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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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(Have you ever tried tracking down an article from an incomplete or incorrect reference? If so, you’ll know why externals get particular about things like your bibliography.) You need to write like a professional academic writing for other professional academics, not in the simplified language of a textbook or a popular article.

If you are doing an MSc then you have to share your external examiners with everyone else on the course. These externals are chosen to ensure that academic standards are met on the course; they are usually respected figures from another academic institution or from industry.


Your supervisor Your supervisor has a balancing act to perform. On the one hand, you are a potential source of publications, fame and support in the eternal struggle against chaos, darkness, rivals and suchlike. On the other hand, you require time, attention and energy, all of which are in short supply and could be poured into other things with more obvious short-term pay-offs, such as grant applications, journal papers and professional politics, not to mention doing DIY around the house and occasionally noticing the family.

Supervisors are human, and have remarkably varied approaches to supervision. These range from hiding in a cupboard when they hear you in the distance (allegedly true), to making Zen-like cryptic comments (true, as we can testify from personal experience), to giving detailed blueprints of what to do and how to do it (also true, but not always as much use as you might think).

Some are good, and some are bad, but it’s not always easy to tell the difference.

Being told exactly how to do your particular PhD may feel good at the time, but what happens when you go into your first job and are expected to do things all by yourself, without your supervisor to guide you?

Other students Other students can be a source of support and inspiration. They can also be a source of misinformation and depression, which is why they are listed here among enemies.

There are all sorts of legends floating round the research student population.

One or two of them are probably true, but most are folk myths at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. If in doubt, ask a mentor about the legend, and ask them to explain why it is false (or true). The answers can be very enlightening.

A favourite occupation among research students is gloomily comparing progress (‘I only managed to work for 16 hours yesterday. How are you getting on?’) This sort of mind game is good for chocolate sales, but not much else.

One effective way of getting out of this one is to lie (‘Oh, things are great, thanks – lots of interesting results, and the writing up is going well’). This usually deters the doom-mongers pretty quickly and persuades them to leave you alone.

Things Books There are different types of book. Textbooks are for undergraduates. They are simplified accounts, made easy for the unenlightened. At postgraduate level you are expected to read the real thing, unsimplified, in all its messy and complex glory. You normally find this in journal articles and some specialist books.

Books are only a minor source of cutting-edge information in most sciences;

THE SYSTEM 27 they are useful reference sources, especially when they are classic texts that changed a field, but they are not usually anywhere near enough by themselves.

The reason for this involves resources. Books take a lot of time and effort to write; there’s also no point in writing a book unless you have a bookful of things to say. Usually the findings from an individual piece of research are about enough to fill a chapter in a book, or, by a fascinating coincidence, a journal article. Also, the findings of most individual pieces of research are unlikely to be of sufficient interest to the world to sell more than a handful of books. For a career researcher, it’s no contest: the same amount of effort can produce either several years’ worth of good journal papers which will be read by most serious players in the field, or one book which will probably sell only a few copies. (Textbooks and reference books are different; they are written with the market in mind. However, they are not intended to be used as primary research tools.) There are, however, books which are invaluable and often classic sources of information. For instance, the classic text on the shortcomings of human judgement and decision making is a book edited by Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky. Writing a book like this can make a great difference to a career, provided that you can find a topic which will repay the effort.

One useful thing you can do with books is to get an overview of an area when you are deciding whether or not to delve into it. A book chapter normally has about the right level of detail for this – for instance, if you were wondering whether or not to include something about game theory in your research, a book or journal article on the topic would probably overwhelm you, but a book chapter would be a lot more manageable. It would also give you the conceptual framework you need to make sense of the more detailed and advanced literature if you decide to follow that line.

Journals Journals are your friend, but we’ve included them here so we can make some points again. You should read lots of journal articles, including ones outside your field, from time to time, as a source of interesting insights into other disciplines. You never know when these might come in useful. If you’re in a science or related discipline, it’s also useful to read New Scientist, Science, Nature and Scientific American as a way of keeping up to date with what’s happening elsewhere. Whatever your discipline, you should know which the main journals are in your field and read them regularly.

