Following the ‘rules’ (or not?)

This guest post is by Mary-Helen Ward, a PhD student who also works as a manager in eLearning at the University of Sydney. Her PhD is investigating the process of doing a PhD at an Australian research-intensive university, using blogs to gain data about students experiences in real time. In this post Mary-Helen reflects on PhD writing and risk – what does it mean to ‘follow the rules’?

A PhD involves production of a scholarly text. However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that PhD students find writing this text hard. Tara Brabazon, writing in Times Higher Ed nearly two years ago,  lays the situation on the line: if you want to get a PhD based in any discipline (she includes creative-based disciplines in this) you have to follow the rules.  It isn’t personal, the rules apply to everyone. The scholarly text, whether it is called a ‘thesis’, ‘dissertation’, or ‘exegesis’, must explain the work you have done, why you did it that way, and what your work contributes to new knowledge in a discipline. While, superficially at least, these rules seem simple, they do not really help you make decisions.

This is where a lot of the trouble starts.

For instance, how do you decide how long this scholarly text should be? It may surprise you that a thesis does not have to be very long; it may even consist of a single page. The text will always be considered as part of a larger research project. The range of disciplines that have found their way into the academy over the centuries means there is a huge range of possibilities for the form the larger project takes. You could, for example, have created a new way to measure ripeness in fruit, or new ways to sculpt a figure. You might have shed new light on the work of a particular writer, or made a film about a writer. You could have investigated how people live within the restraints of a limited income, or demonstrated a leap in the application of gene therapy. You can even compose an opera and get a PhD.

Taken on its own, your PhD project is an amazing piece of work. You have done or found out something that no-one has ever done before – or, at least, has not done before in the way that you have done it. But that’s not what you get your PhD for.

You get a PhD for writing the scholarly text.

As I pointed out in the beginning, the scholarly text explains the significance of what you did, defends why you did it that way, and lays out really clearly what new knowledge your work contributes. This last part is perhaps the most important. You have to explicitly tell your examiners how your work does that and make the claim for originality (and take originality very widely – it might be your method that is newly applied to work previously done).

Brabazon wants to see a sentence beginning “The original contribution to knowledge of this thesis is…” in the abstract; this is a bit extreme for me, but I do think a sentence should appear no later than the introduction.  Such a statement is crucial – it shows you are displaying confidence in your work and it gives the examiners something to measure the thesis against. You are telling them what you think you’ve done, and they can read on and find out if that is what you did.

In addition your thesis should showcase what you have learned. You have gained other skills in doing your project, but you will demonstrate their development in your scholarly text.  The problem for you, as a thesis writer, is to decide how to do that. And here’s the heart of the matter: to do a PhD is to take a risk.

How much risk do you want to take?

Most students, reasonably, take the conventional path, following established practices and methods in established disciplines. Their contribution to new knowledge may be small, although important when seen in a bigger picture. They might find a new way to measure something; a new widget that might move an industry into a more green direction; a new idea about teaching young children how to estimate in maths. If this is the kind of thesis you are doing, and you take care to explain clearly what they have done, why you did it that way, and how it contributes to new knowledge, it’s highly likely you will be successful.

Not all students have it so easy. The relationship of the thesis to the project work can be more difficult in disciplines where you ‘make’ something: the visual and performing arts and applied science, for example. One of the members of my family was recently awarded a PhD in science. He tried to make a portable device that would measure fruit ripeness without damaging the fruit, using NMR. He was not successful; the device he was able to create with the resources he had was not sufficiently robust. But in calibrating the device using different molarities of sugar solutions he discovered something about the behaviour of water that has never been published.

The scholarly text he produced was not a conventional ‘five-chapter thesis’; after his ‘methods’ chapter it was structured as a series of considerations of all the factors that might have made the device he was designing work. This conceptual design thinking, along with his chapter on the behaviour of water (which was unrelated to his research question and was almost a side issue) meant that his PhD was passed easily, although his project work was not technically a success.

