Supporting the final (dissertation) chapter

Winning runner with cloud background

There would appear to be very little written about the last chapter of a dissertation, and even less about how a research supervisor can support the student in this final important effort. There are multiple metaphors of sustaining oneself through various races. The writing of the final chapter is akin to that last stretch of the race where you can see the finish line in sight but your body is aching and you are unsure whether you will make it to the end. Many a sports coach has advised their athlete on strategies for the final surge. There is nothing worse than collapsing with exhaustion before the end has been reached!

When we think of pedagogy for supporting the final chapter it is worthwhile to take a lead from Socrates and Socratic questioning – asking the research student about their overall study is a good way to help them focus on what needs to be said in this final chapter. This pedagogy brings with it an attitude toward the student that is often talked about, but not always made explicit. After undertaking a long term study, the research student has become the expert in their own topic. They are knowledgeable about this particular study and there is a risk that with all their knowledge they may forget to scaffold their achievements in ways that those who have not journeyed the journey can comprehend. It is akin to choosing a selection of travel photos to share your trip with an interested audience, rather than requiring friends who express interest in your trip to view every photo in order to understand what you enjoyed about your travel.

The whole dissertation is an argument. The final chapter serves a purpose to make explicit the contributions being made by this particular study to the body of knowledge. This idea that research makes a contribution to knowledge is quite a traditional one and one which has been reinvigorated by the Bologna Agreement to ensure that doctoral or research work is clearly focussed on contributions to knowledge.

Some of the questions I have used with students setting out their final chapter include:

  • What are the conclusions you have reached through your investigation? Where do these conclusions fit in the frame you established to contextualise your study at the start of the investigation?
  • How do you think these conclusions will make a difference to whatever you have been studying?

Both these questions make explicit links to earlier chapters, particularly those chapters that helped to frame the issue or question your research was investigating. When these links are made explicit, a reader can remember what they have read earlier in their reading of the dissertation and can then make the connections you want them to as they read the final chapter.

An additional pertinent question about the contributions made by a particular dissertation comes from a discussion I had recently with a colleague about the relevance of theoretical findings to practice. The line of the argument was that as taxpayers have in some way contributed to a research study, they have an entitlement to see that the engagement in research has made a difference in their lives or in the lives of those people whom they know. I likened this to the experience many members of a graduation audience have when they listen to the summaries of the graduating PhD students and struggle to understand what it is they have been studying, and more importantly how their research actually makes a difference. My colleague alluded to a challenge made about a number of Australian research council grants that resulted in one of the academics explaining the relevance of her innocuous topic on talk back radio. This helped to make the connection for the person in the street, or as in this case, the listener on talkback radio.

The second agenda I hope I bring to the writing of the final chapter is one of scaffolding. As claims are made about the conclusions arising from the analysis of the data, it is hoped that the line of argument is also evident. That a reader can remember what they have read about the positioning of the study in the initial chapters, and remember the conclusions reached from the analysed data and make the appropriate connections to the claims being made in this final chapter to the contributions to knowledge. Because of the size of the dissertation, sometimes these claims need quite explicit referencing so that a reader can flick back a few pages and see how the line of argument is being made.

A third agenda relates to other contributions the study has made alongside the obvious contribution to the knowledge base of the topic being studied. One of my students improved a framework used to analyse the data of her study. In her final chapter she wrote about this being a contribution to methodology. Another student, early in the practice-related inquiry phase, had advanced the notion of what it meant to undertake practice-related inquiry, and this at a time when the approach was still emerging within research practice. This also constituted a contribution to the knowledge associated with practice-related inquiry. These additional contributions also need to be teased out in a final chapter so that an examiner is fully aware of all of the ways in which a student has advanced their thinking.

A final strategy that I have found useful in reading the student’s dissertation and particularly in advising about what is needed in the final chapter, is based on a notion that earlier chapters contain promises of what is to come. These may be explicit or may be implied in the writing, and as I read the earlier chapters I try to note the promises being made so that in the final chapters I can audit whether these promises have been delivered. The best example is linking the abstract to the actual dissertation and checking whether promises made in the abstract actually came to pass. That is not saying that all promises made have to be fulfilled. Sometimes the promises produce unforseen problems and explaining how that problem was addressed and resolved is also an important contribution to knowledge as it provides evidence of the problem solving abilities achieved through undertaking an investigation. In the final chapter these threads are drawn together and if still hanging loose, their looseness is identified so that a reader knows that the researcher knows that these issues are not fulfilled. These issues may turn into a section of future directions for this particular study.

