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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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That’s the main body of the book. Our advice is to read it first from start to finish (since you’ll do that anyway, and there’s not much point in giving advice which will be ignored). The best thing to do next is to read it in more detail, starting with the topics furthest away from you in time – first, the section on what to do after the PhD, then the sections on the viva and on writing up, and so on. The reason for this is that most students are so focused, understandably, on the immediate problems surrounding them that they rarely look more than one step ahead. This is all very well in the short term, but it usually stores up long-term problems. What happens, for instance, xiv ABOUT THIS BOOK if you’re in a discipline where you need to be the author of at least two journal papers, and to have at least two years of part-time lecturing experience, to be shortlisted for a full-time lectureship? If you don’t discover this until the last six months of your PhD then you’ll have problems if you want to go straight on to a lectureship; if you know about it early, then you can start getting the right things on your CV in good time.

One important thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that disciplines vary. This is why we use words such as ‘usually’ quite a lot. The precise indications of quality in a CV will be different between, say, history and geology, but the underlying concepts usually remain the same – for instance, the concept of a strong CV as opposed to a weak one. This book is intended to help you understand what these underlying concepts are, so that you can find out what form they take in your discipline, and then make sure that you have the right indicators of quality in your written work, in your presentations and in your CV.

Books about getting a PhD usually end with a bibliography. This one doesn’t. There are some classic books which are useful to students in pretty much any discipline, such as Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, and standard guides to English grammar. You can find these in the bibliographies of pretty much any book on getting a PhD, and we didn’t think that there was much point in duplicating them. After these classics, things get trickier. Different disciplines have very different core reading, as we discuss in detail in the section on reading, and we didn’t think that we would improve the world by putting together a compendium of core readings from assorted different disciplines – if you’re doing a sociology PhD, for instance, you probably wouldn’t be terribly interested in the classic texts on igneous geomorphology. Some authors include selections of books which they find useful, and which they believe other people would find useful too. We’ve decided not to do this, though not without misgivings. The reason is that most of the books we’d like to recommend are pretty idiosyncratic, and it usually takes a considerable time to get through to students just why we’re serious about recommending that they read, say, part of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (especially if they’re doing a PhD in an area such as computer science). For the time being, therefore, we’re planning to use these texts only in face-to-face supervisions.

What we’ve done instead is to include a considerable amount of guidance about searching the literature, so that you can find the key texts that you need for your PhD for yourself, with (we hope) the minimum of wasted time and effort. We have also included a list of terms which we think you might find useful. These are generally our own idiosyncratic terms or terms informally used in one or more discipline which haven’t made their way into most textbooks, such as ‘eyeballing the data’.

On the subject of informality, we have deliberately used an informal style throughout this book. This is not the style which we use for other venues, such as when writing journal articles, so don’t be tempted to use this style in your own written thesis. We have also alternated between using full abbreviations ABOUT THIS BOOK xv (e.g. Ph.D.) in some specific contexts, and common shorter versions (e.g. PhD) in the main body of the text. The shorter abbreviation is a lot less fiddly when writing a large document like this book, but in formal contexts you need to show that you know the correct version, and to use that consistently.

We’ve deliberately omitted a variety of other things, such as how to use statistics, on the grounds that these are well covered in other books, and this one is quite long enough already. We hope you find it useful and enjoyable.


... it were insidious to particularize; but I must acknowledge the politeness of Mons. La Hire, of the royal French artillery, who volunteered his services in setting and firing the train to the magazine, and who was somewhat bruised and singed.

We would like to thank all the people who helped us with the writing and publishing of this book – they know who they are.

We would also like to acknowledge our gratitude to our own PhD supervisors, from whom we learned much, much more than we realized at the time. Our remaining sins are our own faults, not theirs. Finally, we would like to acknowledge the students who have, directly and indirectly, brought colour of one sort or another to our lives, and wealth to coffee manufacturers round the world... without them, this book would never have been written, and our lives would have been much less fun.

