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What does it mean to become a Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidate? One important shift that will occur, once your candidature has been approved, is that you will be seen, and should see yourself, not only as a student, but as a prospective contributor to a discipline community.
The completion of a higher degree by research indicates that you have been able to make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge within an academic discipline. To do this you will need to acknowledge the contribution of other researchers who have developed the body of accumulated knowledge in your chosen field, but you will also need to take a small step beyond, to the creation of new knowledge.
Bear in mind that research is not just about searching. Producing research involves writing yourself into a discussion, within your discipline, which stretches down the ages and across language and national boundaries. Thus the product on which you are 'examined' is usually (though not always) a thesis, a document which follows a traditional format and writing structure.
I made the mistake of leaving the 'writing up' to the end and allowed only two or three months for writing. Not likely! I found it takes a lot more time than that.
Writing is central to research study. It is also a process, not a last minute performance, so it's a good idea to begin early, keeping the end in mind. Look at possible thesis structures and start writing, so that the stages of your research can be reflected in the thesis.
You will find that a thesis often contains standard sections:
Thinking about what you might write under these headings can help you to frame your research as well as to clarify the nature of your study.
If you develop these headings into a research proposal you can then turn that into a realistic project plan.
To be a successful research student you need to appreciate learning from others in the research community, but you also need to be an independent learner, and manage your learning for yourself.
One of the aspects of doing a degree by research, as opposed to a degree by coursework, is that the learning is not pre-defined. It will largely be up to you to identify your needs and develop your skills in a timely manner.
Depending on your needs, you may find it useful to attend research induction courses and seminars, or seminars on intellectual property, ethics and qualitative and quantitative approaches to research. Often you won't find out what's on offer unless you ask around. Your supervisor may be able to put you in touch with others who might be able to help.
Start by checking the seminars and workshops section of the Study Skills website for small group sessions for HDR students.
I needed to give myself flexibility in terms of both ideas and time. In terms of ideas, this was a difficult process as it leaves you at a loose end in the early stages of your research, but it does enable you to ultimately find the most productive area for your research.
There is one obvious way in which research differs from coursework: what is to be learned is not known, and cannot be mapped out ahead of time. You need to find your place both literally and metaphorically. A 'room of your own', or at least a regular time set aside to allow you to immerse yourself in your research, will help you get started in the early stages of the process.
While it is important to have a sense of direction and to plan in order to keep focused, becoming a researcher means living with a sense of intellectual openness and being flexible in terms of changes of direction, of topic, of supervisor, and dealing with the unexpected.
I found I had to familiarise myself with the dominant modes of enquiry in my chosen field. I learnt not to feel chained to convention (and always remain critical), but also trust in the accumulation of academic knowledge and methodology.
You have heard that you need to select a topic which will sustain your interest and continue to feed your own enthusiasm. But a passionate interest in a topic and a willingness to work hard are not enough. More importantly, you also need to ensure that the focus for your research is part of the ongoing discussion about knowledge as it is framed in your discipline.
This is the reason the research 'examination' takes the form of a written dissertation or 'thesis' in which you put forward your contribution to knowledge in the discipline. The 'examiners' are usually members of the disciplinary field at other universities, with expertise in your field, and so their acceptance of your thesis is an indication that you have been accepted into a community of scholars. Thus you need to become aware of the way your discipline frames knowledge, and the methods commonly used to pursue new knowledge. For example, the approach to evidence and proof in the sciences can be quite different from approaches in literary studies. Your supervisor, as a member of the discipline community, is your sounding board and guide.
When I started to write up my thesis I found I relied more on the writing style I had developed in my undergraduate degree in my own country than my postgraduate studies in a new discipline. At first I found it discouraging when my supervisor pulled a lot of material out of my first few drafts. Then I realised that the reason was that it didn't fit with the approach used in the discipline.
If you have recently completed an undergraduate degree in the same discipline, you will have had a formation in the ways in which researchers in your discipline frame knowledge, but if your topic crosses disciplines, you may find that you need to question your assumptions and make your intellectual framework clear.
What is 'the literature' and what does it mean to 'review the literature'? The term refers to the body of research currently available, from recent scholarly articles to well-established texts. Your work on your thesis usually starts with a review of the literature, to establish the body of knowledge available in your discipline which might be relevant to your investigation. This places your enquiry in the context of the academic discussion in the area you have defined.
I was encouraged to be as explicit and as thorough as possible with my literature review. I realised that it functions in two ways. It is evidence that you know the intellectual terrain and also provides a rationale for the value of your investigation.
The literature review surveys what has gone before and defines the starting point for your own investigation. Remember that your research is not expected to establish new knowledge in a vacuum, but to add to existing knowledge, which can mean seeing things anew, as Sir Isaac Newton (1675) is reputed to have said, by 'standing on the shoulders of giants'.
Make it easier for yourself to manage the vast number of references you will consult. Use a bibliographic program (such as EndNote) and take note of the full details of everything you read. It is very time consuming to try to relocate ideas and details you have read when you are writing up. So take meticulous notes, and try to develop a note-taking system that suits your needs.
You also need to develop a filing system for journal articles that helps you access them easily. I used EndNote to help me with this.
The Western notion that new knowledge can be created by the researcher, and therefore becomes their 'intellectual property', is a major reason why the conventions of referencing are so important. Members of a discipline belong to a close intellectual community. Bear in mind that some of the ideas you have used in your thesis may well be those of your examiners, or of their colleagues, so meticulous referencing can help you avoid considerable embarrassment.
The Study Skills resource on Referencing and avoiding plagiarism discusses what you should reference to avoid plagiarism. It includes resources on referencing using the APA, author-date (Harvard) and documentary-note (Oxford) systems as well as guidelines for referencing electronic sources such as articles found in library databases; the resource on summarising, paraphrasing and quoting suggests ways of referring to the work of others in your writing.
It may be useful, when deciding upon the precise referencing format you choose to use in your thesis, to follow that of the journals in which you may later publish your findings. This may be a specific variation of one of the standard styles, so setting up the appropriate referencing style in EndNote may save time later.
Newton, I 1675, 'Letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675' cited in The Columbia world of quotations 1996, Columbia University Press, New York, retrieved 11 March 2005.