Moulding and managing the 'key to all mythologies': Considering English PhDs in the new knowledge economy

Gina Wisker, APU Cambridge and Essex

There's no tension. You are able to do independent research, organise your own time, attention to detail. You have to develop those skills.

If you do something as complex as a PhD, you are going to learn something you can use in other contexts.

The skills you learn should equip you to work in a wider world. You should be able to go out and do anything in the world.

(Williams, 2003, p.31)

Most published work on the nature and development of the PhD, its supervision, and research degree programmes, focuses largely on the social science PhD in particular (Phillips and Pugh, 1998; Cryer, 1996; Delamont, Atkinson and Parry, 2001; Wisker and Sutcliffe 1999). More recently, in this context, colleagues in English have tackled some of the thorny issues and controversies which are emerging as we increasingly define, 'train' and professionalise the PhD process and the supervisory role in action.

These publications consider, for the most part, English PhD research outcomes and career prospects, and research degree programmes. They include Annabel Patterson and Judie Newman’s essays in Doctor! Doctor! :Doctoral Studies in English in Twenty-first Century Britain (London, The English Association, Issues in English No.1, 2001); Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny’s ‘From Rumors to Facts: Career Outcomes of English PhDs’ (US Council of Graduate Schools Communicator Vol. XXX11, No 7 Fall, 1999) Sadie Williams’ report to the English Subject Centre Postgraduate Training in Research Methods: Current Practice and Future Needs in English (London,  English Subject Centre, no 3 , February, 2003) which gathered evidence from a number of universities, and the AHRB Green paper (January 2002).  Some of the concerns they voice about the state of English PhDs and their development, relate to tensions between quality research processes and outcomes, and postgraduate skills which equip our students for the workplace.

The AHRB Green Paper (op. cit.) notes a tension between the need for scholarly outcomes of doctoral work that will contribute to knowledge, and the need for high level skill outcomes which will enable researchers trained to this level to make significant contributions society and to the economy. Many doctoral students do not go on to academic jobs and there is a need for those who proceed to senior posts in other sectors of the economy to be able to recognise and make effective use of the high level skills, knowledge and understanding which they have gained through their doctoral studies.

The UK Council for Graduate Education (UKGCE) has similarly noted a tension between the need to produce a thesis and the need to produce a highly trained person. It proposes a model for research training based on regular assessment of the needs of individual students. Similarly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in its Review of Research (Report 007, 2000) recommends changes to the way in which research training is assessed. (Williams, 2003, p.3-4)

I want to explore tensions, developments and mutual benefits which result or could result from considering the aims, processes, and achievements of the variants of the English PhD in the context of an increased focus on research development programmes, generic skills, the metalanguage of research, and  employability. My own thoughts and deliberations here spring from speculations, discussions and practices arising from working in (at least) two fields – learning and teaching (using educational and social science research strategies) – where postgraduate student learning and supervisory practices have become a real fascination, and teaching English, working with/supervising, developing, examining English PhD students for several (about seventeen) years.

Thoughts, context and issues

Yesterday evening I spent with one of my English PhD students, a part-time student, full-time teacher, who is in the very last stages of finalising her thesis. It is scholarly, multidisciplinary in many ways (literature and music/song, cultural context), and it is good, well planned, well executed, makes an original contribution to knowledge, well written. I hope she will have little if anything to do to it after the viva. But our discussions turned to the discourse with which to articulate the intention, design, actioning, achievement and expression of the research and it struck me, as it always does at this stage, that we seriously needed to be talking in that more generic register of the meta-language of research and its expression in the thesis, more commonly a feature of social science research methods training. This involves such questions as ‘Please explore for me your theoretical perspectives, which theorists and theories underpin your work and why?’, ‘explain your conceptual framework’, ’what are your conceptual conclusions?’. We needed to stand back from the research, its creativity and its careful expression, its attention to detail, and ensure the development both in the thesis – the abstract, introduction and first chapter, beginnings and ends of each chapter, the conclusions – , and in our habits of discussion about it, a facility with this meta-language that enables the articulation of her particular version in practice of those concerns. I don’t think English postgraduates are used to doing this. I certainly was not, and many of the students I have examined have looked stunned at the questions, however framed. But they need to be able to articulate their achievements in this research meta-language, rather than , perhaps, letting the scholarly work speak for itself, its methods and theories somewhat taken for granted. They also need to contribute to the debates about what a PhD is, its conception, processes, shapes and expression because, for the English PhD, the relative absence of training and meta-language has freed up and enabled the development of some highly creative, thoughtful, experimental processes and forms of expression from which other, perhaps more systematised, PhD discipline cultures could learn.

At Anglia Polytechnic university (APU, Cambridge and Essex) our English PhD students have a Reading Group which they run themselves  (with a staff member acting as coordinator to support the student coordinator) and to which they invite staff for discussions, exchange and inputs both on English specific research topics and topics to do with research development processes. The existence and management of such peer led support groups enables students to work together on research in progress and to articulate their concerns and needs in research development terms. Many of the students have indicated that they feel the central provision of the internal three stage research development programme does not address their needs as English postgraduates, being too social science oriented. They are uncomfortable with the meta-language of research processes expected of them in such contexts, which demands initially, and during their research, that they surface and articulate their research question, research design, methods, methodology, strategies and the conceptual questions, and latterly their analytical strategies, conceptual findings and conclusions, particularly in relation the viva. In taped discussions with both the group and specific individuals, some of them have said :

‘I don't think this programme is for us – it is too social science oriented.’

‘I am not doing this PhD for a job, it’s not professional training. I am doing it because I am fascinated by the writers, so I don’t see why I should be put through this – most of it is irrelevant to the way I am researching and writing anyway.’

‘What would my ‘theoretical perspectives’, ‘methodology’ and ‘conceptual conclusions’ be? (I don’t think this is relevant to what I am writing).’

‘I’m not worried about the viva – it’s the thesis that counts and it should stand on its own merits – the viva is a chance to talk about it.’

I have talked with these and other English postgraduates, and postgraduates on our large international varied disciplinary cohorts over time both informally and using taped, transcribed group interviews (since 1997); with my own students using individual interviews and taped supervisory dialogues (since 1997) ; with supervisors at APU and other universities (University of the West Indies, Middlesex, Open University,  Warwick, Griffith, Adelaide, Queensland, Sydney, Canberra, Auckland, among others since 2000) informally, during workshops and using taped, transcribed individual interviews. Some of the  postgraduates’ concerns seem absolutely legitimate to me, and not merely confined to English PhD students. Other of their points, however, betray a potentially dangerous (for them) naïveté about what is becoming a more professional process and which might lead to their lack of practice in being able to articulate the intentions, designs, shape, process and achievements of their own PhDs in the thesis itself and in the viva (which for some has been less than a friendly collegial exchange, after all.)

