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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Graduate Student Tips: Things to do early

  • You need to find a topic. Decide what general area of your discipline or subject-area interests you the most, then jot down some ideas about possible specific topics. You can talk to your fellow students and bounce ideas off them and also talk to your possible supervisor, or any staff member who will agree. If you have a strong interest or hobby in your non-academic life, at least consider if you can get a topic that relates in someway, however obscure. This can give you a stronger motivation, while your experience in the area can help you develop ideas and avoid making silly mistakes.
  • You will probably have coursework to do as part of your Ph.D. program; in the USA this is a normal part of the process. Some topics will be required, others might well be optional. For the optional ones, your general area of interest, and any inklings you might have of a specific topic, determine what particular courses will be the most useful to you.
  • In some countries, notably the United Kingdom, there may be no requirement to undertake courses, but your advisor (USA) or supervisor (UK, Australia, and other countries) is likely to suggest some courses that would be useful. Take the person's advice. If they do not volunteer such information, ask them what courses they would recommend. You might write them a short note in advance of a meeting, to allow them time to think about the alternatives and consider which courses might be most useful in your particular case. Your particular academic background and area of research will be important factors in their decision.
  • You will probably need to find a supervisor unless you came to the university by arrangement with someone to supervise you. You can ask:
    • Any of the staff members you know, as to who might be suitable.
    • The staff in the departmental office, about who is an expert in what area/discipline
    • Your ex-personal tutor, if you had one as an undergraduate, about whom s/he can recommend.
  • When you find someone who says that they might be prepared to supervise you, arrange to see them to discuss possibilities. Take any notes you have made about the areas that interest you and possible topics with you.
  • At some universities, your advisor will be allocated to you. In my view this is undesirable, but if your university is like this, there is little you can do.
  • In the USA, most universities have a dissertation committee. This can help you to formulate your topic and the exact questions you will be tackling. If you have the option to select your committee (rather than having one allocated to you), ask around about people. Other postgraduates who are further down the track than you may be able to advise you about the staff. If you can, go for people with experience, as well as in your area of interest. Personal chemistry can come into it; if you detest your advisor, it clearly will not help you to do well.
  • You will normally have to prepare a formal research proposal in order to get accepted into the graduate school and then be allowed to proceed to do the research. This should be carefully written and laid out in order to impress. Sloppy writing, poor grammar, misspellings, and vague waffle will damage your cause and could easily result in rejection.
  • You might divide it into clear sections, in a logical way. Perhaps something like:
    • A statement of the area of research and why you are interested in it
    • Why this is an important topic to be researched; what contribution to knowledge it will make
    • A listing of several questions that you would like to answer
    • Possibly one or more hypotheses that you wish to test
    • A brief review of what other work has already been published in this area
    • The sort of methodology you think might be appropriate
  • There are no rules about the length, but a dozen pages or so would not be too many, but it rather depends on your topic and how you lay out your proposal. Fifty pages on the other hand would definitely be too long!
  • ]Do not be dogmatic or assertive at this stage of your proposal; you do not wish to alienate someone with power who might hold a strong but opposite view to yours!
  • It is normal to start your research with a fairly wide coverage of interest and narrow it down as time passes and your research progresses. In some universities this is accepted as normal and approved virtually automatically. In others, you may have to go through a formal process of changing your dissertation title.
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