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About this book

This lively and rigorous book provides guidance on planning and conducting postgraduate research. Divided into four parts, each of which looks at a different stage of the process, it covers everything from choosing a research area and selecting appropriate methodologies to analysing data and learning from feedback. Chapters contain both active and reflective tasks to help readers develop the skills needed to produce a high-quality dissertation or thesis and offer supportive advice on establishing successful working relationships with supervisors and peers.

Clear and accessible in its approach, this book is an indispensable introduction to successful research for postgraduates of all disciplines.

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. Introduction

Abstract
If you are thinking of starting to research for an MA, MPhil, PhD, EdD or PrD, then this book should help you at each stage of your work. Initially, it will help you to decide what and how you want to research, where you would like to undertake your research qualification and study, and how to work with a supervisor. It will then tackle how to keep the momentum going over time, and how to analyse your findings and draw conclusions from them. Finally, it will help you to see how to produce a good quality dissertation or thesis — which, we hope, will pass — and then consider how to progress with your research (or other) career.
Gina Wisker

Starting Research

Frontmatter

2. Starting Your Postgraduate Research

Abstract
Research underpins and informs our understanding and appreciation of all aspects of the world, and its insights lead to physical, social and personal growth and change. While, in itself, your research might not seem to make any immediate direct impact, over time, research-led insights, understanding and changes affect everything we do in society. This really matters: postgraduate study is an opportunity for personal skills development and for professional recognition and status. It is challenging and demanding. Being involved in developing and working on a project or, increasingly, in taught courses with a dissertation element that you have chosen (at least partly), is very exciting. You are, at last, able to concentrate on one of the most interesting things in your life and to watch it grow and develop. There is no doubt that this type and level of study requires you to invest a great deal of hard work and time, but it aids your personal growth, helps you to develop a range of skills that are transferable to life and work afterwards, and helps self-awareness and self-actualisation. If it is a clearly and fully conceived project, it will make intellectual demands of you as regards dealing with complex concepts, ethics and issues to do with the handling and interpretation of different kinds of data. It will also demand a high level of communication and skills of self-expression from you because others (everyone from the window cleaner and your mother to the great authority on the subject) will want to know what you are doing, both in informal and formal exchanges. You will need to keep clear goals and clear expression constantly in mind, without letting the desire for clarity lead to undue simplicity.
Gina Wisker

3. Choosing the Right Research Degree

Abstract
This book largely concentrates on research projects, reports, dissertations and theses, which are all part of MA, MPhil and PhD work. It looks, in the main, at research for postgraduate study. Some of the specific points are more directly relevant to studying in the UK or Australasia, or in the educational systems and contexts influenced by those in the UK or Australasia, while other more general points will suit anyone undertaking postgraduate research.
Gina Wisker

4. Choosing Your Supervisor(s)

Abstract
Managing your supervisor(s) well and developing and maintaining a supportive, positive, constructively critical relationship over time is essential to help you produce a good quality thesis. The relationship between you and your supervisor or supervisors is a very important one and it is essential that you can get on with them personally, without necessarily being the best of friends, and can respect them in terms of scholarship, academic credibility and their practices. Many students select a specific person to be their supervisor because they know their work. You need to set up contacts in advance and develop a working link with such a prospective supervisor. Some students even cross the world (or move around the country) to be able to work with the supervisor they want. Often, however, you have little choice over who can supervise you because of the limited range of specialisms available or the specific nature of the research project and, in the case of Master’s programmes, supervisors are often allocated later on in the research process.
Gina Wisker

5. Research Questions and Hypotheses

Abstract
This chapter looks at the first stages of your work, defining and recognising your methodology, and turning research ideas and interests into research questions or hypotheses. Your hypothesis or question is the first real step in developing the ideas and interests you have into something that can be researched and enquired about in a manageable, well-shaped way. The defining of a good research question (and then sub-questions to help you get at or ask your question) leads to the development of research designs that are workable and can be expressed in a research proposal, which can be seen as a kind of map or pattern for your developing work.
Gina Wisker

6. Research Methodologies

Abstract
As was explored in brief in the previous chapter, research methodology springs, to some extent, from the way we see the world, as well as the subject area in which we are working and the specific research area and question on which we are working.
Gina Wisker

7. Conceptual Frameworks

Abstract
In this chapter we examine the development and maintenance of a conceptual framework to your research. It builds on earlier work on methodology for research and considers perspectives that inform your conceptual framework and underpin your work.
Gina Wisker