George Eliot’s Casaubon came to mind. His research, too grand and undoable, was much more than a life work. He was totally dedicated, open to neither debate nor criticism, refusing to read in dialogue with others, threatened by any demand that he articulated what he was doing, why and how, and finally what he might have achieved. The shape of the research, its process, his research as learning activities and any outcome were all elevated by the grandeur of his personal world-shattering project, and shrouded by the refusal and inability (inappropriateness?) of any need to define, shape, articulate and share it all. Of course, he is a fictional character, but  still issues raised by Casaubon’s research project’s mysteriousness, its ambitiousness and his refusal to engage in dialogue or articulate its processes did remind me of some of the least productive discussions I have had about research and the PhD.

I wanted to write about the English PhD, problems and  processes because I think  there is something English postgraduates and supervisors can learn from the professionalisation of the PhD process, and much that we can contribute to the development, definitions, shaping and expression of the PhD itself (themselves) by influencing and altering such processes. Managing and moulding might well have been useful to Casaubon. Everything from motivation and processes- the creativity, the theoretical , critical scrutiny and exploration to the archival and close textual practice of varied English PhDs, and supervisor-student interactions - the tendency to collegial discussions rather than (more commonly in the sciences) the more hierarchical? masterclass or practice of professor with research group carrying out his/her research project , to the alternative shapes English thesis might take and influence inform, challenge and imaginatively, creatively influence the postgraduate enterprise more broadly, beyond the confines of the English PhD. We have much to learn, much to alter and affect and much to contribute.

Even beginning to write about the development, forms, nature and supervision of the English PhD in the context of debates about the changing nature of the PhD, the increasing professionalisation of postgraduate study, research development programmes and supervisory practices to support and facilitate that study, training, postgraduate outcomes for employability and the like is problematic. I have to choose my tone, forms of expression and referencing, and these for me alternate between personal testimony, narrative, storytelling and a desire to use interview data and statistics. It is already a mixed mode, multidisciplinary discussion. Such deliberations raise some of the issues about differences between the social sciences, sciences and English in reasons for undertaking and completing research; the forming of research questions and proposals; acceptable modes of expression and the shape of the PhD itself. For students undertaking English PhDs, all of these potentially and actually differ substantially from the 'standard' social science PhD shape and research process. Nonetheless, I would argue, students and supervisors engaged with English PhDs can learn something from the sharp focus and clarity lent by problematising differences and similarities between designs and strategies for the research processes and theses  expected in the various disciplines, building as these do on potentially differing worldviews, conceptualisation of knowledge and knowledge production, on research practices, and on appropriate expression of findings, conceptual conclusions,  contributions to knowledge and meaning.

So what are the tensions, contradictions, problems and issues? What are the overlaps and disputes between the disciplines in practice? and what can the English PhD, process, practices and product shape, students and supervisors learn from and contribute to the debate and development of  what constitutes a doctorate?

The very nature of the English PhD and its variants are under scrutiny here.

I wanted to start this essay in a mixture of the social science mode (references, research problem stated, claim backed by researched evidence) and a more feminist influenced literary research mode which I tend to adopt in my own research and writing (personal testimony and reflection). In doing so, I hope to indicate some of the issues, tensions, problems, delights and rich creative influences spilling between the very different conceptions, approaches and products of the scientific (the initial shape of research and PhDs), the social science (the origin of research development programmes and research into supervisory practices), and the varieties of the English PhD.

Personal testimony

Personal testimony is one place to begin (again). Much research does not value personal testimony in its expression and writing up, although the reflective practice traditions of education and the health sciences as well as Women’s Studies and feminist research do, so I will slip into other research contexts and expression habits for some of this exploration.

I undertook my own PhD because I knew that I needed to keep reading, asking questions, pushing my intellectual processes, and teaching English in a school just was not letting me do enough of this – even though learning and teaching activities aimed to excite, engage and develop the children, for my own development it was unsatisfactory. It felt like recycling. I needed to move on and stretch myself intellectually and imaginatively. I was a fairly mature student (25) when I started. It was part-time, at a distance, fitted in between work, moving houses, changing jobs, relationships, the usual life-crises and responsibilities. I did not start with a research question but a more general interest and some vague sense of a field. My proposal as such was non existent; it was more of an area of interest and not even a title really. For the first couple of years I read and read, took lots of notes, found articles, and then started to write bits and pieces, largely descriptive and exploratory while I was finding my way. The main focus, the problematising research question driving my work, did not emerge until a couple of years into the research, but when it was finally all written up, despite the absence of computers, I was able to look backwards and forwards through the different chapters and ensure the problems, the research questions, the tensions, theorists, and themes were established in the introduction and ran though coherently until the conclusion. Talking with other English PhD students has suggested to me that this is a very common way into the English PhD for many, even now. It worked for me, where perhaps some of the more stringent demands of current practices might have not.

It might well have been useful if I had had some development opportunities and some sense, trained or intuitive, of what was required from the outset – but I muddled though, carried out long periods of hard work which did not seem to be at all fruitful, the note taking, the cataloguing and referencing, without a spark of real creativity from me. Was this necessary? rather dull? And then some real learning leaps took place, some moments of revelation, a bit like Ted Hughes's ‘Thought-fox’ creeping up on me – and a scramble to find ways of expressing it all followed as the jigsaw of those notes fell into place into a picture I could see. Then the editing and re-editing and re-writing to try and control words to say what needed to be said. The attempts at the right expression alternated between stodge, fog, and a lucidity which seemed to develop of its own volition. I don’t think anyone would take me on now – the area was too vague, and I certainly took much longer than is considered decent, to finish (6 1/2 years). The prosaic, plodding periods would drive a completion oriented professionally focused postgraduate and supervisor team mad with boredom and frustration. There were no research development methods programmes of course, or a reading group, no work links, no progress seminars, although the constant support, patience and testing questions from my supervisor, and latterly of another academic research group where I had settled, enabled me to have the kind of learning conversations which pulled me up and out of the circling claustrophobia of my own thoughts, and the slog of just seeking it out, then trying to write something coherent down and sharpening it up.

Getting the PhD has been endlessly useful both in a personal sense – stretching, starting me off on a thirst to keep researching and writing, and a professional sense – and it opened a number of doors, most of them unpredictable in their usefulness (the most bizarre was being credible in a Cypriot bank when I had run out of money because I was a doctor – though we did not discuss the healing qualities of Virginia Woolf and Thomas Pynchon at the time).

Systems expectation, controls

Sadie Williams' research (2003) indicates some tensions and some synergy between the rigorous perhaps bureaucratic?, mechanistic? professional? demands on PhD students and the personal development aims which often drive English PhDs. Supervisors comment on undertaking the PhD successfully that:

It shows self-discipline, working under pressure, meeting deadlines. Project management, organisation, detail, efficiency. (Williams 2003, p.41)

APU students, including the English PhDs, our international cohort with whom I and colleagues have been conducting action research since 1997, and post-docs from both these groups have made comments on a more positive note about their involvement in research development workshops. These focus explicitly on PhD processes and completion, and being aware of skills etc development:

I have developed as a researcher. The workshops were significant milestones that helped me reach my goals.

