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Director of the Doctoral College’s Blog

Thoughts and insight from Dr Benjamin Halligan


20/04/2016  -  3.46

Dr Benjamin Halligan

Last week a few dozen postgraduate researchers, and staff from the Doctoral College, assembled for our first Doctoral College Symposium. Our theme was methodology. Or, more precisely, some aspects of the development, articulation and defence of methodology. The day included two presentations of methodologies from colleagues currently engaged in their PhD research, before and after lunch, and much time was given over to discussion.

I wanted to begin the day by bringing in a wider context for this consideration of methodology, and so looked to the typical organisation of the PhD thesis, and how this maps onto phases of research, from the first few days to the Viva Voce to its aftermath. For this, it’s tempting to talk of the foundations of a house – that the early endeavours on the foundation are absolutely essential, even if the foundation then seems to be unseen, since any flaws in that foundation will be revealed and magnified, perhaps to the extent of causing irreparable damage, as the building of the house progresses. But this analogy, of methodology to foundation, has too much linearity. The rough fact of the matter – talking across all disciplines, and acknowledging how much each discipline can learn from the other in terms of PhD-writing techniques – is that the foundation / methodology is pretty much constantly being dug up, changed, and bedded back down again. No house builder would do that! And there are right ways to do this unearthing (revising a methodology in the light of the results of a pilot study, or test run, for example), and wrong ways too (surreptitiously patching up a methodology in the light of unexpected results, or results that question the thesis, or results that have gaps).  

The methodology is often the first thing to be written and the last thing to be revised. The literature review points to it. The abstract (or even title) identifies it. It is the engine of the field work. It is the generator of the “new knowledge” required. It lends character to the research. It is the basis for the defence of the conclusions drawn from the research. It decides the parameters of the analysis of the field work. It is a point of discussion with supervisors, and with other postgraduates, for the duration of the research. It may live on after your research, if you (or others) continue to apply it to fresh areas of research (in academe, industry, professional practice or elsewhere). And, as I noted in one discussion, the methodology is almost always the first thing that a Vice Voce examiners panel will turn to for a full critical engagement with your work – after a few ice-breaking niceties about how much they enjoyed reading the thesis, or how refreshing this engagement with overlooked subject matter was, or how well presented various diagrams are.

An awful lot then is riding on what is often a limited number of pages. And one of the challenges we collectively encountered was the need to be able to articulate, in a few sentences – and in a few sentences that might make sense to the informed layman – just what each individual’s methodological approach is. The examples given yielded some important things in themselves: those words and phrases that we typically deploy when dealing with abstract or difficult ideas, or that help us to pin down those abstract and difficult ideas. Such a lexicon is useful to all PhD researchers, I thought. And so as I listened, I took note. And here those words and phrases are:

to adopt; explore; monitor; to approach; “in order to”; revealed by; to expand; model; to model; the setting of the study; interrogate, and interrogation; mixed method; quantitative / qualitative; to validate with a case study; evaluation; to create a road map; based on; to create a framework of/for; develop themes; creating a database…; “making a statement into a question”; narrative style; to abstract; utilising; “a study of…”; “with a view to”; to describe; employs the theory of…; the study proposes to use…; emphasis is placed on…; facilitating; to produce a framework; to understand how…


My thanks to those who attended and their contributions.

Words and phrases can be written on the page, but will also need to be said aloud; our next Symposium will consider, among other things, Viva Voce preparedness.