwritten rules" of research and of academic writing • What your supervisor actually means by terms like "good referencing" and "clean research question" • How to write like a skilled researcher • How academic careers really work An ideal resource if someone you care about (including yourself) is undergoing or considering a PhD. This book turns lost, clueless students back into people who know what they are doing, and who can enjoy life again. Gordon Rugg has a BA in French and Linguistics, and a PhD in Psychology. A former English Lecturer and field archaeologist, he is now based in the School of Computing and Mathematics at Keele University, and is Editor of the journal Expert Systems. His research interests range from medieval cryptography to software evaluation and why students underachieve. Marian Petre has a first degree in Psycholinguistics from Swarthmore College in the USA, and a PhD in Computer Science from University College London. Her career includes working in modern dance and in the computer industry. She is a Reader in Computing at the Open University, UK, where she set up the Center for Informatics Education Research. She is currently researching expert behaviour and reasoning in the design of complex systems. cover design: Kate Prentice Gordon Rugg   Marian Petre    Quotations and their sources One of the advantages of being a PhD supervisor is being able to dazzle stu- dents with erudite-sounding quotes, without having to give a verifiable refer- ence so that the students can check whether you’ve simply invented them. One of the disadvantages of writing a book about PhDs is that if you want to dazzle the readers with erudite-sounding quotes, you have to give proper veri- fiable references. So, just in case you’ve been wondering whether we made up the quotes in this book, here are the references to set your mind at rest. Opening sections: . . . I had said much, but found that my words had been given scant attention. Lovecraft, H.P. (1917) Dagon in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 17 . . . it were insidious to particularize; but I must acknowledge the politeness of Mons. La Hire, of the royal French artillery, who volunteered his services in setting and firing the train to the magazine, and who was somewhat bruised and singed. O’Brian, P. (1990) Master and Commander W.W. Norton & Company, London. p. 225 Chapter 1: You can’t imagine, even from what you have read and what I’ve told you, the things I shall have to see and do. It’s fiendish work, Carter, and I doubt if any man without ironclad sensibilities could ever see it through and come up alive and sane. Lovecraft, H.P. (1919) The Statement of Randolph Carter in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 1: At the Mountains of Madness (1989) Grafton Books, London. p. 356QUOTATIONS AND THEIR SOURCES ix Chapter 2: . . . take this woman out of Bren-paidhi’s way, or face administrative procedures. Cherryh, C.J. (1996). Invader Legend Books, London, p.16 Chapter 3: It was here that he first came into conflict with the authorities, and was debarred from future experiments by no less a dignitary than the dean of the medical school himself . . . Lovecraft, H.P. (1921–1922) Herbert West- Reanimator in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 159 Chapter 4: Could that fellow have me whipped? O’Brian, P. (1990) Master and Commander W.W. Norton & Company, London. p. 122 Chapter 5: The first horrible incident of our acquaintance was the greatest shock I ever experienced, and it is only with reluctance that I repeat it. Lovecraft, H.P. (1921–1922) Herbert West- Reanimator in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 158 Chapter 6: . . . those frightful parts of the Pnakotic Manuscripts which were too ancient to be read. Lovecraft, H.P. (1921) The Other Gods in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 149 Chapter 7: Alien it indeed was to all art and literature which sane and balanced readers know . . . Lovecraft, H.P. (1922) The Hound in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 200 Chapter 8: He wrote in a complicated style, overloaded and lacking in charm. Not that he was indifferent to language and its nuances; on the contrary, correct use of language was for him a moral question, its debasement a symptom of moral breakdown. Thucydides, Warner, R. & Finley, M.I. (1954). History of the Peloponnesian War Penguin, Harmondsworth, p.9.x QUOTATIONS AND THEIR SOURCES . . . I shall publish such papers on the cryptogams of Kamschatka that no one will ever set the mark of intelligence upon my head again. O’Brian, P. (1996) HMS Surprise HarperCollins, London. p. 27 Chapter 9: Still, it gave the facts – some of them – and apart from being dated ‘off Barcelona’ in the customary way, whereas it was really being written in Port Mahon the day after his arrival, it contained no falsehood . . . O’Brian, P. (1990) Master and Commander W.W. Norton & Company, London. p. 335 Chapter 10: Its tone of semi-literate, official, righteous dullness never varied . . . and it never deviated into human prose . . . O’Brian, P. (1990) Master and Commander W.W. Norton & Company, London. p. 152 Chapter 11: ‘Now just listen to this one, will you,’ he said, ‘and tell me whether it is good grammar and proper language.’ O’Brian, P. (1990) Master and Commander W.W. Norton & Company, London. p. 225 Chapter 12: My formerly silent tongue waxed voluble with the easy grace of a Chesterfield or the godless cynicism of a Rochester. I displayed a peculiar erudition utterly unlike the fantastic, monkish lore over which I had pored in my youth . . . Lovecraft, H.P. (1917) The Tomb in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 25 Chapter 13: I have brought to light a monstrous abnormality, but I did it for the sake of knowledge. Lovecraft, H.P. (1943) The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 1: At the Mountains of Madness (1989) Grafton Books, London. p. 236 Chapter 14: Once I sought out a celebrated ethnologist and amused him with peculiar questions regarding the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon, the Fish-God; but soon perceiving that he was hopelessly conventional, I did not press my inquiries. Lovecraft, H.P. (1917) Dagon in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 17QUOTATIONS AND THEIR SOURCES xi Chapter 15: When I drew nigh the nameless city, I knew it was accursed. Lovecraft, H.P. (1921) The Nameless City in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 129 Chapter 16: This terror is not due altogether to the sinister nature of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work . . . Lovecraft, H.P. (1921–1922) Herbert West- Reanimator in: Lovecraft, H.P. Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1985) Grafton Books, London. p. 158 Useful terms: I know just where the sea-elephants are stored O’Brian, P. (1996) The Fortune of War HarperCollins, London. p. 225 Only yesterday I learnt, to my surprise, that you trice puddings athwart the starboard gumbrils, when sailing by and large. O’Brian, P. (1997) The Ionian Mission HarperCollins, London. p. 83 Further reading: . . . he was no more consistent than other men, and in spite of his liberal principles and his dislike of constituted authority he was capable of petulant tyranny when confronted with a slime-draught early in the morning. O’Brian, P. (1997) The Ionian Mission HarperCollins, London. pp. 70–71About this book What it is, what it’s not, and how to make best use of it ...I had said much, but found that my words had been given scant attention. We’ve spent a lot of time helping PhD students with problems, and advising potential PhD students who want to avoid problems. Most of these people have read books with titles like How to get a PhD; most of them have been given good advice by supervisors and potential supervisors. The problems don’t come from the books and the advice – most of the books on this topic range between good and excellent, and most of the advice we’ve heard reported to us has been sound. The problems usually come from what’s absent from the books and the advice. This book is intended to fill at least part of that gap. Most of the problems we’ve dealt with involve what’s known as tacit know- ledge in the broad sense – things that nobody bothers to tell you explicitly, either because they assume you know them already, or because they are so familiar to them that they completely forget that other people don’t know them, or because they don’t think they are worth mentioning. Book writers usually assume (correctly, in our opinion) that these things are better dealt with informally by supervisors. In an ideal world, this would happen, but in practice supervisors are human (i.e. overworked, forgetful, distracted and imperfect). What we’ve done is to write down an overview of these unwritten rules, so that the situation makes more sense to you. You can then ask your supervisor about how things work in your discipline, and (with luck) get some solid, specific guidance. For PhD students, the main problems in our experience fall into two main categories. One is ‘big picture’ knowledge about how the academic system works, and why it works that way. For instance, what are some classic careerABOUT THIS BOOK xiii paths in academia? Why is academic writing so dry? Why do some people get lectureships in good departments before they’ve finished their PhD, whereas others are still struggling to find any job ten years after their doctorate? What counts as a ‘good’ department anyway, and why? Many students are too embarrassed to show their ignorance by asking questions like these; more students are too focused on the immediate problems of the PhD to think of asking them until it’s too late. The second category involves what are known as ‘craft skills’. These are usually low-level skills, normally viewed as not sufficiently important to be worth mentioning in textbooks – tricks of the trade which are usually taught informally by supervisors or other mentors. These range from quite specific information (e.g. ‘How many references should I have in the first paragraph of something I write?’) to quite general rules of thumb (e.g. ‘How can I get a reasonable brief overview of this topic that my supervisor’s advised me to read about, without spending six months wading through the literature?’) The specific skills, and the specific answers, vary across disciplines; however, once you are aware of the basic concept of craft skills, you can then find out what the craft skills are in your chosen area, and learn them. Each section of this book deals with an area of tacit knowledge which is important