‘Writing a doctoral thesis requires a complex intensive effort. This has led to my academic development.’

‘Working with colleagues is fruitful and encouraging.’

‘My self esteem and self confidence have been enhanced.’

These graduates/post docs are aware of the effectiveness of research development programmes, working in self help groups and developing not only generic or subject specific transferable skills but their own confidence and self esteem. However, not all English PhD students are entirely happy with the generic research development programme, comfortable with the professionalisation of the PhD process, au fait with the metalanguage of research, aware of the transferability of research processes, skills and sense of identity to which successfully completing a PhD can contribute. If there are gaps and tensions here, we need to explore them and identify ways to clarify, elide, improve the ways in which expectations, programmes processes, practices of the PhD experience operate within universities and afterwards, to enhance the experiences and the awareness of the gains from these experiences for our English PhD students.

What is gained by carrying out PhD research  and how can a supportive system, more explicit outcomes, processes and practice enable postgraduates to achieve? The students quoted (above), and I, have been  successful as PhD students. However, early on, my supervisor showed me almost an entire filing cabinet drawer of students who did not complete. Lack of completion does not indicate a total lack of development and achievement of course. No doubt any of those students (some of whom were friends of mine) gained a great deal from their research, and the current push to ensure completion within a tight time frame might well have deterred their efforts even earlier. The often seemingly bureaucratically driven and mechanistic demands of research development programmes, research degree committee deliberations over proposals that have taken nearly a year to produce to a set shape, similarly clearly, even rigidly, defined progress report/confirmation of candidature stages and products, learning contracts, agendas and reports for supervisions are a straightjacket for some, but an enabling framework for others. Completion rates are important for the departmental research profile, never more so. So one rather ungenerous reading (?) of these complex demands, rules and structures, deadlines and definitions of length, processes of research  and of thesis format which tend to indicate there could be some prediction of success might be seen just as the university minding its own back, keeping up its ratings in a competitive market. This is certainly partly the case. But actually, many of these developments are themselves based on research into preconceptions, research as learning approaches and perceptions, and  research into research as learning strategies, research development programme effectiveness and supervisory practices. Particularly latterly this is so. See papers from the various Adelaide based Quality in Postgraduate Research conferences since 1998 and their co convenor, Margaret Kiley's website,(University of Canberra) the UK Council for Graduate  Education (UKGCE) conferences and work by Pearson, Brew, among others.

Without undermining the enthusiasm, the creativity, originality, personal imaginative investment, archival foraging, mid research 'learning leaps' when conceptual levels can be climbed which can popularly define much of the experience and practice of the English PhD student (and supervisor), I would argue both that much of benefit can be derived from adapting and interpreting for the English PhD in all its variety, the social science originated paradigms and practices of research, research  development structures and supervision. Meanwhile, elements of the English PhD, its development and achievements can  and should inform a wider understanding and set of strategies to develop, empower and support postgraduate research completion more generally.

Some issues related to the English PhD:

·        Reasons for undertaking research – self development, contribution to knowledge, enhancement of employability, contribution to society and culture etc. Is there a tension?

·        Defining the research process – timing, staging and shaping including asking research questions, problematising a concept, exploring and 'reading round', entering into a dialogue with other critics and theorists, determining methodology – the shape of the social science originated proposal and its demands – at odds with or useful partners to the English PhD?

·        Defining how analysis takes place, ensuring 'evidence' backs up claims, what is meant by interrelation of the data, findings, factual and conceptual conclusions – don’t we need to ask the same questions of the English PhD? But would the answers be different from the social science PhD?

·        Research development programmes – are they training or a structured enabling process? How can they be useful to English PhD students? Are they at odds with English postgraduate needs purely by their social science nature and their relative regimentation? Can they be developed and enhanced to indicate and reflect English research process needs and achievements?

·        Individual autonomy development and/or reliance on the guidance of the supervisor – spoon feeding/dependency or sailing off into the blue?

·        Shapes of  PhDs – the English PhD tends not to have separate chapters on theoretical perspectives or methodology/methods – where are these articulated? Do they need to be?

·        Acceptable conventions of forms of writing and expression

·        Acceptable modes of argument using evidencing analysed and discussed quotations from textual and critical sources tend to be English PhD data – are these handled, selected, expressed, argued, referenced, in any different ways from the data of the scientist and social scientist?

·        Referencing conventions – what conventions of referencing suit a multidisciplinary English PhD? How do we use footnotes?

·        Postgraduate skills – what are the generic and the English specific postgraduate skills?

·        Learning from and sharing different conventions of research and its expression in the thesis What has the creativity, the scholarly foraging and referencing, the engagement with philosophy, theory, discourses and appreciation of their historical/cultural/power bases and effects often found in English PhDs got to offer the more generic development of the PhD and postgraduate research processes?

The italicised elements above partially suggest both the questions and some answers to those questions concerning defining, and positioning the English PhD. What follows is a little more in depth discussion about some elements of these issues in practice. These are my own thoughts based on discussion, experience, research and reading. I would welcome the opportunity to carry on the discussion.

Some thoughts about research development programmes and the professionalisation of research and supervision

I dont think this programme is for us – it is too social science oriented. 

Universities are now expected to provide appropriate development opportunities for their postgraduate students and researchers and RDPs of a variety of kinds some short, some long, some attracting the MRes qualification are run in most UK universities (Metcalfe report 2002)

A good research development programme provides support and development to augment the work of the supervisor and help students develop peer group support.  Additionally, it contributes to meta-learning, encouraging students to reflect on their learning, moving theories beyond the qualification, with transferable skills developed (some clearly related to research e.g. methods, others more generic e.g. time management).

Margot Pearson, considering generic programmes, suggests common themes:

In a differentiating system, how the components of a particular doctoral programme are constructed in a specific setting will vary significantly. The questions as to “curriculum, method, teacher/student interaction, and educational environment” could be reframed as key questions for achieving high-quality programmes, such as: How does the programme –


·       provide access to resources (and expertise) essential to conduct high-quality research?

·       give students flexibility/choice of learning and research conditions within a negotiated structure?

·       ensure adequate supervision for administrative matters and for intellectual leadership, and identify who is responsible for what?

·       ensure students engage with practising researchers and are in conversation with a community of peers/experts/others?

·       be responsive to students’ career goals and the opportunities and demands of relevant employment markets?


