Practical Tips for Doctoral Students : Introduction

Introduction

This document aims to describe the authors’ views on how a doctoral student can effectively write his/her dissertation and the related Journal articles. In addition, some tips are given on how to integrate the dissertation work and the related studies, and on how to apply for research grants.

Academic research and related scientific writing should be seen as a learning process. It is essential to have your first article published as soon as possible. Do not expect yourself to master everything in your field before starting the learning process towards publishing, but start sooner rather than later. Once you know how to publish, you become a beneficial contributor for your University and will provide your stake for improving the University’s ranking internationally. The ambition levels should be raised while learning to write better articles and you can aim towards publishing in increasingly better Journals.

Figure 1 presents the essential topics we aim to highlight. These topics, highlighted throughout this document, are relevant for all the activities relating to doctoral studies.

1

Figure 1. Essential aspects

It is vital to comprehend that learning-by-doing is an effective method to improve writing and learn the aspects that are required to write good articles. This is why it is advised to avoid over-planning, both in conducting research and in writing. Start concrete work as soon as possible and start writing. Aim to work in small increments, analyse what you have done, contemplate what went well and what can be improved. Based on this, change your processes and the way you work. Write the next increment, a paragraph, a chapter, or sketch some ideas, ask others for feedback, analyse and improve. This type of iterative process helps you learn more, faster, but most importantly you will identify your mistakes and improve your working method.

The key for effective completion of articles and doctoral dissertations is documenting and writing. Brainstorming is, naturally, an essential part of the research process and its power to generate and clarify ideas should not be underestimated. However, merely talking about it does not make your articles, or dissertation progress. A written piece of work can be reviewed and works as a medium for discussions, transforming itself gradually into a finished document. It is often easier for your supervisor and others to give you good feedback, when the medium for discussion is a written document. Aim to start generating written documents as early as possible. For example, you can start by putting your initial ideas into PowerPoint, followed by a Word document with a working topic. You can start structuring the text by using a bulleted list etc. It is only the written piece of work that will truly make your articles and doctoral dissertation progress.

Being systematic is also important. For example, if your research involves interviews, record the interviews and transcribe the tapes, instead of merely making notes and leaving room for misinterpretations. This way you will have the material in a precise written form, enabling better analyses. Reading the transcribed material also enables “reading between the lines”, and returning back to the material. If you only make notes, you will probably write down what seems interesting on the spot, but not necessarily everything essential. Being systematic applies also to other types of research; for example, if your research contains measurements, maintaining good records and writing down any deviations and observations are important for the optimal utilisation of this material.

In our experience, a group has power. If possible by any means, try to find/form a suitable research group within your unit/University. If considering joining an existing research group, study whether the leader is productive, for example by analysing his/her results during the past five years.

Effective review practices are a good way to advance your writing process. Write in small increments and ask others (colleagues, supervisor/s, etc.) for feedback when you feel that a logically coherent subsection of the document is ready. This way, the feedback is more precise than when asking for comments for a larger whole, you can maximise your learning, and give yourself time to correct “mistakes” early. It is essential that the person giving the feedback has enough time and motivation to thoroughly examine what you have written. In an ideal situation, you will create a win-win situation, where everyone involved will benefit in some way. Remember that everything does not need to be symmetrical, but it is beneficial when people have different roles. Help those that you expect to help you in order to create a true win-win situation. Organise review sessions at different stages of your writing process. Sketch articles chapter-by-chapter and organise review sessions for a chapter at a time. In review sessions, it is vital to document any feedback so as to facilitate analysis and changes. In our experience, this type of iterative process of discussing and documenting is the most effective way to progress rapidly. It is recommended to give your text to the reviewers well beforehand to read through & comment, after which you can go through all the comments together in front of a screen and revise the document together in real-time. Commenting only via email is less effective, as the full explanation on the reviewers’ comments is missing. Verbal comments without real-time changes also tend to be inefficient.

Outline the first version of your research plan as soon as possible. Remember that this will not be the final version; a research plan is a living document that evolves with the project results. It is beneficial to ask others to comment your research plan, most importantly your supervisor, but also others. Your supervisor can help in assessing whether the research is realistic; from the point of view of resources, equipment, schedule, etc. Once you have the first version of your research plan, it is worth starting to apply for research grants. Start doing this during the early stages of your research, because, as with articles, the quality and chance of success improves with experience. Furthermore, both, writing your research plan and applying for research grants will clarify your thoughts.

There are a number of databases and scientific Journals online that allow finding reference material. University libraries provide an access to many of these scientific resources. Google Scholar is also a way to find references swiftly and effectively, but to be truly beneficial requires a full access to the articles provided by e.g. your university library. When using any database, it is vital to remember to concentrate on the essential, and not to chase terms that, in many cases, have multiple meanings and may mislead you. If in doubt, discuss with others about your selection of search criteria; this will allow you to save a considerable amount of time. Especially when conducting applied research, try to understand what different matters mean in the real world, e.g. from companies’ viewpoint. Selecting correct search words is a good topic for a coffee break discussion. Using university library services is recommended as they provide a wide access to information sources and give advice on using these.

When considering the realisation of any practical elements of your doctoral research, note that you do not necessarily have to do everything by yourself. You can potentially utilise data that has been originally collected for another purpose, combine and analyse data from different sources, or even material collected by students for their assignments. However, you should not forget to acknowledge the work by others.

A person supervising your doctoral dissertation can either be a professor or a post­doctoral researcher. The know-how of the supervisor is crucial, but aim to utilise also other people aside your supervisor, including colleagues, company representatives, other doctoral students, post-docs, etc. It is beneficial to build horizontal networks, meaning that you utilise other doctoral students by forming small groups. Remember that you should not aim to please everyone; instead, it is essential that your own understanding is enhanced through discussions. After all, it is the researcher who carries the sole responsibility of the completion of his/her doctoral dissertation.

Anyone considering of starting doctoral studies should carefully consider whom they will ask to supervise their dissertation. If you are in a position to choose, you can interview the potential supervisors and check their results for e.g. past five years (supervised dissertations, scientific publications). On the other hand, a supervisor with a good track record, may be overly busy. Also, supervisor’s interests towards your topic will affect the quality of guidance. This is why it may be wise to consider how well your topic fits the goals of your potential supervisor. A doctoral student working in industry may find it easier to be able to choose among University units and supervisors. If one is not able to choose, especially those already on University’s payroll, can only hope that their supervisor is able to maintain adequate funding.

Identifying one’s own motive for dissertation work is also something a doctoral student may find beneficial. This motive may have an influence on the selection of a supervisor, or research group. When you are focused on a certain topic try to find the best possible group and supervisor who are successful in the field of your interest. This is when you can obtain high level guidance, especially for the substance, and you can be in the front line of advancing the science in your field. If you wish to build a research career joining a high level research group would benefit you the most. Alternatively, if you only wish to obtain the merit brought by a doctoral degree, then an effective guidance for the process towards the degree may be especially desirable. In an ideal situation, both process and substance guidance are simultaneously present.

idea30 The following articles will describe, in more detail:

  • How to effectively complete doctoral studies
  • A monograph dissertation.
  • A compilation dissertation.
  • Write a scientific article.
  • And apply for research grants.

The articles have some intentional overlap, allowing them to be read independently.


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