How to get a PhD

how to manage your thesis supervisor and how to finish your phd in 6 months. and also explain how to prepare for a phd viva voce | download free pdf
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DrJohnRyder,United Kingdom,Researcher
Published Date:07-07-2017
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  1 ON BECOMING A RESEARCH STUDENT   This book is a handbook and a survival manual for PhD students. If you are intending to embark on a research degree it will introduce you to the system and, by increasing your understanding, help you to improve your choice of university, college, department and supervisor. If you have just picked this book up and you are already a research student, then you should read it thoroughly – and hang on to it so that you can refer to it frequently. You will need to do this because we shall be discussing the skills and processes that are crucial to obtaining the PhD degree. If you are a supervisor, or contemplating becoming one, the book is highly relevant to you too, because it deals with the educational processes that it is your responsibility to encourage for the successful completion of your students’ research degrees. If you are a senior academic administrator, the relevance of this book is that it provides a guide to procedures and systems concerned with research degrees which will enable you to evaluate the adequacy of the provision your university is making for research students. The book focuses on process issues which are not discipline-specific. It cannot help you to design an investigation or an experiment as these activities require professional knowledge of your particular field. Similarly it does not deal with the financial difficulties of doctoral students, which will vary considerably depending on your circumstances. Nor does it con- sider factors impinging on you after you have completed your course such as the employment options available to PhDs. (Delamont and Atkinson 2004 discuss developing a postdoctoral research career.) But the book does suggest that you ponder on some basic questions2  HOW TO GET A PhD before embarking on a course of study leading to the PhD degree. Do you want to spend three to four years of your life doing research on one topic? Will you be satisfied to live on a student grant for that time? Are you committed to a PhD or would a professional doctorate (e.g. EdD, EngD) suit you better? (The differences are discussed on pp. 196ff. of this book.) Are you able to tolerate regular periods of intellectual loneliness when only you are responsible for producing ‘creative thoughts’? It is vital that you give a firm ‘yes’ in answer to all those questions. You must make the decision to study and work for your doctorate based on the sure know- ledge that it is the right thing for you. If what you really want is to write a bestseller, then conducting research for a thesis is not the optimum way to go about it. Perhaps you don’t really know what you want to do with the rest of your life and continuing in the university system seems a good way of putting off that decision. If this is so then you have chosen an extremely difficult way of solving your particular problem.  The nature of doctoral education Acquiring the skills and understanding the processes necessary for success cannot be done at a single reading. As a research student you need con- tinually to use the ideas in this book to develop your own insight into your own situation. In this way your professional learning will develop as it should – under your own management. ‘Under your own management’ is the key to the nature of doctoral edu- cation. In undergraduate education a great deal, in academic terms, is organized for the student. It may not have seemed like that to you at the time, because you were required to do a considerable amount of work, but, for example, syllabuses were laid down, textbooks were specified, practical sessions were designed, the examinations were organized to cover a set range of topics in questions of a known form, and so on. You could quite reasonably have complained if asked about an extraneous subject, ‘But no one told me that I was supposed to learn that topic (or methodology or theory or historical period).’ For the most part you were following an academic course set by your teachers. In doctoral education, you have to take responsibility for managing your learning and for getting yourself a PhD. Of course, there will be people around to help you: – your supervisor(s), other academics in your department, fellow students and so on. Some of them will even tell you what, in their opinion, you have to do to obtain the degree, but the responsibility for determining what is required, as well as for carrying it out, remains firmly with you. And if it turns out that you need a particular topic or theory for your work, then it is no excuse to say, ‘But nobody told me it was relevant.’ It is your responsibility.ON BECOMING A RESEARCH STUDENT  3 So you will not be traversing a set course laid out by others. You will be expected to initiate discussions, ask for the help that you need, argue about what you should be learning, and so on. You are under self- management, so it is no use sitting around waiting for somebody to tell you what to do next or, worse, complaining that nobody is telling you what to do next; in the postgraduate world these are opportunities, not deficiencies. The overall university framework for research students ensures that there is a basic similarity for all doctoral candidates as they progress through their studies. But there are also some notable differences between the research cultures of university disciplines, particularly between the culture of the laboratory-based sciences and that of the humanities and social sciences. To a considerable extent they stem from the large capital investment in equipment and materials required in scientific research. Supervisors in science have to take the lead in obtaining the physical resources and the research personnel required. A studentship may be allo- cated and a doctoral student recruited specifically to