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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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Sometimes, unfortunately, your boss is either unwilling or unable to protect you. A classic example is when your boss is the head of department and you are the newest lecturer, viewed as fair game for organizing the departmental tea money, teaching the class of 300 unruly second years that nobody else will take, and so forth. That’s neither particularly fair nor particularly fun, but nobody seems to have any good solutions. The best bet is to assess whether this is an initiation by fire, after which things will become reasonable, or whether you have just landed in the educational equivalent of one of the later chapters of Dante’s greatest work. If the latter, then it’s a good idea to find a new job as soon as possible.

Assuming that you are staying, and have reasonable prospects, what do you do next?

The second step Having made sure that you do the main things required by your boss and The System, you need to make your own plans. It’s your life, and your career;

nobody else owns it except you. If you decide that you want to win a Nobel, or that you’d rather have a quiet life studying Walloon neologisms, that’s up to you.

If you decide to build a career in research, then you need to put together some integrated plans. It’s tempting to grab at any opportunities which are passing, and to do the most obvious and/or easiest things which flit into your mind. These temptations should be resisted. They lead to frittering away time and effort which could be better spent in other ways – for instance, doing an excellent piece of research in half the time which most people would take, and then spending the time you’ve saved having a pleasant excursion in the park, or whatever works as an antidote to workaholic tendencies for you.

Some parameters of your plans are largely determined for you by the norms of your discipline. If you want a career in research, then you need to bring in income, and to get out successful PhD students and good publications.

Experienced colleagues will be able to tell you the figures for acceptable, good or outstanding performance in each.

Although these parameters are largely predetermined, you still have enormous flexibility in what you research in order to achieve your goals. Your two journal papers a year (for instance) could be on pretty much any topic imaginable. So, how do you decide what to tackle?

156 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH Schemata and other forms of mental organization Experts aren’t significantly better than novices at logic and abstract reasoning, other things being equal. They do, however, have much better organization of their knowledge about their area of expertise than novices do, and they also know a lot more facts than novices do. In addition, they have better strategies for tackling their domain than novices do. There is a well-established literature on this topic, which is useful reading.

One useful way of organizing knowledge is to use schemata, which are mental templates for a ‘standard issue’ case. For instance, the usual schema for getting started in research is a first degree, followed by a PhD, followed by several years of postdoctoral research, followed by a lectureship. Schemata are useful because they provide ready-made solutions to many problems, without much need for original thought.

A standard schema for a piece of research is to find something in the course of one piece of research, and then use it as the basis for a student research project.

If the results are sufficiently interesting, the student project can then form the basis of a journal paper, and the student becomes a potential PhD student after they graduate. The paper establishes priority of publication in that area, so the PhD won’t be marred by worry about whether someone else will get there first.

If the PhD goes well, then you and the PhD student write a research proposal in the final year of the PhD, to employ the student on postdoctoral research.

What happens if you’re not sure which area you really want to have as your main focus? One way of reducing the problem space to manageable proportions is to have a series of strands of research. It’s a good idea to start with just one strand if you’re new and/or nervous.

Another handy part of expertise involves knowing how to fit things together. For instance, if your research has several strands, you soon won’t be able to keep on top of it all. A good way of handling this problem is to delegate.

For example, your PhD student could supervise some undergraduate projects on topics which complement their PhD, which in turn would be one of your strands.

Ethics Ethics are pretty damned important. The trouble is, everybody has a different idea about what is ethical. We can’t give you a set of bullet points and top-ten tips on hot ethics. What we can do is give you a focal concept, say something about background context and discuss the implications of things that people do in research, so you can think about it for yourself.

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your research community, your colleagues, your subjects and, interestingly enough, yourself. For example, if you are gathering confidential information from respondents about their most embarrassing experiences, then you have a duty of care to these respondents, which includes making sure that their names remain out of the public domain. If you remember nothing else, remember to ask yourself: to whom do I owe a duty of care, and what is it?

