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III. Things you should know
Research into anything is like putting out to sea without a chart or compass,
and only a vague idea of where you wish to go. This means that what you initially
selected as an area of interest or topic to examine may start to appear less
interesting or relevant and your topic may start to change. Even data
availability, or lack thereof, can alter your direction of research. This
is normal and should not be a cause for worry. If the change seems to be
major, you should discuss it with your advisor before making radical changes
of direction. There are bits of paper on file that specify what you are doing
and if you do something else, problems may arise, especially for you!
Your aim is not to write the world's greatest thesis on your chosen topic,
but to prepare one that is good enough to pass and which does not offer any
loose ends that examiners can seize on to fail you, or refer it for rewriting
and resubmission. The world's greatest doctoral thesis in your area might
take you ten years, but one decent enough to allow you to pass might take
only three years. After getting your doctorate, you can always use the seven
years that you have saved to develop the thesis into a great book. In the
meantime you are "Doctor X", and are qualified to get better jobs and start
to earn real money!
Many grad students find loneliness a problem. The undergraduates have heaps
of friends from the courses they are taking, but research can be a solitary
pursuit. There may be few other graduate students around working on things
that interest you. In a small university there may be few postgrads of any
description. In addition, many universities have structures in place that
take care of undergrads and other structures to take care of staff, but have
relatively little organized ways of looking after the interests of postgraduates.
Sadly, they often fall in between.
If you feel lonely, do not get depressed. Get out and try to make friends,
and maybe join a society or two. Join the post graduate society if there
is one. If there isn't, perhaps you could consider setting one up to look
after the interests of these important but often overlooked members of the
university. There may be sports clubs and the like where you can at least
find a human being to talk to, after spending hours cooped up in a lab or
hunched over a computer. You might well need to seek out human contact.
Liaise closely with your advisor. Different advisors have different preferences.
Taking my own experience as an example, as a rule of thumb, you can expect
to see him or her perhaps once or twice a month in your early days and also
towards the end when you are writing up. In the middle period, when you are
engaged in gathering data and materials, you may find that you barely need
to see your advisor at all.
If you are working away from your own university, perhaps in order to gather
data, a letter or lengthy Email message from you every month is a good idea:
you keep in touch, and s/he remembers you (faculty staff have plenty to do
and often several graduate students to supervise - it is easy for them to
overlook you should you go off for a year!)
Your relationship with your advisor is important. Mostly it works out fine,
but if you find that can never get to see your advisor, or s/he is persistently
unhelpful, you might have to consider finding a different one. This is not
something to undertake lightly, as it can be difficult finding someone else
suitable to take you on. An additional issue is that your name might become
known and you develop a reputation as a troublesome person. If this happens,
it may become hard to find anyone willing to take you on. However, if things
really are not working out between the pair of you, then at least try talking
to another staff member and investigate the possibility of a switch.
Joint supervision, where you have two or more supervisors, can involve specific
difficulties. If they are in totally separate disciplines, then you may have
few if any problems, e.g., I once happily supervised the economics side of
an energy dissertation along with a scientist who did the physics side and
we got along famously with the student and each other. If, however, you have
two political scientists you will probably find they have three opinions
and if they disagree with one another about what you should be doing, or
how you should be tackling an issue, then you will be in a no-win situation.
Whatever you do will displease one of them.
I knew a student like this in England who was eventually institutionalized
for mental problems, which I personally believe had been intensified by the
conflicting advice of two supervisors. There was no way he could satisfy
both, and I still recall his depression after he had spent several weeks
following a certain path that supervisor A suggested, only to be told by
supervisor B that it was a total waste of time even to think about that avenue.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I suggest you go and talk to
someone in power, like the head of department or dean of faculty, and seek
their advice on changing one of your supervisors. Prepare your case carefully,
for s/he will not automatically enjoy hearing two members of their staff
being criticized. Be cautious also in the way you present your criticisms
- make them, but do it as nicely as you can.
When you are searching journals or newspapers, say 1990-99, you should start
with the latest year and read that; then work backwards to 1998 and read
through it. Never start with the earliest year and work forward, as this
will waste a lot of your valuable time. It can cause you follow too many
threads that lead nowhere; you can spend too much time on details that later
turn out not to be needed; and a later article may render out of date an
earlier one. It is sensible within a year to work forwards, as the mind seems
to prefer this.