A conversation with a research student on day I posted this blog has prompted me to look at a further issues related to the writing of the final chapter. While I see the final chapter as making explicit the contributions of knowledge, I realise that many people also see this chapter as laying the groundwork for studies that may follow in the wake of the study articulated in the dissertation. In this regard there is space in the final chapter for also making explicit the new questions that have emerged as a result of undertaking the study. The student to whom I spoke also added an important coda to this idea. His final chapter not only laid the groundwork for future studies but revealed the emergent passion for future studies that has come out of his initial investigation. In a sense his final chapter celebrated his finding his researcher’s voice. Too often students finish a study and complete their dissertation with the Peggy Lee line ’is that all there is?’ and when the final chapter can thus embrace and celebrate the emergent researcher, this in my opinion is a bonus both for the writer and the many readers who will benefit from their work.

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Negotiating delivery of research supervision service


Since discussions about research supervision started in the mid 1980s there has been talk about the importance of the student negotiating with their supervisor about a delivery of service. Some of this emerged in the literature under a banner of research supervision agreements and prompted a debate as to whether these were contracts as such with legal status and enforceability, or understandings and vehicles for promoting discussion about what a student’s expectations were related to their candidature. In the shift from the laissez faire of the 1980s, in which it was a -maybe not articulated but secretly believed- ‘the PhD will be finished in due course’ culture, to what I perceive as the current milestone driven culture, where there is not only pressure of completion but pressure to achieve the nominated milestones, perhaps these concepts of supervision agreements need revisiting.
The notion of a supervision agreement is a wonderful tool for eliciting from the research student their view of what a research degree would involve for them, and what they expect in terms of support from their appointed advisor/supervisor. This is always a difficult for a research student as they do not know what they do not know. For this reason a tool such as Role Perception rating Scale, referred to elsewhere in this blog in the series of articles about the first six months, is so useful. It provides the agenda of things to consider as to how the relationship might at least start.

While it is important to encourage a student to articulate what they see as their needs with regard to support for their research degree, I fall short of expecting that one person (the supervisor or advisor) can provide all this, and I see an opportunity within the context of negotiating a delivery of service to help the student begin to network, so that the provision of service comes from a range of sources rather than a single source.
For example a request for daily meetings with a supervisor may be possible for some supervisors to grant. Indeed, I have heard some laboratory managers talk about their daily meetings with research students to both ensure progress in research and protection of sometimes expensive equipment. For others, this sort of request may be the opportunity to explore with the student the possibility of student initiated communities of practice in which a group of research students agree to begin their day with a meeting and share where they are at and use the collective for sorting out some of the challenges of making sense of where you are at with the literature and how you are progressing with writing deadlines. This is not a sole solution. The community of research scholars may have insufficient knowledge of the specific literature pertaining to a student’s investigation to be able to challenge the ways in which they are establishing meaning for their topic and positioning it in readiness for a tilt at investigation. It is but one of many strategies that encourage a research student to be part of a network of peers.

These sort of communities of scholars can be even initiated in compulsory coursework, where instead of the lecturer teaching the specified coursework they adopt a pedagogy of facilitating a community of (research) practice in which participants can share their forming thoughts and have these discussed and maybe challenged by other peer researchers. The community of practice can still proceed through an identified curriculum. The impact of this can be a shift in the knowledge base from the lecturer as guru to the students as collaborators in a journey of discovery. With a greater sense in the worth of their own knowledge, research students are more likely to take hold of the reins of their study and progress.

Along the progress of candidature, early agreements, if they were made, need to be revised as the needs of the student and the demands of the supervisor/advisor change. If agreements have not been made, there is a risk of overwhelming demands when the research student is feeling overwhelmed, thus reinforcing the importance of early agreements that are revised as candidature progresses.

Establishing these minor milestones of meetings and commitments to work to discuss at meetings also impact on the project planning nature of a research degree. These events form the in-between events in otherwise identified and agreed upon milestones. For example, the milestone might be delivery of a research proposal but a service agreement establishes a series of meetings and writing samples to advance toward this important milestone.

One of the other areas of negotiating delivery of service can be associated with the advancement of the written work. For some students, being alerted to their spelling and citation mistakes when they are still formulating an overall argument achieves only a degradation of their ability. This can be particularly the case with students for whom English is their second language. There is much to be said for a student specifying the type of feedback that would be valuable for them at the individual stages of writing. If such a demand creates a dilemma for the supervisor who feels that they need to identify every small blemish in the work in order to maintain their professionalism, this may be covered with a blanket statement encouraging the student to pay more attention to grammar check and helping them with resources that demystify the grammar comments.

Each of these ideas comes from a core belief in empowering the student. By encouraging a research student to articulate their needs at the various points in their candidature I believe this develops ownership of the project and lays the ground work for a more likely completion.

