Tuesday, 22 November 2016

How to Find the Right Doctoral Programme

Just published today in the Times Higher ... here are the Top 10 Tips ensure that you find a place of a Doctoral Programme that suits your needs.  Please feel free to share.

Monday, 21 November 2016

New Look, Same Blog

The PhD Blog has been on the go since 2009. It started life as a set of FAQs for potential doctoral students in Business and Management studies. It has since grown a life of its own with over 250,000 people having visited the site. To make it easier to find, the URL has changed to www.thephdblog.com and it has a new look and feel. There's even a new logo for the site. I hope that you like the new formatting and continue to find the blog a great resource for questions and experiences relating to all things doctoral. Special thanks to Rodrigo Perez Vega for helping with the relaunch. Have a look around and try some of the other resources and sites that link to ThePhDBlog.com. Meantime, how can you tell that you've been working too hard on your PhD? When you suggest reading Snow White et al. to your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren!

Good luck with your PhD Journey


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Research Questions: how they change and whether that is a good or a bad thing.

Your PhD will focus on answering some research questions. Where research questions come from, how to find them and what are the characteristics of good research questions are topics dealt with elsewhere in this blog ... e.g. in the researchable questions posting. Recently, I wrote a piece on the ways in which research questions change with Jean Bartunek, Mamta Bhatt and Donald MacLean. In the paper we argue that those doing empirical research in organizations often end up changing their research questions either subtly or significantly once the research itself gets underway. Organizations change, restructure, are subject to regulatory change and a myriad of other things that can alter what it is possible to ask/answer in your research. However, precious little is written about how, why and when research questions ought to change. You can find a draft of the full paper here. Enjoy.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Top 10 Tips for Building an Academic Reputation

Pick an area and stick to it … academia is characterized by demarcation into specialist areas. Few would be able to straddle mathematics, physics, chemistry and alchemy in the manner of Isaac Newton. He, like many of our other great thinkers, might not have been REF-returnable. Indeed, his probationary mentor would no doubt have encouraged him to be more focused. Modern academia is a terrain is marked out in specialist territories where people will spend entire careers.  These days, skimming the surface of many territories lowers the likelihood of you establishing a strong reputation in the medium term. Of course you might window shop for a while, but don’t procrastinate too long.  Choose one area and stick with your choice.

Identify the right space … specialist areas, such as the one you’ve chosen, tend to have support structures that emerge over time. Typically there will be a membership organization, annual conferences and some house journals.  Stump up the membership fees, find your way into their conference and be sure that you read the house journal religiously.  Attending a new conference for the first time can be bewildering, and even lonely. Expect to go multiple times before you get to know who the key players are and find some friends from beyond your own institution.

Choose a tribe … academics spend a significant portion of their time marking. This produces a tendency to enjoy offering, if not necessarily receiving, criticism.  Hence, even our neatly delineated interest areas are factionalised.  This may manifest itself as new ideas versus classical ones or revolve around some other perceived slight, injustice or other form of misapprehension.  Your big decision is choose the tribe that you will join. This key decision will lead you to identify some scholars as part of your tribe whilst others will become forbidden, ostracized and will only be cited in order to demonstrate the flaws in their arguments. Remember, a tribe is for life not just for Christmas.

Befriend a local chieftain … Having chosen a tribe, you’ll probably find a collection of village elders, local warlords and chieftains who represent the key voices in your field. These individuals will have established a hierarchy for themselves based on their H-index or some other proxy.  The harsh reality is that you probably won’t be able to access the Great Om directly in the early part of your career. Pick a local chieftain and engage in a charm offensive by reading their work, citing it heavily and demonstrating that you see them as the next President-elect of the tribe.

Build your brand … faced with fierce competition for airspace you’ll need to have something distinctive to say if you want to be heard and remembered. Try to find an angle; perhaps a new theory applied to an age-old problem, perhaps some other distinguishing feature, idea or methodological approach.  Consciously promote the idea that you are intrinsically linked with this angle and make it part of your own branding.  The sign of a glowing academic reputation is that your peer group acknowledges you as the leading light in relation to “X”.  In part that’s why everyone will feel compelled to cite you whenever they mention “X” in their own work.