If you are a PhD student, you should be aiming to publish in journals.

It is not as hard as people believe, if you know what you are doing. Reading the section on getting articles published in journals (see p. 85) is a good start; so is reading the ‘Notes to contributors’ section of your target journal (a surprising number of people don’t bother, and pay the price for their sloth).


The internet The internet (or more precisely, in most cases, the worldwide web) is much loved by kids in baseball caps. It is useful for known-item searches, where you want a single answer to a clear question such as ‘When was the battle of Wagram?’ (You may not get a single answer, and if you do, it may be wrong, since the internet puts you at the mercy of every teenager in Idaho who can put up a web page full of unreliable facts, but usually you will get a decent answer.) For anything else (e.g. ‘Who really wrote the Consolatio?’), the web is a treacherous, unreliable and usually amateurish source of information, misinformation and downright lies. A search may happen to find a brilliant, relevant and up-to-date reference; however, as a source of overviews about what is going on in the field it is pretty much useless. What you find on the web reflects what has been put on the web (and also the quality of your search). A lot of the sites on the web were put there by people with very strange agendas (trying to find out anything about the pyramids via the web will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about extraterrestrial visitors and conspiracy theory, for instance...) You have no way of knowing what sort of match there is between what is actually going on and what has been put on the web. For systematic information about research in your field, you need to use proper sources of information such as bibliographic databases, which will accurately reflect the work going on in the field. You should know what the main sources are for your area, and should be on friendly terms with the relevant librarians who can be invaluable allies. Learning how to do a proper search is also an invaluable help.

Habits Learned helplessness If you give animals electric shocks when they attempt escape, in a situation where they can’t escape, eventually they stop trying to escape, even when the situation changes and escape is possible. (Like Milgram’s conformity experiment, the research behind this finding would probably not get past an ethics committee today, but is invaluable as an insight into apparently unlikely behaviour.) PhD students are particularly prone to this feeling, and usually go through at least one phase of feeling that they are getting nowhere and that there is no point in keeping going. If this is an accurate description of how you’re feeling, then pull yourself together long enough to eat some chocolate and acquire a self-help book (e.g. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway). Read the book, set yourself some manageable goals that are at least vaguely relevant and talk things through with someone who can give you sensible supportive advice. Also, get some exercise away from your usual haunts, to help acquire a sense of perspective. Once you’ve done this, you should be sufficiently clear of the immediate doldrums to be able to plan a sensible way forward for yourself.

THE SYSTEM 29 One of the advantages of well-designed research is that you should know precisely what you are doing at each stage of the research, and what you will do in response to each eventuality that might come along. The bad news is that this might involve knowing in advance that you will go through a long phase of data crunching; the good news is that if you know this, you should know precisely how to crunch the data, and what to do with the results when you finally get them. If you don’t know this in advance, then you need to rethink your research design.

Expressive behaviour Expressive behaviour often accompanies learned helplessness. Instrumental behaviour is behaviour which moves you towards your goals. Expressive behaviour is behaviour intended to demonstrate to others what sort of person you are. A student sitting in the library wading through the six key texts for their area of research is engaging in instrumental behaviour. The student sitting at the next table reading the same page of an irrelevant paper over and over again in a state of nervous collapse is going in for expressive behaviour (‘Look how hard I’m working! Please have mercy...’) The student who produces a thesis containing all the features that their external examiners love is also engaging in expressive behaviour, but of a much more useful sort.

Unfortunately for some, examiners mark what you produce, not what sort of person you are; the brilliant piece of work by someone who hacked it together in a couple of days will be better received than a mediocre piece of work produced by someone who laboured over it for months.

Taking ages to get nowhere There are several quite different reasons for this, with different implications.

