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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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More often, however, students engage in expressive behaviours which send out signals such as ‘look how hard I’m trying’ – for instance, spending all day every day in the library, regardless of whether what they are reading is particularly useful or not. The usual sequence of events is that the supervisor sooner or later notices that the student is not making any progress, and points this out; the student reacts by even more expressive behaviour sending out the same signal; the supervisor notices continuing lack of progress; and so on, until an ending occurs which is usually unhappy. What students in this situation need to realize is that the problem is not how hard they are trying, but what they are omitting to do. One large part of this book is about the instrumental skills which are needed to do a good PhD, and another large part is about the signals of skilled professionalism which you need to send out via the right sort of expressive behaviour. (There is also yet another large part which is about identifying the wrong sorts of expressive behaviour, and about what to do to rectify them.) 2 Procedures and milestones Or, what will happen to you... take this woman out of Bren-paidhi’s way, or face administrative procedures.

When you do a PhD, you will encounter numerous procedures, milestones, deliverables and the like. These can appear a pointless waste of your time and can cause you much needless grief if you don’t approach them in a sensible manner. This chapter discusses how and why you should do this.

In the case of procedures, you need to remember the literature on the theology of just wars. In case this has temporarily slipped your mind, one key conclusion was that there was no point in fighting a battle that you have no hope of winning. Your chances of persuading the institution to change its procedures within the duration of your PhD are somewhere between nil and zero, so what you need to do is to reach a mutually acceptable arrangement with The System. One way of doing this is by viewing the institution’s procedures as useful practice for important skills in later academic life, such as applying for large research grants which will fund your trips to conferences in exotic locations, or buy you very large bits of equipment, or whatever else appeals to you. However you choose to view them, the procedures are designed to measure you against a set list of criteria, with imperious disregard for your opinion on the suitability of these criteria for recognizing your genius.

What you need to do is to find out what the criteria are and then present the truth about yourself in the way best suited to those criteria. The procedures and The System are then satisfied, duty has been done, and everyone can get on with their lives.

There are several stages that you will undergo on the PhD, each with its own procedures, and each a hurdle which has to be crossed. These are listed below

14 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

in reverse order, which will probably irritate you initially, since you are likely to be focused on the next stage in front of you, rather than your final destination; however, the whole process makes a lot more sense if you work backwards from the end point.

Procedural stages Submission and viva The PhD is a long process which results in one document and one discussion.

The document is your written dissertation; the discussion is the viva voce examination, or viva, when you are asked penetrating questions by a panel of formidably bright and knowledgeable examiners. When the academic system decides whether or not you should have a PhD, it does this only by assessing your performance in the dissertation and the viva; all your other work

is irrelevant. There are three main ways in which people tend to view this:

• you still need to concentrate on each stage and do each properly, because otherwise you won’t get to the submission and viva stage;

• all that really matters is the dissertation and the viva, as long as you get through the previous stages somehow;

• all of this is preparation for what you do after you get through the PhD.

The first of these views is popular among administrators and among nervous students (who probably constitute the majority of PhD students), since it reduces the risk of people crashing into early hurdles because they didn’t aim to jump high enough. The second is less popular, but is more accurate, though it’s open to misinterpretation which can cause you needless grief (for instance, failing to realize that knowing how to deal with procedures is an important skill in later academic life). The third one is the least popular, but is actually the one which will stand you in best stead both for the PhD itself and for life afterwards. We will return to this topic repeatedly throughout this book.

That is the final stage; you may not enjoy it much at the time, but it’s actually good for you, and has a reasonable proportion of fairness and sense involved. It is not, however, the only stage. In many institutions, you will have to go through other stages before you reach the viva.

The candidate declaration form Before you can submit your dissertation, you will have to notify your institution formally that you are ready to do so, using a form called something like

the ‘candidate declaration form’. This form has two major purposes:





PROCEDURES AND MILESTONES 15

• it requires your supervisors to vouch for the quality of the work, because in signing the form they must declare both that they have read a complete draft and that the work is worthy of examination;

• it sets the machinery in motion to appoint your examiners, a process which may take some time, because it requires the provision of CVs, completion of forms and approval by relevant committees.

The annual report Each year during your doctoral studies, most institutions require your faculty, department, postgraduate tutor or supervisors to submit an annual report outlining your progress during the year, assessing your continuing potential for PhD completion, and making a recommendation about whether or not to continue your registration. A sensible strategy is to dig out your report from the previous year and write your report for the current year in a way which makes it very clear that you have made progress – members of the relevant committees will probably be checking this year’s report against last year’s and playing ‘spot the difference’.

Transfer Before you undergo trial by thesis and viva, you go through a process called ‘transfer’, short for ‘transfer of registration to PhD student’, also sometimes known as ‘passing probation’. This stage is academically as well as administratively important.

Contrary to pessimistic folklore among PhD students, institutions do care about whether their PhD students survive or fail, if only because a high incidence of failed PhDs reflects badly on the institution and can affect its funding. One simple and effective way of reducing the number of students who fail at the submission and viva stage is to reroute the problem cases before they reach that stage – if they don’t reach it, then they can’t fail it. The point at which this is traditionally done is known as the transfer stage. This is a point somewhere between the end of your first year and halfway through the PhD, when you should have done enough work for The System to have a fair idea of your ability. (If you haven’t done enough work, or it doesn’t give a fair idea of your ability, then this suggests that you are clueless, and should be rerouted on grounds of cluelessness above and beyond the call of duty.) The official way of presenting this is as the point where a decision is made about whether you should proceed to a PhD submission, or should follow another route to another qualification (note that there is nothing in this phrasing about ‘failure’; the university system did not survive from the Dark Ages to the present day by being bad at phrasing). Proceeding to a PhD submission is phrased as an active step (hence ‘transfer’) rather than as the default option.

