«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 ...»
• Provide key publications: send copies of papers you consider to be seminal to your supervisors in advance of the meeting, particularly if you wish to discuss them. Make sure the full citation is marked on the copy. Providing papers is a courtesy you can do your supervisor, and having them on hand can facilitate discussion.
• Show up on time: if you’re late, bring sin-offerings, such as chocolate biscuits.
• Write down your objectives: know what you want to get out of the meeting, whether it’s technical, administrative or emotional. Give yourself a prioritized checklist in advance. It helps to have something interesting to discuss when you enter the meeting – if you don’t have ideas, then prepare questions.
• Check the agenda with your supervisors: ﬁnd out what your supervisors want to get out of the meeting. Agree an agenda.
• Behave well: listen and consider before you speak. Be prepared to give a candid account of your progress. Ask the obvious questions – they may seem stupid to you, but they rarely are. It’s horribly easy to overlook the obvious.
Focus on ideas, not emotions. Trust your supervisor and don’t take things personally. Make counter-proposals if you don’t like what your supervisors are advising – this can help expose discrepancies in your thinking and help you understand the rationale for your supervisor’s guidance.
• Take notes.
• Book the next meeting: set a date for your next meeting before you leave.
Set a preliminary agenda.
• After the meeting, email an action-item summary: immediately after the meeting, write a list of agreed action items (both yours and your supervisor’s), with deadlines if possible, and email it to all concerned, asking for conﬁrmation that you’ve summarized correctly. Include the date of the next meeting.
Some classic ways to undermine your relationship withyour supervisor
• Hiding (yourself, or real or imagined problems)
• Ignoring (advice you don’t understand; advice you don’t like)
• Mixing (business with pleasure or with personal issues)
• Gossiping (about your supervisor or colleagues)
• Denigrating (your supervisor, department or institution)
• Bypassing (your supervisor, by making decisions without due consultation) SUPERVISION 45
• Assuming (what something meant; what you’re entitled to do)
• Sinning (illegal or unethical acts – these are in a different league from the failings listed above) If in doubt, ask. This is particularly important in relation to assuming and sinning. Students often don’t check that they really understand something that they’re not quite sure about, and then end up with serious misunderstandings and serious problems. Similarly, students often have mistaken understandings of what is considered reasonable; for instance, is it reasonable or not to phone your supervisor at home without explicit prior agreement?
Illegal acts are usually fairly easy to identify, but unethical ones may require much more knowledge. For instance, thanking respondents by name in the acknowledgements section may be intended as a sign of genuine appreciation, but may breach their anonymity and lead to signiﬁcant professional and legal problems. Commercial sensitivity is another problematic area, as is publication of draft material. If in doubt, ask...
5 Networks The ﬁrst horrible incident of our acquaintance was the greatest shock I ever experienced, and it is only with reluctance that I repeat it.
Contrary to a widespread belief among the general public and among depressed second-year PhD students, you don’t complete a PhD in gloomy isolation. There are lots of people who help you, not just through your doctoral research, but also throughout your subsequent career; there are more who can help you, if you ﬁnd them. This network won’t be conﬁned to eminent academics who are noted experts. It will more usefully also include lesser mortals whom you ﬁnd good for conversations, who are good readers and commentators, who may have insight into theories, literatures and methodologies with which you are less familiar, who themselves have good networks and are happy to introduce you to useful people, who understand The System and so on. Some students have good networks; others don’t. This chapter describes networks and how to create a good one for yourself.
One common misconception is that networks involve cliques of people doing morally dubious favours for each other, at the expense of more virtuous but less well-connected ordinary people. That’s only one type of network.
We’re using the term in the different sense of normal, ethical support networks and normal, ethical professional networks – people you know and can turn to for advice.
Building a network
Networks don’t just happen; they’re something you build, whether consciously or without thinking about it. Even if you’re normally good at building networks without conscious effort, PhD networks will by deﬁnition be new to you, so it’s worth knowing about a network structure which most students ﬁnd useful.
At the heart of your network, of course, are your supervisors.
