reflecting on PhD learning

Some supervisors ask the doctoral researchers they work with to formally reflect on their learning. A what-am-I-learning conversation might be a regular part of supervision. Reflection is also often self initiated – ongoing thoughts are recorded in a doctoral researcher journal or a blog. University initiated ‘skills audits’ and the use of researcher development frameworks also require the doctoral researcher to step back and assess what they know, and what they still need/want to know.

Reflecting on learning is sometimes formally required as the final act in the thesis – the conclusion to the concluding chapter becomes a look-back at new understandings generated from the doctoral experience. And some examiners like a little learning-focused reflection too. There might very well be a question in the viva which requires the candidate to share what they’ve learnt about research and about being a researcher.

The request and expectation for reflection doesn’t happen consistently across disciplines, or even commonly within a single discipline. But the concern with doctoral learning does seem to be more usual in some areas than in others. Not surprisingly, the what-have-you-learnt question is quite likely to appear in education, where critically reflecting-on-learning is a major preoccupation of the field. Educators believe, and I’m one of them, that explicit and critical reflection actually consolidates and extends the learning. In the case of the thesis, a meta-reflection at the end can be seen as a further act of researcher formation.

But the inconsistency of supervisor and examiner requests to discuss doctoral learning does mean that the advice – about what exactly might count as an end-of-doctoral learning reflection in the thesis and what to do about it – is a bit thin on the ground. That’s probably why I’ve just been asked for a few hints. So here goes…

To begin with, it’s worth considering what supervisors and examiners don’t want to see in any thesis-based meta-reflection on your doctoral learning. They don’t want you to rehash what you’ve already said earlier in the thesis. They don’t expect to see the results of your research again, nor do they want a repeat of basic research methods literatures and what you did in training courses. They don’t want a protracted self-indulgent ramble about ‘the journey’. They don’t want a lapse into a moan about how hard it all was.

Supervisors/examiners do expect that you will have learnt something by doing your own project, something more than was available to you in the research methods courses you did and the books you read. They do therefore expect to see something which indicates your current thinking about the conduct of research and/or about the research enterprise itself.

Of course, any reflection on learning is going to be idiosyncratic and particular. It’s not going to be the same from one doctoral researcher to another. A reflection on doctoral learning will be tied to the specific project, process and person. It must however be directed to the new knowledge that has been gained about research itself. So, please take the following suggestions with the very strong caveat that you need to make them your own.

Here’s five starting points for an end-of-thesis (or viva) refection on learning:

  • a short narrative about your initial expectations of the research process, what actually happened and what this means for the way you will conduct any future research. This might for example not only cover particular ethics, access or analytic issues that were not dealt with in the relevant section of the thesis, but also the implications that this new knowledge has for you as a researcher.
  • a succinct discussion which compares an aspect or aspects of the research methods literatures with what actually happened. Many doctoral researchers talk about the particularities of the messy research reality compared to how neat and tidy it appears in the books- this is not a general discussion but is specific to the research – and implications for the newly-minted Doctor are spelled out.
  • a comparison of some initial aspirations for the thesis and what actually happened at the end. (This is what I did in my own thesis where I discussed the relative strengths of arts-informed approaches and more conventional social science. I then argued for their complementarity in relation to my topic. This analysis was something I could only have arrived at by actually writing the thesis.)
  • a brief narrative about the complexities of developing a researcher identity – maybe that was a major issue resolved through the research and thesis writing process, via the text work/identity work* involved.
  • some thinking about an aspect of the research process of interest to others, maybe something that could form the basis of a future journal paper. So for instance – and I’m just making these up, these are simply examples not things you should copy – you might think you have acquired some new insights into insider research, the temporal issues involved in working as a researcher in a site with different paces and pressures, working with vulnerable populations, or the importance of a particular form of note-taking. If you think that this insight might be of interest to others, it’s worth looking at the methods journals. That will help you frame up a more substantive end-of-thesis reflection as a dry-run at a contribution to writings about the doctoral research process itself.

Well that’s a beginning on the topic. Are there other starting points that you can think of that might be helpful to those who have been asked to add a reflection-on-learning to end of their thesis?

Note: * Text work/identity work is extensively discussed in Kamler B and Thomson P (2014) Helping doctoral students write: pedagogies for supervision. Second Edition, London: Routledge

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 research, text work/identity work, thesis, viva and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to reflecting on PhD learning

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Reblogged this on Observations of a tired sOul..


  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:



  3. Thank you – is it constructive to reflect on how one might have done things differently, and why, perhaps as a basis for proposing the post-doc stage of research, which you list?


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes, as long as it doesn’t turn into a litany of deficits. Let the examiners do that. But I think it’s generally more positive to think about what you might do next time, given this experience.


  4. prior says:

    Thanks – another helpful post – and I do not always have time to leave a comment – but enjoyed your travel reflections too 🙂


  5. ahmadzeid says:

    Thank you for the informative post. I should get back to this post when I do my PhD in sha Allah 🙂

    Do you recommend a certain research methodology book?


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