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Arguing (philosophically) for something different in the dissertation

I have previously written about this topic. Recent events have made it timely to revisit those original thoughts. I have just completed a tour of three universities in the U.K. at which I have been presenting a cabaret on ‘what happens when a researcher wants to publish their research differently?’, and in presenting this inquiry in cabaret I have also modeled the very points I am making.

The role of publication in the research process is an important one. It is through publication of one’s ideas that one’s peers can read the proposed new knowledge and verify that a contribution has been made. There are two important precedents to this aspect of the research process.

The first of these precedents lies in the history of the Medieval monasteries at which prospective students would have to present an argument and defend themselves against all comers. This tradition has been retained in research in the form of double-blind review in which two peers read and review your work without essentially knowing who you are. This process is used in many of the academic publications and forms the basis of dissertation examination.

The second precedent is in the publication of Boyle’s experiment producing the pneumatic pump. Boyle developed a writing style by which readers of the description of this experiment could ‘witness’ that the experiment was genuine and thus affirm his contribution to knowledge. This style of writing became the common style for writing about research and formed the dominant genre for academic writing.
Both precedents contribute to establishing ways of publishing research and also support the dominant genre of academic discourse. That is not to say that there are not alternatives. The paradigm wars emerging from Kuhn’s proposition that paradigms underpinned the ways in which we investigate, led to alternative ways of undertaking investigations and thus alternate ways of publishing. A good case in point is the use of writing in the third person to indicate objectivity. Following the paradigm wars it became appropriate to write in the first person to demonstrate a subjective relationship with the data.

The majority of research students undertaking their candidature seek an unproblematic process. Rarely is the accepted form and structure of a dissertation challenged. Every once in a while, there will be a student who seeks to let their creativity infuse the final look of their dissertation, and while this invites a greater challenge in terms of dissertation writing, it also provides the edge by which the iconic genre can be challenged. This possibility seems to be occurring more frequently as some of the creative research degrees are launched and as the impact of the OECD definition of research, including creative works, starts to filter through the system. In cases where a student wants something different, I recommend that the argument for such variations to the standard be well established and presented as part of the agenda for making this particular contribution to knowledge. I am aware of three different types of argument pertaining to these changes to the norm.

The first form of argument is based on precedent. In reading the literature the student seeks for precedents to their desired approach to investigating their topic. These precedents may exist in other investigations of the same topic or investigations of similar topics in different disciplines. For example, a student investigating their own practice in business and wanting to use practitioner stories, may be able to draw on the research related to another practice, say teaching for example, in which there is a strong usage of practitioner stories. In their own argument they suggest a similar approach even though the disciplines may be different.

The second form of argument I describe as the paradigm approach. It involves exploring the ways in which the topic is articulated and particularly how knowledge is communicated and expressed by the key stakeholders of that topic. Looking at what counts as knowledge in that field is embracing an epistemological argument, and epistemology is part of the inquiry paradigm. A common example is the nature of ‘water-cooler’ conversations and how these often reflect a more accurate portrayal of what is happening in an organisation, than perhaps the formal lines of communication.

The third approach is less common and has particularly as I have worked with experienced practitioners who turn later in their career to investigating various practices, particularly the ones in which they have been engaging. When a practitioner describes the practice and the ways in which they have been developing that practice, they may recognise parallels to formal descriptions of research. I find it is quite common for people who have been engaged in iterative processes of practice investigation, such as a quality improvement cycle, to recognise the similarity to action inquiry. Once having recognised that this is the way they have already been investigating a practice external to a university setting, their argument is to retain this approach and refine it in the light of the available literature about that particular investigative approach.

These variations from the norm are not restricted to methodologies. A strong tradition in research is that the literature review is contained in a single chapter. A variation on this form is to argue the evidence of literature throughout the dissertation rather than in a single chapter. This choice can be presented from the point of view that continued reading of literature enables the practice being investigated to progressively change.

Doing something different often requires extra effort. This effort is rewarded when it comes to the conclusions of the dissertation. Not only has there been a contribution to the knowledge related to the particular topic, but there have been contributions to the knowledge of methodologies pertaining to that topic. The additional labor undertaken to achieve the desired variations in one’s dissertation is also classed as contributions to knowledge. Once a researcher has championed a different way of progressing their research, this provides for others to follow their footsteps and thus establish a set of practices that then become taken for granted steps in subsequent research.

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Specific pedagogies – a review of the Carolyn Baker Memorial lecture

When the research supervision literature talks about research supervision as pedagogy it tends to use this as a general term, rather than nominating specific pedagogies. From reading this blog it may have become evident to you that I have a preference for the specifics of pedagogy, as it enables a research supervisor or advisor to review their own repertoire of practice and either refine or add to it, to improve the overall research candidature.