Reason 1: you are taking ages to get nowhere because you don’t have the faintest idea what you are doing and where you are going. If you suspect this is the case, draw a diagram. It consists of an arrow going into a box. The arrow is your research question, the box is the data collection and analysis. Now draw arrows emerging from the box, with each arrow representing a different logically possible outcome from the data collection and analysis. For instance, the outcomes may be ‘A is greater than B’, ‘A is smaller than B’ and ‘A and B are the same size’. You should be able to list all the possible outcomes and explain why each one tells you something useful and significant. You should also know exactly what form your data will take and how you are going to analyse it, right down to the level of what tables you will use to show your results. (You should not, however, have more than a shrewd suspicion which particular answer you will find, otherwise the research is probably too trivial to bother with.) If you fail this test, then you are taking chances and may well end up getting nowhere. Redesigning your research is a good idea in such cases;


it doesn’t mean that you have to use quantitative methods or whatever your personal bugbear is, or that you have to abandon your area of research. It simply means that you have to revise your question so that it’s guaranteed to reduce the problem space (i.e. eliminate a set of possibilities which had previously seemed plausible), rather than being a bet on a particular finding. Gambling with several years of your life is not usually a wise idea, and undertaking research only if you are sure that the results will confirm your initial beliefs is a very dodgy undertaking – what would you do if the data disagreed with your initial beliefs? Fiddle the data or face the prospect of changing your opinions?

Reason 2: (in no particular order) you are taking ages to get nowhere simply because you are in the middle of a PhD or an MSc project. If you pass the diagram test and are more than a third of the way through your planned time, then this is likely to be the explanation. The ‘second-year blues’ are a fairly normal part of doing a PhD.

Reason 3: you are engaged in an invisible support activity. These are essential to good research, but by definition involve effort with no visible output.

Examples range from stocking up your stationery, to checking whether anyone has done any previous work similar to your next intended piece of research, to doing general background reading (as opposed to focused reading). You have to do these things. Stationery is essential, as is background checking.

General reading is highly advisable, since a lot of the best work comes from applying work from one area to another area. (One of us once supervised an undergraduate dissertation which took a nineteenth-century researcher’s formalisms for describing the structure of Russian folk tales and applied them to the plots of computer games... excellent and highly entertaining work, with a lot of implications for the computer games industry, but not exactly the sort of thing which is likely to emerge from focused reading.) The trouble is that you can never tell in advance when something will be useful or where;

the Russian folk tale idea derived from reading about the topic some 20 years previously. The good news is that when you do encounter a relevant area for this sort of cross-fertilization you can produce brilliant work for very little apparent effort. This is one area where keeping your ideas to yourself until you’re ready to publish might be advisable, since the important issue is the concept of applying one particular body of work to another area, rather than the actual findings.

Other assorted bad habits There are numerous other bad habits which afflict researchers, such as bad time management, procrastination and not bothering to become familiar with the tools of the trade. If you are to sort yourself out properly, you need to learn how to identify and correct bad habits. That doesn’t mean you have to proceed to correcting them. Many habits, such as following an interest regardless of whether it looks like a good career move, are personal choices and you THE SYSTEM 31 might decide that the positive side of the habit is well worth the price. Others, though, such as refusing to accept that you are wrong, are bad for you. You won’t improve without change; you won’t undergo change without pain.

Learn to accept the pain as a friend and your life will be transformed.

Those of you who are worried about the long-term consequences of close familiarity with pain might be reassured to learn that there are ways of tackling research which involve a minimum risk of having to admit that you are wrong.

Phrasing the research question in such a way that you have not committed yourself to any of the possible outcomes is a good example of this: whatever happens (short of a total shambles) you will have proof of your brilliance in identifying the right question in the first place. This is probably a good place to end this chapter, before uneasy images of BDSM and leather start to creep into the darker corners of your subconscious...

4 Supervision Or, PhDs, marriage and desert islands

Could that fellow have me whipped?

When you become a PhD student, you embark on what is likely to be an intense relationship, both personally and professionally, with your supervisor.

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