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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Graduate Student Tips: 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,….7. 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 research!
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