Sexism, peer review and critical thinking


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by Cally Guerin

You may have been following the furore surrounding the peer review of an article submitted by two postdoctoral scientists, Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head. In case you haven’t read about it, they had undertaken a survey regarding gender differences in transitions from PhD to postdoc. The review they received from a PLOS ONE journal has since become the subject of much astonished discussion—for example, see Retractionwatch, ScienceInsider and The Conversation, as well as the ongoing talk in Ingleby’s Twitter feed.

In a nutshell, the reviewer suggested that the two female authors should “find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors)” in order to avoid their apparently “ideologically biased assumptions” and that higher publication rates by male doctoral students might be linked to the idea that “male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students”. Presumably, the reviewer believed that the comments were offered as scholarly critique; most others felt they were the product of ill-informed gender bias.

I’d come across this discussion just as I was preparing to talk to some doctoral students about critical thinking. It’s a topic that some students feel has been done to death, a regular feature in any kind of university preparation program. Yet at the same time, it’s a concept that many students still struggle to understand, let alone perform in their own work. It seems to me that critical thinking is exactly the skill or competence expected when engaging in peer review, just as much as it is expected to be demonstrated when writing a doctoral thesis.

It’s fine to tell doctoral students that they need to “think critically” and to offer their own opinions on the scholarship in their field, to assess the value of what they read, and to evaluate the arguments put forward by other researchers. But doing so is not always easy. Despite the issues raised by the story mentioned above, the academic journal articles students read are usually of a very high standard, having been through an appropriately rigorous review process. The point of that process is to assess the evidence and how it was generated, and to weigh up the claims put forward on the basis of that evidence on behalf of other readers. To some extent, then, the critical thinking of judgement and assessment has already been done for the reader.

The most useful approach to critical thinking that I’ve come across is that by Robyn Barnacle (2006). She provides a list of questions of the kind that we expect to see in advice about how to develop critical thinking (drawn from the classic handbook by Keeley & Bruce 1994/2007). But, much more interestingly in my opinion, Barnacle then goes on to broaden the concept to include the idea of critical thinking as generative, in that it creates the conditions for proposing new theories or ideas.

And perhaps most helpful of all, she makes the point that it is very difficult to be a critical thinker when one is a novice in the field. It is much harder to identify what has been omitted from a discussion if you haven’t yet read very much in the field; it is often difficult to imagine alternative points of view if you’ve only recently started to think about an idea. For doctoral students grappling with how to demonstrate their own critical thinking, this can be encouraging and comforting in equal measure—it is reasonable to assume that they will get better at critical thinking the more they learn about their topic.

Barnacle also reminds us that becoming a critical thinker is a transformative process and changes who we are and the way we approach the world. Critical thinking should create scholarly communities where peer reviewers will not write the kind of review received by Ingleby and Head; in parallel, critical thinking should also provide researchers with the skills to respond productively when they receive reviews where “critical thinking” appears to be based on misinformation.

What have you found useful in developing critical thinking skills in doctoral candidates? What has been key in extending your own understanding of what critical thinking might mean?


R. Barnacle (2006) On being a critical researcher. In C. Denholm & T. Evans (eds), Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand. Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press.

M.N. Browne & S.M. Keeley (1994/2007) Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 8th Edn. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

How do I write thee? Let me count the ways (with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)


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by Cally Guerin

Research students are required to write many different kinds of documents and genres over the course of a degree. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of how doctoral candidates can demonstrate to potential employers just what capable writers they are. One very useful tool for noticing all these writing skills is the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. This framework lists in detail the “knowledge, behaviours and attributes” developed through the course of doctoral candidature, organising them under the headings of: knowledge and intellectual abilities; personal effectiveness; research governance and organisation; and engagement, influence and impact. While writing probably comes under all these domains, the last one, “engagement, influence and impact”, is the most obvious, as it includes a section on “Communication and dissemination”. Yet there is a lot of written communication required of doctoral candidates before they reach Vitae’s endpoint of “Communication methods/communication media/publication”.

To start with, even being allowed to start a PhD requires the ability to negotiate the writing literacies needed to complete lengthy and detailed application forms. Some students I’ve spoken to find this a daunting writing task which perhaps develops both complex positional and rhetorical writing skills but may also teach valuable lessons in how to construct such forms in other areas of their careers.

Then there is the task of writing a proposal. This writing must succeed in providing the right level of detail about the project to persuade readers that this is not only an original and interesting idea, but that it is do-able in the set timeframe. The writing demonstrates that the aspiring researcher can organise the stages of the research in a logical order. Some familiarity with discipline expectations about methods, theory and writing style will also be shown.

After that, the doctoral writer might start doing some more conventional academic writing of thesis chapters, book chapters, journal articles or textbook entries. Here they show that they understand the expectations of the scholarly audience who might read their work, that they know how to use discipline-specific language and have a command of the knowledge in the field. Employers who are looking for evidence that an individual can perform the traditional role of an academic can be reassured that this writer knows the ropes. Writing conference presentations relies on some of this, but often takes on a more conversational tone (though that might depend somewhat on the discipline and/or the particular atmosphere of the conference).

