Dr. Sharon Haggerty
Navigating Your Way Through The Joint PhD Program
[NOTE: I am sending this to be
posted before Christmas for those of you who want a sense of what will
be addressed in Week 3. However, it is not yet complete–the final
version will be posted in early January. Meanwhile, if you have any
questions you may contact me at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I shall be checking my e-mail regularly throughout the holidays]
Congratulations! Those of you
registered in the Colloquium have completed all of your courses but this
one. What an accomplishment!
By now some of you will have a
good idea of what you want to do for your dissertation. Others will be
struggling to come up with that one, best research topic. Because you
are all at different stages, some of the comments, ideas, suggestions
that follow may not be relevant to you and your work. If that is the
case, just ignore that bit. I hope no one feels insulted if some of this
seems too obvious for words. Because I don’t know most of you at all, I
may be starting at a level that is beneath you. Please bear with me, and
just pass over things that don’t apply to your situation. However, I do
expect everyone to respond to the questions I pose below as they
form the basis for the WebCT discussion on this module of the
course–even if the questions seem trivial!
In this section I am trying to present a variety of tips, suggestions,
reminders, etc. Hopefully, every one of you will find something useful
as you navigate through the process from defining your research question
to submitting your research proposal. There are a number of books that
provide guidelines for this process as well. Click here for a list of some examples that are available at most
There are a number of points
along the way to a PhD dissertation that have the potential to be
stumbling blocks. Jerry Wellington put together a list of
39 tips for
navigating thesis research. Here are what I see as
the major steps, along with some of the potential frustrations that my
students and I have encountered in the past.
THE RESEARCH QUESTION OR
The first step is to decide on a
general area of research. This may or may not be a problem for you.
Remember, your dissertation will occupy a significant portion of your
life for the next couple of years or so. Don't settle for a topic that
you don't feel passionate about--otherwise it will drag you down. Choose
carefully and choose something that will keep you fascinated for the
next few years. If you choose wisely, this topic can set the stage for
an on-going program of research throughout the early years of your life
as a university professor. Even if you think you have chosen your area,
I hope you will find it helpful to work through some activities [Download Activities
Page] to help you structure and focus your research--step number
2. These activities follow through a progression from identifying an
area of concern right up to defining your researchable question.
Almost always, one of the really
big challenges is to move from the research topic to the actual research
question or problem to be addressed. The biggest difficulty for most of
us is to narrow the question or problem statement sufficiently. If we
don't do that, we end up wasting an incredible amount of time and
effort, often not only our own time, but the time of the poor souls who
have agreed to become our research subjects or participants (not to
mention a PhD student's long suffering supervisor and committee
members). Your supervisor will work with you on this; we will also be
taking a look at your research question in this module.
Here are some examples of
research questions that have been addressed in education theses:
How do grade nine students
come to learn about heat and temperature?
How does part-time work
affect school performance?
How do the results of
provincial testing impact teaching?
What is the relationship
between socio-economic status and school achievement?
What is the difference, if
any, between the versions of Canadian history as represented in
Quebec and Ontario history textbooks?
What are the characteristics
of effective school principals?
Which of two reading
programs is better?
How has the social studies
curriculum evolved over the last 50 years?
How did the political stance
of the Mike Harris government affect schooling at the Intermediate
Using the following criteria
(along with any other criteria you think are relevant), critique at
least three of the above questions. Enter your critiques in the QUESTION
CRITIQUE discussion on WebCT (WebCT Lakehead) and respond to at least five
critiques presented by at least five different students in the class,
and addressing at least three different questions (i.e., minimum of 5
responses, all to critiques by different students, and in reference to
at least 3 different research questions):
Can the research question be
answered with a yes or no? If it can, is it an appropriate area of
research for a yes/no answer? If not, would it be better stated as a
What sorts of research
methodologies would be appropriate for the question? Which might
not be appropriate?
Is it clear from the
question what the student is planning to do?
What assumptions appear to
underlie the question?