to PhD students. Some fairly specific topics, such as how to handle criticism, are relevant in more than one place (for instance, handling criticism is relevant to writing, to presentations and to the viva). Some more general topics, such as writing, manifest themselves in different ways at different stages of your PhD (which is why this book is structured around topics, rather than in chronological order of what will happen to you in your PhD). Each section begins with a description of the topic, and is illustrated with examples and anecdotes. Where an anecdote is dubious or apocryphal, we’ve said so; the others, including the bucket dropped on one author’s head, are true, even when improbable. These verbal descriptions are intended to help you under- stand what the issues are, and why things are the way they are; the anecdotes are there to illustrate the underlying points and to help you remember them. Understanding is all very well, but isn’t much consolation when it’s the day before your first seminar presentation and you’re worried about whether there’s something blindingly obvious that you’ve forgotten. We’ve therefore included a fair number of checklists, bullet points and the like, so that you can check that you’ve remembered the key things. That’s the main body of the book. Our advice is to read it first from start to finish (since you’ll do that anyway, and there’s not much point in giving advice which will be ignored). The best thing to do next is to read it in more detail, starting with the topics furthest away from you in time – first, the section on what to do after the PhD, then the sections on the viva and on writing up, and so on. The reason for this is that most students are so focused, understandably, on the immediate problems surrounding them that they rarely look more than one step ahead. This is all very well in the short term, but it usually stores up long-term problems. What happens, for instance,xiv ABOUT THIS BOOK if you’re in a discipline where you need to be the author of at least two journal papers, and to have at least two years of part-time lecturing experience, to be shortlisted for a full-time lectureship? If you don’t discover this until the last six months of your PhD then you’ll have problems if you want to go straight on to a lectureship; if you know about it early, then you can start getting the right things on your CV in good time. One important thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that dis- ciplines vary. This is why we use words such as ‘usually’ quite a lot. The precise indications of quality in a CV will be different between, say, history and geology, but the underlying concepts usually remain the same – for instance, the concept of a strong CV as opposed to a weak one. This book is intended to help you understand what these underlying concepts are, so that you can find out what form they take in your discipline, and then make sure that you have the right indicators of quality in your written work, in your presentations and in your CV. Books about getting a PhD usually end with a bibliography. This one doesn’t. There are some classic books which are useful to students in pretty much any discipline, such as Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, and standard guides to English grammar. You can find these in the bibliographies of pretty much any book on getting a PhD, and we didn’t think that there was much point in duplicating them. After these classics, things get trickier. Different disciplines have very different core reading, as we discuss in detail in the section on reading, and we didn’t think that we would improve the world by putting together a compendium of core readings from assorted different dis- ciplines – if you’re doing a sociology PhD, for instance, you probably wouldn’t be terribly interested in the classic texts on igneous geomorphology. Some authors include selections of books which they find useful, and which they believe other people would find useful too. We’ve decided not to do this, though not without misgivings. The reason is that most of the books we’d like to recommend are pretty idiosyncratic, and it usually takes a considerable time to get through to students just why we’re serious about recommending that they read, say, part of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (especially if they’re doing a PhD in an area such as computer science). For the time being, therefore, we’re planning to use these texts only in face-to-face supervisions. What we’ve done instead is to include a considerable amount of guidance about searching the literature, so that you can find the key texts that you need for your PhD for yourself, with (we hope) the minimum of wasted time and effort. We have also included a list of terms which we think you might find useful. These are generally our own idiosyncratic terms or terms infor- mally used in one or more discipline which haven’t made their way into most textbooks, such as ‘eyeballing the data’. On the subject of informality, we have deliberately used an informal style throughout this book. This is not the style which we use for other venues, such as when writing journal articles, so don’t be tempted to use this style in your own written thesis. We have also alternated between using full abbreviationsABOUT THIS BOOK