These questions can not be usefully or effectively addressed by generic institutional-level policy formulations, or by individual supervisors alone. They require an integrated approach to curriculum design for particular conditions and purposes. (Pearson, 1999, p.282)

Pearson and others argue about the useful role played by RDPs and supervisory guidance within an institutionally conceived framework. They consider the importance of workshops and programmes, supervisory guidance, peer support systems in a framework which itself is reflective of institutional commitment to good practice in support and development for research (in line with the UK Metcalfe Report, 2002) and which helps build a community of practice.

At one level the supervisor may be coaching a student in specific techniques. However, that is not sufficient for passing on expertise and the ability to address new problems and situations. Students may, especially if left unsupervised, limit their learning to a narrow acquisition of techniques and miss the opportunity to extend their expertise and develop their ability to evaluate their own work, which is central to developing professional judgement. (Pearson & Brew, 2002, p140).

Questioning the somewhat ‘dyadic’ relationships of supervisor and student Pearson and Brew emphasise the importance of learning together with others and surfacing the strategies of research, its articulation.

The theories of metalearning or reflective, owned learning, indicate that it is encouraged by group work and strategies to enable thinking and articulating the processes of the learning and  research, and of its aims, structures  and achievements (Flavell, Wisker et al 2004). Metalearning leads to transfer of learning strategies to new situations and problems. Some research development programme or reading group, seminar series etc activities operate to these effects by encouraging sharing with others the kinds of problematising and conceptualising approaches and skills which could encourage effective habits of research. The include question formulation;  identifying the appropriate approaches and methods to ask the questions, thinking creatively about the research question; approaches and expression, all of which are useful beyond the PhD itself. Like the strategies of metalearning, they change  the cast of mind and processes permanently. They can be developed very usefully in a research group, but such a group is more likely  to take place naturally (because of the nature of the conduct of research) in the sciences or social sciences, and perhaps needs to be  encouraged within research  development programmes,  or English reading groups (or some similar structure). 

Pearson and Brew suggest:

The responsibility of the supervisor is to ensure that more than technique is learnt. To do this, the student needs to learn not only current practice but how to address the problematic and the unknown. Schön refers to this as ‘an art of problem framing, an art of implementation, and an art of improvisation’ (Schön, 1987, p. 13). In his approach, the student learns through doing and through critical reflection on that experience in conversation with experts, who can draw on their extended repertoire of skills and strategies. Similarly, in Collins et al.’s cognitive apprenticeship model, modelling, coaching and scaffolding are located within the context of students being encouraged to externalise their learning processes so that they can gain conscious access to and control of their own problem-solving strategies by articulating and reflecting on their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving processes and by exploring new avenues of interest to themselves. (Pearson, & Brew, 2002, p140).

The English PhD group at APU produced both an initial resistance to generic research development training because of this focus on meta-language, and an eventual acceptance that a discipline specific interpretation and utilisation of what it seeks to structure, discover and express, can be developed.  Sessions on defining research questions, on conceptual frameworks and on working towards the defence in a viva have worked well with this subject specific group because they can interpret these terms as stages in their own work. For social scientists, it’s rather like the Pompidou centre in Paris. The pipes and workings are on the outside, visibly expressed from the start.  Literature, performance and some humanities students, need to make the implicit somewhat explicit, to be encouraged to identify their conceptual and theoretical underpinning and the appropriateness of the methods they have chosen or they might neither be conscious of these aspects of their work and how they could use them again / differently, nor able to articulate this in a viva.

Changing RDPS to enable and reflect skills necessary for English PhDs and graduate outcomes

We have looked (above) at some of the issues regarding research development programme clashes between social science structures practices and expression, between professionalisation, transferable or subject specific skills and both the future careers and self image of English PhDs and post docs. Discussion about RDPs and skills can be enhanced and clarified by work carried out on the kinds of skills expected of an English PhD. These skills could then form part of any RDP for English PhD students alongside what I would argue was equally important, the development, as explored above, of metalearning and the metalanguage of research processes and their articulation in the thesis and viva.

Research methods and skills in English

Sadie Williams found widespread agreement about the existence of a set of common research methods and skills at postgraduate level in English but noted that while all universities were considered capable of providing adequate research methods courses to support the development of these skills, range and quality varied, the awareness, training and use of vocabulary or metalanguage of these skills varied  and so did the skill set depending on the nature of the research in English :

its actual content varies depending on the application to different topics, particular libraries, historical periods, sources of information, databases, and theoretical approaches. (Williams, 2003,p.5)

Research seminars with work in progress sessions and some invited speakers were a popular and effective practice.

When staff were asked about what might be included in a common core for research development, consensus related to  presentation skills and the checking of scholarly sources while other skills were felt to be more topic specific. The list of possible elements for an English RDP included:

·     Resources: how to find things, where sources are

·     Databases: electronic information retrieval, tools for searches, electronic bibliographies, how to deal with a bibliographic database

·     Presentation: referencing, how to put together a footnote, use of style book (MLA or MHRA)

·     Bibliographies: how to prepare a bibliography, how to take notes

·     Nature of the book: history of the book, forgery, corruption, choice and status of editions

·     Nature of text: theory of the text, literary and linguistic styles, historical overview of what constitutes literature

·     Archival skills: how to use archives, how to use computer archives

·     Libraries: how to use libraries, where to find journals and which are the most useful

·        A language

·        Interview skills (for work with living authors)

However, these things would need to be customised to individual institutions and individual students. (Williams, 2003, p.18)

Staff interviewed by Williams and others felt some research techniques were developed on Masters courses, many were best learned through observation, mostly

undertaken during supervisions, although supervisors would ‘signpost’ specialised library or information source help.

Students were also asked about what should be included in a common core. And they indicated the following:

·        How to write a bibliography

·        How to cite work

·        Sources of material

·        Library searching

·        Internet Searching

·        Electronic database searching

·        Consistency of style: MHRA, MLA

·        Footnotes

Some common skills could only be taught through dissertation work:

·        How to select appropriate theory

·        Analysis skills

·        Writing skills – moving from shorter pieces to longer dissertation

·        The balance between primary And secondary sources

·        Tracking down visual material

·        Where to find relevant non-academic archives for your topic

·        Ability to deal with different methodologies and theory

·        How to access relevant MSS 

Research skills in English are often very specific and practical and need to be learnt ‘on the job’. (Sadie Williams 2003, p.21)

These are really useful lists. To them, I would argue, can be added developmental discussions and opportunities which enable students to develop the metalanguage of research in which to articulate their aims, processes, the expression of their arguments, claims, evidencing, conceptual conclusions  and achievements, so I will concentrate more on these .

Some thoughts on theorising, conceptualising, articulating  and shaping the research and thesis

What would my theoretical perspectives, methodologyand conceptual conclusions be ?(I dont think this is relevant to what I am writing).

Questions which have arisen from English PhD students. My own (last night) included, range around the following: Do we really need the separate literature review or theoretical perspectives chapter? Don't we put all we need about context and theory first in the introduction then the theories and theorists emerge as the thesis develops? How might this appear in an English thesis?

