Tag Archives: students

Establishing the storyline

Contents

One of the first things that both the supervisors and the research students need to remember is that although the dissertation is the justification of an academic thesis, it also needs to tell a good and convincing story. There is little point in making a wonderful discovery if you cannot properly communicate with other people to tell them about it. Research is about discovering something unknown, and like any good mystery story, there needs to be an introduction to set the scene for your readers, (the literature review) there needs to be a storyline to develop the research agenda (starting with the methodology) there need to be clues discovered as the story develops (the results chapter(s)) and there needs to be a moment of final revelation of the object of your search (the analysis and conclusions).

The delivery of this story requires a certain writing style – it needs to follow the academic conventions of the subject discipline, it is not a novel – but that should not mean that the ‘story’ that the researcher wants to tell should not be easy to read. There are some simple tips, such as to first lay-out using numbered sub-headings, the main headlines in the ‘story’. The separate sections can then be written under these headings and linked together to form the chapters. A good idea is to begin by drafting the contents page of the dissertation, listing the chapter headings (1. Literature Review, 2. Methodology… etc.) and then entering the various headings of likely sub-sections. In addition to helping to establish a coherent storyline (which can be amended as the writing progresses) this enables the dissertation to be written in a manner which is not necessarily linear (sub-sections can be skipped and returned to a later date) and built up piece-by-piece while still keeping within the framework of the story. It is also a good tool for discussions between the research student and the supervisor about stage-by-stage progress (I have used this with red (not-done) green (completed) and amber (working on it) highlights, to help students prioritise what bits of writing need to be tackled next).

The bottom line is that the research student needs to craft a good story to introduce, explain, and discuss their research project, and if this is easy to read, then it will be easier for readers to follow and perhaps build-upon in subsequent activities. This includes correct spelling, good grammar, and simple tactics such as to avoid l-o-n-g and cumbersome sentences (I had once student who wrote a sentence containing the word ‘and’ seven times! This really was three separate sentences and would have been far easier to understand if it had been written in a simpler style.) Another avoidable error is to include sentences which give ambiguous comments. If there is a way in which your comments can be misinterpreted, it is human nature that someone will take the wrong meaning, and this can be easily avoided by actually saying what you really mean, and keeping this in simple language that cannot be misunderstood. Using hierarchical numbering for the chapters, sections, and sub-sections not only helps to create a clear storyline, it also helps to allow cross-reference to earlier (or future) comments in the dissertation.

It is the role of the research supervisor to read and give comments to help improve the direction of the writing process. The student does not need to like these comments (and indeed, at their own risk, may chose to ignore them) but they should heed them because it is the duty of the supervisor to direct the work of the student to ensure that they give the very best presentation possible of their work for examination and further scrutiny.

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Reportage or commentary?

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When the time comes to reveal your research results in writing, there are two basic choices, and the writer needs to decide upon one of them. Either the raw results are presented without embellishment, followed by a separate chapter on their analysis, or else the results can be presented alongside a running commentary or analysis. Both styles have merits and demerits and each academic discipline will have its own preferences and standards, so an important role of the supervisor is to coach the research student in the form that is conventional for that academic subject.

The straight presentation of results is a simple, clear, relatively uncomplicated option, which is subsequently followed by a chapter devoted to the analysis and interpretation of those results. Benefits of this style are that systematic links can be made with the research methodology, connecting the chronology of the data-gathering activities with the presentation of data that was gathered. This allows the reader to experience the research process in a similar manner to the researcher, stepping from one “result” to another and enabling the readers to form their own opinions and judgements as more and more information is presented. In the following chapter, the research student can then present an in-depth analysis of the results, drawing attention to key features, analysing the contrasts and connections, and finally presenting interpretations and conclusions of the research project. Separating the presentation of the results from the analysis allows a clean break in the narrative and gives the researcher a good opportunity to expound in detail in the analysis and interpretation chapter to convincingly present their own, original ideas. This is the chapter where the student can really shine and unload all those brilliant insights and personal observations that have been suppressed during the earlier phases of the research.

The other format of presentation, the running commentary, is a different style altogether. This form will also reveal the results of the research activities stage-by-stage, but with each revelation there is an accompanying narrative which explains and contextualises those results. The text is used to build-up the research data and an accompanying analysis of its relevance to the research question, and use this step-by-step process to bring the research project to a conclusion. This format requires clear thinking, because it is easy to stumble around from one idea to another and produce a disorganised story which is neither sufficiently analytical nor convincing. When it is done well, it can read like a good detective story, gripping the readers and leading them onwards through the research discoveries to the final exposé of “the solution” or “the answer” but it does not suit every style of academic research. It can be a useful style when the writer wants to discuss and elaborate on the data as it is presented, perhaps to emphasise social nuances, or to consider the wider possibilities of experimental assumptions, and in situations where the interpretation of the results is not a straight black-or-white solution.

