PhD students as researchers

By Richard Black|October 8, 2014|Research|0 comments

One of the pleasures of my role as Pro-Director for Research at SOAS is to welcome the new intake of doctoral students – something I did a couple of weeks ago to a room full of people brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.  All of these new students are embarking on 3-4 years of dedicated research, a luxury most social scientists and humanities scholars are never privileged enough to have again throughout our academic careers.  But they are all also, of course, seeking a qualification. All of this has got me thinking about the position of PhD students in our ‘research system’.  Are PhD students primarily ‘students’?  Or are they primarily ‘researchers’?  Indeed – should we draw such a distinction?

A first thing to say is that a PhD is not easy – and nor should it be.  As a research training degree, it sets the high standards we expect for academic enquiry across all of our disciplines, requires students to learn new and often demanding methods and forces them to independently design, carry out and execute a project from start to finish.

Yet PhD research also represents a major element of universities’ research output in its own right.  Whilst a ‘world-leading’ advance in knowledge may not be a requirement to pass a PhD (it isn’t!), subsequent research monographs based on a PhD, collaborative work between student and supervisor, and the ideas and concepts refined during a Phd often leads to world-leading research in the medium term, enriching the academic life of our institutions and providing broader public benefit.

So what should a new PhD student be aspiring to achieve in terms of research over the next 3-4 years of their life?  And what should institutions be expecting of PhD students in terms of the quality and impact of their research, and how can we support this?

A first and important point to make is that every PhD, and every PhD student is different (even if every PhD student probably reads something at some point in their degree that makes them think that someone has already written the thesis they wanted to write).   Some PhDs may be a series of revelations – a stumbled-across document that changes the way we think about a classic text or past policy, chance encounters with individuals who were there when a major event happened or a key decision was made.  Others will require the student to overcome a series of obstacles, each seemingly more insuperable than the last, as a research site becomes inaccessible through violent conflict, research permission is denied, or research subjects clam up in the face of questions that are unclear, or perhaps far too clear for comfort.

Overall, it is probably fair to say that most PhD students struggle under a weight of expectation that their work will be truly original, or truly useful, in ways that previous research has failed to achieve.  But for most students, a PhD is unlikely to be the culmination of a life’s work, or a defining contribution to the subject. In that sense, a PhD is probably best seen as creating the possibility of the advancement of knowledge, rather than being a major advance in itself.

In this context, the PhD environment, and the discourses it creates, are crucial.  Most universities – and SOAS is no exception – have combinations of doctoral training partnerships, doctoral or graduate schools, research centres and institutes and department research centres and groups to create a ‘research environment’ in which new ideas can be discussed, connections created and knowledge developed.  But perhaps overlooked is the extent to which these structures can work both ways – to support students and staff to produce greater and better knowledge, but also if we are not careful to create unrealistic expectations or drive uniformity of thought.  For example, I know how often I have skipped a research seminar in a series I would otherwise attend because it is ‘outside my field of interest’ – yet it is precisely the interaction of ideas and perspectives across and between fields that enriches our ideas and encourages innovation.

Also important surely is how we all think about our ‘place’ in this research system.  One approach is distinctly hierarchical – research seminars and doctoral school events are distinctly the preserve of PhD students, post-docs and new lecturers; senior lecturers and professors are far too busy doing research (or managing the department or university) to come along, whilst undergraduate students are scarcely welcome, being seen as the principal ‘distraction’ from research, necessary as they bring much-needed fees but to be avoided when precious external research funding or sabbatical leave allows us to get away.

But surely we can collapse these hierarchical boundaries?  My own research career very decidedly started as an undergraduate – as a senior professor of anthropology (and director of a research centre) encouraged me and other students to read and comment on her latest book in draft, to visit her field sites (not straightforward, as these were in southern Algeria and southern Sudan) and actively engage in debate … as well as buying her cigarettes.  In my first academic post – albeit in a very small Department – professors and even the Head of Department were regularly at research seminars, as were a group of the more enthusiastic undergraduate students.

A conversation about how we can bring research and teaching together is surely an overdue one, and not only in the context of PhD study.  Are there ways – for example through ‘research internships’ or structured opportunities for overseas fieldwork – that we could make our undergraduates a part of our ‘research environment’?  And perhaps more challenging, what would it take to convince our most research-focused professors to view undergraduate teaching as an opportunity rather than a threat to good research?

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