According to Andresen the purposes of a literature review or theoretical perspectives chapter/part of a chapter are:

·        becoming familiar with the conversation in the subject area of interest

·        identifying an appropriate research question

·        ascertaining the nature of previous research and issues surrounding the research question

·        finding evidence in the academic discourse to establish a need for the proposed research

·        keeping abreast of ongoing work in the area of interest (Andresen, 1997, p.48 pt.3)

An essential part of planning a student’s research, it helps them develop their own line of thought, keep abreast of developments in their subject and field, and to get in touch with others working in the same field. Examiners looking for how far a thesis contributes to knowledge in the field will concentrate on the literature review or theoretical perspectives chapter in the first instance then seek to find theories, theorists and arguments woven throughout, finally tied up with the conceptual conclusions in the conclusions chapter. Being able to develop a critical hierarchy of works read and used, of key theories, or themes, more peripheral theories, themes and arguments is an important task for students, whose work needs to be focused and coherent.

Finding the information and the arguments is one activity, involving them in a dialogue with the student’s own work is an issue involving reading skills, skills for analysis as well as summary, and an ability to engage in a discussion, argument, debate with confidence. Some social science research papers tend to just list theorists and those who have published previously on the topic, indicating a wealth of reading and knowledge but not always involving the ideas in debate or debate with the student’s own work This is akin to English students' propensity to paraphrase quantities of expert criticism, rather than engage with the different perspectives and arguments, building a case based on evidence and argument. Each springs from a mixture of laziness and lack of confidence - it is easier to indicate you have read in the field when you have not, or that is all you have done. It is more complex, conceptually challenging and useful to engage your own work in a dialogue with that of others.

Literature reviews or theoretical perspectives are an informing element establishing the underpinning theories, approaches and informing theorists, in a dialogue with each other and with the research questions and work of the student. Think again of  George Eliot’s Casaubon, who ignored at his peril the German writers because they might disagree with his work. Its construction over time enables the student to formulate their theoretical base, to determine what approaches really underpin their work. It would be likely to involve discussion about the methods of critical approaches derived from, for example, postcolonial theorists, feminist theorists, structuralists, deconstructionists, etc. whose work is being used to ask questions. For example, a literature thesis looking at the ways elements of texts engage with their context might well be using key theorists such as Foucault, Bakhtin, Said and establishing, for instance, Marxist historicist or postcolonial ways of reading, and critical analysis. The ways the texts (the subject of the study) will be read, debated, are, then, informed and indicated by the theorists themselves throughout. Their arguments would be established in an introduction incorporating the theoretical perspectives, and interacting throughout the whole thesis.

As an external and internal examiner common flaws I have seen in English PhD theses often emerge in the lack of theoretical perspectives and underpinning, where there is no gradual development of the theory, gradual exploration of reading and critical responses informed by the theorists. Some of my own thoughts about such relatively unstructured work then emerged as questions: ' where is this research and thesis coming from?’ it is  rather archival, too descriptive perhaps, assumes that all readers approach from the same theoretical perspectives so they don’t need to be made explicit (and then could be misunderstood, disagreed with, the subject for some destructive, descriptive arguments in the viva, some dangerous misreading and arguments).  Discussions with the English PhD reading group at APU and with my own PhD students suggests that English students can benefit from such clearly defined processes and practices, making explicit throughout the theoretical approaches and practices underpinning their work. If they are writing a thesis which involves some element of creativity: a poem sequence, some personal testimony, storytelling and narrative practices as well as critical practices, for instance, they will also need to define and explain the theoretical  perspectives and practices which underpin these processes and conceptualisations of knowledge construction.

On an RDP or in supervisions, students can be asked to critique a key essay in their specific subject in order to identify he dialogue with other theorists, (or lack of it) and use it as a model for their own work. They  might be asked to compare the ways in which two essays in their field deal with prior work in the subject and with the underpinning informing arguments of theorists and critics, exploring how they do or do not seem to move beyond lists and summaries and engage in dialogue between the experts, in so doing appropriately and selectively utilising evidence from the texts both critical and literary to evidence rather than merely illustrate their arguments. They could look at how writers establish credibility in their reading in the field through referencing and selective quotation, how they use conventions such as value laden adverbs and adjectives to indicate their position in a critical argument, how they indicate their contribution then move into whatever version they produce of working with theory, textual analysis, critical practice in action, and the voice they use to do so- first person? Very distant?

They might be asked to clearly articulate (orally) the textual perspectives they are working from, such as (I) the way in which Marxist historicist theory is integrated with feminist theory and text\analysis in a study of 'Thomas Hardy’s dysfunctional families' clarifying how Hardy's dysfunctional families in particular function as indicators of changes in society. Or, (II) having found that there is a tendency for gay male writing since Stonewall to lean towards assimilation or radicalism, to construct this continuum or tension using versions of queer theory and cultural theory, ensuring that this theorised understanding and version of texts over a particular period  is expressed both diachronically (there is a historically contextualised version of development where some choices are made at different points in time in relating perhaps to historical and legal events and changes ) and synchronically (some of the same themes and expressions are evident throughout the historical periods considered).

Methods and methodology

Some of our research students have been irritated by the sessions on methodology and methods, and on the social science insistence on a methodology/methods /research design chapter. A methodology etc chapter as such would rarely be needed, unless the English PhD student is mixing research methods, e.g. by using interviews as well as textual analysis. However, as with the theoretical perspectives element, the introduction or part  of a second chapter should clarify exactly what kinds of methods have been used and why. A reader does not want to be confused about, for example, an archival project where the research was based in foraging, personal or other links, establishing the writer in their context and in terms of their contribution, for instance, expecting it perhaps to undertake structuralist or linguistically based critical analysis. They do not want to be confused about a thesis which mixes different disciplines in order to undertake both close critical reading and an exploration and  recognition of the ways in which another medium of expression (in this case popular culturally based music) underpins and influences the nature and expression of the project of the   research and thesis

