Saturday, May 30, 2009

The MPhil safety net

If you don’t yet have a contribution to knowledge that can be communicated in a PhD thesis, don’t despair. This might be because you are at an early stage in your research, still looking at the literature to find a suitable gap, or because your investigation hasn’t yet led to any conclusions. The latter case is easier since by this stage you should be fairly sure that the investigation will lead to conclusions that ought to be of interest. You supervisors will advise you what sort of conclusions will interest your academic audience: it is important to be guided by their advice.
But it does sometimes happen that a line of research leads nowhere, or simply rediscovers something that is already in the literature. This is not a source of any shame: discuss the problem openly with your supervisors. Maybe they can advise on an interesting change of direction, or an improvement to the investigative machinery you are using.
If not, then the options are to start again with a new problem, or to write up the research as an MPhil instead of PhD. MPhil is a perfectly respectable degree, and especially if your work has led to a useful overview of the literature, digest of existing theory, and description of the primary work that you have carried out, then simply submit it for MPhil.
How does the MPhil thesis differ from PhD? They both have an abstract, introduction, literature review, primary research, conclusions and suggestions for further work. The formal difference is in the primary research section. They both will give an account of the initial investigations into the research question posed in the Introduction. But the PhD thesis will then discuss the process of refinement identifying the contribution to knowledge, and the more detailed investigation that establishes this securely.
If your career is already beyond the PhD stage, and your research is for establishing a track record in an area that is new to you, it is unlikely that anything useful will be gained by attempting to publish results that don’t make a contribution to knowledge. Use the work in your lectures by all means, but don’t waste the time of reviewers and editors.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Write the abstract

Your abstract will be a small work of art. It will be about 250 words, but will describe your contribution to knowledge in a way that sets it in the context of current work in your academic discipline.
There are major limitations on the style of an abstract. You do not have the luxury of a list of references: the text must be self-contained, and there is obviously little space for any account of your evidence or methods, or for quotations from other work. Even more than the rest of the thesis, the abstract should avoid using the first person, or equivalent phrases like “the author”, since the abstract, like the blurb on the outside of a paperback, is in the style of a review of your work.
The PhD examination is likely to pay particular attention to the wording of the abstract. Everything it promises must be delivered in the thesis in a very obvious way – it is a good idea to ensure that phrases used in the abstract should appear as titles in the table of contents. Thus in miniature it gives an overview of your thesis.
It is a good idea to write a first draft of the abstract quite early on in the research. If you can’t describe your contribution to knowledge in 250 words, you should refine your ideas until you can.
On the other hand, once you have stated your contribution to knowledge in this succinct way, every part of the final thesis will contribute to establishing it. Any material, no matter how clever, that is not directly relevant to this task is likely to be removed from the thesis, either by you or your examiners.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What are you going to do?

Your primary research might be an experiment, a proof-of-concept prototype, some new insights, a new way of performing, creating or analysing something. Whatever it is, you need to think about how it will look BEFORE you start. How will your academic community look at it? Will they recognise it as an original contribution? How can you convince them it is any good? What counts as being good? – is it being well thought-out, conferring some advantage over current methods, deeper in some sense, more effective in some way?
You need to think first about what tests your community regards as important. Looking at some other contributions in your field, how have they validated or evaluated their contributions? Looking at published reviews or criticisms of other people’s work, what issues excite the interest of the reviewers?
Thinking about such questions will help focus your primary research. Whatever you do, there is little use for messing up. You have one life, and usually just one shot at a full-time PhD. The PhD experience is so much of a trial that you will almost certainly never do another one, though with any luck you will in future supervise many seekers of the way. (Your first successful PhD supervision will be another life-changing experience, but that is a story for another day.)
What would count as messing up? To avoid disaster, think about your sources of data – if there are to be interviews or surveys, choose and plan carefully. If it is an experiment, make sure you think of everything, and calibrate your tools and tests. If it is a prototype, make sure it meets some tangible need and that you have people who understand that need and how to recognise a solution. If it is some new method or technique, make sure it can be compared with existing methods using available or standard comparison techniques.
Once you have answers to all of these questions, look again at your research proposal (prospectus, abstract, manifesto). Does it still look interesting from the viewpoint of a typical member of your academic discipline? If not, you need to go back, and consider how it might be made more interesting, following the rules given in earlier posts.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The refinement process