A second important component of your network is your informal ‘committee’, (i.e. people who will help you to ensure that your research is of good quality). For this, you need a small set of reliable, interested academics who are willing to do some work for you, to read, to comment, to advise, to critique, to provide pointers, to introduce you to other researchers and so on. They may be specialists who can provide particular expertise, or they may be generalists who can ask incisive questions.
A third main component is your personal support network (i.e. people who give you encouragement and moral support, who help you manage your work, keep life in perspective and bring you pizza when you’re in the throes of inspiration). They may be family, or fellow students, or old friends. They may be academics in your department who are good at bringing you to your senses.
In addition, you need people who can be called on occasionally for specialist help, or whom you can visit once or twice to pick their brains. They may be leading researchers in your specialist ﬁeld, or they may be technical experts who know about things like laboratory instruments, running databases and formatting documents.
Targeting Most networking is opportunistic: if you meet someone that you happen to like, or ﬁnd a useful contact, then you stay in touch with them. Sometimes, however, you need to ﬁnd particular kinds of help or expertise, and for that
you need a strategy. Three particularly useful starting points are:
• the writers of particularly relevant papers;
• people you saw or met at a conference who had pertinent and interesting things to say;
• people recommended by someone reliable (e.g. your supervisor, or a member of your informal committee).
Once you’ve identiﬁed some possible leads, you need to do some initial work and then make contact. The initial work consists of some homework.
There’s a reason why you’ve identiﬁed this person as someone to contact, but don’t forget to ﬁnd out what else you can about the person before you
48 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCHmake contact, since there may be other ways in which they can help you. It also makes the contact easier if you know something about the person you’re
contacting. Some things you can do are to:
• check their website;
• ask people who know them;
• check with the person’s secretary about when would be a good time to call, and whether the person is in the country.
Another useful bit of preparation is to consider what it is that you want to ask them. It’s not enough to say that you’re working in the same area as they are – they might justiﬁably react to this news by thinking, ‘So what?’ You need to say whether you want to clarify something about their work, or want a chance to discuss ideas, or want them to review your work. The more focused and informed the question you ask, the better the chances of things going well. Remember that anyone with enough stature to be worth approaching is probably also approached by other students. A surprising number of these students will ask vague, lazy questions which amount to, ‘Can you tell me everything I need for my literature review, to save me the effort of ﬁnding it out for myself?’ This is why we stress the need for tact and courtesy when asking someone for an overview of something over a cup of coffee – there’s a world of difference between a cup of coffee with a well-read, hard-working student and a cup of coffee with an ignorant, idle one.
Tools for networking Two of the main time-honoured tools for networking are shameless ﬂattery and bribery. Shameless ﬂattery usually takes the form of shameless ﬂattery; bribery usually takes the form of coffee, chocolate biscuits and practical favours such as unearthing obscure references. (Just in case of misunderstanding, real bribery via monetary or sexual favours is unethical and illegal, and we emphatically disapprove of it.) Flattery The secret of effective ﬂattery is that it is barefaced, precise, economical and accurate. That is, it has to ﬂow easily and openly from the ﬂatterer, it has to relate speciﬁcally and accurately to the ﬂatteree, you mustn’t overdo it, and it must bear some relation to reality. One well-informed, well-placed compliment on a recent publication will do more good than ten vague generalities. It also reduces the risk of your compliment being mistaken for the opening line in a seduction attempt – attractive women researchers at conferences apparently have more than enough unwanted attention of this sort.
NETWORKS 49 Coffee Eminent people are human too, and at venues such as conferences they can be very glad of a break and a decent cup of coffee paid for by someone else. Coffee can be used in various ways. One is as the setting for unofﬁcial advice of one sort or another – career prospects, organizational politics, the future of a research ﬁeld. Another is as a chance to unwind a bit at a gruelling conference or similar occasion. Treating someone to a cup of decent coffee as a break from a long admin session can be a real act of kindness, especially if you behave with tact and consideration during the coffee (for instance, by not talking about work, if your guest wants to get away from it for a while).