Writing conventions and development

All the literature on thesis or dissertation writing indicates that students need to be encouraged to start writing early and to learn the conventions of their disciplines in terms of how they write, what they write, the language they use and even the shape of the thesis/dissertation(Murray, 2002, Dunleavy, 2003). In the EdD or PrD the development of the thesis is structured naturally and incrementally around a number of writing tasks building up into the final thesis or report. In PhDs, often students are expected to produce a progress report, confirmation of candidature or other such work in progress which encourages them to write a well structured, clearly organised and expressed piece. Rowena Murray (2002 p12) notes  that each subject area represents a distinct ‘discourse community’ so each thesis sits not just within the distinct discourse community of the discipline but, also, a smaller, no less complex, sub-set of that disciplinary discourse, their specialist area. I should like to go further. Many students are combining across discipline discourses.  Often postgraduate study is multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary and in that resides some of the originality. Students need to learn their way into the epistemology and discourse of their version of the discipline(s), in which their work sits. They also need to learn the meta-discourse of research and thesis writing itself; discourse foregrounding the journey of the research, the structural principles upon which it and the final thesis are based: conceptual frameworks; mapping; ‘design of the study’; theoretical perspectives; choices and defences of decisions made during the research, explanations of the writer’s own context and that of the topic. These areas of writing explain choices made and directions taken in the research. They also explain decisions made about methods and structure. In educational and social science research, students weave their way round a variety of established terms by which they can identify their methodology and methods.  These include: inductive and deductive, triangulation, validity and reliability.  These specific terms frame and focus the work, yet they are not likely to be words used by either a scientist or a literature researcher, where for the latter the actual process of research, the critical practice and the framing of questions, methods, decisions made about approach are quite likely to be assumed, taken for granted, certainly not foregrounded in a meta-language.  Of course, in literary, other humanities and performance arts, students might claim they have no need to be as ‘jargon ridden’ as their social science colleagues, but actually they too ask research questions, develop theoretical perspectives, research design and methods,   conceptual frameworks and need to make these evident to a reader to situate what their research, their arguments are, ensuring they really focus and clarify the critical approaches taken. Perhaps the bones of the skeleton supporting the research, the methods ,will be less of a topic, but some revelation of choices and approaches, conceptual frameworks, actually helps establish the direction, shape and significance of the research and its expression in all dissertations or theses and so should be encouraged.

Reading, thinking and asking questions

One way of encouraging critical and conceptual work, analytical rather than descriptive and factual, is to set up good reading practices and supervisor / student interactions which draw on these to develop thinking and writing. Delamont et al mention three kinds of reading needed for carrying out research. We can develop their suggestions, indicating levels of response and conceptualisation which students employ in their work.. 'For arts and social science students there are three types of reading to be done: reading on the topic, contrastive reading and analytical reading' (1997, p57) They offer worked examples of three kinds of reading. Student thinking also needs to be at three levels, which encourages reading, involving students in their area, their work. Giving selective feedback should better enable engagement at the more than descriptive but also conceptual, critical and analytical levels.  What should follow is the development of expression, conceptual, critical  and coherent argument. 

Developmental feedback could ask students to turn topics into questions, to be critical, analytical and to theorise.

Undertaking the literature dissertation

Let us consider some of the stages of work and interaction between student and supervisor as the literature student undertakes their dissertation or thesis.

The literature dissertation/thesis involves development of the question and conceptual framework – leading to the ‘Theoretical Perspectives’ chapter.


‘I want to look at Contemporary British and American writers who write rather like Virginia Woolf – I’m interested in the way they deal with the construction and representation of the self (‘I’) and how this self relates to the world (and I wonder whether writers have to be using realism to explore and express this engagement).


This is a bit vague!

[Thinks: Must help her refine it into a question – but meanwhile discuss/suggest student reads widely in a range of critical and literary issues both to refine the question and find the areas in which to read.]


Questions to direct students’ reading and theorising:

1.         Authors – who do you think you will use for this? Who fits into these ideas for             you?

2.         What are the theories or concepts which can help you structure your ideas and             reading?

This will take you to theorists – I suggest:

·        some on the self or ‘I’ or subjectivity and its construction and representation (e.g. Erving Goffman)

·        some on postmodernism because this is the theoretical framework with which such questions are asked and answered now. Have a look too at philosophers e.g. existentialists, phenomenologists (Sartre, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty)

 This will also take you to critics:

 ·        Who else is looking at the self and at engagement with the world?

·        What are their critical views about the ways literary texts can ask and answer or deal with issues about the self in relation to the world and engagement – and why we might we all be interested in this?


This is an early stage – setting the student off to read, think about what (in social science terms) would be discussed as their sample from the field (authors and particular texts) and then the theories – self, being, engagement etc and the critical arguments using such theories on texts which they will find in different literary critics. They are asked to inform their reading with the kinds of theories and arguments emerging from the theorists and critics – so their own ideas and work starts to enter a dialogue with these critics and theorists.


The methodology is inductive – they are doing fieldwork – they develop an active involvement with applying the theories to their sample, their chosen reading, as they start and continue to clarify the ways the theories and critical debates intersect with and help inform or interpret the texts. Some of these theories, critics and texts will be absolutely central as the argument thesis / dissertation develops. Others will turn out to be peripheral – not central to the emerging argument. This is a stage where boundaries begin to be further designed.


Methods will need to be clarified too. Literature students often state methods as reading and textual analysis. Fine. They are also probably, and more specifically:

·  determining how the formal elements of the text function to entertain, engage with issues and arguments in life and the world, engage with the times, culture, context, ideas of the time and use representational strategies to do this i.e. – imagery, symbolism, metaphor at the level of expression and structural links (networks of these relate to meaning and arguments), character, event, action, setting, time, and so on who stands for what kind of part of the author’s argument and exploration/articulation of ideas

What events, actions, storyline etc act or try out some of these ideas:

·  how do the structural elements of e.g. time, narrative, point of view also enable texts to ask questions, suggest things could be otherwise, cause readers to reflect on, try out new perspectives and perceptions?

·  students are developing elements of their critical text to represent, argue, engage, ask questions. This is at a different level to following and becoming immersed in a storyline or narrative (also necessary) and involves close reading with a constant oscillation between the literary text and theories, critics, to see how the theories and the critics can enlighten, inform, enhance, problematise our reading of the text.

Noting that:

·  records of events, symbols, characters etc are some of the examples of data the student will take from the text to exemplify their argument developed, informed and guided by the theorists and critics 

·  actual words and phrases are also data

·  extracts from the theorists and critics are used to inform and engage with the dialogue between student, interpretation and argument, theories, critical views and the text.

Discussion, theory building, interpretation and dialogue with critics, theorists inform close reading and the developing argument while some text analysis of other cultural and historical texts – historical documents, cultural artefacts, even images or music, might also form part of this carefully woven set of strands ie– student argument, theorists and theories, views from critics, elements of primary texts and secondary texts.

These methods, need to be defined at some place in the dissertation or thesis. Seeing quotations as data helps students to realise they need to develop their argument. The data is evidence of what they argue about, from the source, in their sample, in this case authors’ texts. Just like a social scientist or scientist, they won’t need to include all their data, and their selection of a critical dialogue with it shows their awareness of how their question is being asked and answered, as opposed to just proving they can read, and copy out large chunks. For scientists and social scientists, this equates to being able to process the data, select and argue with it as evidence as opposed to just delivering it up in a totally raw lump for the reader to try and analyse, which would  indicate difficulty on the part of the student in seeing how   then selecting and arguing what they have discovered (data) actually translates into something related to their question i.e. findings.