Some students – relatively few it has to be said – conceive of projects that cross and even break boundaries. If you are someone who wants to do this you and your supervisor(s) need to be very clear about what you are doing . You need to know why you have done it that way and you must communicate this clarity confidently to your examiners. There is no reason you can’t follow your dream and contribute to knowledge in a truly original way, just don’t expect the examiners to notice by a kind of mind transfer how clever you have been. Spell the contribution out for them as early in your thesis as possible. That’s one rule you must not break!

So what sort of thesis are you writing? Is it a ‘high risk’ proposition, or are you following a more conventional path? Do you have any ideas about what you might do if you have unexpected results?

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6 thoughts on “Following the ‘rules’ (or not?)

  1. Lynne Kelly says:

    I started on the conventional road, but stumbled over an application of what I was doing into a field in which I had no background – archaeology. It was a hard decision to change topic and give up on a book contract on the original topic, but being mature age I could afford to take the risk, so I did. It has been a lonely few years because I don’t fit into any discipline. Everything has had to be checked with experts in each of the disciplines I am crossing (science and information technology (my fields), sociology, anthropology and archaeology) with great help from my supervisors and a top notch academic librarian. I’m in the English program as a non-fiction writer. It’s taken three overseas trips (there goes the scholarship money) to meet with people who could help amid heaps of self-doubt, which was crippling at times. I’ll either end up with egg on my face or a radical new theory on the purpose of prehistoric monumental structures which will lead to lots of books – academic and trade.

    The draft is drafted and edited by my supervisor so I’m getting close to submission. My poor supervisor now has to find examiners who can cross these disciplines. I’ll tell you whether I regret taking the high risk path in a few months time.


  2. Nathan says:

    Thanks for a really clear and interesting post Mary-Helen!
    I especially liked your points about risk taking: I think that this is something that people don’t see quite a lot of the time with regards to a PhD, and if they do they don’t appreciate where risks might lie with relation to their project(s) and the thesis.

  3. M-H says:

    Thanks for your comment, Lynne. That is a really interesting story. My own thesis is far from conventional (I have had an email asking whether *I* am taking a risk, so I thought I’d mention that). But the key is having a supervisor who understands what you are trying to do, as you have found, and supports you. Mine said, thoughtfully, one day “I don’t think we’ll have any problem finding exmainers who are interested in your subject and can cope with your unorthodox approach.” When people say things like that, you feel supported. But I do hope he’s right! And I hope yours works out well too. I’ll look forward to seeing you arguing your case on a TV doco one day. 🙂

    And thanks for your commebnt, Nathan. I think people are (quite reasonably) risk-averse when it comes to a commitment of several years. But yes, there are risks, even in the most traditional approach. You can’t avoid them.

  4. Pamela Fruechting says:

    Thank you for a very encouraging post. My dissertation research is rather large because of the multiple concepts involved and the fact that I will be conducting my research in an African culture. My dissertation chair and committee are supportive. I’ve sometimes envied classmates who are conducting research in their home city, and what convenience that would be. But my passion is elsewhere, so while passion is definitely part of it, as others have commented, finding support is a significant factor to success.

    Keep at it, Lynne! It’s the unorthodox ones that make the inroads. We may not enjoy fame or fortune, but someone has to blaze the trail. Richard Feynman, the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics recipient, commented about solving difficult problems: “So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.” (Feynman, R. P. (2006). Classic Feynman. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.) Lynne, you might just be that one with the different set of tools! Keep us posted on your progress! Nurture your tenacity.

    As a side note, Feynman’s book helped me learn to think out of the box and not be so serious about it all. With candor and humor, he documents his life in science, and the account is anything but dry.
    Feynman was the favorite physics prof at University of Southern California and is considered one of the finest science lecturers of all time. His undergraduate lectures were memorialized in a 3-volume set, “The Feynman Lectures”.

  5. Lynne Kelly says:

    Thanks to Mary-Helen for this post. I have found it very reassuring over the last few days work. Thanks, Pamela. I checked out your site – you research looks amazing. Feynman is one of my favourite authors – I taught Physics for decades. I hadn’t thought on him in this context – time to revisit him, methinks.

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