But there are other important documents that candidates might write that demonstrate other kinds of writing skills. For example, those who need to submit ethics applications will soon realise they need to present complex ideas and projects in a manner that the ethics committee—generally composed of people who are not experts in their particular research field—can engage with. And then there might be all the attendant documents, written for participants who are often much further removed from the academic field of research: recruitment materials and invitations to participate in the research (emails, flyers); information sheets; consent and complaint forms. The ability to communicate complex ideas in ordinary language becomes essential—and can be oddly hard to do after becoming adept at talking discipline jargon. Some projects require candidates to learn the skills of writing survey and interview questions. These need to be unambiguous; they also need to be easy for a lay person to understand if they are to get accurate responses.

Others will write grant applications and learn the skills of presenting the significance of their work to a well-informed but not necessarily specialist audience. This is a time to learn how to promote the value of the research, rather than a moment for modesty or humility—the tentative hedging required in other writing has little place when important funding is at stake. And if successful, there are likely to be requirements to write reports on how that funded research has progressed, writing that might be aimed at an industry audience, or those whose priorities may not be identical to those in the academy.

Then (perhaps most importantly of all?!) is the written communication with supervisors, often via email. Here, doctoral candidates learn another kind of writing that is private but at the same time needs to be appropriately professional. In some situations the expectation is that this has a formal, polite, deferential tone; in others, a casual, abbreviated note is perfectly acceptable. Negotiating this while maintaining clear communication requires great skill (we all know emailers who have had the uncomfortable experience of having their messages misunderstood, potentially with very damaging effects). Effective email writing is an asset in any workplace.

More and more doctoral candidates are also writing about their research or doctoral experiences on social media, for example, through blogging and tweeting, or on professional academic sites like Linkedin. Presenting and maintaining a presence in these kinds of forums requires a host of other writing skills and literacies to communicate effectively.

All of this writing happens before the collation of the final thesis or exegesis, a document that demonstrates how doctoral candidates are capable of carefully proofreading a long document. The document must be consistent throughout, present complex skills of referencing accurately, and meet the highest expectations of persuasive argumentation and scholarship. This capacity for sustained, precise presentation is, again, valuable for other long reports or publications.

Through these different writing experiences, doctoral writers learn how to express their ideas clearly, how to structure material so that all sorts of readers can engage with it, and consider the appropriate layout of the document to indicate how it fits together. They learn about the nuances of genre and audience—what’s appropriate, expected, and useful in a range of different writing situations.

It’s a huge list of writing skills developed through the “depth and breadth and height” of a doctoral degree; these skills can be used in all sorts of contexts outside university departments. There are no doubt all sorts of other writing and genres that I’ve missed—please tell me what else I should add to this list to remind doctoral writers of the vast skill set they’ve developed during candidature (and how they might present them to potential employers).

Structure as a booster for the argument


By Susan Carter

In our writing class we were talking about the structure of academic writing. Although structure is a framework that can be revised through ordinary workerly diligence, its effect works at a deeper level, showing authority and conveying purpose. Carefully controlled structure will support the argumentation. Thus the structure of a research thesis–the overall shape and its framework joinery–is important to the success of the argument.

Ann tells of her experience back when she was a thesis writer: ‘I visualized the hard-bound thesis, complete with my name on the spine, as being an “argument” from beginning to end. I designed every chapter to have a punch-line, which would contribute one major argument in support of a holistic contention’ (Carter, Kelly & Brailsford, 2012: 56). Her envisioning ahead of doing (a helpful strategy in itself) shows she was aware of the need for structure to really work in holding the argument in place consistently right through the thesis.

It is a good idea for each chapter to be framed with an introduction and conclusion that deliberately takes the holistic argument forward. Often this will be installed only towards the end of the thesis writing process, as it is only then that the overarching argument becomes clear and, hopefully, well-articulated.

But a sentence that says what this chapter needs to contribute to the thesis written early on can also act as an anchor to hold the author to the chapter’s purpose. Usually somewhere along the route of thesis writing students will need to learn to cut back on what is not relevant to their research question, problem or hypotheses, their research and their argument. Knowing the precise purpose of the chapter can guide this cutting back.

Readers (and supervisors) vary in terms of how much they like to have a mini-roadmap at the start of each chapter. Giving two or three sentences to how the chapter’s argument is made up, and the order of what is coming, always seems sensible and courteous to me, although some readers hope to be held on the argument’s path by the riveting quality of the prose and its unmistakable drive forward alone. Examiners, though, often read the thesis they are evaluating at night when they are tired and in short bursts: it never hurts to remind them where they are.

A firm line of argument can be held in place by the use of subtitles and what Elizabeth Rankin calls ‘echo links’ (Rankin, 2001: 30), clusters of words embedded within the thesis rather than placed in subtitles that assure the reader the themes within the argument are woven consistently throughout. Barry White (2011: 132) gives examples of what he calls ‘preview, overview and recall.’ White scripts an example of preview and overview:

The following analysis is presented in two stages. In the first the current perspectives on…are evaluated. The second is a critical evaluation of….In this chapter the reason for….has been discussed. In the next section, this discussion will be elaborated by…

His example of recall is ‘back in the introduction.’ In our class, a nice example of recall was found when we looked at introductions and conclusions in articles chosen for their strength: the conclusion began, ‘To return to our research question….’ Linkages like this can be installed during the final revision process, when one sweep through the entire thing could be with the purpose to check for structure and to install linkages.