Main body of the text


Chapters in the English thesis are likely to follow themes, arguments, historical or cultural differences and developments perhaps in an  interlocked fashion. They probably involve a set of arguments which the student would need to:

·  express as arguments

·  get involved with and find evidence to argue a case

·  also get involved with in terms of historical and cultural change and development of ideas


By the time they have several chapters explaining and arguing their way through this, they reach their conclusions. Here their conceptual framework is evident as are their theorists, critics and own ideas. Their factual conclusions will lead directly from the variety of ideas and forms of expression found in chosen texts used as evidence, while conceptual conclusions will provide a new contribution to understanding and arguments.

Students should ensure that the conclusions chapter is neither too long and rambling, summarising the dissertation / thesis, nor too short (saying nothing). It should wind up the conceptual findings , answer the research questions as far as possible, make a clear contribution to meaning and also use ‘The opportunity to leave your readers with a positive impression of the merit of your thesis as an exemplar of doctoral writing and doctoral reason’ (Vernon Trafford ‘Thinking about the Conclusions Chapter in doctoral theses, 2003). Commitment to and enthusiasm for the research should shine through.

Some thoughts on preparing for examinations and vivas in English.

‘I’m not worried about the viva – it’s the thesis that counts and it should stand on its own merits – the viva is just a chance to talk about it.

There is still relatively little research into the PhD examination process and the viva.  In the UK Hartley, Fox and Jory, Trafford and Leshem, in Australia Holbrook et al, Kiley and Mullins have published research findings indicating their examiner reports often focus on presentational issues as much as on conceptual and intellectual issues and these can sway a pass/resubmit/fail decision. Kiley and Mullins find examiners attend the examination process (in Australia there is no viva) prepared to pass the thesis could be swayed by presentational errors.  In the UK this would be augmented by performance in the viva.

Terry Lovat (2002) found that examiners tend to express their views in reports which are empirical and analytical about the PhD text, rarely also using self-reflective analysis so sometimes it was difficult to access the real contribution to new knowledge and worth of the PhD. Examiner staff development might improve examiner practice and demystify some of this practice, leading to a clearer sense of

(1) what’s  expected in a good passable PhD

(2) in the UK context, what kinds of questioning could emerge and what the generic questions are likely to be in the viva

(3) how to deconstruct the examiner report to improve the final thesis post exam or viva.

What skills and knowledge have to be present for a candidate to pass outright, and how consistently are such criteria applied?  How do examiners translate the concepts of ‘originality, significance and contribution’ into practice? (Holbrook, A. and Bourke, S. ‘PhD assessment: Design of the study, qualities of examiner reports and candidature information’ Paper presented at AERA Conference New Orleans 1-5 April 2002 p. 6)


a template composed of ‘assessment criteria that are used by examiner’ may assist candidates in the design of research proposals and the presentation of their doctoral theses. It can also provide a framework in which candidates and their supervisors can discuss issues ‘in which both have a common interest’ (Delamont, Parry and Atkinson, 1998). Such a template should not be seen as a ‘do-it-yourself’ kit, but rather a contribution to demystifying the doctoral process’ (Burnham, 1994). (Trafford, V. and Leshem, S. 2002, ‘Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: predictable questions as stepping stone as stepping stone’ in higher Education Review¸ Vol 35, No 1, 2002, 31–49)

Vivas and mock vivas

 Much of the literature on undertaking the viva is anecdotal (Denicolo, Boulter and Fuller, 2000; Morley, Leonard and David, 2002). Other work is in the form of tips or advice to students (e.g. Leonard, 2001; Murray, 2003). Although some data-based studies are beginning to emerge (Egglestone and Delamont, 1983; Hartley and Jory, 2000; Jackson and Tinkler, 2001; Tinkler and Jackson, 2000; Trafford and Leshem, 2002) none specifically focus on the English PhD viva. There is advice on the mock viva (e.g. Delamont et al, 1997; Murray, 2003; Tinkler and Jackson, 2003, Hartley and Fox, 2003).

What follows is a basic list of question areas which I have developed with Peter Hartley of Bradford University from research into the viva and our own experience. They form the basis for a CD ROM Interviewer: Postgraduate Viva (2004, for fuller detail of the text see Wisker, 2005, The Good Supervisor, Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan), which is interactive, enabling students to undertake and playback a mock viva for themselves. Each question is followed by hints and tips on answering it and some examiner thoughts about what they are looking for.

It is very generic and would need to be adapted in terms of the specific issues and concerns of each English thesis but it has so far (with 10–12 PhD students) proved useful, encouraging the development of the metalanguage of postgraduate research, and building confidence in articulating responses to generic questions, key issues which we have been discussing throughout this essay.

Postgraduate viva questions 

Choosing your topic 

1.         Tell me how your research area and topic and your research career have developed.

2.         What made you choose this research?

3.         What was your research question?

4.         What attracted you to work in this context?

5.         If you were starting again today, would you change your research question in any way?

Concepts and theories 

6.         Could you explain briefly your conceptual framework?

7.         What are the main theories you have chosen to underpin your work?

8.         Why did you choose these main theories?

9.         Did you consider other theories or approaches?

10.       In retrospect, are there any other theories or approaches you could have considered?

Your research methodology 

11.       What methodologies and research methods did you select and why?

12.       Why did you not select other methodologies / methods?

13.       How did you gain access to your sample(s)?

14.       In retrospect, are there any other theories, approaches or research methods you could have considered?

15.       What is the most important thing you have learned about research methodology from doing this work?

How the research progressed 

16.       What stages did your research go through?

17.       Were there any particularly problematic moments that caused difficulties? How did you overcome these?

18.       Did you need to make any changes to your methods when you were designing or carrying out your research? Why and how?

19.       Did you have any particularly revelatory or surprise moments? What did you do?

20.       If you were given the opportunity to start again, would you do anything differently?

Your research results

21.       How did you analyse your data?

22.       Why did you choose this form of analysis?

23.       What were your main findings?

24.       How do these findings relate to your previous work in this field?

25.       What is the most important implication of these findings?

The importance of your work

26.       How would you justify your work as being at the level of a PhD?

27.       How do you feel your work fills a gap in knowledge?

28.       Why does your work matter?

29.       Are you going to take this work any further?

30.       Would you suggest any further work for other future researchers?

The way the CD Rom operates could be a useful basis for a mock viva for a supervisor, or peer and student, or lone student preparation.

·        Ask the question

·        The student answers

·        Then run through hints, tips and examiners’ views and reflect on the quality of the student’s response and how this can be improved.

Some thoughts on reasons for undertaking the PhD, graduate skills and employability

‘I am not doing this PhD for a job, it’s not professional training. I am doing it because I am fascinated by the writers, so I don’t see why I should be put through this – most of it is irrelevant to the way I am researching and writing anyway.’

