Re-Imagining Doctoral Writing: An Agenda for Research

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Our guest post this week is by an international group of scholars working at three different institutions: Cecile Badenhorst is an Associate Professor in the Adult Education/Post-Secondary program in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada; Brittany Amell is a PhD student at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada; and on the other side of the world, James Burford is a Lecturer in the Research Education and Development unit in the Graduate Research School, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. Here they tell us about their new project on “Re-Imagining Doctoral Writing” and invite readers to contribute to their forthcoming book on the topic. All three have published extensively on the topic of doctoral writing.

By Cecile Badenhorst, Brittany Amell & James Burford

Over recent years, doctoral writing has become an increasingly important practice to institutions, policymakers, and doctoral education programs worldwide. Frequently positioned as a site of  “risk” and “trouble”, doctoral writing is commonly seen as a key location for institutional regulation and surveillance, supervisory anxiety, and student concern. It is now clear that to describe doctoral writing as a domain that is “under-considered” or “under-discussed” would be to miss the shelves of books in most university libraries about how doctoral students might write, and how supervisors (and others involved in doctoral teaching) might teach writing.

To make such a statement would also be to miss the rich collection of public fora where the discussion of doctoral writing identities, practices, policies and pedagogies takes place (e.g. DoctoralWriting, Thesis Whisperer and Patter), and the rise of initiatives like #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) which bring academic writers together.

Despite this wide array of exciting developments in the field of doctoral writing, as scholars who research in this area we continue to have some fundamental concerns that we are pondering and puzzling over. Continue reading

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Some misconceptions about Literature Reviews

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By Cally Guerin

We’ve written about literature reviews before: see, for example, Trust yourself, Demonstrating criticality, and Writing while still uncertain. But there is always something more to say about these sections of the thesis that are so challenging for most doctoral writers. I was reminded again recently of just how big a source of anxiety this can be for novice researchers who feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they feel required to absorb. In the following, I debunk some of the main misconceptions that seem to hobble doctoral writers; in the process, I hope to offer reassurance that the task is more manageable than it can feel at times. Continue reading

Designing a new doctoral research project and factoring in writing

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By Susan Carter

This afternoon I am meeting a new doctoral candidate I’ll be supervising, and I’ve already sent her a set of questions in advance of meeting. Before we begin working as a team with the other supervisor to design the doctoral project and start writing seriously, I want the candidate to do some thinking. Mostly, it’s she who must ensure that we do not get side-tracked by talk of methods, methodology, and theory from focussing on what is central: the candidate as someone already with a life that we want this doctorate to improve.

I’ve drawn these questions up, and filed them away knowing that this will be another useful document for sharing with other academics and using again myself. Continue reading

Acknowledgements in a doctoral thesis: Humanising the examination process?

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By Dr Vijay Kumar

University of Otago, New Zealand.

Dr Vijay Kumar is a leading figure in the research field of doctoral education, experience and pedagogy. He applies linguistics methodologies to considering doctoral writing and the relationship between candidate-author and supervisor-reviewer as to how feedback on writing works best. He offers his reflection on the acknowledgements, and the results of his research on whether or not acknowledgments influence examiners–do click on the link to his interesting article.

I am beginning to get the notion that acknowledgments humanise the examination process.

One of the first sections I read when I get a thesis to examine is the acknowledgments.  I want to know the person who wrote the thesis and the journey the candidate had to go through to submit this work for examination. At times, I am affected when the candidate writes about their struggles – leaving family behind to pursue their dreams, death of loved ones, hardship while doing the PhD and also the time it took for them to submit as this may reflect financial hardship. I become extremely sympathetic reading about parents who have to balance the PhD and care for children during the journey – these struggles speak to the human side of an examiner and I expect other examiners to be the same. Continue reading

Deciding on a dissertation format: Considering the implications of a PhD by publication

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By Liezel Frick (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

Professor Liezel Frick is a colleague in the Special Interest Group that focuses on doctoral writing. She has long considered the dimensionality of the candidate and their text and adds South African experience to our generally Australasian perspectives.

Unlike the traditional monograph style of thesis (a collection of sequential chapters, each reporting on a specific aspect of the project in a linear fashion), a publication-based format has greater variation in form. For example, it may consist of an introductory and conclusive chapter that explain the logic of the dissertation, and a number of publishable and/or published works that may include articles, book chapters and/or published conference proceedings (see Mason and Merga, 2018 for a multitude of options this format might take on), or a hybrid of the above-mentioned formats (see Odendaal and Frick, 2016 for a conceptual frame on this hybridity).

Often students do not have (or feel they have) control over deciding on the format of their doctoral dissertation – institutional policies, disciplinary practices, and supervisor preferences may govern their decisions. The publication-based doctorate is gaining more impetus internationally and across disciplines, yet both students and supervisors are increasingly being confronted by this choice without having the necessary pedagogical knowledge or tools to make an informed decision.

In addition, the forces that drive the push to publish have not always originated from the noble intention of developing PhD students into responsible scholars. Adherence to quality assurance mechanisms and addressing slow and low completion rates at the PhD level underlie many managerialist policies and practices. However, what is often not explicit in these debates is whose interests are primarily served by publishing during the PhD – institutional stature and ranking, the supervisors’ academic credentials, or the scholarly development of the student? Continue reading

Why is it so hard to write the methodology section of a PhD thesis?

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By Claire Aitchison

I have worked with many students, particularly humanities and social science scholars, who have found writing the methodology chapter a hugely agonising experience.

I recall my own experience as a mature-aged student, acutely aware of my ignorance and uncertainty: I read and wrote blind for weeks and weeks before showing anything to my supervisor.

Like me, for many, the task of coming to understand methodology begins with reading. In the main, research methodology textbooks are big and dense, and it isn’t uncommon for students to disappear, like Alice, into Research Methodology Wonderland only to reappear months later, dazed and confused.

Writing the methodology chapter is hard because research methodology is complex; because the territory is littered with terminology that is frequently used differently even within the same disciplines; and because there are significantly different expectations for what this section of a thesis should look like. And also, almost inevitably, coming to understand methodology and its application to a particular study is a transformational step, a threshold concept that is arrived at after considerable intellectual challenge. Continue reading