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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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Always remember:

• keeping a bibliography allows you to use a ‘flat’, unambiguous physical filing system (e.g. alphabetical by author) while being able to categorize, re-categorize and search fluidly;

• the bibliography can help you avoid rereading papers that are useless and forgettable but have interesting titles;

• the bibliography can help you keep track of the physical form and location of materials.

Mechanisms There are different ways to keep a bibliography. The most common forms are card catalogues and electronic databases.

Card system examples (from Sally Fincher)

• Kenneth O. May (1973) Bibliography and Research Manual of the History of Mathematics. University of Toronto Press. (particularly pp. 2–27).

• Robert M. Pirsig (1991) Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Bantam Press (particularly pp. 22–9).

Bibliographic software packages Papyrus: http://www.rsd.com/ ProCite: http://www.risinc.com/ EndNote: http://www.niles.com/ Many people don’t use specialist packages, preferring to adapt database, spreadsheet or word-processor usage. Many effective bibliographies are simply kept as very long text files.

7 Paper types

–  –  –

There are different ways of categorizing papers. These ways are seldom described in writing; they are usually treated as craft skills, and also as a matter of personal choice. The categorization described here is a fairly standard one, and some of the paper types in it are recognized fairly formally (for instance, journals have an explicit category of ‘review article’). Others, such as ‘method-mongering paper’ are less formal.

Data-driven papers

This is what most people tend to think of when thinking about papers. The data-driven paper concentrates on describing and discussing the data reported in the paper (as opposed to the methods used to gather the data, for instance).

Classic examples include papers reporting the results of surveys or of formal experiments.

Data-driven papers are important for several reasons, and the astute researcher using the ‘cabinet-making apprentice’ model of research will take care to have at least one data-driven study in their portfolio, if only to demonstrate that they know how to do them.

If the central focus of your paper is the data, as is the case in this type of paper, then the data need to be good. This means (a) solid and also (b) interesting.

80 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

‘Solid’ means that the sample size, quality, representativeness etc. need to be at a level where nobody sensible will even think of questioning them. Novice (and, often, less novice) researchers tend to spend a lot of time worrying about their sample size, on the grounds that more must be better. They also spend quite a lot of time worrying about representativeness, because representativeness is something they feel comfortable speculating about – anyone with an armchair and reasonable general knowledge can usually find several reasons for querying the representativeness of a sample without much effort. These scruples tend to be slaughtered on the altar of expediency the moment that the questionnaires go into the post (questionnaires are a favourite method for collecting large and dubious data sets). If you’re doing this sort of work, you need to know about statistics.

The need for interesting data somehow tends to receive less attention among novices, though experts are well aware of it. This is probably because novices do not usually give much thought to what will be in their data until the questionnaires arrive in the post (again, questionnaires are a favoured tool for bad research in this area), and then fade out of public view when the full banality of their results becomes apparent. A more experienced researcher will probably take the view that the best way of conducting a fishing expedition is shooting the fish in a barrel (i.e. only doing a large data-gathering exercise when there is an extremely good chance that the data will produce an eyecatching result).

What catches attention is normally a surprising and useful finding, based on a sample so solid that the data can be treated as a safe foundation for further work. An example of this from computer science is the ‘five-thousand year fault’ – i.e. the bug which might only be expected to materialize once every five thousand user-years of use. The classic paper on this topic used a very large data set to show what proportion of bugs could be expected to surface with what frequency, and showed that a surprisingly high proportion might only appear once every few thousand years. This has profound implications for the software industry, in areas such as debugging and the development of ultrasafe systems for safety-critical areas such as software for controlling nuclear power plants. An added attraction for the researcher who publishes such work is that it will be quoted in just about every subsequent paper on the topic, thereby boosting the researcher’s reputation considerably.

How do you know when you are dealing with fish in a barrel (and therefore a suitable area for a big study) as opposed to an empty pond? This is where a good understanding of theory is useful, because it can lead you to predict a counter-intuitive finding. Another useful approach which complements theory is keeping an eye open for interesting effects while carrying out other research.





A classic data-driven paper can make a reputation. Most data-driven papers, however, do not break new ground; you need to have solid, interesting data to make a reputation from this type of publication.

PAPER TYPES 81

Tutorial papers

Tutorial papers describe a method and explain how to use it. They are invaluable, but journals are not fond of publishing them, on the grounds that they do not normally involve original research, which is what journals are all about. However, if you do manage to publish the classic tutorial paper for a method, then people will quote it for years to come.

Method-mongering papers

These papers describe a method, usually with the aim of suggesting that it should be more widely used. The method may be original (i.e. developed by the authors) or may be an established method from another field which has not received sufficient attention in the field where it is now being described.

These papers overlap with tutorial papers, but it is possible for a paper to be a method-mongering paper without being a tutorial paper. A common example of this is a paper which shows how a method can be applied to problems in the researcher’s field, but which does not describe the method itself in great detail – instead, the author typically refers the reader to a suitable tutorial paper or textbook.

One advantage of method-mongering papers is that if you are already familiar with a suitable method from another field, then you can put together a method-mongering paper fairly easily; all you will need are some nice examples of your method cracking problems, traditionally viewed as difficult in the new field of application. You don’t normally need a large sample size, since the point is made just as effectively with a small sample (or even a single example, if it’s a good one).

Consciousness-raising papers

These are less psychedelic than they sound. They are intended to raise awareness of issues which have not previously received sufficient attention in a field of research; these issues often involve application of methods or concepts which are standard in another field, but not well known in the field where the consciousness-raising paper is written.

