A sea of books and no compass

March 7, 1997

The first year of a PhD is a daunting journey of discovery, however help is never far away, Richard Ford explains. What is it like being a doctoral research student? Many people who have enjoyed carrying out research either in the commercial world or at university might consider it a life of solitary intellectual rumination, devoid of social contact.

For me, coming from a business background, those first few weeks at Cranfield University were humbling because I was trying to learn "academic-speak" and to fit in with those other students who knew all the right words. What was I doing here? What was this "big task" I had let myself in for?

I could see myself ascending this unclimbed mountain, a sea of books, journals and electronic media to plunge into, searching for the elusive intangible called the "research question" - and all without Sir Ranulph Fiennes to help me. A PhD is a lonely journey of discovery.

Furthermore, during undergraduate and most intermediate postgraduate studies, one is cosseted by the system and given a map of the way forward. I was now striking out on my own. Over the next few years I would be attempting to discover the answer to a question never before asked - a question that I had to determine as well.

Cranfield is in the middle of the English countryside, near Bedford, and I anticipated counting (real) sheep in order to reduce the intellectual frustrations and relax. However, after that first year and thanks to my supervisor, Cranfield's research courses, and seasoned students from previous years, I had found a path to follow.

That path was well signposted thanks to Cranfield's research training programme. This began with a week's full-time introductory course at the start of the first year. It was followed by a research methodology course spread over Monday sessions running throughout terms one and two. Each year those of us who consider ourselves experienced do not look upon the new intake of research students simply as individuals embarking on their own journeys of discovery. We also see ourselves several years earlier and how we appreciated the help we received in getting through that first year of exploration.

Cranfield also encourages its PhD students to form their own support networks and discussion and feedback over a hot coffee or computer screen with one's fellow students - even those further along the research path - has proved valuable. And our discussions are n0t just limited to the dry details of our own research. There is almost nothing a budding academic likes better than to talk about someone else's work.

Subsequent research years improve beyond recognition. I suspect this is partly because the basic training given in year one really sinks in. Once you are out in the field acquiring data you feel that this is what research is about. All those months of planning were simply preparation for the real thing.

This is the exciting stage. But exploration and discovery don't end with your return to base camp; analysis awaits you, as does the communication of your work through the written thesis and subsequent defence in the viva. This is the climax of one's research apprenticeship; the answer to the question, "Why did you climb it?'', asked by journalists and sponsors.

Any research students just starting their work of a lifetime or contemplating making that first big step should remember, it is not a path untrampled - we have all gone that way before. We may not have a common substantive area or similar backgrounds, methodologies or paradigms but we do have a common purpose and a collective pursuit - to obtain those elusive initials after one's name.

Canadian Richard Ford is a third-year PhD student researching global logistics at Cranfield University School of Management.

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