Draft out two or three possible
research questions or problem statements in your area of interest. Then
go back to WebCT and share with all of us your topic area and your
questions. Record your questions in the Question Discussion area. Keep the above critique criteria in mind as you prepare your
REVIEWING THE LITERATURE
Although the literature review
is often set aside in a chapter of its own, you will probably be reading
throughout the time you are working on your dissertation. [more to come
in this section–stay tuned]
DESIGNING YOUR RESEARCH
SOME QUESTIONS/ISSUES TO
Human beings seem to have some
sort of inner drive to organize, categorize and/or label everything. The
bottom line is that doing so helps us make sense out of various aspects
of our lives--it simplifies things. At least, it simplifies things if we
use an appropriate system of organizing. Imagine trying to shop in a
supermarket that had the products shelved in alphabetical order; or a
telephone directory that listed people by the street they lived on,
etc.; or imagine that the supermarket or the directory had no system
In the same way, organizing
different sorts of research can help us develop and navigate through our
research plan if we think about how our research might be categorized.
Such is the realm of research methods courses, and we assume that you
will either have already completed one or more courses that survey a
variety of research methodologies. We also assume that once you have
determined the appropriate methodology for your research question, that
you and your supervisor will ensure that you either have or will acquire
the necessary expertise to conduct that research. For some of you that
may mean taking another course; for others, it will be a matter of some
There is sometimes debate over
what should be called method and what should be called methodology.
Throughout this discussion I shall refer to the theoretical framework
that structures the research as the methodology. And I shall refer to
the strategies, techniques or activities that are involved in the
collection, interpretation and/or analysis as the methods.
What comes first? The
methodology comes first! But the methodology comes after the
question--sometimes students are tempted to first think they want to do
a particular kind of research and then they go looking for a question
that they think fits. My advice is don't let yourself fall into that
temptation--it can lead you down the garden path! The question, if
properly stated, will dictate what methodology or methodologies are
What methodologies might be appropriate for the questions stated above?
What are some common
methodologies? Some examples might be: grounded theory, phenomenology,
narrative, hypothesis testing, critical theory, ethnography and
so on. What others can you name?
You will probably find that
there tend to be concise names for methods of quantitative analysis, but
that qualitative methods of analysis require a rather detailed
description of what the researcher intends to do. For example, some data
collection methods are: interviews, questionnaires, classroom
observation, attitude scales, etc. Some examples of
interpretation/analysis methods are: tallying distributions, anova
(analysis of variance), t-tests, constant comparison, etc. It is very
important to remember that all statistical tests rest upon a particular
set of assumptions. Be sure you understand and consider those
assumptions before you decide on the statistics you will use for your
analysis. Some methods can be used within a variety of methodologies.
Which methods might be most appropriate for which methodologies?
What do you want to be able to
claim when you are finished? Habermas (1971) has identified three
categories of human interest that he says underscore knowledge claims:
prediction, understanding, emancipation. Do you want your research to
allow one to predict future outcomes? Do you want your research to lead
to a better understanding of your problem area? Do you want your
research to lead to change of some sort? Lather (1991) has added an
additional category: deconstruction. The kind of knowledge claims you
wish to make also help you decide on the most appropriate methodology
and methods for your research.
All research that involves human
subjects in any way must have ethical approval BEFORE those human subjects
participate. That means that you must have formal ethical approval from your
home university’s committee BEFORE any aspect of your research can begin.
You cannot even conduct pilot studies without approval.
The Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council web site indicates that the
Tri-Council Policy Statement must be adhered to for any research that is funded by SSHRC. To the best
of my knowledge, all Canadian universities also take that position with
regard to all research conducted by both faculty and students. As the
appendix to the Policy Statement indicates, the following criteria are guidelines as to when ethical
approval is required:
Whether the research is funded or not;
Whether the funding is internal or external;
Whether the subjects are from inside or
outside the institution;
Whether the subjects are paid or unpaid;
Whether the research is conducted inside or
Whether the research is conducted inside or
outside the institution;
Whether the research is conducted by staff or
Whether the research is conducted in person or
remotely (e.g., by mail, electronic mail, fax or telephone);
Whether the information is collected directly
from subjects or from existing records not in the public domain;
Whether the research is to be published or
Whether the focus of the research is the
Whether the research is observational,
experimental, correlational or descriptive;
Whether a similar or related project has been
approved previously or not;
Whether the research is a pilot study or a
fully developed project;
Whether the research is to acquire basic or
Whether the research is primarily for teaching
or training purposes or whether the primary purpose is the acquisition
By implication therefore, if your
research does not fit any of these criteria, you probably will not require
ethical approval. Such research would be based solely on information and/or
data that already exist in the public domain. If you believe your research
problem does not require ethical approval please consult with a
knowledgeable faculty member at your university for confirmation before you
proceed. THIS CANNOT BE OVER-EMPHASIZED!!
