How I know rather than what I know

The research degree is intended to make a contribution to knowledge through original research. Many research students start their candidature identifying what is known about their topic by undertaking a literature review. Sometimes they may even begin this task by asking themselves what they know rather than what is known, and identifying the knowledge that they already have about their topic. This can be an affirming action to counteract the sometimes held belief, that the research student is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. It recognises the research student as a person who has already acquired a considerable amount of knowledge to be able to undertake a degree of the calibre of a research degree.

Asking yourself ‘what do I know about this topic?’ is also an ideal lead into a second, and I believe more pertinent question ‘How do I know these things?’. When you ask yourself ‘how do I know something?’ you are beginning to tap into your epistemology, and this is an important source to tap as the epistemological argument is one of the important arguments to take place within the dissertation.

A good example of what it means to tap your own knowledge can be linked to the very practice of research supervision.
If I ask myself ‘what do I know about research supervision?’ I come up with a couple of topic areas such as
…it is pedagogy.
….it is about relationships.
……it is often governed by university based policy.

When I ask myself how ‘do I know these things?’
I know about pedagogy because I started to read about that in the literature on research supervision and I was able to link this to other knowledge I had about teaching.

I know that research supervision is about relationships because so many students I talk to mention the strength or weakness of the supervisory relationship. When I came into research supervision, I knew this from experience rather than from the literature, but as I looked through the literature I became more and more aware of it and I recognised literature taken from other disciplines was used to explain the relational aspects of research supervision.

I know that research supervision is governed by university based policy because when I talk to research supervisors, this seems to be the area about which they are most concerned. They recognise in their own practice that there has been a shift in practice from, for some good teaching and for others good relationships, to a practice which is compliant with a range of policies.

For me these three sources of knowledge reflect a debate about what counts as knowledge, which has operated since the philosophers in the Ancient Greek schools made a distinction between practical knowledge and knowledge which arises out of reasoning. This debate has continued, and in recent years, as there was a rise in popularity in the practice related investigation methods, the heart of those methods involved recognition of experiential or practical knowledge over book knowledge.

The second value for the question ‘how do I know these things?’ is that this question helps the research student to begin to identify how they have come to learn things; how they have acquired knowledge. At the outset of what is essential a knowledge journey, these self insights can help a research student make choices about how they address the various milestones associated with undertaking a research degree. Choices such as do they sit on the computer and search journals for articles on their topic or do they talk with other people about what they know about the topic and what informed their knowledge. Both choices can lead to a list of potential articles to include in a literature review, but they represent different ways of acquiring this knowledge.

This knowledge about how you learn can also feed into choices as to whether you read a book about doing your PhD or whether you attend classes/workshops on the various aspects of the research degree. It could mean a difference between learning what a PhD dissertation looks like by reading other people’s dissertation or by reading about the provenance of the dissertation and coming to understand the reasons for the many writing rules associated with the dissertation.

David Kolb who has written about learning for many years suggests that when a person is confronted with something new to learn they make choices about whether they want to do or watch, and at the same time whether they want to think or feel. He suggests that this then sets up one of four learning styles


(His model is at

Thinking about how you have learned for a range of items of knowledge that you can identify at the start of your candidature can help as you make choices about your learning throughout your candidature and you start to learn and know other aspects related to your dissertation topic.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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