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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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Papers from theses These guidelines are the ones that we use. We don’t claim that they are perfect, or that they are the only truth. You might, however, find them useful as a starting point. The guidelines are intended for use with undergraduate and taught MSc dissertations as well as for PhD students; institutions vary about policy in this area, so don’t be surprised if the system in your institution is different.

Before starting

• If you or your supervisor think that the work might possibly be publishable, then agree ground rules for publication as early as possible – preferably before you have committed to a particular project. If you can’t agree at this stage, then you won’t agree later. If it looks too acrimonious, then think about doing a different project, maybe with someone else. This is also particularly important in relation to intellectual property rights if the concept might bring in money.

• Agree venue – where you will submit the paper.

• Agree what you will do if the paper is rejected. You do not want to have all the team independently submitting revamped versions of the paper to


other journals without your name on them. One sensible option is to agree who will take on the lead role if the paper is to be submitted to another journal; that person will normally then become the first author. This can be repeated until success or exhaustion.


• Authorship should be agreed at the outset with all parties – normally the student and supervisor(s), with the student as first author. If you can’t agree, then forget about writing the paper.

• If the work is a compilation of several projects, then the compilation writer should be first author.

• Authors should have made a substantial contribution to the work. A single advisory session (e.g. from another member of staff) will not normally constitute a sufficiently substantial contribution. If you want to take advice from other members of staff about some part of your work, then check first with your supervisor to avoid inadvertently causing bad feeling.

Submission and revisions

• All authors and co-authors should agree to the final version before the paper is submitted.

• Don’t submit to more than one journal at a time. Journals blacklist people who do it (i.e. they never publish anything by that author again). There are sound reasons for this – multiple submissions of this sort can lead to an editor inadvertently breaking the law via breach of copyright. It also wastes the time of the editors and referees, who are usually overworked and who do not like having their time wasted.

• If the paper is accepted subject to revision, then all authors and co-authors should have a reasonable opportunity to comment on the revised draft before it is submitted (e.g. by being sent a copy, with a request for any comments within two weeks).

• All authors and co-authors should be kept informed of any developments within a reasonable time of their occurrence (e.g. a verdict from the venue).

After publication

• Each author and co-author should receive at least one offprint of the paper.

• All authors and co-authors should receive at least one copy of any publicity about the work.

–  –  –

• Where possible, keep a written record of agreements at each stage – for instance, agree authorship via email.

Paper checklist Content

• Do you have a clear question?

• Have you demonstrated why the question is interesting?

• Have you demonstrated why the question is non-trivial?

• Have you demonstrated why the answer is non-obvious?

• Is your ‘red thread’ evident; do you have a clear and coherent argument?

Setting your paper in context

• Have you located your work with respect to the existing literature?

• Is it clear what theory informs your work and how your work contributes to theory?

• Have you discussed the assumptions, antecedents and limitations of your work?

• Have you discussed how your work leads forward to future work?


• Is your evidence clearly presented, according to the standards of your discipline?

• Is your interpretation distinguished from your data?

• Do your conclusions follow from your evidence?

• Can someone repeat or replicate your work based on the description given in the paper?

Due credit

• Have you agreed on authorship and on the order in which authors are listed?

• Have you acknowledged the people who should be acknowledged?

• Are the citations accurate and complete?

Use of literature

• Have you cited the seminal text(s)?

• Have you cited the classic texts?


• Have you cited the foundational text(s)?

• Do you have at least five references on the first page?

• Do your references span the period from the seminal paper to last year?

• Have you included a reference which shows you know the literature which goes beyond the standard references for a particular topic?


• Have you decided on the venue?

• Have you checked for deadlines (if applicable)?

• Have you read and followed the guidelines for authors?


• Have you followed the guidelines for authors?

• Are figures and references in house style?

• Have you spell-checked the paper?

• Have you used appropriate national spellings (British or American)?

• Do the headings provide useful and sufficient signposting?

• Does your presentation conform to the conventions in your discipline?

9 Writing structure

–  –  –

One sobering thought for most PhD students is the sheer size of the written thesis which they will have to produce. It will probably be the largest single piece of written work that they produce in their life. Most students are understandably intimidated by this. The reality is not so bad, once you understand how to break down the problem into manageably small chunks, which is what this chapter is about. The written thesis consists of a series of chunks, in the form of chapters; each chapter in turn consists of chunks, in the form of standard chapter sections. By the time you’re down to that level, you’re dealing with a few pages at a time, which is far more manageable. This chapter is about structure in writing: structure generally, and structure specifically for the written thesis.

Within each discipline, there are usually several well-established types of publication, each with its own standard structure. Chapter 7, on paper types, discusses this; so does Chapter 6, on reading. You should know what these types are for your discipline, be familiar with the structures and use these structures in your own writing until you are experienced enough to know when you can depart from them.

A useful structure for a paper or thesis describing empirical work is to have a series of clearly defined questions in the introduction, and then have corresponding tables of results in the results section and corresponding sections of discussion in the discussion section. This provides the reader (and yourself) with a clear idea of where you are going and why. So, for instance,


you might have three main questions in the introduction, mirrored by three corresponding main sections in the results section, and then three corresponding main sections in the discussion, so that each question is clearly addressed and clearly answered.

Within each of these sections, you start by telling your readers what you’re going to describe and discuss. Then describe and discuss it. End by telling the reader what you’ve just done. End on a clear, positive note.