Either style is acceptable, but they cannot really be effectively combined: the researcher needs to think carefully about the story that they want to leave with the readers, and then present this version as clearly and unambiguously as possible.

Starting to get results – Building the picture

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Take a step backwards. Perhaps the most confusing part of any research project is when some results start to emerge – but this is also one of the most exciting stages. There are three main reactions to the early arrival of research data; firstly, delight that results are finally coming through, as evidence that progress is being made; secondly anxiety that the “correct” information is emerging; thirdly trepidation, if not outright confusion, in attempting to make some sense of the results. All of this happens in quick succession, perhaps even all at once! Hopefully, the cautionary approach to the main data-gathering phase by way of a short pilot study should at least give the research student some confidence that the right research questions were being asked. There may remain doubts that enough data has been gathered – enough interviews generated, enough experiments conducted, enough field investigations made – but the answer to this question will only appear when the research study runs its full course. Despite the temptation to gather AS MUCH data as possible, the experienced supervisor will caution the research student of two hidden dangers that lie in the shallows. One is to remember that gathering the data is only the first part of the story, and the more that is gathered the more there is to be recorded, collated, analysed, interpreted, archived, and all the other ancillary tasks that need to be accomplished in order to secure a robust research project. Secondly, is to recognise the obvious, but often neglected, reality that the quality of the data collected is much more important that the quantity. Gathering a huge mass of data is not much good if the wrong questions have been asked, if important considerations have been missed, or mistaken assumptions made at the earlier stages.

Assuming that the methodology is appropriate, and that the data-gathering methods were systematic, robust, and effective, then every researcher – whether engaged on a small project or a mammoth one – is faced with the same question. “So what does it all mean?” There often comes a natural limit when collecting research data – a point at which it becomes apparent that simply collecting more and more data is not going to substantially change the conclusions. A point of diminishing returns on effort expended. At this point, the “So what?” factor kicks in. It might be necessary to back-track and do some fine-tuning, perhaps to look at some small specific areas in greater detail, or to conduct some follow-up research to fill in some gaps. Perhaps there is a need to explore some adjacent research questions which are tangential to the main research question, but will hopefully provide a better context in which to consider it. Sometimes it helps to simply present the results, devoid of attempts at interpretation, to a few trusted colleagues such as supervisors, to obtain some feedback and get some reassurance on “Do these findings make any sense?” Or perhaps it is time to draw the data-gathering to a halt – even temporarily – and begin to re-assemble the results to piece together what pictures emerge. This is the time when simply getting all the research results down in a systematic, logical, readable form is the main task, and hopefully this will provide a new platform to analyse what the results actually mean.

Giving feedback

Feedback sheets

For the supervisor, feedback is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the whole supervision process. The intention of feedback is to enable the recipient to benefit from critically helpful comments and suggestions, but a balance is often difficult to find. To put it simply, the supervisor wants to provide the student with helpful advice to enable the student to improve their performance, but to stop short of actually doing the work for the student. Viewed in this context, any feedback should consist of three parts; a note of what the student has done well; the identification of what can be improved; and suggestions for making these improvements. It is not sufficient to say that, “Your citations are terrible” without explaining how they can be improved. Simply listing the faults can be demoralising and is not sufficiently helpful for learning. Personally, I am not a big fan of the trend to include a “Feed-forward” paragraph, because I belong to the tradition that good feedback always includes within the commentary some instructions on how to make future work even better, so the need for a separate “feed-forward” section is redundant.

That is the broad context, but the level of detail that a student can expect to receive, and the timeliness of such feedback, can be very much case-by-case, and diverse according to different supervisors. When I receive the first pieces of writing from a student, as they complete drafts of individual chapters, I like to give a detailed root-and-branch response. Normally I do this by using track-changes, to insert every missing comma, correct spelling or clumsy grammar, and place annotations in the margin to query or compliment relevant sentences and diagrams. I appreciate that not every supervisor considers this to be part of their role, but I take the view that it is my job to set the benchmark of quality for the student in the presentation of their dissertation. To do this, I can only give them an idea of the standard of writing that I personally would be comfortable with if this was my own presentation. I do not tell the student what to write, but I encourage them by example to present this in the best and most appropriate manner. I work on the (possibly naïve) idea that every student wants to exert themselves to the highest standards possible, and therefore when I make suggestions on how to improve the work, these suggestions are made with the best intention to benefit the student. I leave the decision on whether or not to accept my changes and comments to the wisdom of the student. If s/he feels that their original version is better, that is their decision, but if the External Examiner demands the same changes that I have suggested, I know that it is not because the student has not been given that advice by me, merely that they have not chosen to heed it.

