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

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1.4 Broadly typical phases of PhD research

A modern PhD can be viewed as having three key phases (very roughly, but not strictly, corresponding to the three years of a full-time degree), each of which contributes a necessary element of mastery:

  1. Orientation – mastering the literature and formulating a research problem and plan.

  2. Intensive research – gathering the evidence to support the thesis, whether empirical or theoretical.

  3. Entering the research discourse – producing a dissertation and defending it.

The first phase, ‘orientation’, concerns mastering the literature (including existing theory and existing evidence), formulating your research problem (and relating it to existing theory and evidence), identifying an appropriate approach for addressing the problem, and specifying a plan of work, including a clarification of how ‘success’ is recognised. In some cases your research question may have already been specified in a proposal drawn up by your supervisor to secure funding for you. But, even if this is the case, you must become familiar with the literature and be able to discuss the relevance of your research question within the context of your discipline. The second phase, ‘intensive research’, is concerned with conducting a programme of research (whether evidence gathering or theory development), reasoning accountably and explicitly to reach conclusions, critiquing, iterating, and validating your work, and reasoning about generalisation and limitations. The third phase ‘entering the discourse’, involves exposing your work to discussion and scrutiny, which means presenting and defending your work both orally and in writing. This takes the form of making paper submissions to conferences and journals, giving research seminars and conference presentations, responding to referees’ comments, and ultimately submitting and defending your dissertation.

  • Mastery of the existing discourse (usually represented by the research literature) and your work's relation to it.

  • The ability to plan and conduct sound, informative research.

  • Entering the research discourse.

A candidate must demonstrate satisfactorily (if not excel in) all three elements in order to earn a PhD, because all three are necessary to making significant contributions.

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