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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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Things which do not normally appear on the list include personal interest in the area and the ethical importance of the topic. There is no point in going on about these at length in your thesis – you are awarded a PhD as an acknowledgement that you can make cabinets at master craftsman level, not an acknowledgement that you find cabinet-making fascinating, or that cabinets make the world a better place. In practice, few people would spend several years of their life doing a PhD on a topic which held no interest for them, so personal interest is usually taken for granted by examiners. Ethics is a more interesting question. One reason that examiners tend not to take account of claims about the ethical importance of a question (e.g. finding a cure for cancer) as a criterion for assessing a PhD is that bad research can actually impede the search for an answer to the problem by leading other researchers in the wrong direction. Bad research into a highly ethical question is still bad research. Back to the main theme.

Different disciplines have different required skills; most experienced researchers are so familiar with these that they take them for granted, and would be hard pressed to produce a list from memory over a physical or metaphorical cup of coffee. However, other experienced researchers (especially those who teach research methods courses) will be able to give you some answers; in addition, it is worth having a look at the contents section of research methods books in your discipline, which will cover most of the main topics. The PhD regulations for your institution should also help.

An illustrative list of typical skills is given below. It’s illustrative rather than definitive – your discipline will almost certainly have a different list. However, many of the skills will be the same, and the list will give you the general idea.

Most of the skills below assume that your work will be located within a single discipline. There is a reason for this. Interdisciplinary PhDs can be extremely interesting and useful. However, they need to be handled with care, since otherwise there is the risk that they will fall between two stools. This can be a problem in terms of practicalia such as finding an external examiner, and in terms of theoretical issues such as deciding which approach to follow


when the different disciplines involved have very different ways of doing things. It is usually much wiser to decide on a ‘host’ discipline, locate the interdisciplinary PhD within that, and then import the concepts from the other discipline into the host discipline.

Cabinet-making skills Most disciplines require most of the following skills, though individual cases will vary.

Use of academic language

• Correct use of technical terms

• Attention to detail in punctuation, grammar, etc.

• Attention to use of typographic design (white space, layout, headings styles) to make the text accessible

• Ability to structure and convey a clear and coherent argument, including attention to the use of ‘signposting’ devices such as headings to make the structure accessible

• Writing in a suitable academic ‘voice’ Knowledge of background literature

• Seminal texts correctly cited, with evidence that you have read them and evaluated them critically

• References accurately reflecting the growth of the literature from the seminal texts to the present day

• Identification of key recent texts on which your own PhD is based, showing both how these contribute to your thesis and how your thesis is different from them

• Relevant texts and concepts from other disciplines cited

• Organization of all of the cited literature into a coherent, critical structure, showing both that you can make sense of the literature – identifying conceptual relationships and themes, recognizing gaps – and that you understand what is important Research methods

• Knowledge of the main research methods used in your discipline, including data collection, record-keeping and data analysis

• Knowledge of what constitutes ‘evidence’ in your discipline, and of what is acceptable as a knowledge claim SO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 7

• Detailed knowledge – and competent application – of at least one method

• Critical analysis of one of the standard methods in your discipline, showing that you understand both its strengths and its limitations Theory

• Understanding of key theoretical strands and theoretical concepts in your discipline

• Understanding how theory shapes your research question

• Ability to contribute something useful to the theoretical debate in your area Miscellaneous

• Ability to do all the above yourself, rather than simply doing what your supervisor tells you

• Awareness of where your work fits in relation to the discipline, and what it contributes to the discipline

• Mature overview of the discipline Necessary skills Those readers who are familiar with 1066 and All That will be pleased to know that skills are currently viewed as a Good Thing. This is especially the case with skills which can be described as ‘transferable skills’. You can therefore treat them as a positive asset, to be added to your CV, rather than as another cheerless obligation. Your institutional training course will probably wax eloquent on skills of various sorts – transferable, generic, project-based, discipline-based (though readers with an interest in BDSM may be disappointed to hear that this does not normally involve whips and leather), and doubtless many others.

Transferable skills are particularly favoured by The System because they are allegedly usable in areas other than just academia. They include (depending on whose versions you receive) writing, public speaking and coping with prejudice.

We will pay The System the graceful academic compliment of treating this ground as so thoroughly covered that it does not need to be covered again by us; the rest of this section describes skills which may not be included on your institution’s training programme.

Tact and diplomacy As a PhD student, you need to accept that you are not exactly at the top of the academic pecking order; as a new PhD student, you are also the new


kid on the block. There is therefore a time for being right and a time for using the quiet word that gets you what you want. PhD students tend to do a lot of complaining about how The System treats them (often with some justice on their side), but tend to forget that they are in a system which dates back to the Dark Ages, and which has learnt a thing or two about dealing with complaints.

An important skill is to learn when to let something pass and when to stand up (tactfully and politely, but firmly) for an issue. Otherwise, you are likely to find yourself winning the battles and losing the war. For instance, you will probably have complaints about the shortcomings of the library; PhD students almost everywhere have complaints about the library, usually ill-founded, so if you get stroppy about this issue, you are unlikely to get a huge amount of sympathy. (‘The library doesn’t have many books on my area of interest’ usually translates into: ‘I haven’t learnt yet that I should be reading journal articles at this stage’ – not the strongest position for winning an argument.) A second example: you may have grave reservations about the quality of the research methods training course that your institution puts on for PhD students. Bear in mind that PhD training courses are still in their early days, and that a tactless confrontation with the professor responsible for the course is unlikely to produce the result that you need; some suggestions, phrased in a face-saving manner, are more likely to achieve this. Remember also that most PhD students know what they want, not what they need; there is sometimes an enormous difference between the two. This leads on to another important skill.