I guess the main point of this post is to emphasise that structure should relate to the argument and purpose of the thesis. The conventional headings of introduction, literature review, methods, findings, discussion and conclusion do this to some extent: they signal covertly that this written work describes an authentic bit of research that is contextualised within its discourse and follows acceptable methods in its epistemology. But that just focuses on the thesis as a thesis. The reader wants to know what its original contribution to knowledge is, that is, what argument it is putting forward. I recommend that thesis writers deliberately and decisively make use of structure to very clearly show the argument that their research allows them to make.


Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring Your Research Thesis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rankin, E. The Work of Writing: Insights and Strategies for Academics and Professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

White, B. (2011). Mapping Your Thesis: Techniques and Rhetorics for Masters and Doctoral Researchers. Camberwell: ACER.


A sense of humour towards doctoral writing?


By Susan Carter
‘We’re mimics, we’re parrots—we’re writers….You may start to feel [as a writer] that you are trying to pass off a TV dinner as home cooking’ (Lamott, 1995: 177).

I want to make the case that applying humour to doctoral writing is helpful, a great coping mechanism. Jorges Cham has grown famous because the world needs what he does.

I’ve been reading books about how to write, and thinking how their advice might apply to doctoral writing strategies. Paul Sylvia takes a hard-nosed pragmatist approach (Sylvia, 2010), detaching all emotion and treating writing like any other task. He’s cheerful about this, and irreverent about the need for inspiration from within, advising ‘put your “inner writer” back on its leash and muzzle it’ and focus on the ‘outer writer,’ productively outer facing (Sylvia, 2010: 3). It’s a good-humoured survivalist approach given the relentless accountability regimes that we currently work within.

Sylvia waves aside the idea of emotional blockage: ‘I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures–they’re charming and they don’t exist….Saying you can’t write because you have writer’s block is merely saying you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. The cure for writer’s block–if you can cure a specious affliction–is writing’ (Sylvia, 2010: 45-46). Those who find writing really tough to crank out will hate such an attitude, but those who find it difficult to wring writing from their doctoral students might identify with Sylvia. And it is useful to most of us to find different ways to ensure that writing gets done.

Sylvia’s (2010) practical workerly advice is to use an excel spreadsheet, set daily writing chores at the start of the week, with columns for the date, the task, whether it was achieved that day or not, and the word count if relevant. He includes data analysis and literature review as possible chores, but the day’s work needs to be measurable, and you need to log in whether you did it or not. That way, says Sylvia, there’s no need for emotion—you simply know you will get the writing done within the time-frame you want. If you are so inclined, you can produce bar charts of your monthly word count to cheer yourself up. I tried this for a while, but kept forgetting about the spreadsheet for days at a time. However, on a couple of days it pushed me to grouchily churn something out just so that I could tick off I had done it.

What I like, besides advice that would be very useful for some people, is the steady sense of humour throughout Sylvia’s book. I believe that maintaining a sense of humour helps any long, tedious discombobulation, which is often the experience of doctoral writing. Doctoral students who manage to see the funny ironies of their experience probably end up better equipped for completing and for what comes after graduation, I suspect.

Another writer-on-writing raises the necessity of humour for survival. Anne Lamott takes an almost opposite position to Sylvia, rampaging through writing-based emotions that she drammatically feels demand suicide or murder of critical reviewers (Lamott, 1995). Yet her exaggeration is premised on humour: by overstating, she spoofs and thereby mitigates the negative emotions of writing and feedback.

She’s wise to self-doubt: many doctoral students trying to capture academic tone and discipline epistemology in their writing will warm to the thought that ‘We’re mimics, we’re parrots—we’re writers….You may start to feel that you are trying to pass off a TV dinner as home cooking’ (Lamott, 1995: 177). It’s nice to hear an experienced author with multiple editions talk like this about self-doubt.

She describes drafting and revising realistically: ‘Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly’ (Lamott, 1995: 114).

And Lamott also spells out that when a close family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she became ‘desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.’ It was at this point that I saw that these two writers, seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum on the role of writers and emotion, both demonstrated a lively respect for the power of humour.

Maybe a sense of humour should be added to the transferable skills that graduates should have.

How would we teach that?

I’m wondering whether other academics talk to doctoral writers about humour, or make use of humour, to mitigate the writing-feedback-revision iterations that can seem relentless for students and supervisors? I’d love to hear what you think and what you do in this regard.

Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life. New York: Anchor.
Sylvia, P. (2010). How to Write a Lot: A practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (6 ed.). Washington: APA Life Tools.

