doctoral training and the messiness of research

This post is written by Simon Bailey, a Research Fellow in the Business School at the University of Manchester.

As a unique contribution to knowledge, doctorates are by definition very individual things. Though planning is very important, plans must be adaptable, and PhD students must always be ready to re-think, re-do, and re-write as circumstances demand. This presents a pedagogical challenge – how to prepare students for this unpredictable journey, and then, how to support them effectively through it. Different countries already offer several different approaches to this question: formal methods training, graduate schools and doctoral training academies, for example.

My own experience of formal methods training was that it did very little to prepare me for the challenges I would encounter in my PhD.

I think this is partly because within something like a one-year Masters degree course it is very difficult to give students a real chance to get their hands dirty, to make mistakes and to learn how to learn from them. I think this challenge also touches on something Pat and Barbara Kamler have written about in relation to becoming an academic writer, which is that development as a writer is about more than technical skill acquisition but is about the development of identities and communities.

This is something I remember from my undergraduate training in sociology. One of my favourite lecturers always tried to encourage us not just to digest the canoninical texts, but to try and get inside them, find our own place among them, and, above all, to start thinking sociologically.

However, there are various ways in which the doctorate represents a considerable leap from your first degree.

I began my doctorate with very little of the confidence with which I had finished my undergraduate degree, and rather than this being through a simple lack of training, it was something to do with my experience of doctoral training, which had been a masters in research methods. I had been pretty turned off almost from day one of the course, and as a result had applied myself to it fairly half-heartedly at times. The crisis point for me came during the research for the dissertation, where the things I had planned to do had not worked out, but I had no time to re-think and re-try, so I pieced some kind of an analysis together, and the project I eventually handed in barely scraped a pass.

I know I am not alone in this kind of experience of post-graduate training. I know from conversations with friends and colleagues on this and other courses, as well as conversations with my supervisor and other senior academics, that methods training is very hard to do well. Again, I think this is because research is much more than a question of technical expertise, but requires adept relational, emotional, and creative resources as well. In retrospect, I am very pleased that I got the opportunity to fall flat on my face this early on in my doctoral experience, without it having terminal consequences. At the time it felt pretty terminal.

So what did I do?

In retrospect it is possible to draw out a few key moves I made which helped me on the long road to self assurance – perhaps this is in part what doctoral training might look like:

1. Face your enemy

I returned as early as possible to the social setting which had caused me so much difficulty in my masters’ dissertation. In my case this was an infant classroom. On completion of my masters’ research I offered to come back the following term as a classroom assistant, partly to repay the school’s generosity, and partly, because I already knew I was lost. I tried to approach my return much more as a participant than a researcher. I wanted to get to know the job, the routine, the social and institutional make-up of the classroom: what made the place tick. Through a single term of helping out in class for one day per week, and ‘hanging around’ thinking about and reflecting upon these basic questions, I begun to become comfortable with the social and relational demands of being back in school, and begun to see how to build the kind of description that an analysis might be based upon.

2. Capitalise on good experiences

This is a bit like learning to follow your nose. I kept notes throughout this term in school. Not initially with any great plans for them, but just to keep a record. Over ten weeks this became a sizeable document, perhaps 20,000 words long. My supervisor encouraged me to try and write a conference paper out of it, which became my first presentation. She then collaborated with me to turn it into a journal article, which became my first full article to be published. The argument also ended up making a significant contribution to the thesis. The conference paper was in many ways a hugely formative experience.

3. Seek help

As I’ve written elsewhere, conferences are a great place to try things out and start to feel out the experience of ‘being’ an academic, and belonging to an academic community. My most important source of support came from my supervisor. I was very fortunate in the quality of my supervision, and with the comfort I felt from quite an early stage sharing any problems or concerns I had with my supervisor. I know that not everyone is as lucky as I was. There is a great wealth of knowledge, experience, connections, and support to be gained from this relationship so it is definitely worth spending some time and effort on building it.

So there’s my beginning thinking about doctoral training. Do you have any suggestions for additions to this list?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral education, learning, mess, PhD, research methods, research project, scholarly identity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to doctoral training and the messiness of research

  1. Pingback: a little Romantic messiness | patter

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