22 SES 08 C, Doctoral Students and their Education
Nuts and bolts are small but essential components of academic text. They provide cohesion between textual elements so that ideas flow and convey their intended meanings. Since examiners read submitted doctoral theses before deciding on their academic merit, the readability and presentation of text will inevitably influence that judgement. Examiners consider that textual quality is compromised if these features are poorly handled.
It can be assumed that candidates and supervisors seek to demonstrate high quality research in theses that are submitted for examiners to read. Errors in thinking, argument or presentation should therefore have been resolved before submitting a thesis. However, examiner reports on theses show that these features are frequently overlooked. Examiners identify such features as errors or omissions which are classified as minor alterations. These must be corrected before examiners recommend that a university awards a pass.
This situation adversely affects the majority of theses submitted for examination in the United Kingdom. Empirical evidence supports 'received wisdom' that between 10% and 12% of doctoral theses gain unconditional passes at the viva. Explanations for why this low percentage happens and how it can be improved exist but are under-reported or unresolved (Trafford, 2014: 70-76).
Practical Nuts and Bolts in Doctoral Theses?
Outside academe the term 'nuts and bolts' traditionally refers to commonly-recognized technical components or organizational functions that:
- hold a structure together;
- ensure the coherence of the whole;
- enable systems to operate effectively;
- are critical links between components of the whole;
- make the interdependency of parts explicit;
- exist as almost unnoticed essentials.
In academe the term captures the function of alterations examiners require candidates to make that are intended to improve the quality of theses through a more unified 'piece', 'whole' or 'structure'. This usually makes explicit the relationships between major research components of theses such as theoretical perspectives, conceptualization, design, methodology, fieldwork, data analysis and conclusions or it corrects errors.
These alterations ensure coherence by enabling text to flow smoothly. The features are 'taken-for-granted' by examiners until they are missing. Their absence raises serious questions about how a thesis was prepared for submission and commitment to scholarship. The motives behind examiners' required alterations are usually to clarify the development of ideas and arguments that a candidate had perhaps wished to convey.
The nuts and bolts are familiar issues for doctoral candidates and supervisors. They include:
- using university higher degree regulations as frameworks to audit text, argument(s) and presentation so that examiners recognize compliance with criteria they are expected to use in judging the merit of theses;
- checking that all items and paginations listed in contents pages correspond with those details when they appear elsewhere in thesis;
- checking that points and fonts are used appropriately and consistently throughout the text;
- constantly helping readers to understand and appreciate why and how the research was undertaken;
- providing short introductions to chapters with summaries that link to following chapters;
- including nearby textual explanations for every diagram, figure, photograph, table etc.;
- ensuring that the citing and listing of sources complies with required protocols;
- cross-checking that every source in the text is shown alphabetically in the reference list;
- undertaking a thorough visual proof-reading and spell-checking ~ more than once.
When these features areapparent in the text of theses then synergy demonstrates that 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' (von Bertalanffy,1969:18). Examiners will therefore recognize and appreciate the quality that is expected of a doctoral thesis rather than spending time working out what the text was intended to mean.
Researching this aspect of the doctoral process is severely limited because only specific individuals may attend vivas and in most universities access to examiners' reports is restricted. This is because, doctoral theses in the United Kingdom are summatively assessed by independent examiners at a viva (Pearce, 2005). Vivas are formal academic events when examiners engage with a candidate through questions and answers regarding the scholarly merit of their submitted thesis (Tinkler and Jackson, 2004; Murray 2015). Examiners prepare independent reports on the thesis before the viva and their joint post-viva report will specify any alterations that are required. These reports are submitted to the awarding/hosting university and are expected to list in detail any alterations that a candidate is required to make to their thesis. Attendance at doctoral vivas is normally restricted to the candidate, either two or three examiners and an independent Chair. Supervisors may attend in a non-participating role with the agreement of the candidate. This situational context obliged me to adopt an inductive rather than a deductive methodological approach to the research in order the develop meanings from the data that was collected. With no hypotheses to test, this enabled me to develop conceptual insights on the processes that occured within doctoral vivas that were consistent with earlier findings (Trafford and Leshem, 2002a). Attending 118 doctoral vivas since 1990 as the internal or external examiner, independent chair or supervisor has enabled me to undertake small-scale (Knight, 2002) insider-based research (Sikes and Potts, 2008) by reading examiners' reports and observing questions being asked and answered. Writing down the questions asked by examiners added to my examiner report documents and provided an accumulating data base for subsequent access and analysis.. The methods of documentary analysis and observation (Newby, 2010; Robson and McCartan, 2015; Bryman, 2016) enabled me to answer the research question: What types of minor alterations do examiners require candidates to make to theses resulting from their viva? It also provided insights on the cluster of questions that examiners assemble to explore the understanding that candidates had of their research (Trafford and Leshem, 2002 b).