You can imagine the delight I experienced when attending the Carolyn Baker Memorial lecture at Women’s College at University of Queensland, when the speaker, Professor Jane Kenway, elaborated on specifics of research supervision pedagogy. Her insights evolved from a study she had undertaken with Johanna Fahey, based on conversations with several iconic educators. The study was intended to illuminate the cross over between imagination and research, and Kenway’s presentation at the Carolyn Baker Memorial lecture was presented to motivate current educational researchers and their supervisors into embracing the imaginative in their research.
She summed up her presentation referring to several pedagogies of research supervision which she believed helped research students to embrace the creative. She discerned these pedagogies from one particular chapter in her book describing Imagining research otherwise.

  1. Encourage uncomfortable thought. Challenge the taken for granted assumptions. This particular pedagogy on the surface relates to the value of students physically travelling and thus broadening their understanding of how research is done in different parts of the world. When they don’t travel, they can still be encouraged to travel from the point at which their research started with its history and biography to where it ends up – somewhere different. In some ways this involves identifying a student’s comfort zone and encouraging them to think outside their box.
  2. Examine the unexamined. Look at how and where you have framed a particular question and whether there are other ways to frame that question. This encourages the researcher to push beyond the identified boundaries of their discipline. For the supervisor I imagine that this would involve constantly helping the student to reflect on how they have framed their question rather than on the actual question itself.
  3. Question the question. This is a related pedagogy to examining the unexamined. Recognise that every question has inbuilt sensibilities. Look for how the question is framed and whether this reveals certain assumptions about the issues you are investigating. This appears to be a form of facilitating critical reflection or reflexivity for the researcher.
  4. Go digging not surfing. Broadening one’s focus to look for what lies beyond the self-evident. As I listened to this suggestion it reminded me of looking more broadly than in the obvious journals. I know in my own research some of the valuable insights have come from journals in different disciplines. Research is very much cross disciplinary.
  5. Strive for complexity. Becoming and imagining beyond what you have become as a researcher. This pedagogy speaks to the rigour of the research that it is intended that a topic will be studied at a much more complex level than everyday conversation, but there is still the challenge to communicate this in ways that intelligent people can understand you.
  6. Discover the intellectual excitement in the problem. Kenway suggested, with reference to one of the people she had interviewed in the book, that imagination is the door to amazement, and that this recognising something amazing was where lay the excitement, what some call the passion of research.

I found that these ideas inspired me as a research supervisor and I hope this summary does the same for you.

Kenway, J and ; Fahey, J. (2009) Globalizing the Research Imagination Taylor and Francis

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Empowering the student


We read a lot, or at least see the rhetoric , that the PhD is the student’s work.
I know from experience with my own doctoral dissertation that there was a point in my candidature at which I saw the dissertation as mine and found a voice for myself as a researcher. In the cabaret I wrote about doing a doctorate I described this moment as

‘I’ve got a feeling of excitement. I know my way around here. The literature, the discourse the ground here’

There is much anecdotal evidence to support the notion that if the student is empowered to see their research as their research, then this factor alone can make all the difference between completion and the alternative, often referred to as ABD – all but the dissertation! On the counter side there is a history of uncontrolled power, that unless checked, works against the student finding and claiming their own voice. Even the term supervisor has power elements embedded in it. Where universities have shifted the term to the less ominous ‘advisor’, that at least changes the rhetoric but these rhetorical changes may not change the range of practices which have served to sustain a power imbalance with the advisor/supervisor as powerful and the student in the powerless position.

In the field of practice-related inquiry in which I work, there is an additional anomaly about power. All of the students whom I have supervised have come into doctoral programs with extensive knowledge of their practice. In most instances their knowledge of their own practice is greater than what I would asses as my knowledge on that topic. In these instances, my knowledge based is familiarity with the various practices associated with undertaking doctoral inquiry, and I try to use that knowledge to ease their journey through the degree, as I grow in understanding about the particular practice which they are investigating by reading their developing work and having substantive conversations with them. I find at the end of the process I have gained additional knowledge about the topic that my students have been investigating.

A call to look to the power relationship in research supervision/advising is in essence a call to critical reflection. It is inviting awareness of inbuilt processes and structures that inadvertently reinforce the institute power over that of the research student. Some experiences I have seen from the eyes of my own doctoral journey include:

  • Milestone challenges that lack specific and explicit assessment criteria. The lack of such criteria gives the impression of ‘secret business’ which disempowers the student as the outsider.
  • Policies such as ‘show cause’ when a student has not met some of the identified milestones frames the student in the lesser power role.

