Revising the research question

As I wrote earlier, once the student becomes better acquainted with the research area, it will probably become necessary to slightly revise the original research question. There could be several reasons for this, but largely this is because the review of the previous academic literature on the subject has helped to clarify what the academic community already knows about the topic and what still remains to be discovered. Hopefully this will result in minor adjustments, rather than huge changes of emphasis, but it is important to recognise that this is an ongoing process which will require a bit of settling down. For some people, in certain subject areas, this settling-down process will take longer than others, and a crucial resource to help the process along is – surprise, surprise – the research supervisor! It might seem obvious, but when the research student becomes enmeshed in the research problem, it seems that sometimes they forget to communicate effectively with their supervisor(s).

While I always emphasise that the research project belongs to the student, the supervisor also has a very direct interest in the success of the study, and regular discussions between the student and the supervisor are essential. The definition of ‘regular’ can be a bit loose. Does this mean weekly, or monthly, or what? In practice, meetings are usually closer together at the start and towards the end of the PhD, and a bit further apart during the middle period when the student is really getting into the data-gathering and analysis. Perhaps meetings might be every 2-3 weeks at the start, to help orientate the student and discuss the broad plans, and about the same in the later stages to discuss feedback on the writing as each chapter gets produced. Normally I like to meet every 6-7 weeks in the middle phases of the study, just to keep on top of what the student is working on at that time.

Similarly, the word ‘discussion’ can be a rather misused term. I don’t just mean quick chats in the corridor or tea-room, and I don’t mean that the student is brought in to hear a monologue from the supervisor. Discussion means both parties exchanging their views. There needs to be a level of trust developed – trust that the student’s half-formed thoughts and ideas can be shared and developed; trust, too, that the supervisor has the student’s best interests at heart and will give detailed feedback which is both supportive and useful. The student is learning the business of advanced research, so it is unrealistic to expect perfection from the outset, yet many students are reluctant to share their ideas and their writing with their supervisor, perhaps in apprehension of looking inadequate. This is completely the wrong attitude. As a supervisor, I cannot give advice unless the student tells me what they are thinking; I cannot give written comment or suggestions until a student submits some text for me to read. The more I learn of how the research project is developing, the more I can share my own thoughts and expertise. After each formal meeting I get the student to email me a half-page summary of what we have discussed and agreed. No-one else need see this summary, but it is a useful record to look back upon as the research project evolves.

The effective research supervisor should be both approachable and knowledgeable, and ideally is the best “critical friend” that a research student could have. For a bit of light-hearted reinforcement of this almost symbiotic relationship, check the parable at

http://www.cosy.sbg.ac.at/~held/fun/thesis_advisor.txt

Don’t say you have not been warned!

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