xv (e.g. Ph.D.) in some specific contexts, and common shorter versions (e.g. PhD) in the main body of the text. The shorter abbreviation is a lot less fiddly when writing a large document like this book, but in formal contexts you need to show that you know the correct version, and to use that consistently. We’ve deliberately omitted a variety of other things, such as how to use statistics, on the grounds that these are well covered in other books, and this one is quite long enough already. We hope you find it useful and enjoyable.Acknowledgements . . . it were insidious to particularize; but I must acknowledge the politeness of Mons. La Hire, of the royal French artillery, who volunteered his services in setting and firing the train to the magazine, and who was somewhat bruised and singed. We would like to thank all the people who helped us with the writing and publishing of this book – they know who they are. We would also like to acknowledge our gratitude to our own PhD super- visors, from whom we learned much, much more than we realized at the time. Our remaining sins are our own faults, not theirs. Finally, we would like to acknowledge the students who have, directly and indirectly, brought colour of one sort or another to our lives, and wealth to coffee manufacturers round the world . . . without them, this book would never have been written, and our lives would have been much less fun.1 So you want to do a PhD? You can’t imagine, even from what you have read and what I’ve told you, the things I shall have to see and do. It’s fiendish work, Carter, and I doubt if any man without ironclad sensibilities could ever see it through and come up alive and sane. There are two classic ways of doing a PhD. One involves knowing just what you are doing; you will then go through a clearly defined path, suffer occasional fits of gloom and despair, emerge with a PhD, unless you do some- thing remarkably silly or give up, and then proceed smoothly with the next stage of your career. The other way is the one followed by most PhD students, which involves stumbling in, wandering round in circles for several years, suffering frequent fits of gloom and despair, and probably but not necessarily emerging with a PhD, followed by wondering what to do next in career terms. This book is written for those who find themselves following the second path. There are many good books out there for people wanting to do a PhD. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD, you should read at least one of them. They give much good advice about what you need to do, and are a good start. We have spent a lot of time helping students who have read those books. The reason that we needed to help them was not because there was anything wrong with the content of the books; the problem was the things that the books didn’t cover. One set of things involved the ‘big picture’ of doing a PhD; the other set involved low-level skills that the books typically didn’t cover, probably on the grounds that their writers assumed these skills would be taught either by supervisors or by the training courses which most PhD students now undergo. This book is intended to fill at least some of that gap.2 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH So, returning to your interest in doing a PhD, you will have various questions about the why and the how and the what of it all. Most of these are answered by the usual texts on doing a PhD, and/or by the procedural documentation of your intended institution. However, the answers may not mean very much to you at this stage. The next section therefore describes the outline of what a PhD is about. The PhD: its nature and content The books will tell you that the PhD is several things, including a professional qualification, a training in how to do research and an initiation rite. All of these things are true, but what does it all mean? At a sordidly practical level, the PhD is a qualification which shows that you are good enough at research to be appointable in a university post. If you’re thinking of working as an academic in a university, a PhD is highly advisable. It is also helpful if you want a career as a researcher in industry. A further practical point is that PhDs are recognized around the world, and tend to have pretty good quality control, so a PhD from one country will be recognized in another without too much snobbery. Still at the practical level, if you have a PhD, you usually go onto a higher pay scale. At a professional level, a PhD involves you doing a decent sized chunk of research, writing it up and then discussing it with professional academics. This demonstrates your ability to do proper research without someone holding your hand. You have a supervisor to help and advise you, but in theory at least the PhD is something where you take the initiative. A closely related issue is the PhD as initiation rite, where you undergo an ordeal and, if you come through the ordeal in a creditable manner, are admitted to membership of the academic clan. Continuing the analogy, having a PhD will not be enough to make you a clan elder, but it will mark the transition to full adulthood. You are treated differently if you have a PhD – there is a distinct feeling of having become ‘one of us’. It’s not just a snobbery thing; you will gradually start to