1 So you want to do a PhD?

–  –  –

There are two classic ways of doing a PhD. One involves knowing just what you are doing; you will then go through a clearly defined path, suffer occasional fits of gloom and despair, emerge with a PhD, unless you do something remarkably silly or give up, and then proceed smoothly with the next stage of your career. The other way is the one followed by most PhD students, which involves stumbling in, wandering round in circles for several years, suffering frequent fits of gloom and despair, and probably but not necessarily emerging with a PhD, followed by wondering what to do next in career terms. This book is written for those who find themselves following the second path.

There are many good books out there for people wanting to do a PhD. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD, you should read at least one of them. They give much good advice about what you need to do, and are a good start. We have spent a lot of time helping students who have read those books. The reason that we needed to help them was not because there was anything wrong with the content of the books; the problem was the things that the books didn’t cover. One set of things involved the ‘big picture’ of doing a PhD;

the other set involved low-level skills that the books typically didn’t cover, probably on the grounds that their writers assumed these skills would be taught either by supervisors or by the training courses which most PhD students now undergo. This book is intended to fill at least some of that gap.


So, returning to your interest in doing a PhD, you will have various questions about the why and the how and the what of it all. Most of these are answered by the usual texts on doing a PhD, and/or by the procedural documentation of your intended institution. However, the answers may not mean very much to you at this stage. The next section therefore describes the outline of what a PhD is about.

The PhD: its nature and content

The books will tell you that the PhD is several things, including a professional qualification, a training in how to do research and an initiation rite. All of these things are true, but what does it all mean?

At a sordidly practical level, the PhD is a qualification which shows that you are good enough at research to be appointable in a university post.

If you’re thinking of working as an academic in a university, a PhD is highly advisable. It is also helpful if you want a career as a researcher in industry. A further practical point is that PhDs are recognized around the world, and tend to have pretty good quality control, so a PhD from one country will be recognized in another without too much snobbery.

Still at the practical level, if you have a PhD, you usually go onto a higher pay scale.

At a professional level, a PhD involves you doing a decent sized chunk of research, writing it up and then discussing it with professional academics. This demonstrates your ability to do proper research without someone holding your hand. You have a supervisor to help and advise you, but in theory at least the PhD is something where you take the initiative.

A closely related issue is the PhD as initiation rite, where you undergo an ordeal and, if you come through the ordeal in a creditable manner, are admitted to membership of the academic clan. Continuing the analogy, having a PhD will not be enough to make you a clan elder, but it will mark the transition to full adulthood. You are treated differently if you have a PhD – there is a distinct feeling of having become ‘one of us’. It’s not just a snobbery thing; you will gradually start to notice a different way of thinking about things, especially when you start making administrative decisions in your subsequent career. A good example of this in many departments is undergraduate student projects, where staff with PhDs typically want to use the projects as a way of teaching the students how to conduct research, and staff without PhDs typically want to use the projects as a chance to give the students an industrial placement. The PhDs’ view is that the students need to learn critical thinking as a valuable skill for later life; the other view is that this is unrealistic nonsense, and that we need to equip the students to find a job as soon as possible after graduation. Which is right? This is a good question, SO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 3 and one which would take us off on a lengthy diversion. The main point is that doing a PhD does change you.

So, that’s the standard picture. What does it all mean? That’s another good question. Here is how that picture unfolds.

Important section: the standard picture Firstly, you choose a topic to research. You then find someone willing to be your supervisor. You get yourself through the procedures to sign up for a PhD at your supervisor’s institution. You then research that topic for a year or two, at which point you are assessed to see whether you are doing well enough to continue to the end of the PhD. If that goes well, then you do another year or two of research. In the third or fourth year of the PhD, you write a large document (typically around 300 pages) about your research.

