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Ethics support for projects: HREC and SRPP

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On 24 January 2024 I attended a bit of a professional development session that shared an overview of two important points, and organisational units, which relates to research and research ethics. The session was facilitated by Alison Fox, Steven Bond, who was from the data protection team, and Bart Gamber, who was from the Student Research Project Panel (SRPP).

Introducing HREC

Research ethics is important. To help OU researchers and doctoral students, there is something called Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) which provides services to researchers, and provides an ethical approval mechanism. 

Ethical approval needs to be taken really seriously for a number of reasons. Approval ensures the safety of researchers and safety of participants. A further check of your research aims can also improve the quality of your research. My argument is that articulating your research to others can only improve its clarity and purpose. Also, when it comes to publishing your research, some journals will insist on a detailed summary of how you have approached ethics, and some journals will directly ask for evidence of whether you have gained formal ethical approval as a part of a study.

There are, however, some projects that might not need HREC review or approval, such as an evaluative study that takes place within a course, or a study which is feeding back into a university service, for example. Also, research that is designed to inform a work practice, market research, or research with data that has already been collected (where that data set has been gathered through a process which ha been subject to its own ethical approval).

HREC offers links to other teams and groups that can offer help and advice, such as the library and information security teams (if not using core university systems). You might, for example, gather a lot of data. If you think that other researchers might want to use your data, the library will be able to offer advice and guidance about how (and where) to make that data available. Also, knowing how to secure your data is also an important part of the ethics process.

Submissions are made to HREC through something called the ethical review manager tool (which reminds me of the name of another tool: the postgraduate research manager tool).

If anyone has any questions about the process, the facilitators encouraged anyone to get in contact. To help everyone navigate through all these practical questions and challenges, it was interesting (and useful) to learn that HREC run research monthly drop in sessions, which typically take place on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.

Introducing SRPP

A related unit goes by the abbreviation, SRPP, which is short for the Student Research Project Panel. The way that I understand it, SRPP has a couple of interconnected aims. It can help to identify potential students who might be able to participate in research. Equally, it is there to make sure that students are not ‘over-research’, which means ‘contacted unnecessarily regularly’.

Like HREC, submissions to SRPP are made through a form. Some practical tips shared were: plan early, and apply early. These things can take a bit of time.

Resources

Just before the session, a PowerPoint resource was shared. After the session, I noticed that it was packed filled with useful links, many of which can be accessed externally. Here is a summary of what I took to be the most important links:

Reflections

A useful session! It was also one that was very timely since I have been awarded a small amount of funding to carry out a pilot project to explore the connection between stories, storytelling, and the professional identity of software engineers. My next action is to attend one of those drop-in sessions, and then to review all the forms. Whilst I do usually hate form filling, I do recognise that these forms relate to a process that is there to protect everyone.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Alison Fox, her co-facilitators, and everyone who is involved with the HREC and SRPP units.

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Christopher Douce

Applying to carry out doctoral research: some practical tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 17 Jan 2024, 14:37

I was recently contacted by potential PhD (and EdD) candidates who were expressing an interest in carrying out doctoral research within the university. What follows is a short article which pulls together the different links that have been shared with me be one of our postgraduate admissions tutors. It is important to note that these notes have a computing (and education) feel, since these reflect my research interests. This said, much of the advice shared here is quite generic, and could apply to different schools and universities.

This blog sits alongside a number of other blogs I have written about doctoral level research. If this topic is unfamiliar to you, you might be interested in reading the following summary: Doctoral research: a short introduction

Consider this post to be a combination of questions that you must ask, and things that you need to do. There is, of course, a bit of overlap between the two.

Consider your interests

There are a couple of really important ‘starter’ questions, which are: what do you want to do research into? And why do you want to do doctoral level research? An important point to bear in mind is that doctoral research requires considerable amounts of time, energy and money. 

A doctorate is, essentially, a formal recognition of your ability to carry out original research, and be able to make a contribution an academic debate on the subject. Passion is important: you must be passionate about your interest, since it will take up (as mentioned) time, energy and money.

Consider your experience

As well as passion, prior academic experience is important. Here is an excerpt from some guidance shared on the School of Computing and Communication's website: 'applications will be considered from students with, or expecting to gain, a first degree in any of a wide range of disciplines including computing, information systems, data science, mathematics or similar disciplines at first or upper second class level'. Put another way, a postgraduate degree isn't essential, but a good undergraduate degree is. International students should also be aware of an English language requirement.

It is also important to ask the question: "what do I know about the subject I want to carry out research into?" 

Although 4 years of determined research sounds like a lot of time, there will be only a limited amount of time available to learn about new topics and subjects. A lot of the time you spend will be spent reading, writing, engaging in academic communities, learning about research methods, dealing with ethics, and carrying out your actual research. If you would like to do some research into, for example, ethics and artificial intelligence, it is important that you know something about ethics and artificial intelligence. 

Make sure you have a good level of familiarity with your topic before making an application. 

Consider funding

Let’s say you are committed to the idea. The next question is: how are you going to do it? A fundamental question to ask is: are you going to do it part-time or full time. A related question is: where is your money for fees going to come from? If you’re hoping to study full time, you might be able to get a scholarship, either through a university (the OU’s School of Computing and Communications currently has one doctoral scholarship per year), from industry, or from scholarship providers. 

If you’re a part time candidate, you need to pay an annual fee, which covers the cost of administration, access to university systems, access to an academic community, and supervision meetings. More information about the fees is available through the OU research degrees fees and funding page.

At the time of writing, in the UK it is possible to get something called a Doctoral Loan. Do bear in mind that these loans have quite a high interest rate.

Consider your time

If you’re committing to doing it full time, you might be able to gain a little extra money by doing some teaching (or demonstrating) on the side, but don’t expect to be able to commit too many hours to a part time job. A full time doctorate will take at least 3 years.

If you are carrying out research part-time, you will be committing something like 17.5 hours per week to your study. A part-time doctorate will take anything between 4 and 6 years, depending on what it is. (An EdD might take slightly less time than a disciplinary doctorate).

Look for an academic community

Let’s assume you know what you want to research, and you know why you want to do it, and you’re happy with how much time it takes, all this leads to the question: where would you like to do your doctorate?

You might know of a university that has a good reputation, or you might know of some people who are working in a particular field. The choice of where you go may well be guided by your own research. You might, for example, find out whether there are academics who have published articles that reflect your own research interests. 

Another thought is: why not approach current doctoral students, to ask them about their experiences? You could do this by asking an admissions tutor whether they might be able to help Whilst doctoral research can be quite a solitary activity (depending on the subject, of course), research can take place within an academic community. Knowing more about that academic community can be useful. 