Call to action!
In the early years of my undergraduate lecturing, where I taught Self- Esteem within Interpersonal Communication, there appeared to be two different ways of looking at a notion of empowering people. The dominant theme involved the powerful person sharing their power with the less powerful. A less common theme which was articulated in F Scott-Peck’s the Road less travelled, took the view that everyone has power and if a powerful person became conscious of their use of power and actively reduced their levels of power, this left space for the less powerful person to flourish and find their own (rather than someone elses’) power. The image of the unfolding powerful person reminded me of an unfolding flower.

Some of the ways an advisor/supervisor might critically reflect on their practices of supporting the research student include:

  • Examine how you describe the student’s knowledge. Is there an effort to reinforce one’s own knowledge base that inadvertently positions the student’s knowledge, not so much as different, but as other, or of less value than that of the person supervising. In an effort to prove oneself worth of the role of supervisor there may be discounting of the student’s knowledge base.
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It’s all about the coffee

coffee cup

When I first attended university in the early seventies, my university celebrated the fact that it added a coffee shop into the union building. This was admittedly after they had negotiated to have a bar on site. At my current university there are so many coffee shops it appears like the central business district. The range and choice is important, as having lived in Melbourne, Australia I had grown to love the taste and social value of coffee. It did not take me long at my new university to fall into a routine of visiting the same coffee shop at around about the same time each day. That is also about routines but that is another story!

Recently I changed coffee shops! I was thinking about this shift in my very routine practice while swimming laps of the pool to start off my day. This may have also been a conscious effort to think about something other than my PhD or my swimming!… and without consciously making the segway I realised I was starting to think of something that was quite foundational to undertaking a research degree. The reality is that whatever you do when you are doing a PhD, the PhD is not far you’re your mind. What started out as a swim, then musing about a changed coffee shop allegiance eventually ended up as thinking about research.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may well ask yourself what has coffee got to do with research or for that matter a contribution to knowledge?

As I thought about my shift in coffee taking practices I realised it that underneath this innocuous change of practice was a set of criteria on which I was basing and making my choices. In terms of reflective practice (Schön, 1983) it was part of the way I framed my practice, albeit my coffee drinking practice. As I thought about why I had changed outlets I became aware of several criteria on which I was judging ‘goodness’ in coffee taking:

  1. The new coffee shop was a little further but I justified the extra walk as working off whatever calories might come from the muffin I had with my coffee.
  2. The new coffee shop was slightly less expensive. We are only talking cents but these add up when you are taking coffee every day. The change I got at the new coffee shop was exactly the change I needed for the next day’s parking metre.
  3. The queues were not as long at the new coffee shop.

Looking deeper at these factors they involved fiscal and time indicators!
You may still be asking how is this relevant to a research student?.

The parallel I see is that everything that you do in a research degree has connection to performance indicators about good research. When you begin to realise the role of performance indicators in something as ritualistic as taking coffee, it may make it easier to recognise the performance indicators in other aspects of your research degree.
Rarely are students helped to understand what the ‘good’ in ‘good research’ is based on. Until you understand about this goodness, whatever you do is like playing a goal kicking game but not being clear where the goals are located. A good curriculum for research students involves early illumination of what a particular discipline or school considers to be ‘good’ research so that the student knows how to aim for ‘good’.

Given that this is a blog predominantly for research supervisors, it is important for me to go the next step and look at how does this matter for the research supervisor.
Conversations about ‘goodness’ are the core of research discussions. They are not always easy to initiate and if you can ground them in something practical, such as where and why a student may change their coffee outlet, then you can also emphasise how these notions of ‘goodness’ are both variable and at the very heart of research practice.

Recently I attended a PhD colloquium designed to provide a platform for research students to voice their various research projects and obtain feedback from fellow students and academic staff. The key note speaker was an editor from one of the A star journals and he was talking about ‘good’ academic writing. He was advocating a position about ‘good research’ that it was what gets published in A star journals. This really clashed with my own views on good research which were about rigorous and accessible research. I started to wonder whether the ‘good’ research agenda had been hijacked by the related publication agenda. It further incensed me that as the speaker talked about publication, again he defined this as publication in the A* journals. I thought how far we had moved from the notion of double blind review by your peers which resonated with the long held (Medieval and monastic) tradition of a scholar sharing their ideas publicly and answering the challenges of all comers.

It comes back to coffee. How easy it is to shift allegiance from one outlet to another. Once the real performance indicators and potential values are revealed, if not leading to a shift in paradigm, it may help a student recognise where there is dissonance for them through a conflict of core beliefs!

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A., Basic Books.

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Analysing your student’s technology abilities.