Timing is another variable issue. At my current university we are required that “normally” (a wonderful word) we are expected to return feedback to students within ten working days of the submission deadline, and I think this is fair. The purpose, after all, of feedback is to help the student to improve their future work, and this is best done while the submitted work is relatively fresh in their memory, and before the student starts make similar mistakes in the next piece of work to be submitted for assessment. In practice, with research students, ongoing feedback can be given in a variety of ways – written or verbal – using a diversity of media, including text, telephone support, chats in the corridor, and formal sessions either face-to-face or using video-chat. It is wise to explore very early in the supervision process what works best for the individual student and the individual supervisor.

Setting the tone of academic writing

Evaluation

There is a lot of nonsense talked about “academic writing” in some circles. A central myth is that it needs to be “complex”. In fact, exactly the reverse is the case! In writing an academic text, the author needs to be aware of some of the same key issues as any author, whether the writing is fact or fiction, science or humanities. Firstly, the text needs to convey information to the readership. Even complex ideas and intricate research can be conveyed as a story which captivates the reader’s attention and (hopefully) helps their understanding. So good academic writing is not simply about the message, it is also, to some extent, about the style. A well-written chapter or article will be a pleasure to read and will stimulate the interest of the reader, even if they may not follow (or even agree with) everything that you claim. For this reason, it is just as important to pay close attention to spelling, grammar, and the structure of an academic article as it is for a good piece of journalism.

An academic article requires another couple of essentials, however, and these are ‘evidence’ and ‘analysis’. The main reason for writing an academic article (or PhD chapter) is to make known to the readership some new ideas – perhaps the results of a new experiment (or the confirmation by repetition of an earlier experiment) or perhaps simply bringing together scattered information to present a new way of thinking about the topic. Either way, the ‘story’ that is written will probably build upon earlier work, perhaps quoting some examples, or statistics, attempting to construct a picture of how the new information was obtained. In this synthesis, it is imperative that the writer identifies the sources of evidence which are being referred to – even in passing – in the construction of the storyline. This sometimes gives academic writing a bit of a staccato appearance, with frequent interruptions e.g. (Rennie and Smyth, 2017) to the flow of sentences that would be the norm for a non-academic article. Nevertheless, these citations to the sources of evidence are absolutely essential in order to place the new piece of writing within the context of what is already known about the topic. Remember, the purpose of research, and the PhD in particular, is to make an original contribution to knowledge, by extending what is known into an area which is less well known, and by definition extending the sum total of our knowledge of the discipline. There are different conventions on how to draw attention to the sources of evidence which are used  to give support, reliability, confidence, to the new ideas being expressed, and these citation styles – such as Harvard, Vancouver, APA – will vary with different academic disciplines. Students should check with their supervisors on what is most appropriate (sometimes the required styles will vary between different journals).

With respect to the ‘analysis’ component of the writing, this will vary between different academic levels, and occasionally even within the same piece of academic work. For instance, early-stage undergraduates may be allowed to be more descriptive in their writing, but late-stage undergraduates are expected to be more highly analytical, rather than purely descriptive. By the stage of embarking on a research degree, the student is expected to understand the importance of critical analysis, (and practice it) so that although a literature review chapter may in broad terms describe the state of current knowledge about the research topic, the reviews of the individual sources of evidence should not be solely descriptive, and should critically evaluate the strengths and possible weaknesses of the source publications.

For this reason, I try to give a particularly thorough feedback on the early work of any research student that I am supervising. I use “track changes” to comment on every missing comma, typographic error, lack of citation, or inappropriate style format. If the supervisor can quickly and clearly set the tone required for the relevant level of the student’s work, a benchmark can be established, and thereafter the student should be clear about the quality, style, conventions, and expectations required for the final product. At least, that is the theory…

Setting a routine

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I think it was Graham Greene who used to say that he aimed to write 500 words every day. The novels were soon created. This might not sound like a lot of words, but there are two great advantages to this method. Firstly, 500 words every single day, even when some of the words are later amended or discarded, soon builds up to a substantial narrative. This narrative can then be edited, refined, extended or reduced. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the routine act of writing down 500 words each day cultivates a mind-set which develops with constant practice, so that it becomes easier to express your ideas in writing. For some people, it may never become easy, but it does become easier. It helps if the writer is also a regular reader. To become familiar with the way other writers express themselves in text, even if their language or the style is unfamiliar or even disliked, is a useful skill because it enables the writer to understand their own style, and how to capture in words what they want to say.

