Tag Archives: Postgraduate training

Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

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Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller thesis), or submit an existing set of publications for a PhD by Means of Published Works (“PhD by Publication”).  There are also a couple of Professional Doctorates (“Prof Docs”): Doctor of Professional Practice in Health and Social Care (D Prof Prac) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).  Other subject areas are looking at developing these types of degrees, for example in Education.

Some of the “PhD students” who are registered on these degrees fit the mould of the relatively young academic, fresh from a first degree or a Master’s programme.  But many are older, especially on the Prof Docs (which attracts senior staff from business or the public sector), or might be members of staff at the university who teach and do research in areas where PhDs were not traditionally awarded.  And then there are those who are studying for an MPhil, also a Level 8 research degree.

The University of Northampton is not alone in this regard and over the past 20 years the range of doctorates and other research degrees has broadened enormously.  Those studying for a research degree even within the same Faculty may hardly be aware of one another, and some may be long-standing members of staff rather than “students” per se.  It’s important, therefore, to note that there is no single postgraduate community within an institution.  Rather we must recognise that there are communities of postgraduate researchers.

Not only that, but even those on a “traditional” PhD, who are not members of staff,  interact with the university in ways such as involvement in teaching, staff-style email addresses and security cards, etc., that reflects a status that is beyond “student”.  Members of academic staff who are registered for PhDs might certainly resent the idea of being called a “student”.

So for all of these reasons I’m going to try and stop referring to “PhD students” and instead use the term “Postgraduate Researchers” (PGRs).  Because that’s what they are.

As always, I’m happy to receive your comments and views on this.

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Filed under University of Northampton

What do academics do once the research is published?

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At the University of Northampton we run a programme of generic training workshops aimed at research students (MPhil and PhD) from across all disciplines.  I contribute to several, including one called “Getting Published”, usually run with my colleague Professor Ian Livingstone.  This focuses on academic papers/articles (phraseology varies with subject) and covers all of what you might expect such a workshop to feature, including asking about motivations for wanting to publish research*, when is the right time to publish your research**, issues about co-authorship***, and so forth.

One of the key aspects of the workshop is a flow chart of the process of getting published, beginning at “do the research”, moving on to writing it up, choosing a journal, submitting to a journal, peer review, dealing with reviewers’ comments, writing a covering letter, coping with rejection, re-submission to the same or a different journal, celebrating acceptance, etc.  All fairly standard stuff.

By this point we’re about three-quarters of the way through the workshop, so I ask a question:

“OK, you’ve gone through the whole process (which can take anything from months to years) and your paper has been published.  You’re very pleased, of course.  What do you do next?”

Responses at this point are typically a blank expression, or perhaps “What else is there to do?  The paper’s published, we’ve done our job.  Move on to the next”.  In other words, the general feeling seems to be that the process stops when the research is published.  I politely suggest that this is not so, that you’re still only part-way through the process, and explain why, starting with this table:

Clinical:                                  48.9%

Biological Sciences:           37.8%

Environment:                       37.3%

Physical Sciences:              42.3%

Social Sciences:                   55.4%

Business:                                57.2%

Humanities:                          77.5%

These figures are the percentages of un-cited research papers (in 2005, by broad discipline) published in the UK for the period 2000 to 2004.   The total number of un-cited papers is 122,771****.  There are other similar statistics available, some with broader time windows, but they all point to the same conclusion: in all disciplines, a high proportion of research papers are never referred to by other researchers in the field.  And in some disciplines it’s the majority of papers.

That’s not to say that the research is no good, or even that it’s not being read, but it’s certainly not being cited.  Citation is not the only measure of the “quality” of a piece of work of course, but it at least indicates that peers have read the work, and citation is central to a range of widely used metrics, including the h-index.

This usually comes as a shock to the postgrads, as it does to many established academics!  The low average citation rate of papers is mainly a response to the sheer volume of research currently being published, as I’ve discussed previously in relation to the field of pollination ecology.

How do researchers in a field decide which papers they are going to read and/or cite, and which they ignore?  It’s been suggested that academics often have quite conservative citing patterns, referring again and again to the same work or authors in their own papers.  How can a researcher break through this conservatism and have their own work cited?

One answer is to promote your work after it’s published and the workshop offers some ideas on how to do this:

  • Send PDFs of your papers to other researchers, whether you know them personally or not.  I’m always happy to receive copies of papers that I might otherwise miss.
  • Deposit copies with your institutional electronic repository (at Northampton that’s NECTAR)
  • Tell the world about it using social media, either general (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) or academic (ResearchGate, academia.edu)
  • Send announcements to email discussion groups in your field
  • If you blog, write a post about it (as I did for the pollinator extinctions paper last month)
  • If the work is particularly novel/important/high impact, consider writing a press release with your institution’s press office, or at least a news item on the website.
  • Consider writing up your research as a non-academic piece in a magazine or newspaper for a wider, public audience (see comment below)
  • Present the work (and cite it) at conferences & seminars (the old fashioned way…..)

This kind of “self promotion” is anathema to some academics, for reasons that are not clear to me but may relate to misguided notions about sullying the purity of their work with grubby advertising, something that’s been discussed over at the Dynamic Ecology blog.

But if you don’t promote your work, no one else will do it for you!  Doing research and writing books and papers is a creative endeavour just as much as any of the arts or music.  Would we expect an artist to not advertise the work they do?  Or a musician to keep compositions to themselves.  No, they have exhibitions and concerts, and use advertising in all its forms, to promote their work.

Ultimately a piece of research is only as good as its reception by the audience at which it’s aimed: some brilliant research findings have been ignored for decades because it had disappeared into academic obscurity.  This is likely to happen even more in the future, I’d suggest, given the amount of work that’s being published.

Do you have other strategies for promoting your work?  Or do you disagree with some of what I’ve said?  Feel free to comment, I’d be happy to hear from you.

*”earning money” occasionally pops up as a (naive) reason, so we have to point out that academics rarely get paid for their academic publishing, other than (meagre) book royalties.

**As soon as is feasible, even if it’s a short literature review.

***Make sure everyone, especially supervisors, is clear about which work will be co-authored, which will not, and why.

****Source: PSA target metrics for the UK research base, Office of Science and Technology, DTI (2005)

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Filed under History of science, University of Northampton