International Conference on Doctoral Development and Training (ICDDET) Report, Oxford, 30-31 March


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By Cally Guerin

The second International Conference on Doctoral Development and Training (ICDDET) has just been held in Oxford, UK. Susan Carter and I were lucky enough to be part of this event. The UK Council for Graduate Education plans to prepare an ‘Oxford Statement’ on the topics explored during the conference, in the hope of continuing public discussion of the issues raised over the two days—keep an eye out for it. In the meantime, here are a few comments from my own perspective. As a follow on from the Stellenbosch conference, it was interesting to see how many of the same concerns are being discussed in this forum (doctoral education is always and necessarily an international forum), but there were also some different emphases.

The keynote speakers at ICDDET spoke about the current state of doctoral education in the US (Debra Stewart), Germany (Stefan Hornbostel) and Australia (Joe Luca). The story seems to be much the same everywhere—we need to help students complete their PhDs in a more timely manner, and we also need to think about what they are going to do on completing those degrees.

One topic that came up several times related to funding for PhDs through industry collaborations. While there were some positive experiences to report, there were also cautions about going down this path (David James, Cardiff University, UK). Sometimes the industry partner wants far more control over the project than sits easily with conventions of academic freedom; sometimes those putting up the cash have unrealistic ideas about how much time and effort they are buying for their money. But at the same time, when so many PhD graduates are entering the job market and we know that less than 20% of them are likely to end up working in full-time academic positions, this direct engagement with organizations outside academia can provide valuable pathways into satisfying careers post-PhD.

As at Stellenbosch, there was lots of talk about supervisor development and training, with nice alignment between the approaches discussed in both forums (Anne Lee, UK). Many are looking towards more structure within doctoral programs, with ways of recording the skills acquired along the way including open badge systems (Inger Mewburn and colleagues, Australian National University). Others are noticing the advantages of being part of a lively research community, pointing to the benefits of cohort or group supervision (Gill Clarke and Ingrid Lunt, UK), as well as the gains afforded by peer support groups (Vijay Mallan, University of Otago, New Zealand). Such support is directed towards writing, and also to other aspects of candidature. Amanda French and Alex Kendall (Birmingham City University, UK) pushed the discussion towards the relationship between writing and identity. This presentation got the prize in the UKCGE blog as one participant’s favourite session. Susan Carter ran a roundtable on the topic of generic writing support and how this fits into other institutional structures—a lively discussion that reminds us once again of the complex issues surrounding doctoral writing.

One strand of the UK conference focused on doctoral candidates in the digital age. Using digital/social media to disseminate research provides opportunities to learn about writing different genres, but may not always receive institutional blessing, and can create difficulties for novice researchers (Erika Hawkes, University of Birmingham, UK). Heather Doran and Kenneth Skeldon talked about the social media training they offer at the University of Aberdeen, UK. My contribution to this strand was framed in terms of the thesis by publication; in particular, I’m interested in the relationship between publication on social media and more formal avenues for research publication.

Of course, this version of the conference is only my own take on the papers and conversations I was able to attend. Others will have quite different ideas about the focus of the discussions, depending on which papers they went along to. If you were part of ICDDET, it would be great to hear about what you found useful or interesting. If you’ve been involved in different conversations in other forums recently, we’d love to hear about the current issues being discussed there too. They may be directly related to doctoral writing, or more generally exploring approaches to doctoral education.

Postgraduate Supervision conference, Stellenbosch, March 24-27, 2015



By Susan Carter

It’s undeniably a huge amount of work producing doctoral writing. But attending the Postgraduate Supervision Conference in South Africa also reminded me very strongly of the great privilege it is for those of us who are able to take up this challenge. In addition, it was a rare chance for the three of us DoctoralWriting SIG editors to get together and to meet up with international friends and colleagues.
Cally, Susan, and Claire, Stellenbosch 2015

Cally, Susan and Claire at the Spier Hotel conference venue

This post draws on notes from the conference held in Stellenbosch, on 24-27 March, 2015. Although we attended numerous informative sessions, here we’ll just reflect on a few salient points raised here and there. In one session, intriguingly, David Plowright called for a moratorium on ‘the Q words’: qualitative and quantitative. He suggests that we use ‘narrative and numerical’ instead, but more importantly, draw back from being locked into a rigid methodological grid. It is a nice critique, and I so agree that slavish adherence to methodologies can be rather narrow, but perhaps for most doctoral students, sticking within well-recognised frameworks gives security when the gate-keeping examination process lies ahead.

Student well-being was raised by Lorna Moxham, who noted that undertaking a research degree should be pleasurable, and yet often is not. Her data reported on student perceptions regarding revision of writing drafts—sometimes the work sounded lonely and difficult. Martie Mearns speculated that the internet turned us into ‘produsers’: people who both use and produce the resources, and this led to the fact that research itself and thesis writing does just this too, as it draws the literature in as useful support and produces something new into that support structure.

Relevant to the South African background struggle for transformation and equity, Jeanette Maritz and Paul Prinsloo pointed out that research adds to social capital where ‘social capital is not gained through a one off event…it is an endless effort requiring time and effort.’ Arguably the doctorate process entails accumulating social capital and as such it takes a huge amount of patient ongoing effort, and yet we are the lucky ones who can engage in this effort.

