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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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The sections below are arranged in roughly the sequence in which a seasoned professional might look at them. This is not the same as the sequence in which they would appear in a paper, which is different again from the order in which you would write them.

References Seasoned professionals often turn straight to the references before even looking at the main text. References tell us a lot. Usually failure to do the right thing in the references is reflected in shoddy work in the main text.

Things the professionals will be looking at include the following.


• Are your references laid out correctly down to the last comma?

• Have you cited all the seminal and core references?

• Have you cited a good spread of sources, ranging from the seminal texts to something within the last year?

• Are your references all from respectable journals rather than textbooks or the internet? (At this stage you should be using journal papers as the norm, with textbooks and the internet being the exception.) Desirable extras

• Have you cited work which is little known except to people doing advanced work in the area?

• Have you cited anything which is in press? (This implies you are sufficiently part of the research community to be given pre-prints by researchers.)

• If you have cited something in press, is the author a major figure in the field?

• Have you cited a discreet number of your own papers, in respectable journals, preferably co-authored with an authority in the field?

READING 65 Appendices (for theses, not papers) Seasoned professionals also tend to turn to the appendices before reading the main text. The appendix contains copies of things such as the briefing sheet which you gave to research subjects. If these are badly designed or presented, then the data which you have collected are likely to be garbage.

Good signs

• Complete ‘cradle to grave’ examples of each stage of the process from data collection to final tables

• Materials that were seen by respondents which look neat and professional Bad signs

• All the raw data are in the appendix, making the appendix longer than everything else

• Scruffy, tatty, poorly presented materials seen by respondents Title pages and acknowledgements A seasoned professional reading a student’s thesis will look at these to check for spelling mistakes and the like. A seasoned professional is quite likely to find some. A favourite mistake is to misspell the supervisor’s name and/or to get their title wrong. By PhD level you will probably have learned the nuances, but at MSc level a significant proportion of students, particularly those from industry, will not bother to check, or will not understand the rules. If in doubt, check the staff list, or ask. Getting titles wrong is a good way of irritating people, in industry as well as in academia, and is a sign that you still have a lot to learn.

Acknowledgements are usually a source of harmless amusement before grappling with the


and the main text. Sometimes they are useful – for instance, an acknowledgement to a leading authority in the area for help given is a sign that this student has probably been doing some interesting work.

The choice of title for the thesis is itself interesting – is it pompous, vague, full of empty buzzwords, impenetrably technical, boring or forgettable? A good title is informative, short and memorable (so that it will stick in the mind of the reader and increase your prospects of fortune and glory). One device which often works well is the two-part title, with the first part being memorable and eye-catching, and the second part, after the colon, explaining what the first part is about. Our own titles include a range such as: ‘laddering’ and ‘knowing the unknowable: the causes and nature of changing requirements’. The first is a brutally short minimalist title for a brutally short minimalist paper; the second is a deliberately eye-catching title, which did attract quite a bit of attention.


Bear in mind that people searching for relevant documents about a topic will often search on titles, so a whimsical title with no relevant keywords in it will probably be doomed to oblivion (unless it’s so good that word of mouth makes people aware of the title), whereas a title like ‘laddering’, though brutal, is a fair guarantee that a search for ‘laddering’ will come up with a hit. If you use a two-part title, the second part is usually the one which contains the keywords (but doesn’t have to be).

One plausible story is that some seasoned researchers include in the acknowledgements anyone that they don’t want to have as a referee for a paper being submitted to a refereed venue. The rationale for this is that the editor will not use as a referee anyone mentioned in the acknowledgements, because of potential conflict of interest problems. So, if you have fallen out with someone in your field who might relish the prospect of refereeing one of your papers, you use a form of words such as ‘we would like to thank X for various discussions about this topic’ and reduce the risk of unwanted trouble.