The OU School of Computing and Communications tries to make it easy for prospective doctoral researchers by sharing a list of potential research projects.

Review the guidance

Let’s say you have chosen a university, and have chosen a school, academic, or academic community you would like to join. What are the next steps? It is now time to gather up as much information you can about how to find your way through the administration. Don’t apply just yet; just gather up information.

Here the School of Computing and Communication's application page which explains how to apply.

Candidates need to submit a form, which contains a research proposal (I’ll come onto what this means in a bit). To help candidates, there is some guidance about how to write a research proposal.

If you’re considering doing an EdD (which is at the same level as a doctorate), the OU WELS faculty offers some useful background information about the EdD doctoral programme. This site also shares some detailed information about the EdD application processTo help to prepare an EdD research proposal, the OU has prepared a free OpenLearn resource, Writing your Research Proposal that may be useful.  This resource may well be useful for candidates preparing a disciplinary (PhD) proposal.

Write down your research questions

It is important that your research proposal is as clear as possible. A big tip is: make sure that you write down some clear research questions. What are you going to be doing research into? The more specific they are in terms of what they are asking, and in what context they relate to, the clearer they are. Present them in the form RQ1, RQ2 etc. Do, break them down into sub-questions if you need to, i.e. RQ1.1, RQ1.2. They don’t have to be perfect at this point, but you need to give your potential supervisor the idea that you’re not going to be asking impossible or unrealistic questions. Over time, and during the supervision process, your questions will become refined.

Also, start to think about how you might answer these. Do you have any ideas?

If it looks like your question might need a team of researchers, and require a hefty travel budget, you might want to rethink your questions. A doctorate is all about showing what you can do. This said, in some cases you might be working alongside others who might help you.

In the earlier section, two different types of doctorate were mentioned: a PhD and an EdD. An EdD is known as a professional doctorate, and they typically relate to research carried out within a specific context, such as education, or health and social care. If your research questions touch on the topic of education, you might want to have a good look at the EdD. On the other hand, if your research questions address an important theme within an academic subject, it is likely that the disciplinary doctorate is more appropriate.

Talk to some academics

You have chosen your university, and maybe even read through the profiles of one or more academics. You have now sketched out an idea of series of connected research questions. With all this prep work completed, it’s time to share your research question, to test it out. Speaking with others will enable you to test your understanding, and also to determine whether what you have in mind is sensible.

Send an email to a potential supervisor, sharing your research questions. Since you'll want to impress them, do consider sharing evidence of your reading (as well as your enthusiasm). They will be much more disposed to your research project idea if you come across as being reasonably well formed. Ask to have an informal discussion with them. It is also okay to be cheeky: ask them questions about funding, and whether they have capacity to help you with your research aims and ambitions. 

The final step: make that submission

In some situations, writing a research proposal can become a collaborative process between a candidate and a supervisor. Here are some practical tips with writing a proposal:

  • Make sure you have a compelling and interesting title which relates to your research.
  • Make sure yous research questions are clear.
  • If there is a word count, don’t go over it.
  • Ensure your submission is as readable as possible. A useful tip is: if you’re thinking of using a long word, would smaller words be just as good?
  • Get one of your friends to proofread your submission. Can they understand it?
  • Be aware of the submission deadline; sometimes there is a submission window. If you submit something outside of a window, or outside of a deadline, your proposal may not be considered, and you might have to wait for another year.

The exact processes will differ between institutions. In the OU School of Computing and Communication, your proposal will be reviewed by a small committee, who will assess your proposal (which is why clarity is so important). Depending on what they think, they might then speak with potential supervisors, asking what they thought about your idea.

Related links

Here is a link to a useful article that was shared earlier: Doctoral research: a short introduction.

In terms of the OU, doctoral research (both disciplinary and EdD research) is supported by an academic unit: The OU Graduate School.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Patrick Wong and Soraya Kouadri for all your continued help and support, and for patiently answering all my questions. Many thanks to my friend, Akin Oladimeji, who is currently working through this process.

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Christopher Douce

Supervisory Professionalism and Recognition workshops

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On 3 and 4 May 2023 I attended a couple of workshops that introduced a professional recognition scheme for doctoral supervisors, which is run by the UK Council of Graduate Education, which is abbreviated to UKCGE. I attended these workshops since the OU is running an accreditation pilot scheme through the OU graduate school. It’s aim is to help to guide a cohort of participants through the accreditation process through workshops, sharing of resources, and providing mutual support, with an intention of making a submission in October 2023.

This blog post summarises what I considered to be some of the key points or highlights from the workshops. Very many of the words shared in this post come from points made by the presenter, and are also reflected within the UKCGE recognition scheme which is clearly referenced. Towards the end of the blog, I have offered some reflections and have shared some accompanying resources.

A further note is that the terms ‘student’ and ‘candidate’ are used interchangeably.

Introduction

The pilot was opened by Lindsey O’Dell, Director of the OU Graduate School. She offered a summary of the pilot scheme, and emphasised that doctoral supervision is an important part of the academic role, and it is important to both recognise and celebrate it.

Both workshops were facilitated by Stan Taylor who is an Honorary Professor from the School of Education, University of Durham. Stan said that he originally learnt ‘on the job’ as a supervisor, and later moved to the area of professional academic development. He is the author of UKCGE Framework for Good Supervisory Practice and led the development of supervisor’s recognition scheme. 

Stan also mentioned some books he has had an involvement with: a handbook for doctoral supervisors, a book that referred to the making of doctoral supervisors, and publications that examines the ways in which doctoral examinations take place and how supervisors are supported in different countries.

The changing landscape of doctoral education

The first day of the workshop began with a bit of history.

Historically, doctoral supervision was “an adjunct of the research function of academics” and underpinned by the master-apprentice model. Constant change within the higher education sector has, of course, led to changes to doctoral supervision. Key changes has included increasing formalisation and diversification of doctoral programmes, the commodification of higher education and increasing movement towards competition between institutions, and an increased emphasis on the welfare of candidates.

This perspective on welfare is important. Historically, if things went wrong, it was the fault of the student rather than the supervisor or the university. The movement towards thinking of a student as a consumer has, arguably, led to a change of power balance between student and supervisor. If students are not provided with effective supervision, there has been a precedent of students seeking compensation. It is now clear that institutions and individual supervisors have more direct responsibilities towards their students.

There was a historical perspective which can be phrased as: if students paid their fees “no one worried too much about how long they took” (Taylor, citing Simpson, 2009, p.458). A review of completion rates led to the introduction of tougher measures: candidates are now typically required to complete within a 4 year period, but there are exceptions to this, such as if they are carrying out research part-time.