Subjects There’s a line attributed to a German researcher from about a century ago, who allegedly said: ‘We must not be anthropomorphic about human beings’. It’s a line with more depth than first appears, and bears thinking about.

However, when you are dealing with human subjects, you have to take into account the effect that your research will have on them. Milgram’s experiments into obedience to authority would almost certainly not get past an ethical panel today, because of the psychological effect they would have on subjects who discovered that they were capable of giving someone what they believed to be a fatal electric shock, just because an authority figure told them to do it. That’s an extreme example, but useful for making the point clearly.

It’s tempting to think that your own research couldn’t have that effect on anyone. The trouble is, Milgram didn’t think that his research would have that effect. He asked his colleagues, professional psychologists, what his subjects were likely to do. The consensus opinion was that the subjects would refuse to give shocks at quite an early stage of the experiment.

Research into humans involves finding out about how they work. People don’t often have a very accurate image of themselves, for various reasons. It can be profoundly disturbing to become aware of aspects of oneself which had previously been unsuspected. That’s what happened to Milgram’s subjects.

The obvious answer is not to do research which might lead to disturbing the subjects. However, that’s too simple an answer. There’s a strong case for the argument that making people aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings can help them to come to a better understanding of themselves, and in the long term be of benefit to them – that’s what psychotherapy is all about.

Understanding human strengths and weaknesses also helps us as a society to do things better.

There isn’t a clear, God-given answer to all of this. You need to think it through for yourself. It will make you a better person, especially if you can resist the temptation to kid yourself. Some thoughts which might help you

with this include the following:

• Are you claiming that the end justifies the means (a trusty favourite)?

• Has your professor/tutor/boss said that it’s OK (as with Milgram’s subjects)?

• How would you feel if your most despised enemy outlined this experiment and you were on the ethics panel deciding whether to approve it?


• How comfortable would you feel if you received notification that one of your subjects was hiring Wolfram and Hart to bring a lawsuit against you for unethical research?

• How would you feel on your deathbed looking back on this bit of research?

Proud of it, or ashamed?

Attribution It’s probably no accident that proper research only got going after duelling was outlawed. Arguments over publications can assume an intensity and bitterness which has to be experienced to be believed.

There are good reasons for this. You need to remember the conventions about how references are cited in the text. If it’s a one-author citation (e.g. ‘Smith 1999’) then it’s ‘Smith 1999’ every time it’s mentioned. If it’s a two-author citation (e.g. ‘Smith and Jones 1999’) then it’s ‘Smith and Jones 1999’ every time it’s mentioned. However, the situation changes the moment there are three or more authors. Then, the first time it’s cited, all the authors are named (e.g. ‘Smith, Jones and Cobbley 1999’) but all subsequent citations are abbreviated to ‘Smith et al. 1999’. This is compounded by a widespread convention that the first author in the list is the one who did most of the work.

There’s a very big difference between being a first author and an et al. in terms of the prospects for getting attention from other researchers who read that paper. People therefore argue bitterly over the order of names.

There are some simple ways round this:

• agree on authorship, and who writes which bits, before you even start the research – if you can’t agree at this stage, don’t bother starting the research;

• only work with people you like, trust and respect;

• work out a system which you all agree to be fair, and stick to it;

• only write one-author and two-author papers.

Anonymity Normal practice is to keep your respondents truly anonymous. This is different from not mentioning their name(s). If it is possible for someone to identify a respondent (whether an individual or an organization) then that respondent is not being kept truly anonymous. This is a Bad Thing. Unfortunately, there are situations where it is very difficult to describe a respondent while maintaining their anonymity (for instance, ‘a major UK non-commercial television broadcasting company’). If such a problem is likely, then sort it out before starting data collection – that’s a lot preferable to sorting it out in court...