work on a designated line of research. In this situation the ‘apprenticeship’ aspect of being a doctoral student is emphasized. The student’s research topic will be clearly defined to fit in with the innovative thrust of the supervisor’s research programme, and this will set limits to the level of research creativity that can be shown. The student will be required to do ‘dogsbody’ work in the laboratory or on the computer as part of professional training. In these situations there develops what might be called a ‘joint ownership’ of the doctoral research between supervisors and the students. Supervisors will have a strong interest in getting the research work done and using the results obtained. Joint papers will be the norm. The danger to watch for in this culture is the exploitation of the student, leading to the feeling of being just an extra pair of hands for the supervisors’ research. It must be remembered that there has to be a sufficient amount of autonomy for the student to be able to make an original contribution. It is this which justifies the award of the PhD degree. In contrast, in the humanities and the social sciences students often come with their own topics within the field in which the supervisor is expert, and academics give a service of research supervision. Being busy people, supervisors often have to ration the amount of attention they can give. Research supervision has to compete with the supervisor’s own cur- rent research (which can be considerably different), undergraduate teach- ing and administration. Supervisors will have only a general interest in the results of the student’s research, and will act more as role models than as apprentice-masters. The danger to watch for in this culture is the neglect of the student for long periods of weeks, months, even years. It must be remembered that students need the regular support of supervisors if they are to develop sufficiently to achieve the PhD degree.4  HOW TO GET A PhD These descriptions are of extreme situations; there are many shades of grey in between. There are scientists who give an individual service to their doctoral students and social scientists who build up a team of students all working on related aspects of the same topic. You must work to under- stand the situation into which you are entering. In recent years universities have found that it is not in a student’s best interest to rely on only one supervisor for each student. Supervisory teams with two or three members are being established in many departments, with a lead (or main) supervisor and one or two associate supervisors. This team must contain a subject specialist and someone responsible for pas- toral support. The team system can allow for new supervisors to learn how to supervise more effectively under the guidance of an experienced mem- ber of the department. Others involved in supervision, perhaps at times of upgrading or controversy, might be the departmental head and the research tutor.  The psychology of being a research student New research students enter the system determined to make an outstand- ing contribution to their subject. By the time they start the final stages of thesis-writing for the degree they are determined to ‘get it and forget it’ During the intervening years their enthusiasm has been dampened by the demands of having to concentrate on a specific topic and conduct routine and repetitive tasks in an atmosphere where nobody seems either to understand or to care about their work. They come into the university or college knowing precisely who they are: successful and intelligent holders of well-earned qualifications. It is not long before they lose their initial confidence and begin to question their own self-image. This is the result of contacts (no matter how sporadic or from what distance) with academic discourse. Such contacts could come from members of staff, postgraduates who are further into their research than the first-year students, and papers published in journals or presented at conferences. These challenge the assumptions and concep- tions that the young graduates had accepted as inviolable. From this period of self-doubt and questioning, the successful postgraduates emerge with a new identity as competent professionals, able to argue their view- point with anybody regardless of status, confident of their own knowledge but also aware of its boundaries. This new identity permits them to ask for information when they are aware that they don’t know something and to express a lack of understanding when this is necessary, instead of pretend- ing that there is no difficulty for fear of being thought stupid. To arrive at this point is what being a postgraduate research student is really all about.ON BECOMING A RESEARCH STUDENT  5  The aims of this book The necessity for personal academic initiative is the key cultural change that doctoral students will encounter compared with their undergraduate days. It requires a different style of operation, which is why it is not suf- ficient just to state the issue as we did in the previous sections. Students need information and insights to develop the capacity to operate success- fully in the postgraduate environment. We have seen many students take long periods (one year or even two) in adjusting to the environment, at considerable jeopardy to the achievement of their doctorates. Some students never come to terms with it and go away indignant, bitter – and without PhDs. All new postgraduates have to be prepared to unlearn and rethink many of the doctrines which they have had to accept up to this point in their student career. A vital aspect of this rethinking is to take the initiative in discussing with your supervisor the whole range of your ideas, including any that might even appear to be ‘off-beat’ or ‘illegitimate’ but may in fact turn out to be surprisingly useful leads. The first aim of this book is to explore such issues in a realistic way in order to help you understand and achieve the tasks necessary to complete the PhD successfully. Our second complementary aim is to help super- visory practice in managing the process