This is read by a panel of experts who then ask you questions about it to check that your understanding of the topic is good enough. They will typically conclude that you need to make some changes to it. If you make these changes to their satisfaction within a specified period, then you will be awarded a PhD.

The realities behind the standard picture

That’s the standard picture. It’s pretty much true. There are, however, numerous things to note about it. One is the frequent use of words such as ‘typically’ in this book; an important thing to grasp about the academic world is that institutions, disciplines and departments vary widely in their norms and conventions. There are good reasons for this, but it doesn’t make life any easier for would-be students, or for people trying to write books explaining academic life to would-be students. Another thing is the number of points at which you can fail; PhDs are academically rigorous. Another is the sheer size of the document you produce: the written PhD thesis. A lot of students have trouble coping with the prospect of writing something that big. (Writing it is not really that much of a problem once you know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t feel much of a consolation at this stage.) There are also various things which are not elaborated in this picture. One thing which is seldom mentioned is what happens to you after you finish the PhD. A classic story is as follows. A student focuses clearly, submits the thesis and starts looking for a lecturing job, only to discover that they need two years of lecturing experience and preferably a journal publication as well if they


are to be appointable for a job in a good department in their field. If they had known this two years previously, they could have started doing some part-time lecturing and submitted a paper or two to a journal. There are other things which look simple until you stop and think about them. For instance, how do you choose a topic, and how do you find a good supervisor? The standard books give quite a lot of good advice about this, but there will still be quite a lot of things that you aren’t sure about.

So, what do you do about this? One good step is to read the rest of this book at this point. A lot of it won’t have much real meaning to you yet, but that doesn’t matter. The main thing is that it should give you a fair idea about which things matter, which things are well understood and which things are comparatively peripheral. For instance, we have a lot to say about academic writing as opposed to formal English (because most students are pretty bad at it) and about feeling lost (because most students have problems with this from the second year of their thesis onwards). Similarly, we don’t say much about statistics and about experimental design, because these are comprehensively covered by numerous excellent texts and training courses, so you should have no problems getting access to them if they’re needed for your research.

Likewise, we don’t say much about whether the Harvard referencing system is better than (for instance) the APA system, because your departmental PhD regulations will almost certainly specify the referencing system that you must use, so that question is pretty much an irrelevance unless you happen to be doing a PhD on referencing systems, within an information science department.

The next sections describe some concepts which we have found invaluable, but which don’t usually appear in other books. These provide a useful structure for (a) what you are trying to do in a PhD and (b) understanding how things work in the big picture. The first of these is the cabinet-making metaphor; the second is the distinction between instrumental and expressive behaviour.

Cabinet-making – the PhD as a master piece

Doing a PhD has a lot in common with traditional cabinet-making. Back in The Past, an apprentice cabinet-maker would finish his apprenticeship (back in The Past, apprentice cabinet-makers were all ‘he’) by making a cabinet which demonstrated that he had all the skills needed to be a master cabinetmaker. This piece of furniture was known as the ‘master piece’. A successfully defended PhD dissertation fulfils a similar role. It demonstrates that you have all the skills needed to be a researcher in your own right. The issue of demonstration is essential. The basis of the PhD examination is the dissertation, together with the subsequent viva voce examination. It doesn’t matter how SO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 5 brilliant or well-informed you are – if the brilliance and erudition isn’t visible in the dissertation, then you’re going to fail.

You therefore need to know what the requisite skills are for your branch of academia (since different disciplines require different skills) and make sure that you demonstrate mastery of each of these somewhere in your thesis. If you’re a methodical sort of person, you might go so far as to draw up a list of the skills required and tick off each one as it is represented in your thesis. For a cabinet-maker, the skills required would be things like making various complex joints, fitting hinges neatly, applying veneer, achieving a high polish and so forth. For an academic, the skills are things like mastery of formal academic language, familiarity with the relevant literature in the discipline, knowledge of the main data collection techniques, adherence to the standards of rigour and so on.

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