There was a time when the preliminary stages for a research project or research degree involved finding appropriate publications related to the topic and noting the knowledge. There was an emphasis on ‘finding’ as this may involve walking through stacks of journals and reading a number of articles to locate ones which were relevant to the topic. It was often followed with writing on filing cards the particular information so that the cards could be sorted and begin to form the foundation of a research proposal or literature review.
With the advent of technology, there has been a significant change in what is understood as research practice and this now involves dependence on a range of technologies. In the early stages of a student’s candidature it is worthwhile assessing their technology capability such that appropriate interventions can be organised and a process of developing the technology skills can be devised to run parallel with the emerging research skills.
The importance of technology came to mind recently at a research conference at which all research students in a faculty were invited to present. Awards were given and it seemed to me that those who received awards also excelled in presentation technology. The adage ‘death by powerpoint’ is a strong reminder of how important visual publication of one’s findings can be. Many of the presentations at this conference could perhaps be viewed from that ‘death by powerpoint’ lens. They were words on screens! Two of the presentations which won awards were sophisticated image journeys, one of which used powerpoint and the other made use of the emergent précis technology. The experience alerted me to the role that technology can play in all aspects of a candidate’s experience.

Technology is not restricted to presentational technology. There are sophistications in word processing that include formatting and referencing. The earlier a research student is exposed to these the better. In particular, the exposure and adoption of some of the referencing technologies (such as endnote) requires early exposure so that the procedures become enmeshed into the student’s every day research practices. For example it is a lot easier to be loading references into the end note files as you go as a researcher than to have a large number of references that need loading.
Similar technology is the searching technology. Understanding which words to use to find the appropriate literature in a vast array of literature is a skill that is often developed with assistance from librarians and this means introducing students to the library facilities early while they are still formulating their routines.
Because of my own preference for qualitative research there is a range of other technology with which I am not familiar, nevertheless I know it exists. Statistical services that are available through the computer are also important. Even within qualitative research there have been developments in terms of electronic ways to more effectively record data and convert that data to text and in some cases analyse the data as well.
One of the dilemmas for the research supervisor is that their own technology capability can be a draw back. Without seeing the worth of a set of technology skills in your own research practice, it is hard to recommend the set of skills to a novice researcher.
One research supervision strategy for introducing appropriate technology links to the discussion a supervisor might have with their student in the early days of candidature to ascertain what they see as their expectations of a research journey. That discussion might also explore what the student sees as their technology capabilities and gauge their awareness, if not their expertise, with some of the obvious technologies. It may even be worthwhile having a check list to work through with a student to check their familiarity. Where you identify a lack of familiarity, either choose an appropriate time in the candidature to expose them to that technology or look for at opportunities to encourage their networking with the appropriate authorities to acquire those skills.
Interventions over technology also link to the ways in which students learn. Technology skills are often acquired when undertaking real projects. When a real need is identified, provided that the added stress of learning something new will not push out other deadlines, students can be encouraged to learn the technology in the context of a real project. This can be particularly useful for simple technologies such as formatting a document. Once there are the foundations for a document, introduction of formatting also invites using the index as an overall skeleton for the document. The same would apply to introducing referencing programs as soon as a student is starting to identify specific references that help to build their understanding of the topic.

As with any of the skills involved in undertaking research, one introduction is not necessarily going to solve all problems but it does introduce the agenda to a student so that they can be alert to growth possibilities throughout their candidature.

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Helping the research student to write a research proposal

Writing the research proposal is an integral part of a research student’s candidature. It often occupies the first phase of candidature and as such is seen as an important milestone. Many research students would attest the belief that the research proposal occupies the bulk of their thinking time when they embark on a research degree.
It would appear from personal experience and talking with numerous students that the strategies most research supervisors use to help students develop the milestone of a research proposal involve encouraging them to write and rewrite, with the promise that repetitive writing will eventually lead to a worthy document. Many supervisors experienced this trial and error process in their own candidature. You eventually get ‘it’ without necessarily being sure what ‘it’ is. Such was the nature of the halcyon days of long candidature.
In the contemporary three and a half year candidature culture, the need to meet milestones by predetermined markers should have evolved into specific strategies to enable students to develop the necessary writing skills in this tighter time frame. If ever there was a call for specifics in the pedagogy of research supervision, it applies to this particular challenge.
Across my now three research degrees in three different disciplines– a MSc in Social Ecology, a professional doctorate in Education and now a PhD in Business – I had developed a view of what I conceived to be the research proposal. Elsewhere in this blog I have clarified that view by describing the dissertation as an extended argument which argues for:

  • How a given issue or topic can be understood
  • How, given that understanding, the given issue or topic can be investigated.
  • How to make sense of the data collected in the pursuit of the investigation
  • What the data contributes to an understanding of the original issue or topic