Maritz and Prinsloo reminded us that gender, race, language capital and first generation status are disadvantaging: ‘We bring our past and our present as we enter the field.’ For many doctoral students, the knowledge that ‘we bring our past’ can be a source of strength and inspiration too—the doctorate feels like an endorsement of past selves. Many doctoral students find perseverance strengths from keeping in mind how proud the previous generations in their family will be.

Keynote Michael Samuels’ point that doctoral education is about making a profit, about wealth, an elitist notion that enables climbing up the social ladder, when it should be about social justice seems especially relevant too. Arguably, when first in the family students find success that’s a democratizing influence in itself. And it was clear to us as outsiders just how hard South African academics are working in the interests of social justice.

Keynote Johann Mouton investigated the tensions between desire for quality and desire for quantity in a context of efficiency requirements. These are tough issues for institutions to resolve. At a more grounded level, Claire Aitchison’s keynote speech anatomized the purposes, practices and pedagogies of doctoral writing in contemporary times. She noted the accountability agenda’s eying of doctoral writing as ‘output’, and the resulting pressures and inflections. The need for communities of practice round writing reiterated the theme that doctoral pedagogy was strongest when supervisors were not solely responsible for writing development.

There was interest in the increasing types of doctorate: with by or through publication; structured; integrated; and practice-based. That the doctorate is changing implies imperatives to link research to the needs of the world as well as to the future career of the candidate. Gina Wisker and Gill Robinson added the complexities of the doctorate with creative performance, considering the relationship between creative work and the written component.

Several themes recurred quite often, then. Concern about careers after graduation, and the need for transparency about this and for training for non-academic careers kept surfacing. Thesis with publication was seen as a sound career-addressing route to completion. The proliferation of practice-based doctorates provoked interest in the ways this influenced research and writing. We gathered the sense that the doctorate was changing in an era of credential inflation to better prepare candidates so that they might find rewarding work outside of academia . The urge to move beyond the dyadic supervision relationship to ensure support from peers, learning centres and other academics was another ubiquitous theme. These recurrent themes suggest a new realism around the doctorate and forums such as this conference offer mechanisms for debate and exploration of ways forward.

The examiner-perspective lens for doctoral editing



By Susan Carter
Doctoral students are often anxiously interested in what research shows about examiners. It is a useful practice for doctoral writers to measure their work against the questions examiners are known to ask before submission. It’s a writing task, revision not for grammar or punctuation or structure or referencing, but with the examination criteria in mind. And with those first readers in mind: the examiners. For those doctoral candidates whose examination proces includes an oral defence or viva, preparation for facing the examiners is a crucial part of completing the PhD.

Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem research doctoral examiners and examinations. When I placed their work in the writing section of my book on Developing Generic Doctoral Support, they worried I had made a mistake. However, I deliberately put them there because their research findings are so useful at the writing stage.

One of Trafford and Leshem’s earlier articles suggests that it is easy to guess the kind of questions you will get in the viva because the same clusters of issues underpin all examinations (2002, pp 7- 11). Then they provide a breakdown of predictable questions. To me this looks like a checklist against which doctoral writers can audit their work before submitting the thesis.

Trafford and Leshem cluster these predictable questions. Here I have clipped their work back to just what seems applicable to all doctoral research, regardless of epistemology or methodology—this is just a sample, and may inspire you to follow up their work.

Some predictable examiner questions from Trafford & Leshem 2002 that suggest defensive writing in the thesis before submission:

Cluster 1 Opening Questions
Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral study?

Cluster 2 Conceptualisation
What led you to select these models of…?
What are the theoretical components of your framework?
How did concepts assist you to visualize and explain what you intended to investigate?
How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?

Cluster 3 Research Design
How did you arrive at your research design?
What other forms of research did you consider?
How would you explain your research approach?
Why did you select this particular design for your research?
What is the link between your conceptual framework and your choice of methodology and how would you defend that methodology?
Can you explain where the data can be found and why your design is the most appropriate way of accessing that data?

Cluster 4 Research Methodology
How would you justify your choice of methodology?
Please explain your methodology to us.
Why did you present this in the form of a case study?
What choices of research approach did you consider as you planned your research?
Can you tell us about the “quasi-experimental” research that you used?

Cluster 5: Research Methods
How do your methods relate to your conceptual framework?
Why did you choose to use those methods of data collection?
What other methods did you consider and why were they rejected?

Cluster 7 Conceptual Conclusions
How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?
What are your conceptual conclusions?
Were you disappointed with your conclusions?
How do your conclusions relate to your conceptual framework?
How do you distinguish between your factual and conceptual conclusions?

Cluster 9 Contribution
What is your contribution to knowledge?
How important are your findings and to whom?
How do your main conclusions link to the work of [other famous scholars]?
The absence of evidence is not support for what you are saying and neither is it confirmation of the opposite view. So how do you explain your research outcomes?

Some of these questions are invitations to doctoral students to spell out things that they do actually know, but might not have articulated in the thesis. The list above could be a great help before the thesis goes over the counter to be sent to these questioning examiners. The list above, and several other lists from those who research examiners and examinations could be consulted.

If you have suggestions as an examiner, or know of other research on examiners’ questions that might help doctoral writers before submission, post a comment!

Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations Education and Teaching International 45(4), 367-374.
Johnson, S. (1997). Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher Education 22(3), 333-347.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2000). Examining the doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education 25(2), 167-179.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004). The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Trafford, V. and Leshem, C. (2002). Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 34(4), 43-61.

Getting published (in English)—it’s not just about language


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Pressure—or the requirement—to publish during doctoral candidature is becoming increasingly common in many global contexts, to the extent that many doctoral candidates are aiming to put their work in the public domain in one form or another before finishing their degrees (Paré, 2010). Most high-ranking scholarly journals are English language publications, which poses very real challenges for those candidates and their supervisors who may not have English as a ‘first’ language.

This week’s blog by Mary Jane Curry (co-author with Theresa Lillis of A scholar’s guide to getting published in English: Critical choices and practical strategies and Academic Writing in a global context: the politics and practices of publishing in English) explores some of these issues.

By Mary Jane Curry

Getting published in academic journals isn’t easy—for anyone—but scholars who use English as an additional language may have a harder time with finding publishing success than “native” English speakers do. Contrary to common belief, though, these difficulties may have less to do with multilingual scholars’ language abilities and more to do with their ability to find resources and connect with people who can facilitate publishing success.

Which resources support publishing success?

As an academic working in the U.S. and earlier in the U.K., I can count on having the crucial material resources that support academic writing: First, a well-stocked university library that will get the books and journal articles I need, whether by purchasing them or through interlibrary loan (at no cost to me). Second, a department that provides administrative and research assistance (including graduate student assistants and a transcriptionist) and considerably supports my conference travel and other research expenses, including through internal research grants. The existence of funding agencies in both the U.K. and the U.S. has held out at least the hope of getting research grants, although they are highly competitive (and in the U.S., less interested in research on the geopolitics of publishing). Last but not least, having time to do research and write about it is essential—but challenging for scholars who work in institutions with heavy administrative and teaching loads.

From research Theresa Lillis and I have done on the publishing experiences of scholars in other parts of the world (Lillis & Curry, 2010), we know that these material resources are not available everywhere. But these resources matter, because success in publishing depends foremost on knowing the ‘conversations’ of your discipline and how your work can speak to these crucial debates. Scholars find out about these conversations through reading journals and books, going to conferences to hear what people are talking about, and by collaborating with others. So developing strategies to access this range of resources can be crucial to getting your work published (Curry & Lillis, 2013).

Which people can support publishing success?

The image of the solitary writer working alone in the attic is well out of date when it comes to writing for academic publication. Our research shows that beside colleagues, different types of people may support scholars in getting published: supervisors/advisors, peers/colleagues, and people we call ‘literacy brokers’ (Lillis & Curry, 2006). Academic literacy brokers are scholars who might work in your department, institution, or local area, or in another city or country. They know your discipline and they can tell you about upcoming conferences, help you write or revise a paper, and identify suitable target journals for a paper you want to publish. Language brokers are people who can help with producing the text—whether or not they know about your specific discipline, they typically focus on language use in paragraph- and sentence-level writing. But as helpful as language brokers might seem, our research shows that academic literacy brokers are the best bet for supporting publishing—their knowledge of the discipline trumps language brokers’ specialist knowledge of academic English.

How can you get access to these people and resources?

International collaboration and co-authoring are increasing every year. Scholars make connections with collaborators—one type of academic literacy brokers—by joining or creating academic research networks (Curry & Lillis, 2010): connecting with people in your institution; going to local, regional, national and international conferences; contacting scholars in your discipline through their webpages/emails/Facebook page/Twitter account. Joining organizations and groups specifically for postgraduates, which may seem counterintuitive, can also be a way to meet others in your discipline, who may remain peers as your career develops. In some areas of the world, formal networks have also been set up to support research collaboration, but the jury is out on whether these networks are more productive than informal networks. But they are worth knowing about. Network participation has helped scholars in our research to learn about and receive funding for research and conference travel, to access journals they can’t get in their contexts, and to co-author with colleagues across borders.

So is it harder for multilingual scholars to get published in English?

Getting published is not easy and current global politics of publishing increasingly push multilingual scholars to write in English—whether or not they are interested in doing so. So far, I haven’t said much about English per se. Clearly, to write for publication in English, it’s helpful to have some proficiency in English. While many people think translation is the answer, it’s often not an option, not only because it’s expensive but also because finding a translator who has the kind of insider knowledge that an academic literacy broker has is challenging. In fact, what we know, from our research and other researchers’ work, is that publishing success depends on knowing the ‘rules of the game’, having access to a range of resources, working in collaboration rather alone, and not giving up when faced with rejection or confusing and conflicting reports from journal referees (Belcher, 2007). While scholars working outside of well-resourced locations are often disadvantaged, activating networks may be a way to connect to both the social and material resources needed for publishing success.

Mary Jane Curry is associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Curriculum at the Warner Graduate School of Education, University of Rochester, U.S., where she is also director of the Writing Support Services.


Belcher, D. (2007). Seeking acceptance in an English-only research world. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, 1-22.

Curry, M.J. & Lillis, T. (2010). Academic research networks: Accessing resources for English-medium publishing. English for Specific Purposes, 29(4), 281-295.

