The 4-sentence research proposal

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By Amanda Wolf
Amanda Wolf is Deputy Head of the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Like many of us, I was taught that research starts with a research question. The more generous texts and supervisors may quietly soften that imperative with a whispered confidence that it is permissible to amend the research question—many times if need be—before speaking the final gem aloud. But, not ‘having a research question’ too often can debilitate students, who conclude that they are not yet started on their research.

Over the years, I have instructed students in a simple technique to bypass the no-question-yet paralysis, and thereby allow the question to pop out. The heart of the technique is to name both curiosity and purpose succinctly, in four steps. Continue reading

Doctoral supervision in Australia: The ACOLA review

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Merilyn Childs offers a detailed and insightful critique of the recent review of Australia’s Research Training Scheme provided by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), pointing to what’s missing from the review regarding supervision. Although this is about Australia, we know many of the issues she raises will be relevant to readers in many different parts of the globe. We reblog her piece for our readers. Continue reading

Disaster and change of plan for doctoral writing

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By Susan Carter

Horror stories sometimes circulate about disasters that struck doctoral research. Pat Cryer (2003: 213-215) lists examples of doctoral projects that hit walls and how they were salvaged through modification to timely completion.

Sometimes this really does occur. It can be that once the thesis is almost drafted, a new publication comes out seeming to cover the same ground. Publications may also produce new evidence that debunks a doctoral approach to the topic. Continue reading

QPR is the world’s biggest & longest-standing conference on doctoral education: here’s how we enjoyed it in 2016

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By Claire Aitchison, Susan Carter and Cally Guerin

As regular followers know, our blog and the Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) Conference are closely connected (see our About page for the story). Not only did the blog originate from the conference; in addition, for us QPR is a key moment for collegial renewal and scholarly reinvigoration—and for discussing doctoral writing, as we report here.

QPR is for researchers, supervisors, doctoral educators, students, policymakers and leaders in research education from around the globe. The 2016 conference theme was ‘Society, Economy & Communities: 21st century innovations in doctoral education’.

Two and a half days of papers, posters, Pecha Kucha presentations and symposia canvassed an extraordinary field of issues pertinent to these themes, including, for example, researcher development, employability and research skills, supervision and student experience, research degree policies, management, outcomes and assessment, doctoral writing, internationalisation, research dissemination and so on. And, of course, there was plenty of socialising and wining and diningContinue reading

Doctoral Writing SIG meeting 2016

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by Cally Guerin, Claire Aitchison and Susan Carter

The QPR Special Interest Group (SIG) for Doctoral Writing met on the last day of the Quality in Postgraduate Research conference in Adelaide, South Australia last week. The Doctoral Writing SIG is a loose arrangement of people who come together at the biennial QPR Conference. This, our second gathering, was attended by about 40 people with a common interest in doctoral writing. This year, in addition to ‘SIG business’ and a quick report on the DoctoralWriting blog, the SIG Organising Committee arranged for sharing of practice via a lively pecha kucha segment. Continue reading

International Doctoral Education Research Network (IDERN) Meeting, 18-19 April, 2016

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By Susan Carter, Cally Guerin and Claire Aitchison

 

IDERN held its triennial meeting in Adelaide last week, and we were fortunate enough to be present. IDERN comprises a loose network of people with a shared interest in doctoral education research. Unlike conventional conferences where attendees present their current research, the focus is on conversation, discussion and debate. Attention is especially centred on how research into doctoral education is conducted, and identification of the questions we need to raise in relation to doctoral education.

The first morning of the IDERN meeting investigated innovative and alternative methodologies, with thought ranging around more creative methods for attendee’s own research on doctoral pedagogies and on the supervision of doctoral students who may want to take innovative approaches. Continue reading

Doctoral writing and decision-making in the first few months

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By Susan Carter

I’m working with a promising new doctoral student and conversations are mainly around scoping her project. I’ll call her Angel, although she has kept her Chinese name. Our talk circles round the decisions that need to be made in the first year, and preferably in the first few months. It’s a process of thinking, choosing and writing. First, decisions are approached at several different levels.

