Research supervision as Contribution to Knowledge

The idea that one supervises to advance knowledge draws its energy from the often unstated expectation that a research degree is intended to make a contribution to knowledge. This expectation was made explicit in the recent Bologna agreement (Floud, 2006) to respond to what was perceived as some doctoral degrees appearing to be based on coursework but no research component. Part of the agenda that research makes a contribution to knowledge explores the ways in which those contributions are made and some of the rules and regulations about academic writing.

Many supervisors would identify their own research dissertations and the publications that have arisen from them, as contributions to knowledge, but rarely do they look beneath their practices at the power of this assumption and how it informs so many factors of higher degree research.

My interest in this area arose out of discussions with supervisors about what they conceive as research, and several who suggested that their idea of research supervision was to help their students to make a contribution to knowledge. This assumption about research making a contribution to knowledge has its roots in the Ancient Greek schools from which we take the term thesis (θέσις) meaning position, a term often used synonymously with dissertation. The idea of research as a contribution to knowledge also embraces the ways in which that knowledge is articulated and in this regard draws from the provenance of scientific writing in the description of Boyle’s Pneumatic Pump. Boyle devised a reporting style that enabled his readers to witness his contribution to knowledge (Shapin, 1984) through reading the description of the experiment. Compte’s (1848) claim (in Habermas, 1968), ‘that scientific knowledge was the only true knowledge’ reinforced the dominance of scientific method as the way to articulate the contributions to knowledge. These claims were challenged by Kuhn’s (1962) revelation of paradigm, and Guba and Lincoln’s (1982) articulation of the paradigm which underpins research practice, all of which contribute to the philosophic fabric of research practice. When a research supervisor suggests that their view of supervision is to assist a student to make a contribution to knowledge, part of this agenda should include helping them understand the rules of academic writing and the ways in which those rules have changed in response to philosophical arguments and technology innovations.

In contemporary research, where methodologies are sometimes chosen on the basis of precedent or even the investigator’s own relationship with their topic, the philosophical roots can be overlooked. Rarely is an argument made from explicit epistemological and ontological considerations. The words may even be unfamiliar to many research students. Also in the contemporary world of higher degree research, in which there is a great emphasis on completion in stipulated amounts of time, I have heard some academics suggest that the doctoral degree no longer serves this assumption of making a contribution to knowledge and is a period of learning to be a researcher.

In contrast, when a dissertation is examined, one of the questions asked of the examiner is to comment on the contribution to knowledge. This maxim of academic work is consistently reinforced by the drives for publication.

This theme of research supervision as helping a student make a contribution to knowledge seems to have hit a nerve with several readers of this blog, as the article ‘How can you tell when there is a contribution to knowledge’ is one of the most frequently downloaded articles in the whole blog

My own interest in the contributions to knowledge is focused on the provenance of the dissertation and particularly in those people who try to do something different in their dissertation. This may be writing in the first person or including video footage in their dissertation. This agenda has led me to write and perform a cabaret on ‘what happens when a student wants to do something different in their dissertation?” (Hill, 2012)

The blogs I have written under this heading include:

  • Making sure that there is sufficient Ph in a PhD
  • How can you tell when there has been a contribution to knowledge (in a doctoral research study)?
  • Authorship- who has actually written the dissertation
  • Arguing (philosophically) for something different in a dissertation
  • Problematising knowledge which has been drawn from experience
  • How I know rather than what I know

Use the Research Supervision as Contributions to Knowledge portal at the end of this blog to access each of these articles.

Comte, A. (1957, 1848) A General view of Positivism Official centenary ed. of the International Auguste Comte Centenary Committee / [Translated from the French by J. H. Bridges].New York, U.S.A : R. Speller

Floud, R. (2006), The Bologna Process: Transforming European Higher Education, Change: the Magazine of Higher Learning , 38(4), 8-13.

Guba, E. and Lincoln, Y. 1982. Epistemological and Methodological bases of Naturalistic Inquiry. Education Communication and Technology Journal, 30(4), 233-252.

Habermas, J. 1968. Knowledge and Human Interests Beacon Press: Boston

Hill, G. (2012, May) What happens when a student wants to do something different in their dissertation? – Cabaret as academic writing. Inaugural Global Storytelling Conference, Prague: Chezk Republick
http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/What-happens-when-a-student-wants-to-do-something-different-in.pdf

Kuhn, T. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, U.S.A., Chicago Press.

Shapin, S (1984) Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology
Social Studies of Science, 14(4): 481-520.

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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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