better. The third aim is to put the whole activity in its context, since the recognition by universities of their institutional responsibilities in improving the effectiveness of doctoral education is a key factor in promoting necessary change. In attempting to achieve these aims we shall be drawing on our experi- ence in doctoral supervision and our systematic research into PhD educa- tion. We give real-life examples of students and their supervisors. The ratio of men to women in the illustrations is consistent with that in higher education today and covers a range of faculties including Arts, Business Studies, Science, Social Science, and Technology. We shall be examining the characteristics of the educational system, the nature of the PhD quali- fication, psychological aspects of the PhD process, and how to manage your supervisor, among many other practical topics. On pp. 207ff at the end of the book we have included a self-diagnostic questionnaire on student progress to help you focus on issues that are relevant to you.  Action summary 1 Be aware that in doctoral education you are under your own management and have the responsibility for determining what is required as well as for carrying it out.6  HOW TO GET A PhD 2 You will experience periods of self-doubt which you must come through with the clear aim of becoming a competent professional researcher. 3 Read this book for insights into the PhD research learning process, to help you manage it better.  2 GETTING INTO THE SYSTEM   Once you have decided to continue within the higher education system and conduct research for a higher degree, you have other decisions to make. First you have to be accepted by a university department to work in your chosen area of study. But which university? In what area? And how to apply?  Choosing the institution and field of study If you are a postgraduate who is a candidate for a research studentship, the offer of such a studentship is likely to be the determining factor in your choice of institution and field of study. You should, though, satisfy yourself on two important counts: 1 That the research discipline or area in which the studentship is offered is genuinely one on which you can see yourself concentrating very closely for the next three or four years of your life and maybe more. Many PhD students have come unstuck simply because they have lost interest or belief in the area that they are investigating. 2 That the university department in which you are being offered the stu- dentship has an established reputation in research and a real commit- ment to the development of doctoral students. You should not hesitate to ask about these issues, so important to your success, when you go to a department for interview. You should collect whatever literature is available about the department, the staff engaged in research and the precise nature of that research. Find out the departmental rating in the8  HOW TO GET A PhD British University Research Assessment Exercise, and how the depart- ment intends to develop research in the future. Obtain copies of research papers and discover as much as you can about the scope of existing work being done by staff and doctoral students and the possi- bilities of developing that work into areas of interest to you. Ask to speak to current doctoral students and obtain from them a description of the adequacy of the set-up from their point of view. Accept a studentship only if you are optimistic on both counts – of the suitability of the institution and of the field of study. This optimism will fade soon enough as we shall see later on in this book, so it is important to have some to start off with. If you are not dependent on a studentship (or if you are fortunate enough to be offered more than one and have to choose) then you have a wider range of options, but you will have to work harder to acquaint yourself with the available possibilities. One direct way of finding out about the relevant academic activities is to go to a university library (or look on the Internet) and systematically review the current issues of journals in your subject. This allows you to locate the researchers who are publishing relevant work. Remember, all libraries in higher education will allow readers to have access to their stock for use on the premises; you just have to ask for permission. You can obtain good preliminary information through the Internet by using your search engine to explore the general introductions to a variety of relevant topics. All universities have websites and all departments have web pages describing the research that they are currently undertaking. It is always a good idea, once you have narrowed down your options to a few departments that appeal to you, to contact those who seem most likely to be able to discuss your own plans in the light of what they know to be happening in their unit. You can initiate this contact by letter or email, followed by a telephone call and – if you are still interested – an arrangement to meet at the university. You will find that most academics will be happy to discuss research issues with you. A good way to make contact with different people and departments is to take advantage of the open days that so many universities now advertise. Having got this far, your top priority should be defining more clearly your field of study. To do this you need to give some thought to your own interests and how they interact with what you have found out about the work of the department you are visiting. While it is premature at this stage to have a complete project worked out, you will need to be able to talk convincingly about the type of research that appeals to you and why you are considering applying to that particular department. If you are con- sidering creating a draft proposal, it may be that the department to which you are applying may be prepared to give you some help in developing it.GETTING INTO THE SYSTEM  9 Other issues to be borne in mind at this point have to do with the mechanics of getting the work done, for example, access to laboratory equipment (and what kind of equipment), computers, library