Volunteer often and early … as a PhD student it is important to know your place in the world. In relation to students on taught programmes you are an elite athlete. You have already excelled in every exam you’ve ever taken and such tawdry things as written exams are but a memory.  Sadly, in the academic world, you are somewhat closer to the bottom of the food chain.  To ingratiate yourself you’ll probably need to volunteer to do the tasks that those higher up the food chain used to do, now resent and definitely see as beneath them.  Act as a reviewer for conference streams and take the time to do it well, offering careful, informative and developmental feedback. It will get noticed.  Offer to chair conference sessions, run workshops, sort logistics, organize a dinner venue, book taxis, organize to see the local sights, etc. Nothing should be too much trouble.  Make yourself indispensable.

Keep your promises …. the mark of a successful career is that you become very busy.  Invited hither and thon, speaking at this and that, guest editing here and there. The very people you are trying to impress will appreciate you all the more if you appear to be the sort of person on whom they can rely. Build a reputation as someone who does what they say. All the better if in doing so, work is also done on time and to a high standard.  Chieftans have long since earned the right to be flaky, idiosyncratic and unreliable.  It is unlikely that you’ll achieve such a lofty reputational position if you start out in that mode.

Build your portfolio …  every aspiring academic imagines a future state in they can eventually claim that there is an extensive secondary literature based around their seminal works. Even the largest oak trees start with small acorns however. From the outset think of your portfolio of public domain work. Your papers, book chapters, conference presentations, etc. need to be curated.  Aim to publish in the right places (see hint 2 above). Manage your profile on ResearchGate, Academia.edu, LinkedIn, GoogleScholar, Twitter and the various other places that researchers will look for your work.  But remember that if you want to have a serious, academic, game face and a more carefree or irreverent online identity, it may be helpful to keep them separate. 

Hit the right tone … In the early stages of your academic career, much rests on your ability to build relationships.  Think of two parallel universes.  In one you are a shrinking violet, too modest to promote yourself, your work or your angle you may find yourself overlooked and ignored. Your PhD findings will be forgotten before they’ve even been finished.  This is clearly not a good world for you to inhabit. Meanwhile, in a second parallel universe you are a shameless self-publicist, talking up the global significance of your pilot study and trumpeting the all to obvious flaws in the work of every chieftan you’ve cited. Senior academics place restraining orders on you and you quickly develop a reputation for over promising and under delivering.  Clearly, this too, is not a good world for you to inhabit. The trick is to strike the right tone. Be respectful of established figures, understand the social graces of the conversations that you’re joining but do have something suitably provocative to say. Above all, be good company. Nobody likes a non-talker or a stalker.  Charm, wit, a good memory for details of biography and circumstance help a great deal.

Be Patient … items 1 to 9 are a tall order and, in the meantime, you also need to keep one eye on the PhD completion.  A salutary exercise is to remind yourself that those great figures in your chosen field were themselves, not so well known. Reputations take time to build as do the relationships, social networks, connectivity and credibility one which those reputations rest.  Aim high, or you’ll never get there but don’t beat yourself up too much if you have won best paper of the decade with your first forays into publication.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Top Ten Hints for a Great Methodology Chapter