We begin with identifying the problem that is driving the research. I want her to write that clearly. This leads to how her doctoral project might produce better understanding the problem with a goal to mitigating it. One set of considerations hovering through our talk regards methods and methodology. Continue reading

Demonstrating critical analysis: A paint-by-numbers approach

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By Susan Carter

In my experience of working across-campus with doctoral students, those who flounder at examination generally have the same failing. It’s broadly a lack of awareness of the generic expectations of a thesis. This lack of awarness shows in 1) inadequate linkage between problem or research question, literature, methods and findings; and 2) evident ignorance of the framework expected of a thesis.

This post takes a paint-by-numbers approach that may help students who struggle with the abstract language of genre, linkage, and framework, let alone epistemology.

Question, literature, methods and findings must be linked not just in the mind of the author but in clear explicit sentences so that a reader can quickly see connections. An audit before submission could include a check of the following:

  • The description of the background fits what the study actually found—rewrite if things have shifted and the background now required is slightly different;
  • The research question captures the essence of what the study actually finds—if it doesn’t, it should be rewritten so that it does;
  • The methods section relates to the research question—sentences are needed to explain how;
  • Method choices are supported by literature on methods;
  • Any method discussed and not used has a sentence explaining why it is discussed at all—if there is no reason, it should be removed;
  • Theories discussed in the literature review are applied in the discussion;
  • Findings are compared with findings from literature—explain the difference and the possible reasons in sentences; and,
  • The overall balance of literature, methodology, findings and discussion is appropriate (e.g., about the right % of the thesis is devoted to literature review, methodology etc. for the discipline).

A striking moment for me was when, in a panel I was chairing at a doctoral forum, an Engineering professor baldly stated that the literature review of a doctoral thesis should have around 200 references. He was answering a question for a man who said he had about 1,000 items in his Endnote library and was worried about writing the literature review. I was taken aback—in Arts Humanities topics, we don’t think quantitatively. Suggesting even a ball-park figure seemed somehow quite unscholarly to me.

But when I saw a thesis with, I estimate, 800 items, I could see that a quantitative approach is a good simple way for students to check that their writing does ‘demonstrate evidence of critical analysis.’ When there are just too many, most of them are frustratingly irrelevant to the project of the thesis. Although the is a need to demonstrate knowledge of the field, there ought not be too much detail about discourse at the very edge of that field.

Too many references will mean that much of it is not directly relevant to the research. This shows a lack of analysis as to what should be in or out, and signals the thesis writer hasn’t understood what they were meant to do. In some disciplines, the figure for references may be higher. Students could take a short route by checking Reference page numbers of five or six theses to find a guideline for what is normal for the thesis genre in their discipline.

It’s important to install a logically developed argument through the thesis, and again I’ve developed a very basic method to help with this. Each chapter needs to explain on the outset how it develops the argument, and to end by projecting a link forward to the next chapter. Additionally, a link to the object of all the busy details in the chapter is required every couple of pages to assure the reader that it is there for a purpose – not simply because the author found it interesting. Readers will savour obscure details when they are know that they are not being led off into a wilderness but are on track of the developing thesis.

Behind this apparently simplistic approach sit the issues of epistemology and discipline expectations, and the network of theories about how new knowledge is constructed and accepted by academic communities. But not all students find talk of epistemology the fastest route to seeing what they need to do in writing. Some who do good research and make valuable contributions would not find that explanations of high theory expressed in Latinate terms helped them with writing their thesis.

In the current environment of shorter times to completion, it is sensible to use straight forward routes to successful thesis writing. That does not include the supervisor writing for the student, but can include pragmatic suggestions that might save students from another longish block of revisions after examination. And I suspect that even a paint-by-numbers approach may provide a learning route to appreciating that you always write in a socially restrained situation and for a critical audience, so that meeting their expectations matters, almost as much as whether experiments work or not.

Controlling the emotion of doctoral writing and supervision

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By Susan Carter

Several triggers prompt this post. One is my own data from a set of questionnaires seeking supervisor experience [n226]: frustration, anger, despair and resentment came through significantly. So did supervisors’ perception of how hard it is to give constructive feedback when doctoral students respond with alarmingly negative emotion. The causes of student emotion were also anatomised. This confirms findings with data from 36 doctoral students and 29 supervisors (Aitchison, Catterall, Ross, & Burgin, 2012).