I don’t underestimate the many miseries of postgraduate studies or the need for first-rate supervision, primarily in intellectual terms but also as part of a mentoring process. Like every other supervisor I know, I spend a lot of time writing references, helping with funding applications, making sure postgraduates get to the right conferences, and responding to tales of woe. But there is a big difference between smoothing the path to knowledge, and managing students’ ideas; between giving professional advice, and seeing the doctorate as merely part of the training of a professional group. (Newman, J. 2001. ‘The Shape of Graduate Studies in English’ in Issues in English: Doctor! Doctor! Doctoral Studies in English in Twenty-first Century Britain. 1, pp. 15-24 [16-17])

Cryer (1997) suggests doctoral students should recognise that generic, postgraduate skills developed during their study could equip them for employment in a variety of contexts, while Francis (1997 p.18) and Leonard (2002 p.59) point out that personal expectations are more likely to be achieved than are career expectations.

 a self forged through tackling the difficulties of research, especially when stress from other sources is high, is a new self. So is the self that overcomes the doubts about ability to do the work’ (Francis 1997: 18).

Careers and skills

Considering career prospects in relation to skill development,  Nerad and Cerny (1999) argue that graduate students in English need to look beyond an academic English career and to consider administrative  posts in an academic or Business-Government-Non-Profit sector.

Those who had turned to this sector later rather than sooner “reported good salaries and overall job satisfaction”. They probably wished that that had been their first objective… They appropriately argue the value of the PhD, even or especially in English, for many types of career in writing/editing or general management. But one has to wonder whether the PhD is the best preparation for such careers, especially when the PhD in English takes so long and costs so much. (Patterson, A. 2001 ‘Overproduction’ in Issues in English: Doctor! Doctor! Doctoral Studies in English in Twenty-first Century Britain. 1, pp. 5-13 [12-13])

Patterson looks at the problems of drowning the market with postgraduates, in a kind of ‘gradual academic drift’ which involves more and more people needing undergraduate and then postgraduate qualifications (whether relevant or not) in order to gain any kind of employment. However they also note that, graduates of all levels need to recognise the value of the skills they have developed and their transferability into work.

By professionalization, these ex-graduate students referred not only to being taught how to publish and acquire professional visibility, but to learning teamwork, collaboration and organizational and managerial skills, all of which they subsequently needed, whether inside or outside the teaching profession.

(Patterson, A. 2001 ‘Overproduction’ in Issues in English: Doctor! Doctor! Doctoral Studies in English in Twenty-first Century Britain. 1, pp. 5-13 [12-13])

Towards the end of “From Rumors to Facts,” Nerad and Cerny (1999) cite the answers to some open-ended questions about the perceived value of doctoral programs to those who emerge from them:

In general, English PhDs were highly critical of their doctoral programs for failing to adequately professionalize students and for not supporting them in the difficult job search. … The most common piece of advice was that programs be downsized  (Nerad & Cerny, 1999, ‘From Rumors to Facts’ Communicator Vol XXXII,no 7)

Contribution to developing knowledge in disciplines is a very important product of research doctorates as it is of any piece of research at postgraduate or undergraduate level. Students should be encouraged to continue with research if this has been something they both enjoy and for which they seem to be developing/have developed the skills. They also need the opportunities to identify the kinds of skills which have developed during the course of their research, since many of these are directly transferable into paid work and the achievement of others suggests to themselves and employers their ability to undertake a whole variety of projects and roles. Identification of transferable graduate and postgraduate research related skills also enhances self esteem as well as opportunities on the job market.  One of the first things students should consider doing is publishing.  For PhD students, publishing should be art of their ongoing research process even before they complete.

Newman and Patterson deal realistically, perhaps cynically, certainly philosophically with issues about the focus, usefulness and outcomes of the research process.  Students should be enabled to reflect on the skills they have developed as result of research, to recognise these, use them in future employment and also to enhance their quality of life.  Publications, a good CV, a personal or professional portfolio can all help students explore and evidence other achievements than the postgraduate qualification in itself, and as supervisors, we should play a part in the recognition and evidencing.

Purpose of the PhD

Sadie Williams(2003) invited staff and students to discuss the purpose of the PhD. People were divided in their opinions. Some (40%) saw the traditional aim, the contribution to knowledge, as still paramount. More than half however thought that preparation for an academic career was at least as or more important (56%). A number also mentioned personal development or satisfaction as an important subsidiary aim. Often it was undertaken as a kind of academic apprenticeship, or to mature socially and personally,

The PhD was seen to develop a range of useful skills which were relevant to the need of the economy.

There is no tension. If you can do PhD research properly, you can transfer it to other matters. You are surprised by your skills. Jobs in the knowledge economy… The person who will tackle one sort of problem can tackle other problems. (p.31)

As the needs of the economy are changing, English is becoming more not less relevant because it enables postgraduates to become skilled in problem identification, problem solving ,project management and articulation. However, staff were very concerned at the dearth of  academic jobs. Students who did not enter academic life went into a wide variety of careers including teaching, the media, sports management, creative thinking jobs.

Students rated personal achievement or fulfilment as much more important than staff did. Overall, 41% saw the main purpose of the PhD as being preparation for an academic career, 24% saw the contribution to knowledge as the main purpose, while for a further 27% personal fulfilment and a sense of achievement were the most important.(P.35)It was seen as something that would be very useful for students and would help them know how to present themselves to employers.

Some of the things students felt a PhD skills profile should include were:

·                    Time management

·                    Resource management

·                    Organisational skills

·                    Critical and analytical skills

·                    Information technology

·                    Project management 

·                    Attention to detail

·                    Meeting deadlines  (p.41)


Completing the PhD successfully is long term project involving students, supervisors, institutions and the academic community in ongoing developmental work.   Students are engaged in conceptualisation of the research, processes of research in action, strategies of research as a form of learning, and the tenacity, structuring and presentational capabilities which lead in the last analysis to a well presented, well articulated, well conceptualised and structured piece of significant research making a contribution to knowledge and conceptualisation in the field, at the appropriate level. In this a great part is played by the supervisor. An equally great part is played by the academic community of practice of which research development programmes form a formal part, and student peer support mechanisms including reading groups etc, a less formal perhaps more personal support and development mechanism.

The English PhD equips students for jobs in a variety of professions, and can enhance self esteem and confidence. While there is  a common skill set for English PhDs, there are also a variety of skills developed specific to the unique kind of problem , question, ‘take’ in English whether  creative, archival, theoretical, critically practical or a mix, even multidisciplinary. The result in economic terms is an extremely employable person, articulate, able to project-manage, marshal an argument, present ideas, work with large amounts of data, write reports, think critically and organise information, and having high level information technology skills. Academic jobs are becoming harder to find, but this research suggest that PhD students are very employable in the wider world and are likely to become more so in an increasingly 'knowledge-based economy'


Works Cited

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