Most academic writing has a different appearance in style to other forms of literature, because there is a different purpose behind it. As a scientist, I am the first one to agree that scientific writing can also be creative, but analytical writing for an academic purpose – whether this is for science, arts, or the humanities – demands that the text is anchored in such things as theories, concepts, and evidence. Most non-academic writing (apart from things such as biographies or popular histories) do not require citations (e.g. “(Rennie, 2017)” but these citations are essential for academic work to provide the sources of the evidence on which your subsequent ideas are based.

In order to get into a routine which suits your own working style and personality, you need to experiment a little. Some people, like Graham Greene, prefer to set-aside some time each day to write. Others only write when the mood takes them, when they feel inspired, or when a deadline looms over them. Personally, I find writing very easy to do, and I enjoy it, so I have different behaviour patterns for different situations. I know that I can sit down and produce something very quickly if I need to (like a report of work done), but for deeper and more complex work (such as a journal article or research paper) I like to start off with a working title and some headings to give the article a bit of structure. With the general ‘story-line’ in my head, I will then sit down to write the various sections when I think I know what I want to say in each section. I build the article up, then leave it a couple of days, read it again, and make any minor changes. I rarely re-write anything substantial unless I obtain new information or get feedback from a reviewer to expand upon some point of explanation. So, my routine is to establish what I want to say, build up the article as a story, then tweak the final draft until I am satisfied that I have expressed what I want to convey. Other writers will write, re-write, and re-re-write as their ideas change and the article evolves. A key point in all of this is that the finished piece of text, whether it is a research paper or a dissertation, should be enjoyable for the reader, so try to avoid long, cumbersome sentences and clearly signpost the direction of your discussion. Numbered headings and spell checking is also important, so make sure that you develop your own routine to check and double-check each stage as you progress with your text.

Useful webpages:

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/essential-phd-tips-10-articles-all-doctoral-students-should-read

Getting research ethics approval

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Once the research question(s) and the probable method(s) of gathering new data have been established, the next stage in any research process is to ensure that the following stage(s) of the research project will be ethically appropriate for the task(s) in hand. In actual fact, the ethical considerations will have been made at a general level much earlier in the research planning, but it is only now, when there is a greater certainty about the methodology and the details of the data-gathering methods, that the researcher will be sure of the complete nature of the ethical issues which might be involved in the research.

It is not uncommon at this stage for researchers, especially novice researchers, to declare that their particular research project “does not really have any ethical issues”. This is almost always untrue. Whether it is a simple survey with a clipboard and pen, or a more complex set of interviews, questionnaires or focus groups, there will always be issues relating to the nature of the information intended to be gathered, from whom it will be gathered, or how the subsequent data might be stored and made available to other people. Research projects involving patients, animals, children, or vulnerable adults will require especially stringent ethical codes of practice. Laboratory experiments, fieldwork, or simply re-working the data already gathered by a previous researcher, will all have their own distinct and necessary ethical guidelines to consider. At the very, very least, there are ethical questions which need to be considered about who is funding the research, who decides what research gets a priority, and what do the funding organisations receive in return for their financial support?

The supervisor has a crucial role in talking through with the student all of the possible ethical issues which might impact upon the research. Frequently, the ethical issues can be resolved very easily, and the research can proceed, but the simple fact of working through the range possible issues which might arise, and sharing experience on how they can be satisfactorily dealt with, is an important part of the professional training required by the student.

Every university, and most professional associations which come into contact with research, will have codes of conduct and formal procedures for scrutinising and approving research ethics proposals for research projects with which they are involved. This will require specific application forms, a scrutinising committee, and a formal code of research behaviour with which researchers are required to conform. Some procedures to gain ethical approval for research are particularly detailed, for example anything requiring contact with the health service, such as patient notes, contact with patients, or any engagement with either health staff or medical procedures, is likely to involve substantial detail and very careful research design.

Key concerns in all research ethics matters are to avoid causing harm, to respect confidentiality, and to maintain high standards of moral integrity. The latter, for instance, might refer to a very wide range of “common sense” standards such as to refrain from cheating, plagiarism, falsifying results, vested interests, and so on. Though they may seem “common sense” to most of us, we tend to forget that many of these issues are perceived differently by different cultures, and influenced by pressures which might be applied – internal and external to the institution – to “encourage” researchers to produce favourable results one way or another. It is for these reasons that gaining the approval of the research ethics committee is a fundamental gateway for any research project before it can be seriously undertaken.