Chocolate biscuits These are a surprisingly useful incentive. If you offer someone some cash to be a subject in your experiment, it might motivate them to some extent. If you offer them an upmarket chocolate biscuit and real coffee, then this is likely to motivate them considerably more, and make them more cooperative and friendly into the bargain. There is a literature on the reasons for this (it involves ‘currencies’, ‘strokes’, and ‘judgement and decision making’, if you feel inclined to follow it up, not to mention ‘cognitive dissonance’).
Not many people believe in the efﬁcacy of chocolate biscuits, which is probably just as well, because if everyone adopted this approach then it would devalue the currency, and the shrewd researcher would need to ﬁnd a different incentive (which would be a double annoyance to those researchers who happen to like upmarket chocolate biscuits).
Trading favours People are busy. Interesting people are often very busy. One way to borrow some of their precious time is to offer them an exchange – to do something of value for them which allows them to free some time for you. For example, you could offer to do some administrative work or library searching in exchange for half an hour of discussion over coffee (you still buy the coffee).
First contact – people in your institution It’s usually easier to make contact with someone local, because it’s feasible to ‘just drop by’ their ofﬁce and take them to coffee. Just because they’re local, that doesn’t guarantee that they’re available or friendly; you still have to do the homework ﬁrst.
First contact – cold calls ‘Cold calls’ (contacting someone who doesn’t know you) outside your own institution can be awkward both for the caller and the person being called.
50 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCHIt’s hard to establish the basis for a conversation in a sentence or two, but you can make it easier if you prepare in advance. Cold calls can succeed if you can establish quickly that the exchange can be of mutual beneﬁt. So think through in advance what you want, and what you have to offer in exchange.
Your best chance is to establish an immediate connection with the person you’re contacting (e.g. through an introduction by a mutual acquaintance such as your supervisor or through reference to that person’s publications).
Having made that link, you need to say who you are and what you want.
Smart researchers like students with interesting ideas, and so they generally respond well to them, especially ones who have potential as named candidates on future grant applications. But sometimes active researchers already have as much work as they can handle, so you shouldn’t assume that they’ll have time for you – or that a lack of response necessarily means a lack of interest.
Be prepared to follow up your initial contact with some substance, for example a good, one-page précis of your research, or a well-constructed conference paper reporting some of your early ﬁndings. Make sure what you send represents you well: ensure that it is clearly written, free of major and minor errors and clear it with your supervisors and other experienced readers ﬁrst.
Via phone Phoning works best if you have a ‘hook’ for the person you’re calling, for example if you’ve been referred to them by someone they know, or if you’ve already emailed them and suggested that you will call. You need to establish quickly who you are and why you’re calling, and then you need to ask if this is a convenient time for, say, a ﬁve-minute conversation. Often, it won’t be – be prepared to call back at another time. Also be prepared to follow up via email or post.
Via email or post Published researchers, especially well-known ones, are inundated with requests from random research students wanting favours. Requests that run ‘Dear Professor Haagen, I am a graduate student in Budapest researching ice cream and I wonder if you could offer me any advice about a choice of research topic’ are tediously uninformative and suggest that the student, being incompetent, is not worth the bother of answering. On the other hand, concise requests that give substantive information about the student’s research and ask speciﬁc questions are far more interesting and usually attract a response, though perhaps not an immediate one. It might well take the researcher six months to ﬁnd time to read your message, decide to think about it, lose it in the crush of work, and eventually ﬁnd it again and reply. Maybe the researcher won’t reply but will remember a good message when you meet
at a conference and introduce yourself. Think about it from their point of view:
NETWORKS 51 if you had 50 emails about a research bid with a budget of several million pounds, and a deadline next Tuesday, would you defer answering them until you’d read every word of an email from a PhD student you’d never heard of before? If anything, it’s surprising how many positive responses you can get to a well-constructed cold call.
If the researcher does reply to your message, be sure to send a thank you message immediately. If you have a good summary of your research, or of a piece of it, then you might attach it to the follow-up message.
We have deliberately not included examples of good cold call emails, since we don’t particularly want to be lynched by eminent colleagues who receive large numbers of identically worded requests for help in the weeks following publication of this book, but some things to think about include the