Such a description of the dissertation would suggest that the research proposal is also an argument which proposes how a topic can be understood and how it can be investigated.
In the ensuing time, the bar appears to have been lifted. While the overall aim of the research proposal could still be classed as framing a topic and proposing how that topic could be investigated, my experiences as a PhD student have taught me that the writing style, rather than being representative of an apprentice learning a craft, is often more at the standard of top tier journals. This shift in performance criteria may be intentional. It can result from academics spending more time reading and writing journal articles and this overexposure to one genre has dulled their view of what a research proposal should be. Again, if ever there was a time to develop specific research supervision pedagogy, it is in the context of writing the research proposal be it an old fashioned style or a new top tier journal style.
Scaffolding is the first pedagogical descriptor that addresses strategies for helping a research student develop their research proposal. I am in print elsewhere recommending a process for developing the research proposal that starts with a two page skeleton and slowly develops with regular feedback from the supervisor or other readers. This idea of building up to a finished document sits within writing development in all levels of education, but at higher degree research level requires the supervisor to have some idea of how the end document can be deconstructed, such that strategies for building parts can be identified and offered.
A second pedagogy is substantive conversations. These are discussions with your student about the development of their ideas associated with their topic. In the early stages of candidature they can focus on what the student has been reading that helps them to position their topic within broader literature about that topic in the discipline. One of the premises of doctoral research is that it makes a contribution to knowledge. In order to make this claim, a student needs to know what is known about their topic.
In the early stages of candidature substantive conversations can focus on what the student has been reading and what these readings point to:

  • The key names in the literature
  • The ways in which the nominated topic is positioned in the literature.
  • Phrases that appear in the literature that can help the student to position their own study of the topic. One example of a phrase that I found in the literature when I was investigating my topic of reflective practice was the suggestion that reflective practice had been ‘historically constituted’. This phrase replaced several sentences which I had used to explain how the meaning of the term changed over time.

Later in the candidature these conversations might shift from individual readings to a general positioning of the study of the topic within the literature and the associated traditions that come with this positioning. A common positioning links to the ways in which the topic has previously been investigated which may reflect a scientific model, and this contrasts with the student’s desire to investigate the topic from a different paradigm of investigation. In a research proposal this sort of delineation may help to distinguish between using quantitative or qualitative data.
Throughout these conversations there is a need for parallel feedback on the student’s writing. The research proposal and eventually the dissertation are written documents and feedback on writing is an important way in which a student can develop their writing skills. Elsewhere in this blog I have talked about

  • Correcting errors.
  • Alerting students to genre requirements.
  • Raising critical reflection

And to these I would add

  • Recognising the various debates with which the positioning of the topic invites engagement.I know in the writing of my current work just the use of the word ‘professional’ signalled that in order to understand and position my topic I needed to read this well established debate about what constitutes professionalism.

These are all important elements of the feedback for a research proposal. There is considerable discussion about when to focus on correcting spelling and grammar errors. Presentation is so much of the way in which the content can be read and while it might be useful to delay focusing on what might appear to be trivialities of writing, these trivialities get in the way of the ideas being understood and thus the overall argument being followed.

Such feedback may require more than notes about their writing. It may require dialogue and discussion to work out where they are at and where they need to get to. This can result in ever changing articulation of the question(s) their study is(are) addressing.
A final pedagogy involves helping the student understand the criteria by which this milestone will be assessed. This pedagogy has been adopted in many other levels of education and recently in higher education undergraduate courses we have seen the introduction of rubrics which elaborate the details of assessment. Traditionally research degrees have lacked this clarity of assessment. I remember in my EdD about ‘Doing a doctorate’ one of the collaborators described the writing process as ‘playing pin the tail on the donkey, but no-one could tell you where the donkey was’. This sort of statement reiterates an earlier comment that many currently supervising have learnt the necessary writing craft through trial and error to eventually hit on what is required without ever knowing the specifics of the assessment. In the context of tighter time frames for completion making the assessment criteria specific is a ll viable strategy and helps to ground some of the comments being made in writing feedback?

There is also a pedagogy is about time management. Recognising that all of these strategies take time both to implement and learn but the introduction of these focussed forms of writing development can also be seen as an investment that produces a faster product or saves time alter on.