A term that was introduced which I was unfamiliar with was: structuration. I understand this term to refer to the extent to which structures have been created to support doctoral students and supervision. This has partly arisen due to an increase in regulation. In the UK, there is the QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Countries now typically have their own national quality assurance systems for higher education and external monitoring. In response, universities have developed their own internal systems to ensure the quality of doctoral education, which can take place within supervision teams. This has necessarily led to the creation of graduate schools and accompanying units and roles. Doctoral supervisors need to understand what these units are within their own institutions and what services and support they offer. Graduate schools may also play a part in setting up of doctoral training and development alliances.

Diversity was emphasised from two different perspectives. Firstly, there has been increase in diversity of different types of doctoral programmes. In addition to a full time PhD, there are now different types of EdD programmes. There is also the possibility of a doctorate through submission, or carrying out research with an industrial partner.

The second perspective relates to the diversity of doctoral candidates. Historically, candidates were young, white, male, middle class, and studied full time. The demographics of candidates have changed: 48% of doctoral students are now women, but there has been less progress for candidates with other protected characteristics. Significantly, there is a significant underrepresentation of black candidates, which needs to be addressed.

There has been a change of perspective when it comes to the obligations that institutions and supervisors have to doctoral students. Historically, students were perceived as being responsible for their own mental health, which can present significant and ongoing challenges to students. There many be a number of issues for this, such as financial challenges, the limited number of opportunities in the higher education sector post-completion, and loneliness. Institutions are now seen as having a duty of care for students. This means that supervisors have a responsibility, but they may often lack confidence in terms of how to provide support.

Other changes include digitalisation and increasing interdisciplinarity. Whilst digital technologies can enable candidates to carry out their research at a distance, they also can present challenges too; candidates need to learn and work with digital tools and systems.

Interdisciplinarity can also lead to the emergence of barriers. Supervisors from different disciplines can communicate using different academic languages. This leads to the important question of: how do examiners from different disciplines understand what is meant by an effective contribution to a field?

Given that there are more doctoral students than full time academic posts, supervisors and graduate schools have a responsibility to offer help and guidance to candidates, to make them aware of what opportunities might be available to them after they finish their research.

This leads us to a wider question, which is: what is doctoral research for if its purpose isn’t to train academics? One answer be connected to the word capitalisation. In other words, doctoral research can have economic value as well as academic value. There is a link here to the notions of human capital and knowledge economies, and this can be linked to whatever is meant by economic growth. It could more directly argued the doctoral research helps to develop the skills and abilities of researchers. This release to the Vitae researcher development framework https://www.vitae.ac.uk/   which describes skills that researchers should acquire and develop over the course of their studies.

The UKCGE framework

Supervision has changed from an adjunct activity that takes place within a private space to a more demanding complex set of roles which are carried out and supported by supervisors and organisational units. 

What follows is a summary of the UKCGE framework. Stan was Invited in 2019 invited by UKCGE to define good supervision practice. These were combined into a draft framework which was then streamlined into 10 domains which aimed to describe the core elements of good practice. To become a recognised supervisor, applicants to the UKCGE scheme must provide evidence under each element.

What follows is a summary that has been made following the workshop presentation. The official description of these criteria can be found by through the Good Supervisor Practice Framework summary

1. Recruitment and selection

This element relates to the very start of the doctoral journey. Recruitment involves reaching out to diverse candidate populations, developing a research proposal with a potential candidate, and offering feedback to candidates.

Supervisors should publicise the areas of research that they can offer. They should also participate in campaigns to recruit from underrepresented groups, assess whether applications from candidates that are likely to make the transition to independent researchers, and assess whether a research project is realisable, and candidates have the knowledge and skills. Key tasks will include interviewing applicants, making a final decision and giving useful feedback. An important question to ask is: how do you make the decision about whether someone has the skills for independent research, and what is the evidence for this?

2. Relationships with candidates

This criterion relates to having an awareness of diversity of candidates, negotiating expectations between student and supervisor, monitoring of activities, and understanding of issues. Supervisors should be conscious of different supervisory styles and their relationship to student needs and be aware of how student needs change over time.

3. Relationships with co-supervisors

Supervision now typically takes place within teams. Supervisors need to be aware of the benefits of team supervision and issues that may arise whilst working within a team. It is important to clarify the roles of co-supervisors, important to set expectations of the project, and regularly review relationship with co-supervisors and candidates. This criterion relates to the importance and necessity of working well with others.

4. Supporting candidates’ research projects

This relates to “inducting candidates into research, advising them about how to go about it, advising on skills and issues”. In other words, helping them to become familiar with what research entails within a field of study. The involves “discussing conceptions and misconception of research, looking at threshold concepts”, discussing issues of academic integrity, choosing topics, advising on notions of theory, methodology and methods. Other aspects of support includes helping candidates to navigate through the necessity of gaining ethical approval (if appropriate to their project), and developing research skills.

5. Encouraging candidates to write and giving appropriate feedback

Encourage candidates to write “throughout their studies, not at the end of research, giving effective feedback”. Writing is something that can be practised. Although a lot of writing is typically done towards the end of a doctoral project, it is helpful to encourage candidates to write from the start of their studies to assisting their development of academic writing skills. Key points includes: create opportunities for writing, give timely, constructive and actionable feedback, and consider the suggestion and use of research diaries and writing of blogs. A point I noted down from the discussions were: ask students what they understand by the feedback they have received. Supervisors can benefit from getting feedback from their students.

6. Supporting candidates’ personal, professional and career development

This criterion links back to the earlier point that there are more doctoral candidates than there are academic posts. To help candidates with their personal and professional development, it may be helpful to offer advice and guidance about possibilities within the domain in which they are carrying out research. It is also important to be a good role model in terms of work-life balance, it would be useful to introduce candidates into disciplinary networks and activities, and supporting their development as teachers. Where possible, advice about academic careers and post-doctoral work (and challenges that accompany these roles) is helpful.

7. Supporting progress and monitoring progression

A point that was highlighted earlier was: candidates have to complete within a 3 or 4 year period. A question is: what might a supervisor do to motivate their students during this time? Also, how might a supervisor or supervision team actively monitor progress? Two suggestions could be: encouraging students to attend conferences (which can also help them to develop their writing skills and contribute to departmental seminars. From a pragmatic and administrative perspective, supervisors must help students to participate in formal progression events (in the OU context, this is called upgrade reports). This might mean the reviewing of documents before sent onto graduate schools.