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collaborated with your research. It includes (for instance) technicians who helped prepare equipment needed for the research and statisticians who advised you on the analysis of your data. Where the contribution was a significant component of the work described in your article, the person has a claim to co-authorship of the article. Where the contribution was one which was a routine part of the person’s job, involving no input to the overall design and nature of the research, and was done to order for the researcher (as in the case of a technician following a specification for equipment needed) then this is usually credited in the acknowledgements rather than in the authorship.

The situation with research assistants in this respect is not clear-cut, and is the source of numerous battles on research projects. If you’ve spent years developing a body of theory, you would feel understandably reluctant to hand over first authorship of the first publication to a research assistant who might never have heard of the area before you hired them. If, on the other hand, you are a research assistant who has contributed a significant proportion of the research design, carried out the actual research and analysis, and written the first draft of the paper, then it is a bit galling to be excluded from the authorship.

IPR This stands for ‘intellectual property right’ and is a growth area, especially for lawyers. It relates to who has the intellectual ownership of an idea and is entitled to money from its exploitation. Again, the issue is far from clear-cut. If you have been working for 20 years on a cure for Alzheimer’s, and finally find one three weeks after starting work at St Winnifred’s College, you might not be too pleased if the College claimed that they owned IPR on the idea because you were working for them at the time, and would be even less pleased if they set out to become the richest college in the world while not paying you a penny of the profits. Conversely, if you are the vice-chancellor of Rutland University, and have been pouring large amounts of money into a long-term institutional drive to find a cure for AIDS, you might be a bit annoyed if someone who has only recently joined the institution runs off and sets up their own private company based on your university’s work. What is the situation if you have been using a series of different research assistants over a period of 15 years before the latest version of your work finally strikes gold? Would a research assistant from 15 years ago have a good claim? No idea. Nobody else knows yet either.

It’s worth thinking ahead about this one, and deciding what you really want out of life. A wise institution will make sure that the pay-offs suit both parties.

It will be interesting to see how many wise institutions there are out there as IPR issues become more prevalent.

160 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH Truth Truth, according to Vance, is a precious jewel, the more precious for being rare.

It is not a researcher’s job to keep the price up by keeping the supply down.

However, as any social scientist know (the phrasing is a dry allusion to several classic texts, which will probably be missed by everyone except the diligent copy-editor, but never mind), truth is a tricky and relativistic thing to pin down. There are good grounds for arguing that truth in the strictest sense is a meaningless concept. There is also the small matter of the first and third golden rules (‘don’t lie’ and ‘don’t panic and blurt out the truth’ respectively).

A neat way out of this is to argue that there is an asymmetry, derived from the mathematics of infinity. There is an infinite set of propositions which correspond with a given slice of reality and can therefore be described as ‘true’.

However, this is not the same as saying that all propositions are equally true and valid. There is a different and also infinite set of propositions which do not correspond with a given slice of reality and can therefore be described as ‘not true’. You should not publish work which you know to be not true.

That particular idea is so neat that it leaves the uneasy feeling that there must be a catch somewhere.

14 The viva

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The viva (short for viva voce or ‘living voice’ examination) occupies a place in PhD student myth and legend which offers immense scope to writers with a taste for scary metaphor, but tact and common humanity prevent us from exploring that area as fully as we might. In one sense the folklore is right. The viva is one of the two essential outputs from your PhD. If your written thesis and your viva are both good enough, then you get a doctorate. If they’re not, you don’t. Nothing else comes into play – not how hard you’ve worked, or how bright you are, or how much you care about your topic, or how important it is to the world, or how much you’ve suffered, or how much you want that PhD. It’s perfectly possible to write a decent dissertation and then make a disastrous mess of the viva. So, what do you do about it?

The first thing is to understand the purpose of the viva from the examiners’ point of view. The PhD is a rite of passage, showing that you are worthy to be admitted to the clan. In terms of the cabinet-making metaphor, it’s the point where you leave apprenticeship behind and become a fully-fledged cabinetmaker, if you’re good enough. The key point in both metaphors is that neither of them contains any mention of perfection. PhDs don’t have to be perfect.

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