Start to write really early! Writing improves with practice, so the earlier
you start, the better you will get. More importantly, after you have accumulated
information on one section of a chapter, it helps to write up what you think
the information means, including its significance, its weaknesses, questions
it raises but does not answer, and implications for other ideas or theories.
Later, when you come to start writing your draft chapters, it will help you
a lot if you have earlier written something about the material you have gathered.
It is a bad thing to keep reading, taking notes and accumulating more and
more facts and details, then filing them away. Several drawers of a filing
cabinet full of undigested notes are very off-putting!!
Your career as a graduate student tends to fall into three sections.
The first section is the beginning, when you find a working title and supervisor,
get an idea of what you will be looking for, how you will tackle the subject,
do your literature survey and decide on the methodology you will adopt. It
varies, but for Ph.D. a minimum of two and a maximum of six months should
suffice for section one. The MA degree will usually require less time.
Section two is when you go and find the information and data you need. This
might involve using the library and Internet, running experiments in your
university laboratory, or perhaps doing something like going to live in a
new area or abroad to study the local flora and fauna. For a Ph.D., this
whole section might take a year or more.
Section three is when you analyse the data and write up. I suggest above
that you analyse and start writing as your data comes in (i.e. in section
two) and not wait until you have a mountain of stuff on paper or in computer
files. In section three, you write a draft of each chapter and submit it
to your supervisor for comments and approval. It is usually best to do this
chapter at a time unless your supervisor asks for something different. Section
three will take longer than you expect! Some Ph.D. students think it will
be a six month job, but my experience indicates a year or more is common.
If you have six chapters to write and must prepare a draft of each, then
a final version, and if you take only a month a chapter, you need a year.
And for many students, a month is not long for a draft chapter. MA these
might be written up in six months.
What might your chapter organization look like? Theses vary in the way the
chapters are laid out. Much depends on your discipline, actual topic, and
approach selected, but in some disciplines a sensible chapter layout might
look like this:
Chapter 1: Introduction, justification for the title and thesis, why the
subject is important, how little is known about it and so on.
Chapter 2: Methodology and literature search results.
Chapters 3 -5 or more: "the meat" part - what you have discovered. This must
be presented in fashion which is logical for your discipline and thesis title.
For example, in a history thesis it might be Chapter 3, The arguments for
and against the issue; Chapter 4, The early years and policy introductions;
Chapter 5, the later years and policy changes in response to experience and
any emerging problems, followed by the results. Your knowledge of your
discipline, and the example of other theses already written about similar
topics, should help you.
Chapter 6: Conclusions and recommendations. This is usually a relatively
short chapter, that sums up your findings.
It is a good idea to try to keep the length of your chapters roughly similar.
If you find chapter 5 is three times the length of any other chapter, then
it cries out to be split up into two or maybe three chapters, rather than
left as one. Naturally, your introductory chapter is often shorter than the
others, and the literature/methodology chapter might also be a little shorter,
but this is by no means always the case.
Write your chapters in a sensible order, which is not necessarily 1, 2,
For many students the best chapter to start with is the first "meat" one,
followed by the other "meat" ones in sensible order, then the literature
search/methodology one, and finally the first and last chapters. Generally
it pays to write the draft first chapter and final chapter last, to ensure
that they do not contradict, and you clearly demonstrate that you have done
what you set out to do. Whatever you feel comfortable with is probably good
for you. Just remember that you do not have to write the chapters in the
order of the final thesis.
Many advisors prefer to see your draft chapters one at a time, then hand
them back with comments. You then rewrite the chapter. After that you put
in another draft chapter and the process continues. In this case, your advisor
may wish to see all the final drafts together, i.e. your thesis as a whole
for a last look over.
Other advisors may prefer to see your thesis as a complete draft, and hand
it back with comments for you to write the final version. You are better
off following the preferences of your advisor. You do not wish to annoy him
or her, you have to work together, and at the end you may need a reference
from the person.
As a graduate student, you will almost certainly have more free time at your
disposal than you will ever have in the rest of your working life. Try to
use this time sensibly, profitably, and enjoyably! And good luck with that
Things to do early
Things you will find useful
Things you should know <= you are here
Since December 1999 - last modified: February 22, 2012