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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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Ranks and stations Academic titles, ranks and roles can trace their heritage back to the time of the Byzantine Empire and beyond. It shows. The account below should be treated as a general set of principles, rather than gospel. It starts with the most menial position, which ranks just above administrators and students on taught courses in the eyes of the research community, and works up to the most exalted. An important point to remember is that although the titles are known and used around the world, the same titles are frequently used in quite different ways in different institutions.


Research assistant A research assistant is someone who is employed to carry out research for a member of academic staff. This research is usually, but not always, work on a research project, paid for out of a research grant obtained by the member of staff as a result of a successful research proposal to a funding body. This means that the research will probably have been planned in advance, quite possibly in considerable detail. This in turn means that the research assistant’s role is mired in ambiguity from the start. The grant-holder will probably take the view that any glory arising from the work (including first authorship of papers) should go to the person who planned the work and obtained the grant which made it possible (namely themselves). The research assistant will probably take the view that the grant proposal consisted largely of a series of plausible claims which could not be translated into meaningful research without a lot of further detailed work, carried out by the research assistant, who should therefore have a fair share of any glory which arises (including first authorship of papers). A standard-issue research assistant who has just completed a first degree is not in a strong position to argue this case. The situation is somewhat different for postdoctoral research assistants, but usually not entirely different.

Postdoctoral research assistants This title covers an interesting variety of sins and virtues. Postdoctoral research assistants have a PhD of their own, and may be anywhere on a spectrum from fresh young and newly qualified beginners embarking on a career, to massively experienced and often bloody-minded veterans who know at least as much about their area as the grant-holder. Postdoctoral research assistants are often given the title of ‘research fellow’, which is a fine source of potential confusion, since the same title is used in a very different sense in very old universities.

Lecturers A lectureship is usually the first solid step on the way to a career. Research assistants normally live from one short-term contract to the next. Lectureships are usually permanent or indefinite in duration, and offer enough stability to let you get things done. There are also important things which you are not usually allowed to do until you are a permanent member of staff, such as applying for research grants from the main funding bodies, so the transition to lecturer is an important one. However, the position of lecturers (as opposed to senior lecturers, Readers, etc.) is demonstrated reasonably clearly by the entry below on cats, which features a true story (one of us knows the room and the armchairs well, though the cat had sadly died before our time there).

THE SYSTEM 21 Cats One of our colleagues, when a new lecturer at an old university, was in the senior common room for the first time, looking for somewhere to sit. The senior common room in question is in a country house with wooden panelling and old leather armchairs. The only old leather armchair without anyone sitting in it was occupied by a cat. Our colleague went to evict the cat and take the seat. He was nearly thrown out of the room in disgrace for not realizing that this was the cat’s favourite armchair, and for having the temerity to wake it.

Senior lecturers One grade up from lecturer (and cats), this is the point at which many (perhaps most) academics end up. It’s respectable, and it’s no disgrace to be at this grade.

If you want a career, though, rather than a job, you will need to think about moving on from here, either to become a principal lecturer (PL), a Reader or a professor.

Principal lecturers (PLs) This role is usually (but not always) treated as an administrative rather than a research role. It is usually (but not always) occupied by harassed, overworked, under-appreciated people who have gone prematurely grey. Few departments would last long without PLs. Most PLs deserve better out of life.

Readers Spelled with a capital ‘R’ to make it clear that this is a role, not a simple indication of literacy. Usually a Readership is a stepping-stone to a chair on the research route (yes, we could more helpfully have specified that a ‘chair’ means a professorship, but that would have spoiled a vivid mixed metaphor);

Readers typically move on from this role fairly swiftly, assuming that they are continuing to do the right things which earned them a Readership in the first place – papers out in good journals, research money in and indications of plenty more where that came from. Many people bypass this stage completely – some institutions favour Readerships as a sort of probationary stage, others don’t bother with them. Some institutions treat Readerships as broadly equivalent to a proper research fellowship.

