PGR Workshop – “What is a PhD?”

I guess today could be the day I actually began my PhD ‘for real.’ I attended my first ‘lecture’ as a full-time student since 1980. It was definitely a lecture rather than a workshop, but no less enlightening for that. Prof. Edward Winter has clearly done this before, even if he’ll not be doing it for much longer, as his transition from F/T employment commences from tomorrow and he becomes an Emeritus Prof.. We were honoured then to be there at the close of a forty year career.

This wasn’t a session to microscopically pick apart the different elements of a PhD, but to consider the big picture; to look at what has gone before, what we are likely to face and how our contribution fits into that universe. A ‘pale blue dot.’

It’s not surprising that there were many nuggets of sound advice, where complex issues were distilled down into pearls of wisdom (if I may be permitted to mix multiple metaphors!). For example; a PhD can simply be considered as “a licence to practise as an independent researcher.” I suspect that’s the law according to Prof Winter, but it nevertheless gets the point across. He also exhorted us (a group of new PhD students from across the range of Faculties) to ‘own’ (my word, not his) our research question – we must be able to state it simply, clearly and unequivocally for whatever the audience … if for no other reason than to avoid looking a fool when Prof Lord Winston (or other) presents us with our certificate at Graduation(?) and asks us that very question. (Does a postgraduate graduate?!) Good research questions, we were reminded, advance knowledge and understanding, change practice and can be answered within the resource envelope. The first two are almost certain to form part of the discussion during the thesis defence, so it’s clear I need to hone the references I made to those two points during my application.

It may be a small thing, but at last I learned a definition of epistemology which made sense – ‘the study of how we acquire knowledge.’ In effect, it’s how we acquire the evidence to be able to make a claim. That just leaves ontology to resolve …

The only aspect which left me somewhat deflated was in the concentration on the scientific method. This was explained clearly, with some good practical examples and a description of why randomised controlled trials is a standard to which we should aspire. That’s all fine, but I was disappointed that we were told, all too briefly, that there are ‘Other Methods’ including qualitative research which could be used if our research question demanded it. It may just have been that time was pressing and the end of the lecture was near, but there were six slides in the presentation given over to the scientific method and only one to ‘other methods.’ What it did do was force me back to my epistemological standpoint; have I made the right choice? A few small tweaks to my research questions and I could approach the whole topic in a more scientific, positivist way; that’s where I spent my entire teaching career. But I don’t think that would be right for this topic. It’s not an intervention where we’re seeking efficacy or efficiency. It’s an investigation of a phenomenon; a sociotechnical or sociomaterial one. I want to find out more about people’s behaviours and attitudes, so until I’m convinced otherwise, I think I’ll stick in the interpretivist paradigm.

It was a good session though; the hour and a half whizzed by. It’s interesting though that I now find myself wearing multiple heads when in formal sessions like this where the teacher/learner demarcation is fairly clear cut. Although the primary reason for my presence is to learn from someone else, I also find myself doubly privileged in that, as a teacher, I have the opportunity to see another professional in action. To view their style, technique and pedagogical approach. An opportunity to develop both content and pedagogical knowledge perhaps?

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