Curry, M.J. & Lillis, T. (2013). A scholar’s guide to getting published in English: Critical choices and practical strategies. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Lillis, T. & Curry, M.J. (2006). Professional academic writing by multilingual scholars: Interactions with literacy brokers in the production of English-medium texts. Written Communication, 23(1), 3-35.

Lillis, T. & Curry, M.J. (2010). Academic writing in a global context: The politics and practices of publishing in English. London: Routledge.

Pare, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler, and A. Lee, (Eds.) Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 30-46), Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Publishing while completing your PhD



Gina Wisker, (Head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton in the UK) has been a guest author for us before – here she writes on the challenges and delights of publishing during doctoral candidature. If you’d like to know more –check out her new book Getting Published: writing for academic publication

Like a seven-year-old whose front teeth have yet to grow back, your PhD in process is both delightful and lovable, awkward and unfinished. You’ll nurture it as it grows. Publishing the right bit of it while you are writing the whole might look like procrastination (why aren’t you getting on with this huge task?) but could really help you focus on defining your contribution to knowledge, and refining your discipline language. As you proceed through the later stages of your PhD and into the examination, there is nothing so psychologically supportive as knowing you have been accepted as a scholar in your discipline community by having your work peer reviewed and published:

‘doctoral candidates who publish on early phases of their work – it moves them ahead quite substantially. Their identity shifts to one of ‘now I am a researcher’. There is no doubt in my mind that publication is central to being an academic.’ (Wisker, 2013)

You have already arrived, you have selected part(s) of your work to share, honed it, structured it, situated it in the literature, defended the methodology and methods, developed a lucid argument backed up by the data, and established your contribution to knowledge. That is what good publications do, and it is also what good PhDs do. However, deciding when and what to publish is a different matter.

When publishing through the course of the PhD

You need to pick the right part of your work and neither publish too much, too soon, too raw, nor hang on to all of it without sharing. Your raw chapters will not make publications – no journal will welcome your raw data, nor your introduction. Some might find space for a well turned out literature review if they publish these, but most will want a standalone piece that perfectly presents a contribution to knowledge in the field, using discipline language, and the language, format and focus of the journal. A journal article is less literature and methodology top heavy than a thesis. I suggest processing several journal articles from the journals to which you would like to submit, to see their interest, the way that articles are written for this journal, and the formats. Author guidelines are usually available on the publisher’s website for each journal, as are examples of published pieces.

Publishing from your PhD while you are completing it is, it seems, dependent on discipline, supervisor advice, and where you are doing the PhD itself (Dinham, and Scott, 2001; Hartley, and Betts, 2009). There are different expectations and different rules. In Scandinavian countries, and in the sciences broadly, internationally, you might well be expected to publish from your PhD early on. The Scandinavian PhD often involves, three to five (sometimes nearly published) publications and a theorised ‘wrap’, situating the whole of the work in the literature and the methodology. In other disciplines and contexts (for example, UK literature PhDs), you may still be advised by your supervisor not to publish until you have passed. In some other instances (where a patent is involved, the whole team in a funded project intend to publish together at the end of the project, or the PhD itself is considered a publication), you must not publish until you have gained the PhD and a few years have passed.

A study in Hong Kong found that students resented the time spent on publishing, taken away from their research (Kwan, 2010, 2011) and some supervisors advise against publication as detracting from your focus. So it is wise to select a part which lets your best work be seen in a good light, not something which takes you down a side road. If your best work is truly world class, you might want to wait until you have the PhD before you share it. Be proud of what you do submit – your work will improve from the publishing process – but don’t send in half written, half-baked work and expect the editor to finish it off for you.

When you have the reviewers’ comments back, you will need to be quite thick skinned to separate the advice from what seems like criticism. Review your work, make a plan to revise, let the reviewers know what you have revised and where, and if you have chosen not to change something (because of a good reason) let them know why. This is often done best in a grid and in an accompanying short letter.

In summary:

If you do publish from your PhD while it is in process, make sure you:

Check university regulations about publishing from the PhD in process.

Choose the right, exciting, readable piece of your PhD to publish first.

Pick a part of it that can stand alone. Make a case, clearly grown from your shortened, targeted versions of literature review, methodology and methods, data and discussion and so on and let your new knowledge, your contribution grow from these.

Find the right journal which accepts early career researchers as well as leading figures. Don’t necessarily pitch to the top journal first. Only write for and send to one journal at a time.

Research journal article rules for your chosen journal: the length, format, size and amount of data, charts, quotations and so on.

Reshape your work for the journal readership.

Produce a clear abstract and key words (so it is picked up on search engines), and a conclusion emphasising factual and conceptual conclusions, how you have added to meaning, knowledge and understanding.

Be ready to deal with reviewer comments, learn from them and re write accordingly – this is peer review.


Feel very pleased and congratulate yourself, and share the success, once the article is published (online, and in hard copy – usually several months apart). You are in print!



Dinham and Scott (2001) ‘The experience of disseminating the results of doctoral research’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 25(1), 45–55.