Proper research fellows A full-time permanent research post, usually in a very eminent old university;

much coveted, and highly prestigious, though the accommodation may be draughty.


Professors (also known as chairs) There are several different formal types of professor. To understand this, it is necessary to remember the distinction between a title, a post and a person.

Some people are professors because they are occupying a post which brings a chair with it – for instance, the post of Head of the Department of Difficult Concepts might be accompanied by a professorship. Some people are professors because they have successfully applied for a specific chair which has an identity of its own – for instance, the Disney Chair of Archaeology. Others again are professors because they are all-round good eggs (i.e. they have shown such academic merit that they are given their own personal title of ‘professor’).

Still others are given honorary professorships at other institutions – it is perfectly possible to be a principal lecturer (PL) in Stochastic Ethics at one institution and to be an honorary professor at another institution, both at the same time. Others again are given the title of professor in their own institution, but are employed as Readers. Yet others are emeritus professors because they have done too many worthy things to ignore. Confused? Be honest... The situation is worse at American universities, but we won’t go into that. By the way, one of the titles in this paragraph is genuine, which just goes to show something, though we’re not quite sure what.

How to become a professor is a rich topic; the ground rules will almost certainly have changed by the time most of our readers reach that exalted state, but it’s too juicy a subject to ignore. Formally speaking, would-be professors nowadays usually have to submit their applications through a panel, and there are numerous regulations about what needs to be produced as supporting evidence, who can and cannot be on the panel and so forth. The central concept is that the applicant should have a body of work which forms a coherent whole, and which is of at least national significance. Things such as publication rates, income generation, PhD student completions, academic roles and so forth are involved. Formal academic qualifications are splendidly ignored in this process. In fact, many older professors don’t have PhDs – the PhD was viewed by many within living memory as a rather dubious foreign innovation.

There is, however, more to the story than this. Anyone who reaches this stage on the slippery pole has to be either reasonably competent at realpolitik, or too much of an asset to lose, or both. The adroit applicant will usually have made very sure that they are a significant asset to the institution (or at least to the bit of it concerned with their potential chair). No institution wants to risk losing someone who is a significant asset, so any implicit risk of that person moving elsewhere in high dudgeon after being refused a chair is likely to be treated seriously. Various discreet manoeuvres are likely to be made by both parties at around this stage.

As you have probably guessed by now, the topic of academic ranks, roles and titles is a rich and wonderful world in its own right. Describing it in all its dubious glory would bring death to a large number of trees, so we will draw a discreet close at this point.

THE SYSTEM 23 Potential sources of trouble: knowing your enemies Your enemies are not only the wolf-pack (i.e. hostile audiences when you give a talk). Not all of them are people (enemies, that is, not colleagues). Some enemies are things; others are your own habits.

People The kid in the baseball cap Baseball caps are very useful to supervisors since they are usually a good indicator of a student whose dissertation should be supervised by somebody else (preferably a loathed colleague). The package which usually accompanies the baseball cap includes idleness, a belief that research is a sissy waste of time anyway, a tendency to search on the internet rather than do a proper literature search and a surprising fondness for badly designed surveys, preferably involving either even more badly designed questionnaires or alleged interviews for which no contemporaneous records were kept. Their theses usually start with some facile truisms about the spread of the internet (or whatever the hot topic is in their field), and then degenerate via bad spelling and appalling grammar into clip art and coloured pie charts in the vain hope that these will impress the examiner.

If you are reading this book, then you are unlikely to belong to this stereotype. However, you need to know about them, since one of their annoying byproducts is to make some topics potential minefields for good researchers.

An example of this is any research topic involving the internet. Since this is a favourite among kids in baseball caps, anyone doing serious research into this area has to make it extremely clear to the reader from the very first sentence that this thesis was not written by someone in a baseball cap. Here are some


Example 1 Successful web page design can be fundamental to the success or failure of a venture on the internet.

Example 2 At the heart of software design is a seldom-acknowledged tension between on the one hand the desire for standards and conventions, and on the other the desire to avoid plagiarism and infringement of copyright.