notice a different way of thinking about things, especially when you start making administrative decisions in your subsequent career. A good example of this in many departments is under- graduate student projects, where staff with PhDs typically want to use the projects as a way of teaching the students how to conduct research, and staff without PhDs typically want to use the projects as a chance to give the students an industrial placement. The PhDs’ view is that the students need to learn critical thinking as a valuable skill for later life; the other view is that this is unrealistic nonsense, and that we need to equip the students to find a job as soon as possible after graduation. Which is right? This is a good question,SO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 3 and one which would take us off on a lengthy diversion. The main point is that doing a PhD does change you. So, that’s the standard picture. What does it all mean? That’s another good question. Here is how that picture unfolds. Important section: the standard picture Firstly, you choose a topic to research. You then find someone willing to be your supervisor. You get yourself through the procedures to sign up for a PhD at your supervisor’s institution. You then research that topic for a year or two, at which point you are assessed to see whether you are doing well enough to continue to the end of the PhD. If that goes well, then you do another year or two of research. In the third or fourth year of the PhD, you write a large document (typically around 300 pages) about your research. This is read by a panel of experts who then ask you questions about it to check that your understanding of the topic is good enough. They will typically conclude that you need to make some changes to it. If you make these changes to their satisfaction within a specified period, then you will be awarded a PhD. The realities behind the standard picture That’s the standard picture. It’s pretty much true. There are, however, numerous things to note about it. One is the frequent use of words such as ‘typically’ in this book; an important thing to grasp about the academic world is that institutions, disciplines and departments vary widely in their norms and conventions. There are good reasons for this, but it doesn’t make life any easier for would-be students, or for people trying to write books explaining academic life to would-be students. Another thing is the number of points at which you can fail; PhDs are academically rigorous. Another is the sheer size of the document you produce: the written PhD thesis. A lot of students have trouble coping with the prospect of writing something that big. (Writing it is not really that much of a problem once you know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t feel much of a consolation at this stage.) There are also various things which are not elaborated in this picture. One thing which is seldom mentioned is what happens to you after you finish the PhD. A classic story is as follows. A student focuses clearly, submits the thesis and starts looking for a lecturing job, only to discover that they need two years of lecturing experience and preferably a journal publication as well if they4 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH are to be appointable for a job in a good department in their field. If they had known this two years previously, they could have started doing some part-time lecturing and submitted a paper or two to a journal. There are other things which look simple until you stop and think about them. For instance, how do you choose a topic, and how do you find a good supervisor? The standard books give quite a lot of good advice about this, but there will still be quite a lot of things that you aren’t sure about. So, what do you do about this? One good step is to read the rest of this book at this point. A lot of it won’t have much real meaning to you yet, but that doesn’t matter. The main thing is that it should give you a fair idea about which things matter, which things are well understood and which things are comparatively peripheral. For instance, we have a lot to say about academic writing as opposed to formal English (because most students are pretty bad at it) and about feeling lost (because most students have problems with this from the second year of their thesis onwards). Similarly, we don’t say much about statistics and about experimental design, because these are comprehensively covered by numerous excellent texts and training courses, so you should have no problems getting access to them if they’re needed for your research. Likewise, we don’t say much about whether the Harvard referencing system is better than (for instance) the APA system, because your departmental PhD regulations will almost certainly specify the referencing system that you must use, so that question is pretty much an irrelevance unless you happen to be doing a PhD on referencing systems, within an information science department. The next sections describe some concepts which we have found invaluable, but which don’t usually appear in other books. These provide a useful struc- ture for (a) what you are trying to do in a PhD and (b) understanding how things work in the big picture. The first of these is the cabinet-making metaphor; the second is the