The transfer is therefore an important stage, which normally involves

16 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

genuine academic assessment of how you are doing, rather than an administrative convenience. It normally involves you producing two things. One is a substantial document which shows (a) that you have done some decent work and (b) that you know the appropriate academic skills involved in describing and presenting that work. The other is some live performance, either a viva or a department seminar, at which you present your work and demonstrate many of the same things as with the document, except that the skills here involve spoken presentation. By an amazing coincidence, these two things can be viewed as useful practice for writing the thesis and undertaking the viva. The purpose of the document and the oral presentation is to demonstrate your competence – not to demonstrate perfection, nor to set your research plan in concrete.

Some students decide, around the transfer assessment, that doing a PhD is not for them. An honourable withdrawal, or an informed choice to undertake an MPhil, is actually a success for the student, the supervisors and The System.

It’s a much happier option for everyone than years of anxious and often unsuccessful toil.

The lesser transfer Some institutions have a preliminary stage, a sort of demi-transfer, under a variety of names. Unfortunately, the names are not terribly enlightening or are used in different ways across institutions, so we have made up this term instead. It describes another ‘quality control’ step, typically 6 to 12 months into the course of study (note that they will probably use some such phrasing, to make it clear that you aren’t a full PhD student yet). If it exists at your institution, you need to get through it by filling in the forms correctly and writing the right sort of document to support it, with the right sort of claims about what you are going to do in your research and how you are going to do it. Good strategies include correctly completed forms, neat presentation and spelling, plenty of worthy references to the right literature and a clear, practical-looking workplan. Bad strategies include asking what evidence there is that this stage actually has any value and asking whether they seriously think the workplan is anything more than evidence that you know how to do a workplan.

Signing on This stage does not involve unemployment benefit; it is our term for the stage where you are accepted by the institution to start studying toward a PhD. It will be called by different names in different institutions, and at least some of these names can be confused with the ‘lesser transfer’ stage described above, which is why we have used this name.

Note the phrasing: you sign on as a prospective PhD student. The whole process is phrased in terms of your having to make active moves from one

PROCEDURES AND MILESTONES 17

stage to another, rather than a default assumption that once you have started a PhD you will automatically end up being examined for one, unless you do something remarkably silly.

Because institutions worry about failure rates, they use procedures to filter applicants. These filters are fairly good at detecting some types of applicants who are disasters looking for somewhere to happen; they can also give the supervisor and the applicant a chance to decide whether they hate one another at first sight. Since the relationship between a supervisor and a student lasts as long as many marriages, and is about as close, this is an important issue. Just how good the filters are at identifying other types of problem student, and at predicting a given applicant’s chances of success, is a very different question.

A bit about why procedures are like this

Back in The Past, one popular procedure for a PhD was something along the following lines. You sought out a potential supervisor, told them about your plans to study something and then, if they thought you were worth taking on, you would start a PhD with them, quite probably on a totally different topic from the one you originally intended. You would then potter around doing a PhD with whatever level of supervision your supervisor felt like providing, and be left pretty much in peace until you either submitted your dissertation (quite probably on a different topic both from your original idea and from the one you subsequently changed to) or gave up and did something else instead, like becoming a mushroom farmer in Devon. A second popular procedure was for the department to show a student into a closely packed office, shut the door, open it in three years and demand, ‘Are you finished yet?’ Days long past; times long changed. Politicians started asking unpleasant questions about the amount of money being spent on funding PhDs which were never completed, and started making noises about quality and value for money. Funding bodies started insisting on ‘best practice’. Motherhood and democracy were praised. Procedures were implemented which, to paraphrase the classic quote, gave the appearance of progress while producing other things.

The result is that you will probably have to go through procedures such as the ones described above. Our advice is to cooperate with them, however much or little sense they seem to make; if they don’t seem to make much sense, cooperate with them all the same and save your energy for other battles.

Fill in the forms neatly, hand them in before the deadline and, essentially, show the skills that you need to show.

18 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

Useful further material Filling in forms

Some useful habits, in no particular order:

• read every form through to the end before starting to fill it in;

• if the form is important and you only have one copy, photocopy it, and fill in the copy as a practice run before filling in the final version;

• if you’re not sure what a particular section means, then refer to the notes – most forms have accompanying notes which most people don’t bother to read;

• if you find forms terrifying, ask someone to help you; if your fear is intense, then consider asking for help from someone who deals with phobias – the process is usually fast and surprisingly pleasant;

• photocopy every form that you fill in, after you have completed it, and keep the copies neatly filed – they can be useful reminders for how to fill in the forms, as well as a record of what you claimed last time.

Criteria for a PhD: some reassurance

PhD students often worry about whether their research will be good enough for a PhD. It’s useful to remember the criteria which most universities have at the core of their PhD assessment: the PhD is normally described using phrases such as ‘an original and significant contribution to knowledge’. By a fortunate coincidence, most successful contributions to journals and conferences are thought of in the same way. Therefore, you can provide evidence of ‘significance’, ‘originality’ and ‘contribution to knowledge’ in advance of submission of your thesis by publishing your work in refereed journals or conference papers. There is more on this at various places later in this book.

You don’t need to make a major discovery to get a PhD – you just need to show that you’re able to do good enough research by yourself.

3 The system

–  –  –

This section describes some key features of the academic system. One of these is the academic pecking order – ranks, roles, positions, etc. Another is trouble, in the form of potential sources of trouble from within The System.



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