Having the right cup of coffee Probably the most important research tool you will encounter is the cup of coffee. Successful students know this; unsuccessful ones tend to wonder why we’re wasting time with jokes, and then wonder why the world is so unfair to them. Knowledge is power; rare knowledge is greater power. The best way of finding out what you really need to know is usually to have a cup of coffee with the right person, and to ask their advice (tactfully and diplomatically).

Who is the right person? Someone with the knowledge, which for most situations means someone who is not another PhD student – if they’re still a student, then no matter how helpful and friendly they are, you can’t be sure whether their advice is sincere and right, or sincere and mistaken, since they haven’t yet got successfully through a PhD. There are a lot of folk myths in circulation among PhD students. Fellow students are a good source of social support, and of help with tasks like blind judging for data analysis, or with babysitting; they’re not a good source of advice about what your thesis should look like, or where to find the equipment you need for your next bit of fieldwork. The right person is someone who has a successful track record in the relevant topic – for instance, supervisors whose students usually have happy endings, chief technicians with a reputation for producing the right bit of kit out of a cupboard when all hope seemed gone, librarians who have SO YOU WANT TO DO A PhD? 9 helped your friends to find obscure but essential references. Show them due appreciation and treat their advice as confidential unless they specify otherwise. The most useful knowledge is often the sort that people will not want to be quoted on – for instance, hints about good or bad people to ask for help.

Asking the right research question Once you learn this skill, life becomes very different. We have an entire section on this elsewhere because it’s so important; we mention it here because it’s well worth mentioning twice.

Academic writing Writing is indeed a transferable skill; you can transfer academic writing skills from one academic setting to another, and you can transfer business writing skills from one business setting to another. It is quite possible that there are areas where you can even transfer academic writing skills appropriately to industry or vice versa.

Table 1 Ten top tips for research students

–  –  –

Terminology: a brief digression There are various types of research degree; what they have in common is that they involve research by the student as a core component. This is different from a taught degree where there may be a research project (for instance, an MSc project), but where this research project is only one component among many on the course.

Strictly speaking, a research degree involves a thesis, which is the argument that you propose as a result of your research. Again strictly speaking, the dissertation is the written document which describes your thesis. In common usage, the dissertation is often referred to as ‘the thesis’. It’s worth knowing about the distinction in case you have a particularly pedantic external examiner – it helps you get off to a better start.

Instrumental and expressive behaviour

–  –  –

needed to solve the crisis at the heart of the tale; when the hero or heroine returns afterwards to look for further wisdom, the book has vanished from the place where it was left, never to be seen again. In the tales, finding the book is something which happens once in a lifetime, when you most need it.

Real life isn’t quite like that. As we can testify from personal experience, the book can appear more than once in a lifetime, and not always at the immediate point of need. On the first occasion, the book was an anthology of writings about new religious movements, which appeared at the time to be very interesting, but of no immediate relevance to anything that the author was doing. On the second occasion, the book was an extremely good encyclopaedia of psychology, which provided the key information needed for a successful large funding bid. The author neglected to note the full bibliographic reference for either book, and no amount of detailed searching of the relevant libraries (both on the shelves and in the online and printed catalogues) subsequently produced anything quite like those books. These experiences are (a) one of the reasons why we go on at such length about the need for proper bibliographic references for everything you read, and (b) the principal reason for the lack of a proper bibliographic reference for the concepts of instrumental and expressive behaviour which are discussed in this section. If you’d like to track down the original article, it’s a chapter describing the de Leonist political movement in the United States, in an edited anthology of writings about new religious movements, which was in the University of Nottingham library sometime between 1986 and 1992 and, yes, we would be very grateful for the full reference if anyone happens to encounter the book somewhere on its travels...

The author of the said chapter was a sociologist who was studying the de Leonists. Some of their behaviour made little sense to him – for instance, they once spent a lot of time putting up posters around the city advertising a talk which had already happened. Eventually he realized that they were engaging in what he called expressive, rather than instrumental, behaviour.

Instrumental behaviour consists of actions leading towards a stated goal; for instance, the goal of learning to drive a car might involve the instrumental behaviours of booking driving lessons, buying a copy of the Highway Code etc.

Measured against this criterion, the de Leonists’ behaviour appeared senseless.

Expressive behaviour, on the other hand, consists of actions demonstrating to other people what sort of person you are; for instance, sitting in the front of a lecture theatre and taking copious notes in a very visible manner to show that you take your studies very seriously. Against this criterion, the de Leonists’ behaviour made a lot more sense; much of it was intended to demonstrate group loyalty, and was intended for other members of the group to see. Sticking up large numbers of posters publicizing an event which had already happened could therefore be a good way of demonstrating that you were a committed member of the group and, in consequence, of increasing your standing within the group.


Instrumental behaviour and expressive behaviour are both important. In our experience, students are normally good at some types of instrumental behaviour and woefully bad at the sensible sorts of expressive behaviour, usually because nobody has explained to them which signals they need to send out.

An example of this is the use of bibliographic referencing. At an instrumental level this is important, because inadequate referencing can lead to your being unable to relocate a key text which you read earlier; it is also important for other people who might want to follow up one of your points, or to check one of your assertions (external examiners for PhDs, for instance, often want to do this...) At an expressive level, good referencing is also important: it sends out signals saying that you take core academic values seriously, that you are familiar with the core craft skills, that you are thorough and professional, and so forth.

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