8. Supporting candidate through completion and final examination

This point strikes me as being very practical. Supervisors should offer advice on submissions and examinations, and should work closely with a candidate to finalise their submissions. Some direct advice was shared at this point: encourage students to look at exemplar submission so students understand what is meant by, and what should go into a thesis. A thesis should, of course, present an argument, with accompanying evidence. Supervisors can offer some really practical help: they can help students to prepare for the viva by describing the procedures, and running a mock viva. Different supervisors from a supervision team can take on different roles. It doesn’t end with the exam: supervisors also have a responsibility to support candidates after the viva, especially if some corrections have to be made.

9. Supporting candidates to disseminate their research

This point links to some of the earlier points, which related to encouraging students to attend conferences and workshops, and thus help to develop their writing skills. Essentially, this point is all about “making work available within the community” and sharing findings with a wider audience. A useful point was: “set expectations at the start of the candidacy” about what is expected, role model the process of publication to show how its down, encourage candidates to publish as they go, and explain what is meant by co-publishing or co-authoring, and set up a post-doctoral publication plan. In some cases, it might also be helpful to consider dissemination and publication alongside the concept of research impact, which is something that postdoctoral researchers need to include into research bids and plans.

10. Reflecting upon and enhancing practice

Reflection is a cornerstone of education, and it feels right that those involved in providing supervision should not only reflect on their practice, but regularly “undertake appropriate professional development and disseminate”. A bit of advice to accompany this point was: use an appropriate mix of methods for evaluating supervision, undertake initial and continuing professional development, and contribute to the professional development of other supervisors. A further point was: professional development isn’t just about workshops; it can also be keeping up to date with reading. There is, of course, also a considerable literature about supervision. Finally, professional development opportunities may be provided by your university’s graduate school, or equivalent unit.

Writing an application

During the workshops we were offered some advice and guidance about the application procedure and the process of writing an application.

A submission is a reflective account of your supervisory practice which addresses each of the 10 headings. Applications should be 5k words in length, with a permitted 10% leeway. Two referees are required, one of which should be from a former doctoral candidate. The second referee should be a colleague who knows about your practice, but need not necessarily be someone who is involved with supervision.

Applications are read by two reviewers who are recognised supervisors themselves; all applicants receive constructive feedback. The reviewers are recognised supervisors who have completed a training programme about how to evaluate submissions. If recommendation is acceptance, you become a UKCGE recognised supervisor.

Preparing a submission

To help to prepare a submission, the UKCGE have prepared a workbook, in the form of a detailed Word document. The workbook is a template, which offers some guidance and spaces to allow candidate to comment on each of the criteria of the framework. A practical suggestion is to provide two examples to evidence your understanding and experience.

Begin with an introduction

A useful bit of advice was to begin with an introduction. Do describe your educational background, summarise the number of research students supervised and in what capacity including the number of students who have completed. Also provide other relevant information, such as whether you have experience of an examiner of research degrees, and whether you have been an internal or external examiner.

Evidence of scholarship

A question that was asked was: “are we expected to use academic references in our application, like we did for an Advance HE SFHEA submission?” The answer is: yes. Evidence of scholarship, and awareness of scholarship that relates to supervision is necessary. A practical suggestion is to provide between 8 and 12 references. A good place to look is the bibliography documents which are provided by the UKCGE. A couple of links have been provided in the resources section of this blog.

Points to bear in mind

Do include evidence that relates to all the criteria. If this is not possible, offer an explanation why not. Examples should be drawn from recent practice.

Application should relate to you, and should have a reflective quality. Write about why you did something.

As suggested above, you should show engagement with research, scholarship and professional practice, and links with professional bodies and wider communities.

You must demonstrate real and practical commitment to reflection about supervision practice.

Making a submission

In this pilot, the OU will be making what is called a group submission. The UKCGE does, of course, accepts individual submissions, which must be accompanied by a processing fee.

Reflections

Things have changed since I was a doctoral candidate. There is more structure and formality than there used to be. 

Reflecting on the framework, I’ve come to the conclusion that I had a pretty good doctoral experience. My supervisor gently introduced me to many of the principles and ideas that are embedded within Stan’s framework. There were regular meetings, I was encouraged to write and publish early, to join academic communities, and there were discussions about the role of theory in research, and what is meant by co-authoring. There was also some discussion about post-doctoral planning too, but it was done in quite an informal way.

Thinking back, it took me quite a few years to publish the final article from my doctoral research. Curiously, it wasn’t the main research that had the biggest impact. A small paper that I wrote along the way grabbed the attention of fellow software engineering researchers. This goes to show the importance of “getting things out there”. 

Two noticeable differences come to mind: I don’t remember there being a graduate school when I was a doctoral student, and there wasn’t a supervision team. 

I also remember struggling too. At the time, I was trying to do too much: I was working part time whilst I was studying full time. I should have made more time to have more fun, and to relax; that could have potentially helped me to be a bit more creative.

I’m currently a supervisor on two different doctoral programmes; a doctorate in Education programme, and a disciplinary doctorate. I’m also something called a third-party monitor for candidates on both programmes.

I like the framework since I feel that it solidifies and clarifies many of the important responsibilities of supervisors. It also implicitly connect with another (optional) aspect of my day job, which is supporting undergraduate students. With all these different perspectives, I’m definitely going to make a submission.

Resources

I have written some other blogs about doctoral study and supervision, as well as summarising some of the continuing professional development that I have participated in:

The following resources from the UKCHE are likely to be useful when it comes to making a submission:

For supervisors making submissions, the following two resources may be especially useful, depending on the context:

Supervisors should, of course, be aware of the following framework:

During these workshops, the QAA, the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education was mentioned. The following link offers a summary of the characteristics of doctoral degrees:

Acknowledgements

A substantial acknowledgement goes to Stan Taylor who designed, delivered and facilitated the workshops, with help from Soraya Tate from the OU graduate school. Acknowledgements are also given to Linsdey O’Dell, director of the graduate school, and fellow workshop delegates.

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Examining a Doctoral Thesis - the written and unwritten rules

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 28 Oct 2023, 09:55

On Thursday 13th October 22, I attended a workshop facilitated by Sara Spencer, Head of Research Degrees, and Emeritus Prof Marian Petre from the School of Computing and Communication, that was all about examining a doctoral thesis, 

The workshop was described as being intended “for research degree supervisors who are new or fairly new to the process of examining PhD and Professional Doctorate theses” and was open to both new and experienced research supervisors. 

The broad aim of the session was to provide an “introduction to thesis examination at the OU”, to provide a summary of “what is involved in examining a research degree thesis”, explore the roles of different participants in the process, and to say something about expectations in terms of what takes place during the examination process, and the role of the viva and thesis.

