Surely disciplines vary too much - this student out-deconstructing Derrida, that one counting radioactive disintegrations - for anyone to offer a universally useful book for research students? For such a book to succeed, it would have to find enough relevant topics no matter what your subject or cover a wide enough range to include something for everyone. This book makes a reasonable attempt at both strategies, but I was only half convinced.
About half of the 42 brief chapters treat topics that every would-be PhD has to deal with: from working up a research proposal at the beginning to weighing up career prospects towards the end. As is the way with such books, they often tell the reader things that ought to be obvious to someone working at this level, whether it is the importance of managing time or a reminder to back-up computer files. But a little reflection suggests they are obvious only because one read them in a book in the first place, or learnt the hard way, so it is useful to have them in one place.
The more specific chapters are mostly good short introductions to specialist topics, such as mathematical methods and measurements. As this suggests, the selection leans heavily towards the physical sciences and engineering. It is a little puzzling that the four contributions on research types include one devoted to "agricultural experiments" - or perhaps there is a key market here I have missed. In any case, social sciences and humanities come a poor second. There are not even index entries for qualitative research or historiography, for example.
Perhaps conscious of this, the editor has augmented this second edition with a couple of more general topics, such as designing your first webpage. There are also four chapters on creativity, though they still amount to a pretty limited treatment of the subject. Disappointingly, the chapters on writing are weak: definitely a topic where another book will be needed by most students.
Still there are useful things here in abundance, if only the numerous well-chosen pointers to where to find out more. This would be a good book to have on a reference shelf in any postgraduates' workroom, but it would find more grateful users among researchers starting out in the science departments.
Jon Turney is head of science and technology studies, University College London.
Research Methods for Postgraduates
Editor - Tony Greenfield
ISBN - 0 340 80656 7
Publisher - Arnold
Price - £21.99
Pages - 370