Each of the home universities has information on their procedures for
obtaining ethical approval. Now is the time to go to those web sites, as you
will have to consider those requirements as you design your research study.
I searched each of the university web sites and found information on the
following pages. If these links don’t work for you go to the university home
page and search again!
Some Heady Questions
What do we mean by "truth"? Is the goal of your research truth? By what
criteria can one make a claim of truth? What are some other possible goals?
predictability? initiating change?
If our research involves others as
subjects or participants, what are our moral responsibilities to those
If your data will be numerical and
your analysis will be statistical, how well do you understand the statistics
you will be using? Are you certain that you will not be violating any of the
assumptions underlying the statistic/s?
Some Heady (and some not so
Heady) Words about Research Designs
What do the following terms mean? What assumptions underlie each? What words
can you add to the list–see the discussion Research Design Discussion on
TIPS FOR SURVIVING YOUR DISSERTATION
(from Wellington, 2000, pp. 53-54)
39 Steps, but not in this
order, says Wellington:
panic too often
2. Be nice to librarians
(especially in inter-library loans)
3. Remember that your supervisor .
4. Be sure you know how you
5. Always have a couple of areas
on the go that you can work on at any time
6. Read a few dissertations in
7. Plan ahead
think that photocopying is the same as reading
9. Keep your writing structured
10. Put your external=s
book in your reference list
think it will be absolutely perfect
12. Read your supervisor=s
13. Remember that ideas change
you wrote in your proposal may need to be changed in the final
14. Write your introduction
first; write the dissertation introduction last
be afraid to point to your strengths and to the weaknesses of others
16. Keep full citation
details on every reference your consult; I repeat, keep full
citation details on every reference you consult
17. Have someone review and give
you feedback on your writing style at an early stage
18. Set yourself short-term goals
. . .
19. . . . and if you aren=t
meeting them, figure out why; then do something about it
20. Allow yourself lots and lots
of time for writing the dissertation
21. Step back from it from time to
22. With each part of the work,
ask if it is worth doing
begrudge some time spent on reading very widely
24. Be sure you and your
supervisor know and understand the PhD dissertation/thesis regulations at
your home university early in the process (they may be quite different for
the PhD than for the master=s)
25. Talk to people about your
begrudge time spent on pondering your work
27. Keep writingBand
worry if some of what you write doesn=t
make it into the final dissertation; it will have helped you develop your
think that reading just one more book will solve your problems . . .
29. . . . and don=t
use that as an excuse for not starting to write
30. Criticize, evaluate, analyse,
as well as describing
31. Buy a book on punctuation
32. Use your research to make
33. Using quotations doesn=t
make the idea any more true . . .
34. . . . and you can usually
write it better yourself
35. Use an index, either on cards
or electronic, for references, ideas, etc. as they come to you
be afraid to be imaginative
37. Make sure your references are
they provide the background to all aspects of your research
38. If you must set something
aside for a while, make some notes about your ideas beforehand, so you don=t
reinvent the wheel
39. Organize an efficient filing
system, both for books, readings and other bits of paper you collect as you
do your research, and for electronic materials.
(Two more that Wellington forgot)
40. Always back up everything
on your computer dailyBpreferably
keep back up copies in two different locations. Ensure that at least one
back-up is in a different place than your original. What if someone breaks
into your home or office and steals your computer and all of your CDs and/or
floppies? It isn=t
only hard-drive crashes that we need to keep in mind here.
assume your supervisor or committee members will be able to drop everything
and read your latest chapter a day or two after you finally get it to him or
her. Plan with your supervisor when you will have chapters or sections ready
to be reviewed, keeping in mind both your schedule and that of your
professor. If you don=t
have your work ready when planned, it may not turnover as quickly as it
would have if you had met your intended time-line.
FOR APA STYLE (5th ed’n)
set of references illustrates APA requirements re: line spacing.
Doe, J. N., & Smith, P. L. (2001). This is a sample: Follow it. In L. K.
Brown & P. O. Black (Eds. & Trans.), Do it right the first time (Vol.