Abstracts Writing abstracts is an art form in its own right and needs practice. You need to say (preferably on one side of A4 for a thesis or in one paragraph for a paper) what you did, why you did it, what you found and why it is significant work in terms of both theory and practice. If you can’t guarantee from the outset that you can achieve all of this, then you need to replan your research design, but that’s another story.

The best advice is to practise a lot and to get feedback from experts. The next best advice is to look at the abstracts of papers that are generally viewed as significant in your area.

Good signs

• Appropriate use of specialist language

• Clear

• Significant findings and implications

• Immaculate spelling and punctuation (this is the first page of text, after all, and the one which makes the first impression, so you should make a lot of effort to get this one right)

–  –  –

The contents page (for theses, not papers) There should be a contents page.

Good signs

• Layout and structure of the thesis follow standard conventions for the domain (if there are standard conventions)

• Neat

• Clear

• Informative

• Appropriate number of tables for the domain

• Appropriate number of figures for the domain Bad signs

• Non-standard layout and structure for no obvious reason

• Tatty and scruffy

• Inappropriate number of tables and figures for the domain

• Page numbers do not correspond with those in the text Domains differ. Some like tables and figures, some don’t. If you’re using figures from other people’s work, watch out for copyright.

Every table should be there for a reason; there should be as many as necessary, but no more. Beware of presenting the same information more than once in different formats – for instance, once as a histogram and once as a pie chart.

This looks like gratuitous padding and makes the reader wonder what you’re trying to divert attention from. There are some situations where it is necessary to use different formats, but these are rare and should be preceded by a clear explanation of your reasons.

Favourite methods of padding a weak piece of work include:

• Humour (second golden rule: don’t try to be funny)

• Clip art

• Excessive reworking of the same material into different tables

• Gratuitous use of colour in tables and figures

• Excessive quantities of appendices If any of these are visible in your contents pages (or anywhere else) you are looking for trouble.

The first page This normally forms part of the introduction (though some writers have eccentric styles and domains differ). It is an important page, because it is here


that most referees and other assessors will form their first impression of whether your work is excellent, acceptable, borderline or dreadful. Once they’ve formed that impression, it’s pretty hard to change it. Here are two examples of text from first pages of published papers.

Example 1 Laddering is a technique initially developed by Hinkle (1965). Like repertory grids (e.g. Shaw, 1981), laddering originated in clinical psychology and personality theory, specifically in Kelly’s (1955) Personal Construct Theory (PCT). However, similar techniques appear to have arisen independently in cognitive psychology (e.g. Graesser, 1978;

Graesser, Robertson, Lovelace & Swinehart, 1980), and in occupational psychology, in the form of hierarchical task analysis (e.g. Annett & Duncan, 1967; Hodgkinson & Crawshaw, 1985). It should, though, be noted that although the output from the latter is similar to that from laddering, the elicitation method used to generate it appears generally to consist of unstructured interviews (see Hodgkinson, op. cit).

Example 2 The basic idea behind the sorting techniques is simply to ask respondents to sort things into groups. The things may be objects, such as different types of mouse, or pictures, such as screen dumps of various screen layouts, or may be cards, with the names of objects or situations on the cards, such as the names of different editors. The groups may be ones chosen by the questioner, or ones chosen by the respondent, or a mixture of both. The sorting techniques are a useful way of eliciting respondents’ groups, and of finding out how much agreement and disagreement there is between respondents about the categories.

The first example is tersely written and includes the seminal texts, as well as references to relevant approaches in two other literatures. This shows that the authors have done their homework and more. There is also a note about differences between approaches, which shows that the authors have read the other texts in detail and understood them. The language is formal and the authors use specialist academic forms of abbreviation such as ‘op. cit.’ This was clearly not a paper written by someone making it up from general knowledge supplemented with secondary sources from the internet.

The second example is written in a much less formal style, with no references, and with unsupported assertions. The authors clearly have practical experience of what they are talking about, but the paper gives little clue about whether they are from academia or industry, or whether they are expert or novice.