Good consciousness-raising papers can attract a lot of attention, and can change the viewpoint of an entire field. Bad ones can give the author a

82 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

reputation as a pompous windbag. As usual in research, one of the touchstones is whether you are giving the reader some really interesting new tools to play with. Saying that (for instance) the methods of hard sciences are not always directly applicable to the softer sciences may well be true, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere. Saying that (for instance) game theory can be used to provide a mathematical grounding for evolutionary ecology is the research equivalent of giving a small child the keys to a toy warehouse, and made John Maynard Smith the revered founding father of an entire new field of research.

First-year students are fond of complaining that their field neglects various important issues. They are usually less fond of checking whether this is a standard complaint of first-year students, and whether there is a good reason for these issues being neglected. Experienced researchers (a) have heard a lot of first-year students talking and (b) have reliable chums who can be used to see whether a promising idea will pass the giggle test or not, before going any further with it.

Theoretical papers

Theoretical papers have a lot of kudos. They discuss theoretical issues such as the inherent limitations of symbolic reasoning, and can be highly influential.

The published papers of this type are typically written by authorities in the area, and actually have quite a large component of review and methodology in them (it’s difficult to tackle advanced theory properly without considerable reference to the literature and to the methods used in the area). The unpublished papers of this type are typically written by inexperienced new researchers who have not bothered to do the research equivalent of reading the FAQs first. It’s advisable not to try writing theoretical papers until you’re sure you’re ready for the task and have evidence to support this belief.

Review papers

Thucydides would have approved of review papers. Every ten years or so, someone in a given field will decide that the time is right for a paper surveying the key research in that field since the last review paper was written. They will then survey all the main papers, and many of the minor papers, written over that period. This is a very substantial undertaking and can easily involve reading and assessing hundreds of papers and books, in addition to identifying and summarizing the main themes within that work.

Review papers are invaluable for ordinary mortals, since they provide an PAPER TYPES 83 excellent way into a body of research, complete with overviews and key readings.

Review papers are typically written by people so utterly familiar with a field that they will have read all the relevant papers anyway (and will probably have written quite a few of them as well). However, there is one useful exception to this generalization: if you have done the literature review for your PhD properly, then it should (pretty much by definition) be publishable as a review paper. In practice, most people by this stage of their PhD are so sick of the topic and/or scared of being told that they’ve missed something vital that they find reasons not to go down the review paper road.

Demonstration of concept papers

The demonstration of concept papers overlaps with various other types, particularly method-mongering papers. It involves demonstrating that a particular concept (usually a method, but not always – it may, for instance, be a conceptual framework) is feasible, useful and interesting. This is a handy precursor to applying for funding.

If you know what you are doing, you can get away with a single set of data from a single subject for a demonstration of concept paper. The tricky bit is finding a suitable concept in the first place...

Research methods with which these papers overlap

• Formal experiment

• Field experiment

• Case study

• Action research

• Survey 8 Writing

–  –  –

If you’re an experienced academic and someone is trying to persuade you to take on someone you’ve never heard of as a PhD student, then one of the first things you ask is whether they can write. This is shorthand for ‘write good academic English, preferably in various styles to suit different needs, ranging from journal articles to plausible opening letters to potential funders’. If the answer is ‘no’ then you are in a strong bargaining position if the other person really wants you to take this student on, since nobody in their senses is keen to take on a student who can’t write. A point worth noting is that this refers to good academic English, which is not the same as formal grammar – there are plenty of cases of students who write very good academic English, even though they are not native speakers of English and their formal grammar is wobbly in places. Conversely, there are many native speakers of English whose understanding of academic writing is woeful.

So, what do we mean by ‘good academic English’ and why is it not the same as formal English grammar? That is the topic of this chapter. We discuss how to structure what you write; how to send out the right signals between the lines of what you write; and what to do when you encounter problems such as writer’s block.

This chapter overlaps considerably with the chapter on reading, so if you’re about to write something, then it would be a good idea to reread Chapter 6.

That concludes this introduction, which by an elegant example of poetic WRITING 85 justice turned out to be more tricky to write than the rest of the sections on writing, even though it’s much the shortest. However, it’s finished now, so we don’t care (another line which it would be wiser not to include at the end of your PhD thesis...) Journal papers This section focuses on journal papers, but much the same principles apply to conference papers and other forms of publication such as book chapters.

We have gone for journal papers rather than the other types on the grounds that publishing a journal paper is usually viewed as a sign that you are a fullyedged academic – there is a general assumption that the other publication venues are variable in their selectivity and quality control, but that journals are exclusive and discerning. This is far from invariably true, but it’s a useful rule of thumb, especially if you are aiming for an academic career and want to get some useful things on your CV.

Supervisors differ in their opinions of students writing journal papers. Some think it is a Good Thing, and encourage it; some think it is a Bad Thing, and discourage it; others again think that it is a Good Thing in some circumstances, but not in others (e.g. if it is likely to be used as a displacement activity by a student who ought to be spending every last second finishing their write-up because the deadline is next Tuesday).

So, the first thing to do regarding writing a journal paper is to check with your supervisor about the wisdom of this scheme in relation to your particular situation. If they say no, with good reason, then take their advice; if they give you their blessing and send you off to get started, then you need to think about what to do next.

Where to publish The first question is venue (i.e. where to publish). This involves consideration of the prestige of the journal, the readership of the journal, the degree of match between your chosen topic and the focus of the journal, and the acceptance rates of the journal. The usual strategy is to go for the most prestigious journal that you have a reasonable chance of being published in, which then raises questions of how to assess your chances. A cup of coffee with someone knowledgeable is a good idea at this point.

These things having been done, you need to do some basic homework, which is neglected by a surprising proportion of aspiring researchers. The first thing is to read the guidelines for contributors to your chosen journal. These are usually printed in the journal, or available on its website, or (as a last resort) from its editor. The guidelines will tell you the word limits for articles,

86 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH



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