Outcomes Evidence shows that minor alterations which examiners require candidates to make are avoidable errors or oversights. Correcting such errors is an easy task but avoiding them initially is even easier. When supervisors and candidates recognize that improving performance depends on reducing errors plus increasing insights on the topic (Klein, 2014) high quality submitted theses follow. Achieving this depends on candidates' understanding of research and displaying episteme by 'thinking like researchers' (Perkins, 2009; Ritchhart, 2015). Thus, doctoral research involves making the interdependence of research components explicit within carefully proof-read text which complies with protocols (Lee, 2012; Taylor and Beasley, 2015) so that examiners recognize, and accept, scholarly merit (Perkins, 2006). My external examinerships in European countries, and beyond, where examiners and candidates do not meet showed that similar minor corrections and alterations were required of candidates. The types of alterations are consistent across disciplines and topics. This research shows that the errors and omissions within submitted theses can be corrected and so become an aggregated gain in academic quality. These academic improvements correspond with the philosophy of aggregating marginal gains which follow from carefully thought-out small step improvements (Syed, 2016: 183-205). Unconditional passes acknowledge that candidates have consciously written their theses for examiners as their primary readers (Trafford and Leshem, 2012: 108-126). Those candidates influence their readers (examiners) through positive writing features that make reading enjoyable rather than a tiresome activity. The candidates have also deliberately avoided errors and ensured that examiners progress through their thesis by including regular textual nudges that facilitate the reading process (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009). However, to do that the nuts and bolts of a doctoral thesis must be tightened before it is submitted for examination in any university or country (Trafford, 2017).
von Bertalanffy, L. 1968. General system theory; foundations, development, applications. New York: Braziller Bryman, A. 2016. Social research methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.5th Edition. Klein, G. 2013. Seeing what others don't. Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Books. Knight, P.T. 2002. Small scale research. London: Sage. Lee, A. 2012. Successful research supervision. Abingdon: Routledge. Murray, R. 2015. How to survive your viva. Maidenhead: McGrawHill-Open University Press. 3rd Edition. Newby, P. 2010. Research methods for education. Harlow: Pearson. Pearce, L. 2005. How to examine a thesis. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press. Perkins, D.L.2006. Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In: Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (eds.) 2006. Overcoming barriers to student understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London: Routledge. Perkins, D. 2009. Making learning whole. San Francisco, CA.:Jossey Bass. Ritchhart, R. 2015. Creating cultures of thinking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. Robson, C. and McCartan, K. 2015. Real world research. Chichester: Wiley. 4th Edition. Sikes, P. and Potts, A. 2008. Researching education from the inside: investigations from within. Abingdon: Routledge. Syed, M. 2016. Black box thinking: marginal gains and the secrets of high performance. London: John Murray. Taylor, S. and Beasley, N. 2005. A handbook for doctoral supervisors. Abingdon: Routledge. Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R. 2009. Nudge. London: Penguin Books. Trafford, V.N. 2014. Improving doctoral research by learning from doctoral vivas / defences. In: Halliday, D. (Ed) International Developments in Doctoral Education and Training. Litchfield: UKCGE. Trafford, V.N. 2017. Shining a light on the nuts and bolts of doctoral theses. Sixth Biennial International Conference on Postgraduate Supervision. Stellenbosch, South Africa. Trafford, V.N. and Leshem, S. 2002a. Anatomy of a doctoral viva. Journal of Graduate Education. 3.33-41. Trafford V.N. and Leshem, S. 2002b. Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research : predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Research. 35.1.31-49. Trafford, V.N. and Leshem, S. 2012. Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate Maidenhead: McGrawHill - Open University Press..
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