Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics
Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

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1.3 Different models of PhDs within and across disciplines

There are many different models of how a PhD might be conducted. The models are shaped by the expected place of study (e.g. on the OU campus, in an industry laboratory, at the kitchen table), by the intensity of study and focus (e.g. full time, part time), by the number of influences on the research (e.g. student directed, part of a larger research project, part of an industry research programme), by the level of intended guidance (e.g. taught introduction, supervision-as-collaboration, largely independent working with infrequent supervision), and by who takes responsibility for skills training (e.g. research-only focus, taught component). Models of study include:

  • 1 + 3: one year of Masters-level research training followed by three years of independent research.

  • ‘In at the deep end‘: students engage immediately in independent research, with supervisory support.

  • Professional doctorate: a structured programme, including taught components and linking to professional experience.

  • Industry-based study: doctoral research is embedded in or associated with organisational research, and is supported by the organisation, possibly with an industry-based supervisor in addition to a university-based supervisor.

  • Part-time study: students study part time, usually external to the university at which they are registered, and typically while they are employed full time.

Whatever the model of study, the culmination is always the dissertation and defence, and the outcomes are notionally equivalent. Models of study are influenced by national and institutional culture. For example, the 1 + 3 model resonates with the American system of qualifying examinations based on taught graduate courses, followed by independent research.

Similarly, there are various models of dissertations, in terms both of the structure of the document and its content; for example:

  • the scholarly book

  • the collection of publications, threaded together by a unifying discussion

  • the engineering model, including some implementation or application

  • the empirically driven model, e.g. the thesis is justified through a series of empirical studies

  • the theory-driven model

  • the proof.

Different models are normally associated with different disciplines, with different expectations in, say, Maths and Fine Arts, Biology and History, Archaeology and Computing. The differences lie not just in the length and structure of the dissertation, but also more importantly in the expectations about what sorts of knowledge claims are permitted and how they may be legitimated. Differences are reflected in the use of literature and how the work is situated in the research discourse, in the balance of theory and evidence, in the nature of evidence presented, and in the scope of the thesis. All of these parameters have different disciplinary interpretations.

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