8. Ethics and Confidentiality

Abstract
In the twenty-first century, most universities expect anyone undertaking research to consider ethics and also to seek formal ethical approval for the research before undertaking it. Achieving the balance between ensuring that ethics are taken into consideration while avoiding being overwhelmed by bureaucracy is difficult, especially in universities that are only beginning to ensure that full approvals are sought and given before the work starts. In some respects, it could be argued that the procedures for ethics clearance could be so onerous and the bureaucracy so labyrinthine that you might be put off carrying out research that involves human subjects, however harmless and benign it might clearly be. You will need to seek some support from your supervisor in gaining ethical clearance for your work if it does involve human subjects, even in the social sciences, rather than in a clinical or scientific situation for which situations ethical clearance first developed. The main point to remember is that it is important to protect those who provide you with your information, to protect the innocent and vulnerable, and to protect both yourself and the university from harm and litigation — albeit that you cannot see any possible harm.
Gina Wisker

9. Writing a Research Proposal

Abstract
Your research proposal is the main base upon which a supervisor and a research degree committee can begin to judge the value or potential of your research work. Many universities now demand a great deal of work prior to the submission of a research proposal; in the past, little more than an indicative title might have been required.
Gina Wisker

Getting Going — Supervisors, Time and Community

Frontmatter

10. Managing Your Supervisor(s)

Abstract
Considering some of these issues and practices should help you with the planning and managing of your research, and your supervisor. You have a right to adequate and good quality supervision. You will find it useful to get into good working habits with your supervisor(s) and maintain good relations with them so that you can exchange ideas, seek and use suggestions, and avoid any personality clashes. You will also find it useful to get in touch with peers. Their support is most helpful with regard to research in progress and troubleshooting (see Chapter 14 on peer-support systems). But it is up to you to manage your project and your time, and to have a clear idea of your goals. You should also be realistic with what you plan, how you work and how you will readjust when things are going wrong, when things are going well, and how to ensure that you produce a sufficiently conceptually complex, well-researched, well-expressed and argued, well-presented postgraduate research project that genuinely contributes to research in the field. This can and should be a very satisfying process and experience.
Gina Wisker

11. Managing the Balancing Act

Abstract
The old adage about giving jobs to busy people certainly rings true when we think about the variety of tasks and roles we have to balance, especially when embarking upon part-time research. You could be reminded of a circus performer balancing and twirling plates, keeping each one twirling just fast enough so that it does not fall and smash into pieces.
Gina Wisker

12. Managing Your Time and Tasks

Abstract
This chapter covers different ways of planning your time and also time, task and stress management on a one-year (MA) or three-year-plus research degree (MPhil or PhD full- or part-time). We consider how to fit in not only research, but also domestic and work pressures where appropriate. (See Chapter 11 for further consideration of managing the balancing act of research, work and domestic and other responsibilities.)
Gina Wisker

13. Learning as a Research Student — Learning Approaches, Styles and Pitfalls

Abstract
When you start your work as a research student, you are making a great leap upwards into a more complex and demanding level of learning, just as you did when starting a degree, or the work that preceded it. It is, therefore, very useful to find out more about the learning demands of research-as-learning and about your own preferred or usual learning styles, strategies and approaches in relation to those demands.
Gina Wisker

14. Developing a Supportive Research Culture Locally and at a Distance

Abstract
Research students are expected to work largely autonomously, with supervision. Remember, however, that you are entering a large local, national and international ‘community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1999) when you begin to research. With increased international communications and the Internet, we can all be so much more in touch with each other, supportive, exchanging ideas, contacts and work in progress. One of the most helpful and supportive elements of your work and contacts with others in the broader research community is that of actually seeking support from colleagues who are other researchers. There are many queries that can be cleared up, considerable stress that can be relieved, and much clarification gained by working together in various supportive peer groups, either close by or at a distance. Ultimately, beyond your current research, you could be setting up research partnerships for the future from such support groups. It is possible that you will be working with a group of others on a joint research project (more usual in the sciences) or, if on an MA/MSc, a staged EdD or PrD, you could have a natural peer group with whom to share your developing work. Often, however, it is up to the research student — that is, you — to set these groups up and maintain them, so it is important to look out for others who are working in similar fields to yourself and network with them.
Gina Wisker

Carrying Out the Research and Starting to Write

Frontmatter

15. Carrying out a Literature Review — Developing the Theoretical Perspectives Chapter

Abstract
This chapter looks at how you develop your engagement with the literature and debates in the field, setting up good habits early on in your research and maintaining them throughout. It also looks at how you can write the literature review chapter, referred to here as the ‘theoretical perspectives chapter’ because it suggests an engagement in a debate with theories, theorists and experts in the field. Your research is seen as a contribution to knowledge in the field and it needs to indicate, therefore, that there is awareness of what that knowledge comprises, and what the various debates, disagreements and key theories and concerns are in the field. Your own contribution to knowledge and to meaning, constructed in a dialogue with the experts and the theorists, is important in a literature survey or review, so that you are seen to enter the academic discussion about your topic and subject area with those who have developed the theories and those who have put them into practice and written about them.
Gina Wisker