distinction between instrumental and expressive behaviour. Cabinet-making – the PhD as a master piece Doing a PhD has a lot in common with traditional cabinet-making. Back in The Past, an apprentice cabinet-maker would finish his apprenticeship (back in The Past, apprentice cabinet-makers were all ‘he’) by making a cabinet which demonstrated that he had all the skills needed to be a master cabinet- maker. This piece of furniture was known as the ‘master piece’. A successfully defended PhD dissertation fulfils a similar role. It demonstrates that you have all the skills needed to be a researcher in your own right. The issue of demonstration is essential. The basis of the PhD examination is the dissertation, together with the subsequent viva voce examination. It doesn’t matter howSO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 5 brilliant or well-informed you are – if the brilliance and erudition isn’t visible in the dissertation, then you’re going to fail. You therefore need to know what the requisite skills are for your branch of academia (since different disciplines require different skills) and make sure that you demonstrate mastery of each of these somewhere in your thesis. If you’re a methodical sort of person, you might go so far as to draw up a list of the skills required and tick off each one as it is represented in your thesis. For a cabinet-maker, the skills required would be things like making various complex joints, fitting hinges neatly, applying veneer, achieving a high polish and so forth. For an academic, the skills are things like mastery of formal academic language, familiarity with the relevant literature in the discipline, knowledge of the main data collection techniques, adherence to the standards of rigour and so on. Things which do not normally appear on the list include personal interest in the area and the ethical importance of the topic. There is no point in going on about these at length in your thesis – you are awarded a PhD as an acknowledgement that you can make cabinets at master craftsman level, not an acknowledgement that you find cabinet-making fascinating, or that cabinets make the world a better place. In practice, few people would spend several years of their life doing a PhD on a topic which held no interest for them, so personal interest is usually taken for granted by examiners. Ethics is a more interesting question. One reason that examiners tend not to take account of claims about the ethical importance of a question (e.g. finding a cure for cancer) as a criterion for assessing a PhD is that bad research can actually impede the search for an answer to the problem by leading other researchers in the wrong direction. Bad research into a highly ethical question is still bad research. Back to the main theme. Different disciplines have different required skills; most experienced researchers are so familiar with these that they take them for granted, and would be hard pressed to produce a list from memory over a physical or metaphorical cup of coffee. However, other experienced researchers (especially those who teach research methods courses) will be able to give you some answers; in addition, it is worth having a look at the contents section of research methods books in your discipline, which will cover most of the main topics. The PhD regulations for your institution should also help. An illustrative list of typical skills is given below. It’s illustrative rather than definitive – your discipline will almost certainly have a different list. However, many of the skills will be the same, and the list will give you the general idea. Most of the skills below assume that your work will be located within a single discipline. There is a reason for this. Interdisciplinary PhDs can be extremely interesting and useful. However, they need to be handled with care, since otherwise there is the risk that they will fall between two stools. This can be a problem in terms of practicalia such as finding an external examiner, and in terms of theoretical issues such as deciding which approach to follow6 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH when the different disciplines involved have very different ways of doing things. It is usually much wiser to decide on a ‘host’ discipline, locate the interdisciplinary PhD within that, and then import the concepts from the other discipline into the host discipline. Cabinet-making skills Most disciplines require most of the following skills, though individual cases will vary. Use of academic language • Correct use of technical terms • Attention to detail in punctuation, grammar, etc. • Attention to use of typographic design (white space, layout, headings styles) to make the text accessible • Ability to structure and convey a clear and coherent argument, including attention to the use of ‘signposting’ devices such as headings to make the structure accessible • Writing in a suitable academic ‘voice’ Knowledge of background literature • Seminal texts correctly cited, with evidence that you have read them and evaluated them critically • References accurately reflecting the growth of the literature from the seminal texts to the present day • Identification of key recent texts on which your own PhD is based, showing both how these contribute to your thesis and how your thesis is