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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Graduate Student Tips: Things you find useful

  • A small notebook to carry at all times and note down any sudden ideas you get about your research topic, possible questions, possible sources, anything at all…! Ideas can come when you least expect them. Make sure you have pen and paper by your bed, as you might wake up with a brilliant thought. Always write any ideas down at once: that way you can relax and get back to sleep if it happens to be 3 in the morning.
  • You must have access to a computer - preferably your own - with a word processing program. You will need a printer too, but your university probably has a computer room that allows you to print up stuff. Notebook computers are convenient and fun, but expensive for what they are. They are also more likely to be stolen, or else bumped and banged into oblivion, when compared with a desktop model. Unless you are wealthy, or have generous wealthy parents, a sturdy desk model is best.
  • Your own computer is really useful: you do not have to wait for set times when you are allowed to use a computer room, or hang about in the room waiting for someone to get up and leave. Nor will you have to stop suddenly and leave if the room has been booked for a classroom teaching session. And you can work at 11 at night on your own computer, should you wish, whereas the university ones may be closed.
  • You do not need the latest, fastest, greatest computer that just became available yesterday. Anything that will run your basic software will do. If you know someone who insists on upgrading and replacing all the time, that person can be a great source of a cheap computer. Buying anything secondhand can be tricky, but if you know the person is a genuine geek, and they will demonstrate it for you, then you can save an awful lot over buying new. The price of used computers tend to drop like a stone, as technology advances so quickly.
  • You will probably find access to the internet essential. There is much information out there. But Murphy's Law insists that you have to do a lot of searching among mountains of dross to find a valuable nugget. The internet can easily start to use up a lot of your valuable time. You can collaborate with others working in your area by email, as well as search for materials of value.
  • You will need pens, pencils, liquid paper, a ruler, a small notebook and a larger notepad, unless you write directly onto a computer.
  • Get hold of a copy of the rules and regulations that apply to your research, and notice things such as what length of thesis is specified, how many years you have, and what sort of layout is expected. I know they are boring, but you will have to follow those rules eventually.
  • Early on, it is a good idea to chose a Working Title and then draft out a Contents Page for your thesis. Don't worry about sticking to it - you will find it alters as your research proceeds but you need an outline to try to work to. Otherwise you can waste months, even years, reading too widely and without discipline or direction. I know - I did this, under a poor supervisor, when I started!
  • Have a look at a few theses in your university library and see how they are laid out and organised. When you have read the summary and contents pages of four or five theses you will probably start to observe there is something of a standard pattern. Universities and disciplines vary, but generally you might expect to find somewhere between 5 and 9 chapters is normal, with perhaps 6-7 being typical.
  • Check your library's holdings of Ph.D. and MA theses that might be relevant to your topic and glance over them to see if they contain information that you can use. You might get some ideas about organization from them too.
  • Make a list of all the journals that may contain articles that will be relevant to your needs. A computer search is a good idea, but first talk to the library staff and pick their brains about how best to search, where to search, and which search engines or journals in your particular library will allow you free access and free printing up of relevant articles.
  • Many university libraries have CD Roms of reference material. Again talk to the librarians and see what they have that you can use.
  • Do a literature search for all articles and books that refer to your topic. Usually, the books you find will cover more general issues, but the articles will be more specifically devoted to a smaller and more specific part of what you seek.
  • You also need to consider methodology, which means how you intend to tackle the issue and what approach you will adopt. If you have no training in this, read a book about scientific method; notice that we try to refute not confirm ideas, and consider for yourself what constitutes a valid test, and what kind of statistical tests may be available for your discipline and the particular topic you are researching.
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