16. Methods in Brief

Abstract
As we have previously seen, your choice of research methods depends upon the methodology you are using, and the research questions you are asking. It also depends to a great extent upon the discipline area in which you are studying and your view of the world. An argument that sees a dichotomy or polar opposition between positivist methodology (deductive, quantitative data collection and interpretation) and the postpositivist (which is inductive, develops theory, and uses qualitative methods) is an easy rule of thumb to determine worldviews and approaches. However, this is actually an over-simplification, as some researchers combine across the inductive and deductive, qualitative and quantitative, and some research projects are built in stages which, for example, begin deductively, then develop inductively (or vice versa). Let us begin with the overly simple distinctions and then move on to recognising how researchers and research combine across them.
Gina Wisker

17. Using Grounded Theory, Case Studies, Journals and Synectics

Abstract
This chapter concentrates on reflective methodology and the qualitative research methods of grounded theory, case studies and the use of personal learning journals — to record your own experiences and decisions as a researcher — and the use of journals as research material. It also looks at the use of synectics, or creative metaphors, to prompt clarification, new ideas and developments.
Gina Wisker

18. Action Research and Practitioner-based Research

Abstract
Practitioner-based research enables us to research our own practice with those with whom we work — clients, customers, students, colleagues, and so on. For mid-career professionals and those whose organisations would like them to undertake work-related research, practitioner-based research is especially appropriate and popular. It carries with it particular issues to do with the support of the organisation — the alignment of our own interests with those of the workplace and the organisation, confidentiality and ethics — because the research is with those with whom you are working. You also need to take care over the balancing of work with research on a daily basis. Practitioner-based research can take many forms and is not a methodology but a focus. You might well carry out some practitioner-based research that is positivist, deductive and uses quantitative methods (such as testing of a particular practice), which is more effective than another practice, through pre- and post-test experiments, or with pre- and post-test questionnaires with colleagues/students/customers — with whomsoever you are working.
Gina Wisker

19. Problem-based or Enquiry-based Research and Problem Solving

Abstract
Problem-based learning places the student at the centre of the learning process and is aimed at integrating learning with practice (Ross, in Alavi 1995). Maggi Savin-Baden has done a great deal of useful work on problem-based learning and its research (Savin-Baden 2003; Savin-Baden and Howell 2004; Savin-Baden and Wilkie 2004).
Gina Wisker

20. Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities

Abstract
Some arts and humanities research uses social science strategies, particularly in subjects close to the social sciences — such as history, and cultural studies. However, much of the research in the arts and humanities uses quite different strategies and, when presented, the thesis can be of quite a different shape to that of a social science thesis. In terms of both research methods and overall final shape, some arts and humanities research can — to the reader, the non-artist or the researcher — tend to seem amorphous, or even highly subjective, when it needs to be just as conceptually clearly organised and managed as any other research in any other field.
Gina Wisker

Support, Progress, Analysis, Writing Up, the Viva, Presentations and Afterwards

Frontmatter

21. Being Organised, Keeping Records, Writing up, Stage-by-Stage

Abstract
Here, we consider writing up as an ongoing activity rather than something that happens in a rush at the end of the thesis or dissertation. You should find it useful throughout your MA, MPhil, EdD or PhD, and particularly useful as you start to produce drafts, then final versions of your dissertation or thesis. Read it as you start to work and as you continue.
Gina Wisker

22. Writing the Thesis or Dissertation

Abstract
Areas you will have considered when writing your proposal provide a key to the main areas of the developing thesis. Look at these again now, and ensure that your proposal is aligned with the developing work. Ask yourself whether it really addresses each of these areas. You will find that the areas of the proposal that you address will form important beginnings for your chapters. However, do remember that the research journey will have changed some elements of the proposal. A proposal is often written in the future tense — and you are now writing about something which is complete — so do not just copy it over without correcting these issues.
Gina Wisker

23. Overcoming Writing Blocks and Learning from Feedback

Abstract
This chapter looks at writing and overcoming writing blocks. The next chapter continues the discussion, and concentrates specifically on learning from feedback, an issue introduced here.
Gina Wisker

24. Analysing Data and Thinking about Findings

Abstract
There is no substitute for having a clear idea of what you are looking for — your research question(s) — and continuing to stay as close as possible to the data as it emerges raw from the participants, the texts, the documents and so on, so that you can get a ‘feel’ for what is emerging. Then you stand back; clarify the areas of questions, the theories and the conceptual framework; and start to put it all into some kind of order, so that your data can genuinely be analysed, and findings drawn from the analysis that relate to your original questions and conceptual framework.
Gina Wisker

25. Learning from Feedback

Abstract
This chapter follows on from Chapter 23 on encouraging and developing good writing, and considers ways in which you might learn from your supervisor’s comments and the support of others.
Gina Wisker