The second was a conversation with a doctoral student colleague. Usually our talk is cheerful and agreeable. But when it came to her doctorate (she’s at the end of her third year) and her inability to write, we stopped the conversation, both cautious about a sense of rising emotion and difference of perspective.

She described how it is simply not her style to crank out writing—she wants to be innovative and do something special, but that causes indecision and she is not progressing. I was firm that she had to find a way to just get on and do it. She looked hot and bothered. I was too—why couldn’t my intelligent colleague see she needed to apply the lovely grounded logic she usually showed in her work? She sounded increasingly ditzy; I sounded increasingly authoritarian. Neither of us wanted to be like that, so we changed the subject.

The third prompt was a different conversation about teaching, and the way that to some extent a teacher’s expertise limits their teaching skill if they don’t take heed of their students’ perspective. Often we teachers need to consciously remember to define terms or acronyms that are household words in our own minds, or explain connections. Threshold concept theory pins down the fact that each discipline has some hard concepts that are obstacles to learner progression—teachers do well to carefully explain these once they recognise what the learner problem is likely to be. I think this principle applies to doctoral emotion, where supervisors have difficulty remembering the emotions of being a doctoral writer.

As an academic now of some years standing, I don’t get emotional about writing. I know I need to do it; it’s part of my job. I like doing it more than much of the work I do each week, but even when writing is not a pleasure, it is still a job that I am responsible for completing. And I expect to be hammered by reviewers, including kindly peers. I see writing feedback as a gift (Guerin, 2014) even though, like others, I mutter abuse when reviewers seem to want to colonise my articles with their own voice or their own approach.

The gift of rigorous feedback takes some getting used to. Gifts like chocolates cause pleasure, but are not that good for you, nor, as a gift, do they show real engagement with who you uniquely are. When the gift of feedback includes a real pounding, it is like deep tissue massage and acupuncture: it hurts, but usually it helps and feels so much better later. So I am aware of harbouring unkind thoughts when doctoral students appear to be drama queens about how impossible it is to write. Although I am outwardly patient, I know inside that all I want to do is find a means of getting them writing again. I want them to learn to handle emotion, control it and move to where they see it as just part of the weird career choice they have made: to become proficient in academic literacy.

Supervisors are usually more aware than their doctoral students of the need to take a practical, workerly stance to writing. We forget that the construction of identity through voice can be deeply troublesome. As a friendly colleague, I was able to simply back out of an emotionally charged conversation—as a supervisor, I cannot. As a supervisor, I express empathy so as not to seem monstrous, but I’m always looking for the opening to move the student back into productivity as soon as possible, with ‘why don’t you try….’ Probably there is always an emotional disconnect between how the student and the supervisor feel whenever student writing stalls.

Do other academics have a way of working with student emotion itself? If supervisors talk overtly about the emotional stress of self-creation through writing, would that help to move the student through that stress, or provide justification for continued non-productivity? Should doctoral students think about supervisor emotions, or does that just heighten the power inequity? Any suggestions? Comments or other posts on this topic would be welcome.

Works Cited

Aitchison, Claire, Catterall, J, Ross, P. I., & Burgin, S. (2012). ‘Tough love and tears’: learning doctoral writing in the sciences. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(4).

Guerin, Cally. (2014). The gift of writing groups: Critique, community and confidence. In C. Aitchison & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing Groups for Doctoral Students and Beyond (pp. 128-141). Oxon and New York: Routledge.

 

 

Knowing when to use “I” in research writing: Cold-calling knowledge claims

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By Claire Aitchison

The use of the first person pronoun in academic writing has had a chequered history. When I first taught undergraduates about academic writing over 20 years ago we claimed that academic writing was “formal and objective” and therefore the use of “I” was frowned upon. Truly scientific research, and research writing, was thought to be “objective”, which was perceived as unbiased, unemotional and independently factual. The idea had its origins in 19th Century endeavours for seeking “natural truths” untainted by humans. It was based on a perception of the external world as an object for study quite separate and removed from the researcher. This view has been widely criticised: such “objectivity” is an impossibility, or as Donna Haraway (1998) put it, an illusion, “a god trick”. Continue reading

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