different from them • Relevant texts and concepts from other disciplines cited • Organization of all of the cited literature into a coherent, critical structure, showing both that you can make sense of the literature – identifying conceptual relationships and themes, recognizing gaps – and that you understand what is important Research methods • Knowledge of the main research methods used in your discipline, including data collection, record-keeping and data analysis • Knowledge of what constitutes ‘evidence’ in your discipline, and of what is acceptable as a knowledge claimSO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 7 • Detailed knowledge – and competent application – of at least one method • Critical analysis of one of the standard methods in your discipline, showing that you understand both its strengths and its limitations Theory • Understanding of key theoretical strands and theoretical concepts in your discipline • Understanding how theory shapes your research question • Ability to contribute something useful to the theoretical debate in your area Miscellaneous • Ability to do all the above yourself, rather than simply doing what your supervisor tells you • Awareness of where your work fits in relation to the discipline, and what it contributes to the discipline • Mature overview of the discipline Necessary skills Those readers who are familiar with 1066 and All That will be pleased to know that skills are currently viewed as a Good Thing. This is especially the case with skills which can be described as ‘transferable skills’. You can therefore treat them as a positive asset, to be added to your CV, rather than as another cheer- less obligation. Your institutional training course will probably wax eloquent on skills of various sorts – transferable, generic, project-based, discipline-based (though readers with an interest in BDSM may be disappointed to hear that this does not normally involve whips and leather), and doubtless many others. Transferable skills are particularly favoured by The System because they are allegedly usable in areas other than just academia. They include (depending on whose versions you receive) writing, public speaking and coping with prejudice. We will pay The System the graceful academic compliment of treating this ground as so thoroughly covered that it does not need to be covered again by us; the rest of this section describes skills which may not be included on your institution’s training programme. Tact and diplomacy As a PhD student, you need to accept that you are not exactly at the top of the academic pecking order; as a new PhD student, you are also the new8 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH kid on the block. There is therefore a time for being right and a time for using the quiet word that gets you what you want. PhD students tend to do a lot of complaining about how The System treats them (often with some justice on their side), but tend to forget that they are in a system which dates back to the Dark Ages, and which has learnt a thing or two about dealing with complaints. An important skill is to learn when to let something pass and when to stand up (tactfully and politely, but firmly) for an issue. Otherwise, you are likely to find yourself winning the battles and losing the war. For instance, you will probably have complaints about the shortcomings of the library; PhD students almost everywhere have complaints about the library, usually ill-founded, so if you get stroppy about this issue, you are unlikely to get a huge amount of sympathy. (‘The library doesn’t have many books on my area of interest’ usually translates into: ‘I haven’t learnt yet that I should be reading journal articles at this stage’ – not the strongest position for winning an argument.) A second example: you may have grave reservations about the quality of the research methods training course that your institution puts on for PhD stu- dents. Bear in mind that PhD training courses are still in their early days, and that a tactless confrontation with the professor responsible for the course is unlikely to produce the result that you need; some suggestions, phrased in a face-saving manner, are more likely to achieve this. Remember also that most PhD students know what they want, not what they need; there is some- times an enormous difference between the two. This leads on to another important skill. Having the right cup of coffee Probably the most important research tool you will encounter is the cup of coffee. Successful students know this; unsuccessful ones tend to wonder why we’re wasting time with jokes, and then wonder why the world is so unfair to them. Knowledge is power; rare knowledge is greater power. The best way of finding out what you really need to know is usually to have a cup of coffee with the right person, and to ask their advice (tactfully and diplomatically). Who is the right person? Someone with the knowledge, which for most situations means someone who is not another PhD student – if they’re still a student, then no matter how helpful and friendly they are, you can’t be sure whether their advice is sincere and right, or sincere and mistaken, since they haven’t yet got successfully through a PhD. There are a lot of folk myths in circulation among PhD students. Fellow students are a good