3, pp. 2-44). London: Goofy Press. (Original work published 1995) [or]
(Reprinted from Silly Education, 1999, 22, 245-287).
Doe, J. N., & Smith, P. L. (1999). This is a sample: Follow it [Electronic
version]. Silly Education, 22, 245-287.
Doe, J. N., & Smith, P. L. (2000, August). This is an Internet sample:
Retrieved September 4, 2001, from http://www.nonsense.com/~Sharons.homepage.htm
note that APA no longer uses underlining to represent italics. Students
should use italics for titles, not underlining.
See your Faculty of Graduate Studies web site for details on thesis format
J. N., & Smith, P. L. (2001). This is a sample: Follow it. In L. K. Brown &
P. O. Black (Eds. & Trans.), Do it right the first time (Vol. 3, pp.
2-44). London: Goofy Press. (Original work published 1995) [or] (Reprinted
from Silly Education, 1999, 22, 245-287).
J. N., & Smith, P. L. (1999). This is a sample: Follow it [Electronic
version]. Silly Education, 22, 245-287.
J. N., & Smith, P. L. (2000, August). This is an Internet sample: Follow
it. Retrieved September 4, 2001, from http://www.nonsense.com/~Sharons.homepage.htm
thesis style says you may single space your list of references, although the
main part of your paper must be at least 1.5 line spacing (the first section
above is spaced at 1.7 lines–the second set is single spaced except double
spaced between references). APA style for submission to journals still
requires double spacing throughout a manuscript.
FOR EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH AND
(NOTE: Tables of Contents for
the more recent of these books can be viewed through the UWO Online
Library Catalogue (and on some of the other university library catalogues
following list is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather
representative. Browse through your own library and choose resources that
look useful for your needs.
BIBLE, of course,
for formatting your papers and your thesis (unless you and your supervisor
choose to use another style manual) is:
Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological
Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
See also http://www.apastyle.org (at this
site you can sign up to be notified by E-mail whenever any changes are
made to APA approved style).
APA is not only a format/style manual but has good sections on common
difficulties re: grammar, punctuation and writing style in general.
Some of my favourite basic
references/resources for research methodologies and writing
Lighter to Moderate Reading:
Becker, H. S. (1986).
Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book,
or article. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bell, J. (1999). Doing
your research project: A guide for first-time researchers in education and
social science (3rd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University
Best, J.W., & Kahn, J.V.
(1998). Research in education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Bieger, G.R., & Gerlach G.J.
(1996). Educational research: A practical approach. Albany, NY:
Delmar. A good basic resource on quantitative methods and research.
Blaxter, L., Hughes, C., &
Tight, M. (2001). How to research (2nd ed.). Buckingham,
UK: Open University Press.
Bogdan, R.C., & Biklen, S.K.
(1998). Qualitative research in education: An introduction to theory
and methods. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Downey, G. R. (2002). The
fifty fatal flaws of essay writing. London, ON: The Althouse Press.
Although this book claims to
be aimed at undergraduates, I find many of these
not only in graduate student writing, but also in papers I review for
scholarly journals (sometimes even in published papers!); published by UWO=s
Jeroski, S., Booth, L., &
Dockendorf. (1992). Field-based research: A working guide. Victoria,
BC: Ministry of Education.
Wellington, J. (2000).
Educational research: Contemporary issues and practical approaches. New
Challenging (more like PhD stuff!):
Cohen, L., Manion, L., &
Morrison, K. (2000). Research methods in education. New York:
Eisner, E.E. (1998). The
enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational
practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Howe, K.R. (2003). Closing
methodological divides: Toward democratic educational research.
Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
McLaren, P.L., & Giarelli, J.M.
(Eds.) (1995). Critical theory and educational research. Albany, NY:
State University of New York Press.
McNamee, M., & Bridges, D.
(Eds.) (2002). The ethics of educational research. Oxford, UK:
Schostak, J.F. (2002).
Understanding, designing and conducting qualitative research in education:
Framing the project. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.
Scott, D. (2000). Realism
and educational research: New perspectives and possibilities. London:
Simons, H., & Usher, R. (Eds.)
(2000). Situated ethics in educational research. London: Routledge/Falmer.
Again, I repeat, this list is not intended to be exhaustive. There are
many excellent resources that are not on the list. Consult with your
supervisor and browse through the library for additional ideas.