facilities, potential samples and their availability and ease of access, amount of support from secretarial staff (if any), photocopying facilities and, in the case of survey research, the potential for help with postage, etc. In addition, the compatibility of the people with whom you will be working is an important component in your choice. If you are contemplating part-time doctoral research, perhaps due to family responsibilities, essential work commitments or are otherwise sub- ject to geographical constraints in your choice, remember that nowadays most regions have several institutions of higher learning where research degrees can be taken. For example, in the West Midlands conurbation there are at least six universities. You should also consider that you can do a PhD under the Open University system, which has considerable geo- graphical flexibility. In Chapter 9 we look in more detail at the situation of part-time research students. Other universities too offer opportunities for students to conduct research without having to be resident. They normally require a number of visits to the campus during a year and even, in some cases, attendance at residential weekends. Email and Internet technologies have encouraged the development of more flexible registration arrangements. For these reasons you must explore thoroughly the range of provision which might be available for you.  The scientific research programme If you are a scientist you should consider whether participating as a doc- toral student in a major scientific research programme would suit you. Research students in such a programme are treated as the most junior level of employee contributing to the overall work, in fact as junior research assistants. The director of the programme sets very clear constraints on the work that is to be carried out and submitted for the doctorate and the student’s contribution is correspondingly restricted in range. Viewed in educational terms, this type of programme has both advan- tages and limitations. The three major advantages over the position of the individual research student are that: the environment continually demon- strates that research matters – a great benefit as compared with the situ- ation of students who have supervisors for whom research cannot be the top priority; the laboratory is well funded; and the training in professional practice and the academic issues tackled will be state-of-the-art. These programmes do have limitations though. First, supervisors tend to discount the necessity for tutorial support as distinct from managerial10  HOW TO GET A PhD supervision, since they believe that much of that support is being given by the group. The close contact that they have with the students in the laboratory on a day-to-day managerial basis leads many supervisors to neglect the educational practices that we advocate throughout this book. Second, directors of research programmes and other senior members tend to accept the illusory picture of teams of happy researchers working together toward a common end. This view takes no account of the students’ competitiveness and their fear of having their ideas or results stolen by one of their colleagues working on a very closely related prob- lem. The tensions and distrust that can arise among such a group of beginning professionals – physically close but psychologically isolated – can be very unsettling.  Eligibility The first question here is: do you have the academic qualifications to be accepted as a student for a research degree? Most universities require first or upper second-class honours in a relevant British undergraduate degree; some universities will accept lower seconds. If you already have a master’s degree it is usually acceptable, whatever the class of your undergraduate degree. These are the general requirements which will allow you to go through straightforwardly. If you do not have them it does not mean that you will not be accepted, only that a special case has to be made, which will require the strong backing of your potential supervisor. For example, if you do not have a British degree, the university will have to satisfy itself that your overseas degree is of a standard equivalent to a British one. Or you may have a non-degree professional qualification plus considerable practical experience, on which a special case could be made for your acceptance. In general we would say that you should not be immediately deterred if you do not have the typical formal qualifications for acceptance. Always explore with potential supervisors whether a special case can be made. It may be, for example, that you could be accepted subject to doing certain extra study, or passing a qualifying examination. Remember too that if one institution rejects you, it does not mean that all will. However, if you have had several rejections it may not be wise to pursue registration. You may need to review your likelihood of success and come to a more realistic estimate of your abilities. The second question is: what degree are you going to be registered for? If you are a beginner in research and do not already have an MPhil or an MRes (i.e., a master’s degree awarded for research) you will, in the first place, be registered as a general research student or for an MPhil degree. You will often be required to take some taught courses before embarkingGETTING INTO THE SYSTEM  11 on your thesis work. You may be required to complete successfully a one- year taught programme leading to the award of the MRes degree. The decision on formal registration for the PhD is then taken after the first year of your research when there is some indication that the work is progress- ing satisfactorily. You and your supervisor(s) must, therefore, be in close contact to ensure that the case can be made for full PhD registration. At this stage a title for the thesis and the intended programme of research are presented. The third question is concerned with the limits of the period allowed between registration and submission. For full-time students there will be a formal minimum time (three or four years) and a formal