1. Know what is expected in your discipline
Not all requirements are the same in every academic discipline or field of study.  Just because your friend studying philosophy did not need to worry about an extended methodology does not mean you can avoid it too… You might expect a detailed discussion method and techniques in the scientific disciplines but not the social sciences, however, they are now very popular in business and management.
2. Understand and define the terms
The vocabulary used in research mythology, in particular terms surrounding research philosophy, for example, ontology and epistemology are not phrases you are likely to use in everyday conversation.  However, when you understand and define the terms the rest of it becomes much more manageable – it is not that complicated it just needs a little initial investment of time.
3. Avoid inconsistencies
Don’t present yourself as meat eating vegetarian; that makes no sense in the culinary world, and if you were invited for dinner, would confuse your host no end. Similarly in methodological parlance presenting yourself as a positivist who adopts social construction or an Interprevisit who conducts a large scale, closed question survey who plans to use grounded theory to analyse their results would have the same sense of social awkwardness. Surprisingly such inconsistencies do occur and they and go a long way to highlighting the fact that you don’t really understand what you are talking about.
4. Avoid vagueness
If you don’t understand the terms, probably because you have not taken the time to learn them, do not try and gloss over this and just use the terms vaguely. Your examiners are sure to notice and will mark you down in and undergraduate or postgraduate dissertations. Much worse, in a PhD viva you could find yourself in a good 20 minute round of questioning whilst you want the floor to open up and swallow you.
5. Specify Your Research Philosophy
This will normally consist of clearly articulating ontology and epistemology. Ontology is how you view the reality within which your research project is undertaken.  At its most basic level, ontology can be thought of as whether we see the world as objective or subjective.  Research involves the development of new knowledge. Epistemology concerns our view of how we might obtain valid knowledge. The Methods Map illustrates four epistemological positions: positivist, critical realist, action research, and interpretivist.
6. Define how you will collect your data
The Method Map suggests three broad categories of methodology which are quantitative, qualitative and case study. Quantitative methods sit comfortably within an objective ontology and a positivist epistemology. The case study approach is one of the most common ways for students to conduct their research project. Case studies often involve detailed exploration of some phenomena, often using multiple data sources collected over time.  Qualitative methodologies can yield valuable, revelatory, and rich data. This methodology can be used on its own, or in conjunction with other research tools depending on the nature of the research project. For example, interviews, focus groups or observations can be used to explain and interpret the results of quantitative research, or conversely, to provide exploratory data that are later developed by quantitative research.  Regardless of what you adopt: quantitative, qualitative or case study approach you must also clearly articulate your data collection techniques.
7. Select appropriate data analysis tool(s)
The data gathered using particular research techniques should be subject to some analysis which we categorize as subscribing to one of two broad approaches: deductive or inductive. There are other approaches to analysis but these two capture the majority of research projects. The Deductive approach to analysis typically involves the use of quantitative data to explore relationships between variables, constructs and outcomes. Inductive analysis attempts to build an understanding of the relationships within a data set by engaging with the data itself and looking for patterns, themes, etc. Don’t forget that if you have gathered more than one type of data you may need more than one type of analytical approach.  Multiple types of analysis can be helpful; however, multiple philosophies of knowledge within the same project tend not to help at all.
8. Give a detailed account of how you actually analysed your data
Again, don’t be vague, don’t hide behind big words you have only just learned the meaning off, and don’t gloss over this section in the hope that no one will notice – they will! So, instead give a clear, explicit and concise explanation and description of how you actually analysed your data.  Don hesitate you illustrate your answer with examples!
9. Revisit and Rewrite
Typically, we develop a first draft of our methodology before we conduct the research.  Resist the temptation to assume that this will be okay for your final submission.  Once you have collected and analysed your data you should revisit the entire chapter and check the description in the chapter reflected the specifics of what you did, what worked and what you had to adapt.  More than likely things will have changed from the planning to execution stage.  This is perfectly normal, plans evolve and you were there to see them evolve.  The reader, however, wasn’t there and will expect the methodology as described to be an accurate reflection of what has been carried out.
10. Ensure the reader in not surprised when they get to you data in the next
You are writing a thesis, dissertation or academic paper, you are not writing a short story.  Whilst your findings should be interesting and revealing, there is no need for a late plot twist.    Nor for that matter should there be surprises when you move from chapter to chapter, your presentation of data and analysis chapter should follow clearly and explicitly from the Methodology Chapter.
and one for luck ... mimic your heroes!
There is no need to reinvent the wheel… you are reporting the results of an academic study, something that has been done many times before.  During your literature review, you will have identified your academic superheroes.  Their papers will likely appear in the most prestigious outlets and be amongst the most heavily cited in your field.  Further, some of these papers will give a world-class account of empirical research with a clear articulation of methods, forms of analysis which can be followed, leading to conclusions and insights that genuinely convince the reader that a major contribution is being made.  Shamelessly mimic their presentational style.  Go further, read everything else you can find from these talented individuals. You may even find that their earlier works weren’t quite so spectacular, which should give you some cause for optimism. Also use the Methods Map which will help you select and articulate your ontology, epistemology, methodology, data collection techniques and data analysis tools.
Find out more about strategy at www.stridesite.com and access a free research methods tool at www.methodsmap.org

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Free Interactive Research Methods Tool

This blog was started in response to the difficulties that many students experience with methodology. Trying to define your research method is a major headache for many of us. There are two major problems to overcome. One is that of inconsistency caused largely by confusion over the meaning of key terms such as epistemology, ontology and methodology. The second problem is one of incompleteness which occurs when students express a partial account of their method saying something along the lines of "I'm doing interviews" but say little else to describe the ways in which they will then analyse their data. 

I'm delighted to announce the launch of a free, interactive tool which produces a method map that overcomes both problems in a few minutes. What's more it is available in English, Chinese, Arabic, Malay, Hindi, Polish and Greek. Try it for free at www.methodsmap.org ... and if you want to read the material that underpins the method map, you can download a free chapter here.  Feel free to share these links with anyone who might find some advice on research methodology useful.