Writing up

One day, if all goes well, you will have to produce the final written thesis derived from your research. Most people have strong feelings about this point. These feelings include dread, confusion, despair and being utterly sick of the whole topic. If you are in this state, then be reassured: these feelings are completely normal and are fixable. So, what do you do about it?

Good advice Work backwards from where you want to end up. You want to end up with the examiners looking pleased and relieved as they finish reading your thesis and settle down to watch the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or whatever examiners do in the evening. You do not want to end up with the examiners looking worried or angry. How do you do this?

A good way to start is to look at things from the examiners’ point of view, particularly the external examiner’s. If you’re eminent enough and a safe enough pair of hands to be asked to examine, you’ll also have acquired a depressingly large set of other responsibilities and a bloody-minded attitude towards having your time wasted. You’ll therefore be torn between a desire to see standards maintained and a desire to get the whole business over with as soon as possible. The result of this is that you will want to see a thesis which is a clear, unequivocal pass. The thing you will least want to see is something which might just about scrape through with major revisions: this will entail weeks of further hassle for you if the wretched candidate ends up sending allegedly improved revisions to you for approval. So, what makes you as an external decide that something is a clear pass rather than a thing of horror?

The basic issue is whether the thesis is an original contribution to knowledge at an appropriate level for a doctorate. If these three boxes can be unhesitatingly ticked, then everyone is happy and can get on with their lives. You as a candidate can tackle the first couple of boxes (‘original’ and ‘contribution to knowledge’) by some judicious phrasing. If you use phrases such as ‘this extends the classic work in this area by Smith and Jones (2002) by applying WRITING STRUCTURE 97 rough set theory’ then the ‘originality’ bit is pretty clear: your original bit is the extension of Smith and Jones’ work. If you use phrasing such as ‘these findings have significant implications for research in this field, which has typically viewed this topic as of comparatively minor importance’ then the ‘contribution to knowledge’ bit is also pretty clear. Judicious phrasing by itself is not enough; you need to have done good research as well. However, good research needs to be clearly presented or there is the risk that the examiners will miss the needle of your original contribution in the haystack of your unstructured prose. (Yes, we know that haystacks actually are structured, but why waste a vivid metaphor?) A good structure is useful for supporting the judicious phrasing; there should be clearly demarcated subsections which deal specifically with the originality and the contribution to knowledge of the topic you’re investigating and/or of the method you’re using. (These will have suitably tactful titles: entitling them ‘original contribution to knowledge’ is generally viewed as a bit tacky.) The third box (‘appropriate level for a doctorate’) is not so easy to point to at a specific place in the text; like the lettering in a stick of rock, it runs all the way through. The tip about getting a couple of journal articles published to show you’re working at the right level is quite a useful one, but if you have to resort to that as an argument in the viva, then you’re in trouble – it’s best viewed as a nice extra and/or as a last resort, not as a main component of your case. The chapters on reading and writing are particularly relevant here: the examiners will be reading between the lines of your thesis, and if you have written the right things between the lines then everyone will be happy. Most of this will consist of numerous small things, minor by themselves, but major when taken together. If you’ve been developing a taxonomy of social inclusion problems in secondary education, then showing that you have read some of the literature on taxonomic theory is likely to send out the right signals to the examiners, but will not by itself be enough to demonstrate doctoral-level research – you’ll also need to use the right language and technical terms throughout, to refer to the right literature, to discuss the findings at the right level of abstraction and so forth. If you get into the habit early on of reading and writing between the lines, then you will do this automatically when you write-up, and significantly improve your chances of a straight pass.

Standard (but still good) advice The first thing is to do some positive things to improve your mood. The standard self-help books are good on this. Most of the things they recommend are feasible even for impoverished PhD students with little spare time, and many of them are fun. For instance, 15 minutes of exercise will improve your mood, improve your health and will also help you to regain perspective. The exercise can include things like dusting those obscure areas of your house/flat/ room/garret that you keep putting off till another day. Such tasks will either


leave you with nicer surroundings or give you renewed enthusiasm for writing up, so you benefit either way.

The other first thing to do (you can do them in parallel) is to stop thinking about the thesis as a vast monolithic thing, and start thinking about it as a document composed of various bits, each there for a reason and each in turn composed of other, smaller bits. You can write each of those bits, so it’s just a case of writing a manageable number of manageable-sized bits, rather than a case of taking on a massive single task. You might find it useful to write down the chapter headings of your thesis and then write the subheadings for each chapter. You can do a plan of which bits you will write when, remembering to allow plenty of time for the tables, references and appendices. All this sort of thing is in the standard-issue books on doing a PhD, and it’s both true and useful.

What you need to remember, and what isn’t always covered explicitly in the standard-issue books, is to get your cabinet-making skills visibly onto the pages. Your references are an obvious example. Do you have the key references neatly on display in your bibliography? Do you have the right spread of dates?

Do you have references showing independent reading outside the standard stuff? Do you have references showing that you’re a nit-picking perfectionist who has done thorough background reading? And so forth. Another obvious example is the types of study you have conducted. If you are working in a discipline where cabinet-making includes doing big surveys with heavy stats, and in-depth case studies without stats, then you need to make sure that your studies are clearly (but subtly) presented in a way which fits neatly into that framework.

You should have already written up a fair amount by the time you reach this stage. Some bits, like the bibliography, you should have been conscientiously building up as you went along. Others, like the ‘method’ section if you’re doing an experimental PhD, can be written up as you do each study and are unlikely to change significantly.

What will change most are your introductory and discussion sections for each chapter (including your initial chapter with the main literature review).

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