The first example is user-hostile at first glance, but sends out a clear set of positive signals to the academic reader – it is solid, heavyweight and written by professionals who know what they are doing. Although it is heavy reading, READING 69 it is not vague or packed with buzzwords. A journal referee or an external examiner’s reaction to this text would be to think: ‘Well, we’re not looking at a rejection/fail here if the rest is like this’.

The second example looks user-friendly, but would set a referee or external examiner’s alarm bells ringing because of the lack of visible evidence of academic weight (as opposed to practical experience of the technique). Their reaction would probably be to flick rapidly through the next few pages to see whether there was any improvement later; if not, there would be a real risk of a rejection or fail.

One of the interesting things about these two examples is that they were written by the same authors, on closely related topics, but for very different venues. The first example was from a journal paper submitted to a journal through the normal channels; it had to be heavyweight enough to convince the referees that it was well worth publishing. The second example was from an encyclopaedia article, where the encyclopaedia invited the authors to write the paper for a non-specialist audience. This meant a quite different set of possibilities and constraints from the journal paper – there was no need to use a terse, condensed style for instance.

Good signs in a first page

• Clear

• Appropriate writing style (formal, erring on the side of being dry and terse)

• Right references

• Good research question Bad signs in a first page

• No evidence of academic content

• Unclear

• Poor or missing research question

• Pleas for mercy and other indications of blood in the water The next thing the critical reader usually turns to is either the method section or the results section (not always, but often – they will return to the second page later).

Method section The method section is there for a reason. The reason is that if anyone wants to replicate your work, or to build on it, then they need to know exactly what you did, how and to whom. A second reason is that the reader needs to be able to make an informed judgement of the quality of what you did. If, for instance, the reader discovers that you recruited all the subjects for your study of hobbies in the high street on a Saturday afternoon, then the reader may have


just cause for suspecting that hobbies such as mountain climbing might be seriously under-represented.

In some disciplines, such as psychology, the methods section is usually so formulaic that it is (a) extremely terse and (b) more or less incomprehensible to a layperson. Using such formulae can be a useful way of sending out the right signals to the reader. For instance, if you see something along the lines of ‘a counterbalanced within-subject design was used’ then this implies that the writer is a professional who knows just what they are on about.

The method section is a feature of experimental research and will not usually be present in papers following a different approach.

Results section Domains differ. In experimental domains, the usual preference is for the results to be given as baldly as possible, preferably with no comment or discussion. Explanation or clarification is usually acceptable, especially if space constraints mean that you have to use short names for column headings etc.

Good signs

• Enough tables

• Clear rationale for each table and its position in the sequence

• Tables well laid out

• Numbers add up correctly Bad signs

• Too few or too many tables

• No clear rationale for why each table is where it is, or why it is included in the first place

• Poorly laid out; tatty and scruffy

• Numbers don’t add up Discussion For some reason, discussion sections are less rich grounds for hunting signs of expertise and weakness. It may be that desperation spurs even inexperienced researchers to generate eloquent and plausible stories to explain what they have found.

As usual, appropriate use of technical terms and of references to the literature are a good sign; buzzwords, general knowledge and irrelevant references to outdated textbooks (more likely to occur in theses than papers) are a bad sign. An elegantly constructed experimental thesis will often have a discussion section whose structure mirrors the introduction and the results sections, READING 71 with a series of questions being asked in the introduction, answered in the tables in the results section, and then discussed in the discussion section.

Conclusion The conclusion section often also includes a section on ‘further work’. The conclusion should provide a clear set of answers to the questions raised in the introduction. These should be supported by the evidence in the results section (if it is an experimental piece of work) and in the discussion section (whatever type of work it is).

The further work section is a useful place to stake a claim and establish priority in an area. An experienced researcher will often include here a brief description of something which they are planning to do; an experienced reader will know that by the time the paper has appeared the writer will already have spent at least a year on the topic described in the further work, so there is no point in rushing into that area.

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