Example 1 could equally easily have been written by an authority on web design or by someone with only superficial knowledge of the topic.


Example 2 could not have been written without (a) detailed and advanced knowledge of the topic under discussion and (b) some original thought about the topic.

Examples 1 and 2 were both written by the same person. Example 1 was the first draft; Example 2 was the second draft, rewritten with the explicit aim of making it clear that the thesis was not the work of someone in a baseball cap.

Fashions come and fashions go, but the wearers (and their bad habits and their spiritual descendants) will be there for the foreseeable future... anyone diligent and hard-working who genuinely likes baseball caps might draw consolation from the thought that someday the baseball cap may be a sign of an excellent student...

The informed layperson Science starts where general knowledge ends. We do not give degrees to people for their store of general knowledge; we mark theses on the basis of how much they go beyond general knowledge.

You need to make it clear how your findings go beyond what an intelligent and well-informed layperson would be able to say from general knowledge.

If you can’t do this then you will probably fail, and rightly so. Before you even start your data collection, you need to know exactly why you are asking the research question at the heart of your work; if the answers are trivial, general knowledge answers, then there’s something seriously wrong with your question. A good question has clear possible answers, each of which would tell you something useful, and preferably have practical as well as theoretical implications.

Advocates of common sense It’s not quite clear what common sense is, but it is widely advocated as an alternative to research. (Asking an advocate of common sense to define exactly what they mean by ‘common sense’ can be an interesting exercise, if you don’t mind being shouted at...) The term usually means something involving general knowledge and reasoning from first principles. There are several problems with this. One is that general knowledge is general; it has nothing to say about (for instance) whether autism is a discrete condition or a continuum.

The second is that reasoning is a fine thing, but needs to be checked against reality at each link in the chain of reasoning. What usually happens when you do this is that you find a mismatch between reality and prediction every couple of links or so. This is probably one of the reasons why research is widely disliked among the lay public: it is pretty uncomfortable to have your general knowledge and reasoning called into question, and research has an ugly habit of doing just that. A famous Victorian described the tragedy at the heart of science as the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact. (It doesn’t stop researchers constructing more beautiful theories, though...) Anyway, that’s moving onto a different topic. Back to your enemies.

THE SYSTEM 25 The external examiner There are two main types of external examiner. They are actually your friends, but hardly anyone manages to believe that deep down, so they are described here as enemies. They are the sort who either destroy you or make you stronger; Nietzsche would have approved.

If you are undergoing a PhD then you will be examined by your very own personal external examiner (or, more often, two external examiners: institutions vary in their customs). The external examiner will be an authority in the area of your thesis. Externals (to use the normal abbreviation) are frequently nit-picking pedants with a bad habit of reading every single line of your thesis, using a ruler or equivalent to mark their place so they don’t miss a line. Their role is to make sure that your work is up to the standard expected of a PhD at any institution in the country. PhD students tend to worry a lot about external examiners, sometimes with good reason.

The regulations usually lay down conditions about who is or is not eligible to be an external. For instance, someone who has co-authored with you on your last three journal papers would normally be judged to have a potential conflict of interests through being too closely involved with your work. This might in extreme cases be a problem, if you are working in a very unusual area where there are very few potential externals. A shrewd supervisor might identify a couple of potential externals at the start of your PhD with the specific aim of ensuring that you keep enough professional distance from them to be able to use them as externals. A sensible supervisor will make sure that the externals have enough standing in the field to be credible, and that they are likely to treat you fairly (not necessarily gently, but fairly). Unfair externals tend not to be invited to many places; word gets around.

The external will be expecting your work to be of a sufficient quality for you to count as ‘one of us’. You will need to demonstrate this in the thesis itself (the external will probably never have met you before, and will in any case be looking at the thesis alone, not at how nice a person you are or how hard you have worked). Your thesis needs to look like the work of a professional who pays attention to detail, particularly the details which matter.

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