maximum (four or five years) after which registration will lapse and a special (and very persuasive) case will need to be made for reinstatement. Because of this maximum limit, if you are having to abandon your research work tempor- arily but intend to return to it, you should obtain a formal suspension of the period of study. For part-time students the time limits are set roughly pro rata: four to five years minimum, seven to eight years maximum. Don’t forget that if you are employed by your institution as, say, a research assistant, you may find that you can be counted as a full-time student even if you are working only part-time on your PhD. This fudge is allowed because the basic nature of the PhD is as a professional training, and research assistants get a great deal of this training as part of their jobs. When registration has been completed you should be informed formally of: your supervisor(s); the topic or field of study for which you have been accepted; the minimum length of study time required before submission of your thesis. Continuing registration in succeeding years is usually dependent on adequate progress being made each year, and a report to this effect has to be submitted by your supervisor. Do ensure that it is sent at the appropriate time.  Grants and research support It may be that you will qualify for a grant from the government, a uni- versity or a private foundation. The availability of grants is variable, and the regulations on eligibility detailed. Nevertheless if you are British or from the EU or have lived in the UK for three years or more, it would be worth your while investigating the possibilities. You may find that you fall into a category for whom special grants are available. The best place to start to explore these possibilities would be with your university careers service who will help you to discover what may be available. There is a Grants and Trusts Directory (which includes benevolent funds) to look at,12  HOW TO GET A PhD and the website is a useful starting point for fur- ther exploration. If you find that you meet their criteria, you would be well advised to apply far in advance of their advertised cut-off date. However, do not build up too much hope at this stage because many of these grants are very specific indeed and can be quite small. You must obtain and study the regulations of the formal system con- cerned with these topics. You should also be aware that exceptions can be made, and this may be worth exploring. Your financial situation should be part of your initial discussion with your potential supervisor. If you are awarded a studentship, it will be for a set period (three or four years). There are considerable variations in the operation of grants. Some are tied to specific research projects, some come from research councils and may require you to take particular courses in the first year (which may lead to an MRes, the so-called ‘1+3 system’), some are linked to industrial collaboration. Remember that in certain circumstances it may be possible to obtain an extension of the grant. You have to keep your supervisor aware of this possibility and make sure that a strongly supported application is made at the appropriate time. Grants are quite low in value, and it may be that you will be hoping for some casual work. Try to obtain some professional work which helps your academic development if at all possible. It is much better to tutor your subject than to work long hours serving behind a bar. While academic institutions are no longer regarded as being in loco parentis, they may act as quasi-employers if you have a grant that they administer. Some, like any good employer, will make small short-term loans to cover an urgent financial problem. These can be repaid by instalments. Find out from your university what you are statutorily entitled to in the way of research resources. These might include a desk, lab space, equip- ment and consumable resources (for example, chemicals for your pro- ject). You should ensure (via your supervisor, if necessary) that you have them. You also need to be aware that there are often discretionary opportunities available. You may be able to call on technical support from departmental technicians and computer staff, and you may be entitled to apply for financial support for travel to conferences or to visit other institutions.  Distance supervision? There have always been people who, while wishing to study for a higher degree by research, are unable physically to attend regularly at a uni- versity. These include potential students who live in areas with no uni- versity provision, people with disabilities, carers and those with youngGETTING INTO THE SYSTEM  13 children who are able to work in their own environment but would be unable to attend university at regular required times. With the growth of IT (information technology) it is becoming increas- ingly possible for research work to be carried out from your own home. Libraries can be accessed from home, the Internet carries vast information loads. You can be in communication with your supervisor, academics in your field, and fellow students from any university by email. Students may expect a much better level of supervision than would have been the case previously if they have to go abroad for any reason during the course of their studies (e.g., the fieldwork period for anthropology and geology students). This is not to suggest that the doctoral supervision process can be carried out entirely at a distance, however. The regular interaction needed with the supervisor must inevitably take place face to face in order for student and supervisor to spark ideas off each other. It is this process which moves the research forward creatively. While IT can help the supervisory process to become more effective, it cannot completely replace personal inter- action. All British universities insist on a certain period of attendance on campus during the course of study. It is therefore not realistic for a poten- tial student to consider applying to work for a PhD degree completely at a distance.  