In some ways, this event reminds me of an earlier workshop that I attended in June 22, which had the title Supporting EdD/PhD students through the thesis and the viva (OU blog). One of the differences between this session and the earlier session, is that this session provides a bit more information about the different roles.

On the topic of blogs that might be useful, this earlier blog, Doctoral research: a short introduction published in October 2022 might be also helpful for prospective students. 

What follows are a set of (edited) notes that I made during Sara and Marion's workshop.

Session objectives

Participants were invited to contribute to an online document to share what they were looking for from the session. Some of the key points included: to learn from the experience of others, to understand what the overall process is, what to do if there are disagreements, to share general tips about how to approach examining a thesis, and how to provide feedback.

The facilitators shared some of their experiences, and begin to discuss some of the roles within an examination, and what happens. Some points I noted down were that supervisors will try to choose examiners who are appropriate (given the focus of their student’s research) and examiners should always endeavour to set their egos aside: it isn’t about them, it is about the student who has written a viva, and their research.

Roles and responsibilities

Marion made the following important points: the viva is a real examination and conducting it well matters. Also, if a student has a flawed dissertation, a student can strengthen their position through the viva process. Conversely, if a student has a strong thesis, but gives a weak defence, the outcome might not be as hoped.

Panel chair

Every doctoral examination has a panel chair. The job of the chair isn’t to ask questions, but to moderate the session, mediate communication between everyone, check that everything is going okay, ensure that procedures are followed, and ensure that everyone feels comfortable. The chair is someone everyone can appeal to if help or support is needed, and call for breaks, if necessary. Unlike the examiner, the chair may not be a subject specialist, but will be someone independent and experienced who understands the process. In contract to the chair, the doctoral supervisors are outside the examination process. 

Examiners

The examiners assess the quality of the research. There will usually be either two or three examiners, and two of those may be external. The examiners read the dissertation thoroughly in advance, and prepare a re-viva report. Under strict confidence, the chair will then share each report with each of the examiners. Examiners are also expected to be familiar with the university’s regulations and must work with the chair to prepare an examination report. They must also be willing to provide clarifications for the student if required and assess any revisions, and conduct a re-viva if necessary.

Although there is an expectation that the viva examination process a relatively short amount of time, examiners may be employed within the process for considerably longer, especially if a student is required to carry out remedial work to their viva.

Observer

An observer is allowed to come along to the viva, and it is typically the lead supervisor. The role of the observer is very limited, and the observer doesn’t speak unless invited to do so by the chair. An observer may well take notes, to help the candidate understand what happened within the viva, and to help the candidate remember some of the detail of the discussions that took place.

Candidate

The candidate is, arguably, the most important person in the room (although it might be argued that the chair is just as important). The whole event is about the research that the candidate has carried out, and to check to see whether they have a thorough and detailed understanding of what they have done, and their subject. An important point is this: there are very few opportunities in life where we have opportunities to talk to a group of other people, at length, about a subject that we are very interested and passionate about. With this perspective in mind, and it might even be possible to think of the viva as a precious and potentially even enjoyable event. A candidate can request breaks via the chair, and always ask for clarifications to any question that is asked.

The procedures

As mentioned earlier, examiners read the dissertation, and the examiners prepares a report 5 days before the viva, which are then shared with each of the examiners via the panel chair. An examiner may form an opinion which may be expressed within the form, but this need not be fixed: “the report is not a contract; it is an initial assessment”. This assessment can change depending on what happens within the viva.

Pre-viva meeting

During the pre-viva meeting, the chair and examiners meet to discuss their view and opinions about the thesis. The report helps everyone to see if there is a consistent perspective. Using the reports, the examiners will form an approach. They will discuss a plan about how ask questions.

The exact approach will be different, depending upon the examiners, thesis, and subject. On some occasions, examiners might start with some very easy questions and then work towards points that really matter. Other examiners may choose to take turns, and some will go through a chapter at a time. Sometimes the external will lead, and the internal will follow.

Before the viva, the chair will have some idea of what is going to happen, and how the thesis will be assessed. The chair also provides and offers any necessary clarification about regulations. An important note is that every organisation is slightly different.

The Viva

This is the key meeting between the candidate, the panel chair, examiners, and any observer. Typically, the chair introduces the panel and provides an overview of what is going to happen.

A viva lasts as long as it takes. It might typically last between an hour and a half and three hours; online takes a bit longer. There should be no particular end time. A point that was made: there is no correlation between the length of the viva and the outcome. Breaks can be requested by any participant, via the chair.

Post-viva meeting

After the viva, the examiners, and the chair meet. The candidate and observer are asked to leave the room, where they discuss what has happened, and what recommendation is to be made. The duration of the post-viva meeting also takes as long as is necessary. If examiners do not agree (which very is unlikely), and there is a formal procedure to take account of this. It was emphasised during this session that this a very rare occurrence: examiners tend to agree.

Recommendation meeting

Everyone meets up again, and the recommendation is shared with the student. 

During this meeting there is an opportunity for the examiners to provide some feedback. Revisions are discussed (if necessary), and the observer usually takes notes. During this meeting, the candidate may ask questions.

An important part of this process is the completion of an examination report form, which contains an outcome. The outcome is a recommendation to a university authority, and the panel offers a recommendation summarising what revisions are necessary, and why.

Outcomes

Assessment criteria for a thesis is presented on the examination report form. Points include presentation and style of the thesis (whether the candidate is able to contribute to academic debates), evidence of the work being a significant contribution to knowledge, whether the candidate show evidence of being able to carry out research in the future, and whether the thesis contain material worthy of publication. 

On the point of publication, both Marion and Sara emphasised that publication is neither necessary, nor sufficient for a PhD; the thesis is a monograph, not a collection of papers.

In the OU, there are a number of different possible outcomes: the candidate is awarded the degree, the candidate is awarded the degree with minor corrections, or the candidate has to make substantial amendments. Other outcomes include: the candidate must resubmit their thesis for re-examination, a degree of MPhil is awarded subject to dissertation amendments, resubmission of thesis for re-viva for a MPhil award, and finally, a student is not awarded the degree and not permitted to be re-examined.

Outcomes will be based on the quality of the submission, and each category has a specific timeframe, i.e., minor corrections might be required to be completed within 3 months, and major correction may have to be submitted within 6 months.

How to be an effective examiner

Towards the end of the session, there was a discussion, where participants shared tips about how to be an effective examiner. I noted down the following points from a PowerPoint slide that directed the session: “the best examiners bring out the best in the student” and “there is a correlation between examiner experience and moderation/kindness”.

Marion emphasised the point: “look for the value in the work; whether it conveys a sense of confidence and contribution” Another point was: It is about people skills, as much as it about technical skills. Also, create a rapport with the candidate before asking any tough (but necessary) questions, such as: what did you enjoy, how did you come to study this in the first place? Make sure that you listen well to all answers.