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Research culture and the graduate centres

Graduate centres are a relatively new concept in higher degree research. They appear to have formally emerged as governments placed fiscal pressure on universities to ensure a quota of graduations, although they have informally existed where ever there have been collections of research students.
Across the three research degrees I have undertaken I have experienced three different models of graduate centres.
The first was an informal meeting of research students, all trying to fathom what it meant to do action research and agreeing to meet and discuss this. This evolved out of the student driven agendas associated with my undertaking a masters by research in my first degree. In a sense it was a genuine community of practice well before these forms of group meetings were identified and seen as beneficial for practitioners, and before universities began to see the benefit of such communities for their research students. Such was the incentive to be part of this community of practice I drove for almost one hour to move from my suburban residence to the university campus on the outskirts of Sydney only to discover some days that the energy behind the meetings, a group of very focussed women researchers had decided to do something else. This also preceded the days of email contact so it was not always possible to let me know beforehand that the plans had changed. Although this was not always successful for me it prompted my flying half way around the world to attend the four day community of practice hosted by Peter Reason for the Bath University Centre for Change Management and being rewarded by living action research.
The second experience was when I enrolled for my doctoral degree and it was the early days of creating spaces for the students. A group of research students undertaking a range of different topics and different methodologies were all placed in a large communal room the most important feature of which was a large central table. In educational speak this can be described as provisioning the environment and from a research culture perspective having this table encouraged us to meet and share meals, and in doing so share ideas and support for each other as research students. However successful this idea was, later in my candidature the wisdom of the faculty moved us all from this lovely communal area to two per office, and although there was a lunch room at the end of the corridor, I was aware that we no longer met and discussed as much as we had.
In the degree which I am currently undertaking there are several graduate centres dotted around the university. I have the fortune to be in one which is not explicitly my discipline so I benefit from conversations with others about their research, and surprisingly this advances my own agendas. It is equipped with a lunch room and photocopy facilities as well as a communal discussion room, all of which, intentionally or totally by accident, provision the environment for discussions and the development of communities of practice. One of the graduate centres is devoted to those students in the final stages of candidature and this offers an additional incentive to get the dissertation completed. Such an initiative recognises the large number of students who almost reach the completion state but fail to move to that final moment of submission or corrections following submission.
Resourcing these graduate rooms is often a major part of a budget and faculty to faculty the budgets vary. I can see that having a dedicated space has enhanced my feeling of being part of a research engine and having the opportunity to chat with others nourishes my learning style of learning through conversations.
The graduate centres are an important factor in generating the research culture. Just allocating resources to research students and providing a dedicated space emphasises the importance of the research student in the overall research agenda in the university.
It is understandable that an individual research supervisor is unlikely to hold the political clout to influence a decision such as whether or not to have graduate centres. If they did hold such power then encouraging the allocation of resources to this sort of research venture is an important way to add to the research culture in a faculty and advance the prospects of students completing their research degrees. Where there is no provision of a graduate centre, then an individual supervisor can begin to establish a community of practice with their own students and encourage them coming together to discuss their common agendas. I have elaborated on this pedagogical model of group supervision is a different blog.
Where research graduate centres are provided an individual research supervisor can help their students to understand the processes by which students move into research centres encouraging them to have their name on waiting lists and if need be add their advocacy to this particular agenda. A supervisor can also enhance this atmosphere of graduate centres by encouraging their own students to create networks by encouraging them to meet other students and perhaps meet some of the other students you supervise.

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How Close to Supervise?

In this blog I am pleased to welcome William Stevenson as a guest writer.

One thing a research leader needs to establish early on is how closely to supervise the members of his group, in particular how often to get updates on work in progress. I knew one group leader who got daily updates. The first thing in the morning, his group of about six would meet in his office and describe the previous day’s work. The process took about fifteen minutes, two to three minutes per person, about an hour of his time every week. Other group leaders have weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings. Many professors and some group leaders elsewhere have no set schedule for updates, adopting the “management by walking around” method of strolling through the lab and chatting with students or staff whenever they sense the need for input.

Which method works the best?
In reality, there is no one best method for supervision. The best method is the one that works best for you. Some professors and some students like a structured schedule for updates; the professor doesn’t have to worry about losing track of his student’s work and the student has a regular deadline that helps him organize his work. Other professors have sort of mind that doesn’t lose track of such matters; no matter how busy they are with teaching or administration their subconscious alerts them when it’s time for an update and then they will call the student to their office or walk through the lab to check on progress. Similarly, some students like the independence of working on their own but will freely update their professor whenever they have significant progress or encounter problems.
Some research leaders are famous for having a hands-off attitude. One professor in my graduate school was reputed to have little contact with his students. He was well regarded in his field and his students held him in awe. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” remarked a friend of mine. “They only see him when they give him their quarterly reports. That’s why his students worship him.” I suspect this analysis was an outsider’s superficial impression. The professor was pleasant and personable, the sort of boss no underling would hesitate to approach with a problem. He was there if he was needed—a mentor as much as a manager. That was his style and it worked for him. The same management style might work for you. Or it might not.

This post was written by William Stevenson, an English editor with Enago based out of the USA.

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