Choosing your work context An important aspect of the quality of your working life as a research stu- dent is your work context. Where precisely will you be spending most of your time in the next few years? If you are in a position to make a choice of research institutions, you should certainly find out about the physical facilities offered and take them into account. Some universities provide study cubicles for postgraduates, some a stu- dent common room and some give their research students a desk in a small shared room similar to those used by members of staff. Since per- sonal computers, email and Internet technologies are such an integral part of research activity, it is important to discover what arrangements are made in this area. Some universities are in a position to offer the use of a PC (personal computer) to all doctoral students. If they do not, and you do not already have a machine, you must buy one. It is a key tool of your work. All universities should offer you participation in their email network and access to the Internet. There are universities which make little or no physical provision for doctoral students. They are expected to work at home when not in libraries, laboratories, other organizations or away on field trips. It may be that you prefer the congenial company of others in a similar14  HOW TO GET A PhD situation and like the idea of being able to find a corner in a large room set aside solely for the use of research students. On the other hand, you may find it irritating having to interact with others and listen to what they have to say about their own progress (or lack of it) whenever you want to use the common room as a base from which to get on with your own work. Perhaps you are a loner and enjoy the discipline of long hours spent poring over books or documents when not engaged in experimentation or other forms of data collection. You favour a clear dividing line between working hours and time spent socializing and are able to organize this division of activity satisfactorily yourself. Once again, you may discover that the isolation this type of work context imposes on you results in feelings of alienation and a lack of contact with others who could stimulate discussion and collaborate in the production of new ideas. Some people believe that being given a desk in a room shared by only one or two other research students is an ideal arrangement. They have their own personal corner where they can keep their books and writing materials, interview others and chat with their room-mates, as well as having easy and constant access to their supervisors and other members of staff. However, the reality is not always like that, and you may find that you are thrown into close contact with people whom you find quite intolerable for some reason or other. Perhaps one of them leaves chewing gum all over the place, while another is constantly talking or entertaining friends when you wish to concentrate on your work. One is very untidy and continually ‘borrows’ your possessions without returning them, as well as spreading items that do not belong to you all over your designated work area. Another is intrusive in other ways: perhaps there are too many questions about your personal life or too much discussion of others’ problems and successes. In addition, your presence and absence are easily noted by others, and you may have to account for your movements rather more than you would wish. Also, your supervisor ‘just along the corridor’ may not be quite as accessible as at first appears.  Selecting your supervisor This is probably the most important step you will have to take. In general students do not select their supervisors: their supervisors are allocated by the department or, in fewer cases, their supervisors may have selected them. However, it is not impossible to influence the selection yourself and you should certainly attempt to do so. There is certain basic information that you need in order to be confident that a particular academic is an appropriate person to supervise you. The key factor is whether they haveGETTING INTO THE SYSTEM  15 an established research record and are continuing to contribute to the development of their discipline. The questions you need to ask yourself include the following: Have they published research papers recently? Do they hold research grants or contracts? Is the lab efficiently organized? Are they invited to speak at conferences in Britain and abroad? Positive answers to at least some of these questions are desirable. Another important aspect that you should be considering when selecting your supervisor is: how close a relationship do you want? The supervisor–student relationship is one of the closest that you will ever be involved in. Even marriage partners do not spend long hours every day in close contact with each other, but this could be the case with a student and a supervisor. Some people need to have their supervisors around a lot (especially in the beginning), while others feel it oppressive to be asked what they are doing, and to be told continually what they should be getting on with next. There are at least two patterns from which to choose with regard to working with your supervisor. The first has already been mentioned: the student needs constant support and reassurance, and the supervisor needs continual feedback in order to give instruction, thus providing direction for the research. The second pattern is a relationship in which the student needs time to think about the work to be done and needs the freedom to make mistakes during early attempts to get started, before discussing what has been happening with the supervisor. In this relationship the super- visor must feel relaxed about giving the student time to learn by trial and error. Such supervisors are content to give guidance at regular intervals rather than the direction provided by those who stay much closer to the students and their work. Research has shown (Phillips 1994a) that when a student who needs time to plan work and to continue unhurriedly until satisfied that there is something interesting to impart is paired with a supervisor who