Judge the work on its own merits and make sure that you don’t impose your (examiners) framework on the candidate’s work. Break down larger questions to smaller questions, and give sufficient time to allow your questions to be answered. Importantly, reflect on your own tone and way of communicating, and potentially mention this to the candidate to put them at ease. Be very mindful of how the candidate might be experiencing stress during the viva, and encourage breaks.

A really important point I noted down was: what does “good enough” look like in your discipline? In the viva, what matters is a pass. Another comment was: very few dissertations are without flaws. Always look to what is good in a thesis.

Reflections

This session made me think about to my own viva. My viva was a positive experience. At the time, I didn’t have a really thorough understanding of what everyone’s roles were. I remember the internal examiner, and the external examiner, but I can’t remember who the chair was. I do remember the close scrutiny of the work that I submitted, and a feeling of being asked some really difficult questions. 

Interestingly, I also remember that the internal examiner really liked a certain aspect of my thesis, where I drew on materials from outside of my home discipline. In retrospect, I think this may have contributed to the assessment that I was capable of carrying out original research, which is such an important part of the process. The point here is that I remembered the nice bits, just as I remember the tricky bits.

In the next two months, I’m going to be an external examiner. Attending this session has helped me to strengthen my understanding of the process, and really emphasised what my role and responsibilities are going to be.

I remember another bit of advice I was given by a colleague when I was preparing to be an external for the first time. The advice was about how to approach the reading of a thesis: “Look to what happens within the methodology. The methodology is about what has been done. Does the methodology make sense, given the research questions?” Whilst this bit of advice is practical, the most important bit of advice from Sara and Marion’s session was: “make sure you’re approachable”.

Acknowledgements

The structure of this blog directly echoes the session that was designed and facilitated by Marion Petre and Sara Spencer. Many of the words within this blog also reflect points made by both Marion and Sara. I hope I’ve done justice to your excellent session!

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Christopher Douce

Doctoral research: a short introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 26 Oct 2022, 17:22

This blog is about doctoral research, a little bit of what it entails, and the different routes that are available to students who are studying in the UK. This post might also be useful for international students too.

This post begins by asking the question: “what is a doctorate?” It then goes onto describe two different routes to doctoral study: a disciplinary route and a professional route. This is followed by a very broad sketch of what doctoral research involves. 

The post concludes by sharing some of my own experiences, and offers a summary, which includes some links to some useful resources.

One thing I should add is that I don’t work for the university graduate school, but I do supervise some doctoral students. Do always check with the OU graduate school if you need further information, or the equivalent unit that is likely to exist within your own institution.

The fundamental questions

What is a doctorate and why would I want one?

A doctorate says that you have done, and are capable of carrying out original research. It also says that you have been trained to carry out research, and you are capable of advanced critical thinking. 

A doctorate is also something that can be useful if you would like to have a career in academia. Whilst it can be considered to be useful, you can, of course, still be a lecturer, and still carry out substantial research without having a doctorate. 

A related question is: will it get me a higher salary? My answer is: don’t do it for the money; do it for your subject, and also do it for yourself. 

Another answer to this question is: it all depends. It depends on the discipline, and also depends on the job opportunities that are available. Academia is notoriously and brutally competitive, and there are never any guarantees.  

Another question to ask is: would you be prepared to work for at least 4 years on a low income? During that time, your peers may well become established in parallel careers, and have spent that time continually increasing their earning potential. As mentioned above: do it for the subject, not for the money.

Do you need a masters?

For the OU professional doctorates, applicants should “normally hold, or be expecting to obtain before the start of the degree”. I’ll say something more about professional doctorate a bit later. For disciplinary doctorates, you don’t necessarily need have to have one, but they can certainly help. It may depend on the subject and the institution that you're applying to.

Do you need to be super smart?

I used to think of people who held doctorates as being a whole other species of human. I remember my chemistry teacher at school. He had an air of cleverness about him. He regularly wore a white chemist’s coat. I assumed that everyone who was called doctor was super smart. After a fortuitous sequence circumstances, I found myself having “done some stuff” and “having discovered” some things that were deemed to be suitably original enough to be given a doctorate. 

The thing is, I’m not super smart. 

What I would say is that I was passionate and interested in what I was doing to be able to find sufficient determination (and time) to really focus on a narrow area of study. Being smart is important (as is being humble), but determination matters more. You must be motivated, and maintaining motivation over an extended period of time isn’t easy.

How big is a contribution?

Doctoral research is all about carrying out original research, which broadly means discovering something new that no one had ever discovered before. This sounds like a big deal. Another fallacy that I had when I was a kid was the view that these “doctors” must have discovered something huge during their studies; something that could change the world or the course of history.

The reality is, conversely, a lot more mundane. 

One way to think of academia is to think of it as a community in which the academics contribute to a huge set of on-going debates. Everything is mostly very polite since the academics argue with each other, through the medium of academic articles and formal presentations. Academics might, for example, argue about the role and importance of the topics that make up their discipline. Doctoral students learn how to contribute to that massive debate; they’re elbowing their way in, to say: “hey, have you thought about, looked at, or seen this?”

The contribution to one of these debates can, in fact, be really small, but it can still represent a contribution.

I am a big fan of social science methods, particularly ethnography. Ethnography is all about writing about people and communities. Ethnographers write about what people do, and how their communities operate. A doctorate in the social sciences which applies ethnography might study what happens in a particular community over a period of time. Communities (and cultures) come and go, and are influenced by the events and circumstances that surround them. The very act of writing and describing a potentially short lived community represents a contribution, which other academics can look to, study and examine. In sharing your contribution, you contribute to wider debates about societies and how they work.

In computing, my home discipline, researchers might go about building software, or combining new bits of software in a unique way to demonstrate a new concept or idea. A new software tool might be a very modest contribution, but someone else might pick it up and take it into a whole new creative direction. 

Although the phrase “making an original contribution to human knowledge” sounds pretty intimidating and very grand, the contributions that doctoral researchers make can be modest. This said, some doctoral students can also be fundamental in facilitating breakthroughs. Also, it isn’t just the output from a doctorate that is important; the process is important too.

Types of doctorates

Within the OU (and other institutions) there are, broadly, two types of doctorates: disciplinary doctorates, and professional doctorates. I’ll begin with disciplinary doctorates.

Disciplinary doctorates

Disciplinary doctorates, simply, are doctorates that take place within a discipline! There are a number of routes to a disciplinary doctorate. These differ in terms of how the research question, or problem. A disciplinary doctorate might begin with a specific problem that needs to be solved, or it might begin with a research question from a student.

