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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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