con- stantly asks for worthwhile results, the student becomes irritated and feels that the standards required are unattainable. The supervisor feels that the postgraduate is too cautious and unable to work alone. Conversely, when a student who needs constant feedback and encouragement is paired with a supervisor who wants to be kept informed of progress and ideas only at intervals that allow for some development to have occurred, the student feels neglected and the supervisor resents the student’s demands for attention (if the student is actually confident enough to ask for more time). Good communication and rapport between students and their super- visors are the most important elements of supervision. Once the personal relationship has been well-established, all else falls into place. If inter- personal compatibility is missing everything else to do with being a research student is perceived negatively. Therefore, it cannot be stressed16  HOW TO GET A PhD too strongly that you should discuss this relationship at the very earliest opportunity, and a tentative agreement about working together should be reached.  Starting out as a research student In general, universities put very limited efforts into induction procedures for newcomers into the higher degree system or into the role of research student. Those who have recently attained a high-quality first degree share with their peers who have returned to university after some years of work- ing the confusion and disorientation that comes from not quite knowing what is expected of them. Often new research students have the idea that people who possess a PhD degree are outstandingly brilliant. This idea inhibits their own devel- opment as they are equally sure that they are not outstandingly brilliant, and therefore cannot really expect to be awarded a PhD. Similarly, if they actually read any completed theses (this is not the norm and will be dis- cussed in detail later) they often emerge convinced that they would never be able to write anything even remotely resembling such a document either in length or quality. The world that the new research student enters, classically portrayed as an ‘ill-defined limbo’ (Wason 1974) involves making a traumatic intel- lectual transition. It also involves the phenomenon of ‘unlearning exist- ing expertise’ and having to start from the very beginning in order to discover slowly what one is supposed to be doing. During this period students might question the whole point of their being in the university. You should, therefore, make every effort to mitigate these unpleasant beginnings by agreeing a small initial project with definite deadlines at an early interview with your supervisor. The agreement should include the understanding that, once the work has been completed, you will discuss with your supervisor both the work itself and your feelings about it. This exercise will help to clarify any doubts about your ability to undertake research and written work. It will also help to reveal the evolutionary process (corrections, drafts, rewritings, etc.) inevitably involved in the production of theses, articles and books to publication standard which you have just read with such admiration. It is also a good idea to talk to other research students about their experi- ence of the role as well as their work. Sharing apprehensions helps to resolve them through the knowledge that the problem is not an individual one, but one that is inbuilt into a less than perfect system. There are indeed guidelines which universities are advised to follow in providing support for their doctoral students. Your student representative can help you in accessing these should it ever be necessary.GETTING INTO THE SYSTEM  17  Myths and realities of the system The ‘ivory tower’ One of the commonest misconceptions about research is that it is an ‘ivory tower’ activity, far removed from reality and from social contact with others. If you say you are doing research, people will often talk to you as though you had decided to spend a number of years in solitary confine- ment from which, in due course, you will emerge with your new discoveries. It is not like that at all. Although there are considerable periods when you will be working on your own (thinking and writing, for example) this is not the whole story. There is also a considerable academic network of people with whom, as an active researcher, you must interact. These include your supervisors, other academics in your department, the general library staff, the specialist librarian who deals with computer-based litera- ture searches, visiting academics giving seminars, colleagues giving papers at conferences – the list is very considerable. To be an effective research student you must make use of all the opportunities offered. Research is an interactive process and requires the development of social, as well as academic, skills. Personal relationships Another popular misconception, this time of supervisors, is to believe that so long as they are on first-name terms with their research students every- thing is fine and the student knows that they are friends. Some supervisors even invite their students to their homes or take them to the pub for a drink in order to reinforce this camaraderie. But no matter how far the supervisors may go to assure new students that their relationship is that of friendly colleagues, the reality is that students take a considerable amount of time to become comfortable about this degree of informality. This is as true of mature students as of the more traditional new graduate. The reason for the students’ difficulty is that the supervisors already have that which the students most want – the PhD. They have the title of ‘Dr’ and are acknowledged experts in the chosen field of their research students. The students have admired the supervisors’ work during their undergraduate days, having come into contact with it through lectures or reading, or having heard reference made to it by others. They feel privil- eged to be working so closely with such individuals, and are aware of the supervisors’ authority in the subject