Along with the research methodology, the early part of your research will construct an outline plan for your investigation. For PhD, this almost always has at least two stages of primary research. The following notes are intended to apply for any of the possible research methodologies for your PhD - and even for other sorts of doctorate such as those involving performance.
Your carefully chosen literature review leads to the starting points for your investigation, and your research question suggests how the investigation will begin. But at this stage you should have no fixed ideas of how things will turn out - after all, if you already know the answer to your research question, then it is not research. So it is to be expected that following a first stage of your investigation, there will be a process of refinement of the research question and the direction of the investigation.
This refinement is the magically effective ingredient in modern inductive investigation, and was not fully taken into account in some of the founding writings on science (e.g. Whewell), not in the discussions of them by philosophers such as Rorty or Feyerabend. Some of them would regard such refinement as a kind of cheating, since for them it was crucial always to say in advance how evidence would be collected, examined, and evaluated. For them, if the researchers were to say: "we notice something really interesting here that will now be the focus of the rest of our research", they would be invalidating the whole project up to that point.
But to researchers, it is entirely legitimate to focus on what is new or surprising. For example if the initial results (surprisingly) bear out someone's ideas in a novel setting, then it seems entirely proper to explore the edges of the area where they seem to apply. If the initial results don't seem to match anyone's existing ideas, then further work is suggested to try to sketch out what ideas would fit better.
Rorty tells us not to cheat too much...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

How to argue

So, you have some conclusions, and you want to convince your readers. You fear that some of them will not easily accept your results - perhaps they prefer a different theory or look at things differently. You also, as a minimum, want to establish that your conclusions will represent a real contribution to knowledge.
How do you proceed? The first thing to remember is never to attack other researchers or their ideas, however wrong you think they are. They are merely waiting for you to tell them what you have observed and what can be learned from it.
Secondly, remember that these are your peers: potential admirers and collaborators. Don't talk down to them. They are just as bright as you, but they haven't direct experience of the results of your investigation.
Thirdly, remember that the rules of the games allow for no speciall skills. Never suggest that you can see something that others cannot, or that you have access to evidence that is not available to others. Francis Bacon (p.350, 61) "Our method of discovering the sciences is such as to leave little to the acuteness and strength of wit, and indeed rather to level wit and intellect. For, as in the drawing of a line or accurate circle by the hand, much depends upon its steadiness and practice, but if a ruler or compass be employed there is little occasion for either; so it is with our method."
Finally, remember that we often see just what we expect. (ibid p347, 41) "all the perceptions, both of the senses and the mind, bear reference to man, and not to the universe, and the human mind resembles those uneven mirrors, which impart their own properties to different objects, from which rays are emitted, and distort and disfigure them." Our observations not not any truer than others.
Instead, think of it as a shared journey of discovery, where we build painstakingly on the results of previous work. As Francis Bacon (p.346, 32) said: "The ancient authors, and all others, are left in undisputed possession of their honours. For we enter into no comparison of capacity or talent, but of method; and assume the part of a guide, rather than of a critic." You must imagine the reader is accompanying you on a walk through the evidence. You are pointing out objects of interest, recalling what others have said about them, encouraging a closer look at certain aspects that you believe lead to new insights.
Because you have studied other academic writing in your discipline, you know the rules of the game, and you know what sort of presentation will be regarded as conclusive. You work with your readers, and avoid combative writing.
Bacon, F (1620) Instauratio Magna
Rorty, R (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature 978-0631129615 (Wiley)