A small group of us have started meeting to talk about the PhD process, and I decided to write up some of the broad themes. The point, I think, is that, although each person is researching a different topic, they face common problems and can share experiences. I’m afraid that, more often than not, we didn’t come up with solutions – but, you know, a problem shared …
The PhD as a record of research training – not a perfect achievement
Probably the most important part of the discussion is about the end-point, which is usually the much-feared viva following thesis submission (in our case, the UK-style non-public meeting with internal/ external examiners). There are four points that I’d stress:
- We see the PhD (at least increasingly) as a way to demonstrate proficiency in research methods, information gathering, and presentation. So, a common answer to a problem about how you do a literature review or deal with data limitations is that you should demonstrate that you have used your training and skills to produce the right outcome. There is no right answer, but there are established ways to demonstrate that you have the skills to produce an answer. This usually starts with having a clear and realistic research question. Then, it’s about showing that your engagement with the literature is geared specifically to answering that question (not a big list of points about the literature), that you have selected the most appropriate method(s), that you can write drafts and respond correctly to feedback, and that you can make oral/ conference presentations and generate more feedback.
- This emphasis seems preferable to, for example, trying to demonstrate some sort of awesome ‘gap’ in the literature or that you are challenging the conventional wisdom (imagine every PhD challenging what came before – it would be exhausting). I wouldn’t rule gap-identification out completely, but I’d be careful about making exaggerated claims (I discuss this point in relation to policy theory here). Sometimes an examiner will end up thinking that the gap was there for a reason (the PhD does not demonstrate the topic’s importance) or that its identification of a gap is rather artificial (which is a common ploy used by more senior academics that should really set a better example). For me, a PhD will look more convincing if you provide a quite-respectful review of the relevant literature, demonstrating how it helps guide your research (and, for example, how your case compares with cases in other fields or countries) and how your study will help improve it. This can often be about adding nuance to established findings (for example, when someone uses case studies to add depth to general assumptions about political behaviour) rather than shattering them.
- One of the most useful parts of the process is to present to an audience that doesn’t really know or care about your research. It forces you to re-think how you explain it to people other than your supervisor or people with shared interests (in both cases, you may be used to using a shared language or shorthand). I reckon you’ll find it easier to explain the case study or research question (which is often relatively clear) than your theoretical approach (which is often riddled with rotten jargon with limited meaning, or concepts like ‘power’ or ‘governance’ which might maybe mean everything and nothing).
- The PhD will be less than perfect and that’s OK. I often tell PhD students that they will be surprised about how low the bar is to successful completion – not because the bar is too low, but because it is at a realistic level, in which examiners recognise what you can do in three years when you have just begun a research career.
See also: Phd Chat page