Doctoral research roles

Some doctoral students may carry out research as a part of an established funded research project or programme. In some ways, gaining a doctorate this way is a bit like having a job. Programmes of this kind are usually full-time, where students get paid a modest salary (or stipend), rather than having to pay the university for registration and supervision fees.

The funding for these opportunities might come from a funding council (or research funding body), which has decided to fund a project that has been proposed by a professor or a team of academics. 

Alternatively, the funding for some doctoral jobs may come from industry. In these cases, a company or business might have a very particular research and development problem that may have never been solved before, and one way to solve it would be to set up a project which may involve doctoral students. The outcomes from the project would give the business an insight into how to solve a problem, and give a doctoral student experience of carrying out research into a technical domain, and writing a thesis.

In the UK context many of these research opportunities are advertised on a well-known academic jobs board (Jobs.ac.uk). It is quite interesting and useful to have a look at some of these to see what kinds of qualifications, experience and characteristics research groups are looking for. This board also sometimes advertises opportunities in other countries too. When I last had a look I saw positions available in Sweden, Germany and Hong Kong. For an even broader international perspective, another site that is worth visiting is Find a PhD (website). 

Doctoral scholarships

Some of the roles that you may see on those PhD job board may be quite varied. You might see positions that address a very specific research problem. On the other hand, you might sometimes see scholarships which are more loosely to a subject or a topic area.

The school in which I am affiliated with advertises a couple of PhD scholarships per year. Whilst some of these scholarships might be connected to certain industrially funded projects, the school also advertises a list of research topics (OU School of Computing and Communications). 

It is also worth looking at how a university structures their doctoral research programmes. Through wider funding schemes, which are aimed at certain subject areas and facilitating collaboration, there is also something called doctoral training partnerships (OU website) which is also worth looking at.

Choosing your own research path

Sometimes you might have a disciplinary research idea or an interest that is entirely legitimate, but doesn’t immediately fit with any advertised funded PhD role or scholarship that is currently being advertised. If this is the case, you still may well be able to become a doctoral student, but you may have to handle the financial bit from your side. 

The way I understand things, there are two broad approaches: you can either find a source of funding yourself, or you can pay your own registration fees from your own pocket, or through a doctoral loan (GOV.UK website).

I’ve recently heard of something called Commonwealth PhD Scholarships for those looking to study at UK universities. Also, individual universities, such as the OU, Kings and UCL sometimes offer scholarships for students from minority backgrounds.

Gaining funding is only a part of the story. The other part is, of course, developing an idea. A suggestion is to draft a short proposal, and then look for a supervisor: someone who shares similar research interests.

Begin with the research questions, and ask yourself: what is it that you would like to find out. Also, start to find out, using any academic library you may have access to, whether anyone has tried to answer this question before. Doing this might, potentially, lead you towards an institution and a supervisor.

If you do decide to go down this route, there are other questions that you need to answer. Are you looking to do it full time, or part time? 

In the OU context, there is a bit of advice about part-time doctoral study (OU website). Also, do have a look at the fees, and ask the questions: can I really afford this, and am I really in a place where I can generate the determination required to just focus on one thing for anything between 3 and 6 years (depending on the doctoral programme, and the intensity of your research)?

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates are slightly different to disciplinary doctorates. The OU supports the delivery of two professional doctorates: a doctorate in Education (EdD), and a doctorate in Health and Social Care (DHSC) (OU website).

These are described as follows: “a professional doctorate provides the opportunity for you to develop your own practice-based research in a structured and supportive environment. A professional doctorate differs from a PhD in that one of its key aims is to make a contribution to practice or policy, as well as to theory.” A big difference to the disciplinary doctorate is that you’re already likely to be working in the setting that will play an influence in guiding and informing your research. In other words, “they offer you the chance to enhance your career at doctoral level, enabling you to make a unique contribution to your profession or area of practice while continuing to work and progress in your field.” (EdD/DHSC website).

The EdD programme is described as being appropriate for “professionals in education, including school leaders, teachers and trainers, but also other professionals working in any educational context in formal and non-formal settings including the public, voluntary and private sectors.”

Working within a particular setting is important, since it provides you with a context which can be explored and studied. Every educational situation is different, and this means that there is an opportunity for EdD students to find out something about it, and how it works, and the kind of educational activities which might, potentially, make a positive difference to learners or those involved in delivering education. Finding out something about your own context in a systematic and rigorous, and academically respected way enables researchers to contribute to educational academic practice and debate.

In the OU, there is quite a difference between what happens within a disciplinary PhD and an EdD. Within a PhD, students are left at the mercy of their supervisors, in the sense that they will help them to gain an understanding of what needs to be done to learn about how to do research within their particular discipline. 

The EdD, on the other hand, has a structured taught component, which helps students become aware of the different stages of academic research. This component will introduce students to the importance of research questions, the literature review, and introduce important terms, such as epistemology, ontology, and methodology. For a detailed description of what is entailed in EdD study and research, the blog post about the Components of the EdD Professional Doctorate Programme may be useful. It is also typically expected that students should have completed an MA in Education, which may have helped to explore some early research questions.

As a brief aside, the university employs associate lecturers (who are, arguably, the most important people in the university) who deliver tutorials and provide correspondence teaching. The university provides something called a module fee waiver scheme for associate lecturers, which could be used on doctoral programmes, such as the EdD. If you are an associate lecturer, and are reading this blog, and have sometimes wondered about doctoral study, do have a chat with your friendly staff tutor.

One point that is common between a disciplinary doctorate and a professional doctorate is that you need to have a clear research idea, ideally presented in the form of one or more research questions. The more specific they are, the better. It isn’t enough to say that you’re interested in doing research into a particular area: you need to be specific about what you’re going to be looking at, and have some beginning of an idea about how you might do that.

To get onto the EdD programme, you need to write a short proposal, which will then be scrutinised by a small group of potential supervisors. Those students who have written proposals that look promising will then be invited to take place in a short interview. Typically, this will be with one of the potential supervisors.

When it comes to doctorates, students find their supervisors, but on other occasions, supervisors find their students. What everyone has in common is interests in the subject, and the process of carrying out research.

PhD by Published Work

There is a final route to gaining a doctorate, and one that isn’t as common: gaining a doctorate through publication. 

This is sometimes appropriate in cases for academic staff who may have already carried out considerable amount of research over an extended period of time, and just never been in a position to enrol to a doctoral programme. 

Through this path, a body of work may be collated together, and submitted, along with a narrative that presents each of the publications (or constituent) papers as a cohesive whole. 