and power in the relationship. You may be in a department with many research students or perhaps you are the only one in your discipline. Either way you will probably meet others at an induction seminar, introductory lecture or other meeting for new higher degree students arranged by your university or student union.18  HOW TO GET A PhD Even if the people you meet are in different faculties, working on topics far removed from your own, it will be helpful for you to have contact with them. Since they are at the same stage as you, they have some understand- ing of your own experience. Make it one of your first tasks to get the names and email addresses of a few of your peers. Use this list to get in touch with them to form a mutually beneficial support group. Throughout the whole of your course this group will enable you to compare not only how your research is progressing, but also your feelings about it. The reality of this situation is that all personal relationships within the academic com- munity, as elsewhere, have to be worked at and take time to develop. Teamworking ‘I work alone in a lab, full of people, all research students, all working alone.’ This quotation is from Diana, a student in biochemistry, who was part of a ‘team’ of research students who were all engaged in the search for an effective anti-cancer drug. It exemplifies the situation in scientific research in which a large programme is being funded and the professors who hold the grants gather around them several research students. Each student is working on a specific problem. Each problem is closely linked to all the others. In theory there is a free exchange of information and the whole group works in harmony. In some programmes though, research students take care to guard closely the work for which they are responsible because they occasionally fear that one of the others may discover some- thing that will render their own research unworthy of continuation. The PhD is awarded for original work. Postgraduates working on a pro- gramme such as the one described have two worries: first, that another student’s work so closely borders on their own that it will make their work unoriginal or second past the post; second, that somebody else will dem- onstrate something (for which that other person will be awarded a PhD) that will at the same time show their own line of research to be false. What is needed is collaboration, not competition, between people who should be making each other’s work more comprehensible and less alien- ating. In well managed laboratories there are regular group meetings to ensure that there is a general knowledge of the work that is being under- taken, and good communication about the issues and difficulties involved. Yet often students experience alienation and isolation as the overriding themes of their postgraduate days. The strange thing about this is that sometimes the science students appear to feel the isolation more strongly than their counterparts in the Social Sciences or Arts faculties. This is because within the sciences there is the illusion of companionship, and the expectations of new postgraduates are that they will be part of a group of friends, as well as a work group. In other faculties new research students expect to be working alone in libraries or at home, reading,GETTING INTO THE SYSTEM  19 writing and thinking rather than experimenting. Any socializing that may take place as a result of a seminar, shared room or organized event is perceived as a bonus.  Action summary 1 Get as much information as you can before choosing your academic institution. Use the Internet and visit the places beforehand to talk to potential supervisors. Find out about the research culture: is it programme based or individually orientated? Ask to see around the area in which your work will be carried out to determine whether it would suit you. 2 Find out about a potential supervisor’s research experience, publish- ing record and supervisory management style before making your decision. 3 Ensure that you understand the eligibility requirements both for entry into the research degree programme of the university and of grant-awarding bodies. Know whether you conform to them or can make a special case for exceptional treatment. 4 Very early on, arrange with your main supervisor to carry out a small initial project with definite deadlines to get you into the system. On completion and writing up, discuss not only the results but also how you went about it and what you can learn about the process. 5 Work at personal relationships with your supervisor(s) and fellow doctoral students. Set limited goals and achieve them.  3 THE NATURE OF THE PhD QUALIFICATION   In this chapter we shall discuss the nature of a PhD. We shall consider the objectives of the process, the part that it plays in the academic system, and the inevitably different aims the students, the supervisors and the examiners bring to it.  The meaning of a doctorate We are going to start with some historical background and present in a schematic way the meaning of the degree structure of a British university.  A bachelor’s degree traditionally meant that the recipient had obtained a general education (specializing at this level is a relatively recent nineteenth-century development).  A master’s degree is a licence to practise. Originally this meant to practise theology, that is, to take a living in the Church, but now there are master’s degrees across a whole range of disciplines: business administration, soil biology, computing, applied linguistics and so on. The degree marks the possession of advanced knowledge in a specialist field.  A doctor’s degree historically was a licence to teach – meaning to teach in a university as a member of a faculty. Nowadays this does not mean that becoming a lecturer is the only reason for taking a doctorate, since the degree has much wider career connotations outside academia and many of those with doctorates do not have academic teaching posts. The concept stems, though, from the need for a faculty member to be

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