26. Writing Transfer Documents and Progress Reports for MPhil, EdD and PhD Theses

Abstract
If you are undertaking an MPhil or a PhD, you will probably be expected to provide a programme report on your progress and, usually, you will need to write this after one year’s study, if not more regularly. Students on EdD or professional — probably educational — doctorates are expected to provide a series of progress reports, culminating in a long report at the point of transfer to the second stage of the EdD, the writing of the actual final thesis. MA students tend to deliver oral reports on their progress.
Gina Wisker

27. Writing Up: Definitions and Qualities of a Good MA, MPhil, EdD and PhD Thesis

Abstract
This chapter considers the features of successful research dissertations for the MA and theses for the MPhil, PhD and EdD, and looks at how you can turn your work into a successful thesis of merit. It concentrates on definitions and important elements of a successful thesis and dissertation, and contains advice on organisation, layout, editing and submission.
Gina Wisker

28. Preparing Your Thesis and Dissertation — Coherence, Conclusions and Conceptual Level Work

Abstract
You should have been writing up drafts of your work as you proceeded with the research, so that:
  • You do not have to write the whole thesis or dissertation up in a rush at the end (a very daunting task)
  • You will have worked out some of the difficulties and some of the complex thoughts and expression as you write
  • Some of your work could be shared with a supervisor and some published or delivered at conferences/to your peers at ‘work-in-progress’ sessions.
Think about the writing of your thesis or dissertation as ‘telling the story’ of your aims, questions, the context in which your work has been set, the research methods and research work carried out, and the findings resulting from your research. It also makes a point about why you carried out the research and what kind of a contribution the research makes to knowledge in the field. It is like a story following a route or plan, and it shows development and achievement.
Gina Wisker

29. Preparing for and Undertaking Your Viva

Abstract
If you have been working for an MPhil, PhD or EdD in the UK, Europe, the USA and some parts of Australasia (but not Australia and much of New Zealand), you will need to be ‘vivaed’ on your work. This involves answering questions on, and defending, your work to examiners in an organised session based around your thesis.
Gina Wisker

30. Dealing with Corrections — Life after the Viva …

Abstract
The viva feels like, and in many ways is, the end of the PhD process. It is the culmination of years of research, writing, editing and polishing, re-reading and owning all aspects of your work. In one sense, it is an end to this stage of your work, but it is also a turning point in your work, and your development as a researcher. For comments on the shape of a viva, see Trafford and Leshem (2002). Universities have several categories of response following PhD assessment, and these usually range between:
  • Award without any modifications
  • Award with minor modifications
  • Award with modifications that could take up to 6 months (some niversities do not have this central category, and so decisions may seem either very generous or a little unkind)
  • Major modifications (also known as resubmission in some instances)
  • Fail (usually with opportunities for resubmission).
Gina Wisker

31. Presentations, Conferences and Publishing

Abstract
An important part of your work as a research student is sharing and presenting your work in progress with others. Research is a contribution to knowledge and to ideas in the subject(s) and, as a researcher, you are part of a larger research community that shares its ideas and moves forward through that sharing. Additionally, sharing your work with others helps you to clarify, control and evaluate it. It also enables you to seek analytical responses from others, and this can help you develop in your work. You might well be worried that such sharing can show up the faults in your work, and you could also be rather apprehensive about the public appraisal presentation seems to offer. But a well-planned presentation of work in progress can provide immensely useful feedback to help you in your research work. Attending the presentations of others can enable you to stand back from your own work, advise them on points in theirs, and reflect on the ways in which you can develop your own, illuminated by strategies others have adopted. Sharing your work in a research community is not about giving it away but, rather, about supportive, analytical critique for constructive purposes. If you decide to become involved in work-in-progress seminars, it is important to ensure that a structured, constructive response is part of the ground rules.
Gina Wisker

32. Life After the Research

Abstract
Depending on where you are in your research project, you will probably want or not want to consider what happens when you finish. Indeed, ‘Is there life after the research?’ is not such an ironic question. A research project that lasts the best part of a year (MA) to up to eight years (PhD — but preferably three years) quite simply takes over your life, or part of it. Once you have been successful in your submission and assessment and in your viva, and if necessary, resubmitted or revised, you will probably feel all or some of the following:
  • Elated — this is the major achievement
  • Ready to rejoin the human race — the family and your friends
  • Ready to do all those things you have been putting off
  • Bereaved.
You live with your research and your thesis for a long time, like a recalcitrant pet animal. For some people it is actually impossible to stop, give it up, hand it over, bring it to a close. There was no life after research for the nineteenthcentury British novelist George Eliot’s Casaubon in Middlemarch. He could not imagine completion and he never completed. But you have finished and the world awaits you.
Gina Wisker
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