The act of getting published, and engaging completely with the research process can serve as significant evidence of having worked at a doctoral level. Like with other forms of doctorate, candidates who choose this approach also have go through the viva process.

In my own experience, I don’t personally know of anyone who has gone through this route, but I do know that it exists! There is a bit more information about this approach on Find a PhD.

Doing a PhD

What everyone does on a day-to-day basis is, of course, different. 

There’s going to be reading, attending of seminars (to get an idea of how everything in the academy works), perhaps doing some lab work, maybe doing some field work, perhaps even interviewing people and collecting data. In other context, you might be writing some computer code or managing data files. Essentially, you’ll be applying whatever tools you have in your own discipline to answer your research questions.

In all of this, you’ll gain skills: you’ll develop your critical thinking skills, your writing skills, and your presentation skills. 

Posters and presentations

A lot of sharing takes place at disciplinary conferences or workshops. These are great opportunities to share your work with an interested audience and to meet with academics and students who are studying a similar subject. When you’re a PhD or EdD student, there might only be a couple of people studying the same subject that you are studying. Conferences and workshops are a useful opportunity to seek those people out and network with them. If you’re looking towards a career in academic, conferences and workshops are a really good place to find potential future collaborators.

Before you get to a point where you share your results, doctoral students are sometimes able to submit what is known as a poster. A poster is exactly what you imagine it to be: it is a poster that summarises your research aims and intention. During the breaks during a conference, delegates may wander up to your poster to find out more. This is a great opportunity to share an elevator pitch about your research. 

Publishing

I’ve heard it said that a very good master’s degree project should be at a level that a version of it could be theoretically published as an academic article. The difference between a master’s and a doctorate is that of originality. When it comes to doctoral research it is a good idea to always have one eye on publication, in terms of what you might publish, and where you might publish it. After having carried out a literature review, you should have some idea about where you might be able to share your research findings.

Going through the experience of writing, submitting, and reviewing a formal article, and being able to contribute to the ongoing academic debates within your area is a part of the doctoral training experience. Although it is possible to gain a doctorate without publishing a journal article, publications certainly help. It tells the examiners that other experts (through the peer review process) have assessed the quality of your work.

Writing your thesis

The thesis is one of the most important products of doctoral research. The thesis summarises the aims of your research, the reading you have done, the methodological approaches you have adopted, and is used to present your results, and should be no longer than 100k words. In contrast, my MA dissertation was limited to 12k words.

The OU has something called a ‘writing up’ year which some students may use, during which students may pay a reduced fee. Students must submit their thesis on time. When a submission has been made, the university graduate school will organise a viva.

Viva

A viva is an oral exam. It is a bit like a really intense interview, where the subject of the interview is the research that you have carried out. There are likely to be two external examiners, and a chair. One of your supervisors is likely to be present. You’re likely to know, in advance, who the examiners are, and may well have referenced some of their work in their thesis. There is a nice article in Prospects Magazine: Five tips for passing your PhD viva.

There are a number of outcomes following the Viva, ranging from passing without changes, through to different amounts of changes that may be necessary. A supervisor will only let a student get to the viva stage if they are confident about a positive outcome.

After the doctorate

Assuming that you’ve passed, and you’ve graduated, what next?

As mentioned earlier, academia is notoriously competitive. A doctorate is an indication that you’re capable of carrying out original research. To gain experience, and to secure an academic job, doctoral researchers sometimes look for post-doctoral research posts. These are often connected to specific research projects or programmes, which may have been set up by professors or lecturers with funding gained from research councils or funding bodies.

A personal perspective

My doctorate is in an area which could be loosely called The Psychology of Computer Programming. 

Whilst I was an undergraduate, I was really interested in how come some people found computer programming easy, and others found it difficult. To learn more about this, I managed to find a MSc course which had modules from both computing and psychology.

A chance job application to the University of Manchester (which I found in Prospects Magazine) led me to meeting my future supervisor. My research interests were combined with my future supervisor’s research interests. Subsequently, my thesis topic, studying the maintenance of object-oriented software, was born.

My original contributions have been modest. After spending considerable time finding my way through cognitive psychology papers, and learning how research was done and discussed, I noticed that there were some interesting cross-overs with research that was emerging from researchers who were studying software engineering. I realised that there was a gap. 

After doing a bit of empirical work, my contribution was a new model of software code comprehension (ResearchGate). Working on this model, also led me to a small side project, where I worked on a set of software metrics (ResearchGate), which were inspired by the psychology (and neuroscience) papers that I spent a lot of time reading. This points to one of the interesting thing about doctoral research: sometimes there are surprises along the way.

All this work was compressed into quite a short period of time since I had limited amount of funding. I didn’t return to my subject until quite a few years after graduating since I later realised that I had burnt myself out. 

There’s another aspect that is important too: I found it a very lonely experience. Other doctoral students, however, might have a very different experience, especially if they work within an established community of researchers. To counteract this potential of isolation of loneliness, my advice would always be: make sure you seek out a community within the institution in which your research is situated. I do know that the School of Computing and Communications at the OU tries to create a strong research community, so students don't feel disconnected or isolated. Also, make sure you have a break from the study and research; fun stuff is important!

After working in industry for a few years, I picked up a post-doctoral post, working on an EU funded project. Although this wasn’t in the exact area that I had studied as a doctoral researcher, I was pleased I could get stuck into something interesting that would make use of some of the skills I had acquired.

Summary

A doctorate isn’t only about discovering something new in the world. It is also about developing skills, and becoming familiar with what it means to carry out research. It also means that you become a trained researcher and communicator. It can be something that is hugely rewarding, but it is also hugely demanding. It requires commitment and determination.

This blog represents a summary of different bits of information about doctoral study that I’ve picked up over the last few years whilst starting to work as a doctoral supervisor. 

There are a lot of other resources available which might be helpful. A good place to go to is the Vitae website.

Just as teaching is a skill which can be enhanced through professional development, Vitae is described as a “global leader in supporting the professional development of researchers”. To help researchers, there is something called the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (Vitae website). One article that might be of specific interest is: Are you thinking of doctoral research? (Vitae website). A further article, which can be found within Prospects Magazine: PhD Study.

Finally, if you're looking for more information about how research degrees work within the OU, you can also visit the Research Degrees website, which contains a wealth of information.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are extended to Marian Petre, who has suggested some really helpful changes to this blog. Marion also runs a blog about PhD research: Pragmatic PhD, which has the subtitle "craft skills for students and supervisors". She has also written a book, with Gordon Rugg, entitled "The Unwritten Rules Of Phd Research" which I thoroughly recommend. I might have had an easier, and less confused journey if I had read it whilst I was studying for my own doctorate.

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