source of social support, and of help with tasks like blind judging for data analysis, or with babysitting; they’re not a good source of advice about what your thesis should look like, or where to find the equipment you need for your next bit of fieldwork. The right person is someone who has a successful track record in the relevant topic – for instance, supervisors whose students usually have happy endings, chief technicians with a reputation for producing the right bit of kit out of a cupboard when all hope seemed gone, librarians who haveSO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 9 helped your friends to find obscure but essential references. Show them due appreciation and treat their advice as confidential unless they specify otherwise. The most useful knowledge is often the sort that people will not want to be quoted on – for instance, hints about good or bad people to ask for help. Asking the right research question Once you learn this skill, life becomes very different. We have an entire section on this elsewhere because it’s so important; we mention it here because it’s well worth mentioning twice. Academic writing Writing is indeed a transferable skill; you can transfer academic writing skills from one academic setting to another, and you can transfer business writing skills from one business setting to another. It is quite possible that there are areas where you can even transfer academic writing skills appropriately to industry or vice versa. Table 1 Ten top tips for research students Read, read, read Seasoned researchers typically have an evolving ‘reference set’ of around 100–50 papers which forms the core of the relevant literature in their specialty, and with which they are conversant. Students need to read enough to form an initial reference set. Write, write, write  Writing is a skill that requires practice: the more you write, the easier it gets  You should aim to write up as you go; this will both make it easier at the end (when you rewrite it all) and give you something to show people who are interested in your work  Don’t throw writing away; date it and store it in an ‘out-takes’ file; that material can be useful  Revising is often easier than writing new Keep an annotated This is the single most powerful research tool you can bibliography give yourself. It should be a personal tool, including all the usual bibliographic information, the date when you read the paper and notes on what you found interesting/ seminal/infuriating/etc. about it. Form an ‘informal Try to find a small set of reliable, interested people who committee’ are willing to read for you, comment on ideas, bring lit- erature to your attention, introduce you to other researchers and so on. They may be specialists who can provide expertise on which you can draw, or generalists who ask tough questions.10 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH Expose your work Make your work public in technical reports, research seminars and conference papers. The best way to get information is to share information; if people under- stand what your ideas are, they can respond to them. Making your work public exposes you to questions and criticism early (when it can do you some good), helps you to ‘network’ and gather leads and gives you practice articulating your reasoning. So what? Learn to ask the Students often get a result and forget to take the next other questions step. ‘Look, I got a correlation’ ‘So what?’ Learn to go beyond your initial question, learn to invert the question in order to expose other perspectives and learn to look for alternative explanations. Never hide from your ‘Hiding’ is a pathological behaviour in which most supervisor research students indulge at some point. Communicat- ing with your supervisor is a prerequisite to getting the most out of your supervisor. Always make backups (and More than one student has had to start writing from keep a set off-site) scratch or to repeat empirical work because he or she neglected this most basic of disciplines. Read at least one com- Reading something that has ‘passed’ is an excellent way pleted dissertation cover to reflect on dissertation structure, content, and style – to cover and on ‘what it takes’. A doctorate is pass/fail Part of the process is learning when ‘enough is enough’. Terminology: a brief digression There are various types of research degree; what they have in common is that they involve research by the student as a core component. This is different from a taught degree where there may be a research project (for instance, an MSc project), but where this research project is only one component among many on the course. Strictly speaking, a research degree involves a thesis, which is the argument that you propose as a result of your research. Again strictly speaking, the dissertation is the written document which describes your thesis. In common usage, the dissertation is often referred to as ‘the thesis’. It’s worth knowing about the distinction in case you have a particularly pedantic external examiner – it helps you get off to a better start. Instrumental and expressive behaviour In fairy tales, you sometimes encounter a magic book. This is usually a book which appears once, in time of need, and which contains the information

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