Hartley and Betts (2001) ‘Publishing before the Thesis: 58 Postgraduate Views’, Higher Education Review, 41(3), 29–44

Becky S. C. Kwan (2011) Facilitating novice researchers in project publishing during the doctoral years and beyond: a Hong Kong-based study. Studies in Higher Education: 1–19, iFirst Article.

Gina Wisker, (2013b) ‘Articulate – Writing, Editing and Publishing Our Work in Learning, Teaching and Educational Development’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 50(4).

Gina Wisker (in press) Getting Published, London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Gina’s podcast on publishing from your PhD at:

Gina’s podcast on publishing journal articles at:

You can also listen to two podcasts by Gina via the following links:

Questions students ask


By Claire Aitchison

I started this blog when running a writing retreat for research students last year. Some writers were working on a paper for publication that needed to serve the dual purpose of being a stand-alone publication while also being a segment of their thesis as a series of publications. Others were writing research papers connected to their doctoral research that wouldn’t be submitted as part of the examinable thesis. And some were writing chapters or sections of the more traditional ‘big book’ thesis. Students came from all stages of candidature and from all disciplines. In this post I reflect on the questions students asked in individual consultations that day:

  • Should I just write it first – let it all out, and then structure later – or decide on the structure first, and then write into that? (This came up twice.)
  • Should I write the chapter first and then derive the article from that, or the other way round?
  • I’ve got this rough draft of a chapter and my supervisor says I have to make it into a publication – it is 14,000 words and needs to be 7,000. How do I do that?
  • One of my troubles is that I write bits of information and it is just blocks of stuff. My supervisor tells me I need to connect the bits together. How can I do that?
  • One of my supervisors is sick, and the other goes on sabbatical at the end of the year. I need to finish asap – how long will it take me to write the thesis?
  • My supervisor says I am verbose. It could be cultural – but it seems too abrupt, like I’m writing a manual when I do it your way.
  • How do I write a methodology section? I have read so many methods books that I feel overwhelmed. Now, apparently I am writing like one!
  • I feel like I’m going round and round. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.

It’s interesting to note that most of the queries were about writing processes – how to actually do the writing. This is such a beautiful challenge. Some people like to begin with an outline: they need the roadmap first to guide their writing. Others like to begin writing freely, drafting as they gradually and organically find the form (and the ideas) they require. It’s easy to see why these two very different approaches can sometimes lead to misunderstandings between supervisors and students.

A number of student queries were about cohesion and linking. These prompted us to discuss the organisation of ideas – sequencing and logical development of an argument, along with the use of metadiscourse for linking segments and for helping writers articulate the rhetorical raison d’être of their structure.

Other questions related to writing style. The student concerned about writing the methodology section was experiencing ‘model assimilation’. Methodology books are mostly written in a textbook style for a student audience and provide a theoretically detailed account of methodological approaches and methods. In my experience it is not uncommon for doctoral writers to initially mimic this style. Helping students identify voice and writerly stance can assist them to learn how to replace the voice of the informant with their own authorial voice as their writing project develops.

When the big book thesis also contains a series of related, integrated publications, writers will need greater dexterity (and nerve!) to accommodate the unpredictability and uncertainty of these emerging forms. There are fewer models for students and supervisors to draw on, and they may have less control over the form and timing especially as plans can be disrupted by the reviewing and publication process. In addition, students sometimes struggle to distinguish between the requirements of a chapter and a journal article where the same story has to be told differently.

Apart from form and process, these questions made me think about where students can find answers.

Of course, students can speak to their supervisors … or can they? Some questions cannot be asked of supervisors; at times students may feel uncomfortable asking their busy supervisors, or maybe they just want a second opinion. In the main, doctoral students have few opportunities for low stakes conversations about their writing. Family and friends hardly seem best placed (and too many questions may stretch the friendship!).

Other doctoral students, especially more senior peers, may have some good advice – but not all students have access to such colleagues.

Increasingly, institutions are providing opportunities for students to access writing help (e.g. via 1:1 consultations, workshops, guest lecturers or credit bearing courses). Nevertheless, ongoing support for doctoral writing is still, all too often, secondary to the task of getting the research done. Not all institutions are equally well resourced, nor perhaps do they recognise the value of supporting writing. Similarly, not all students are comfortable seeking feedback on their writing. In fact, some students say that they have only ever shown work to their supervisors – despite the fact that doctoral scholars who regularly show, share and talk about their writing are less likely to experience writer’s block or the debilitating shock that can accompany some reviewer feedback.

The student queries above also speak to the very nature of writing and authorship. They remind us yet again of the deep complexities of doctoral writing – of the temporal and relational nature of writing, of the emotional and subjective aspects of writing, not to mention the skills and knowledge requirements for discipline-specific research writing. Open, genuine forums for discussions about writing help bring these complexities to the fore and help reduce the stigma some people feel about sharing their writing.

In many ways, any writer embarking on a new writing task faces these questions, particularly when they are not part of a dynamic community of writers. Questions about writing are perfectly legitimate; our institutions need to encourage and resource vibrant and ongoing discussions about writing so that such conversations are deeply embedded in the practices of scholarly research.

Do you want to tell us about the places and spaces where writing discussions happen in your life?


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