Jacks of all trades become masters of one

September 15, 1995

It is the first day of the new intake for Bob Daniels's masters in research. Unlike many other courses, this one chucks all the students in together regardless of their disciplines. There are accountants, health care specialists and political scientists who will do their core units together. Most of their work will be as unspecialised and multidisciplinary as possible.

Mr Daniels, head of research development at Southampton Institute of Higher Education, thinks most researchers are narrow-minded and unable to work in a multidisciplinary atmosphere. So his course stops them specialising too soon.

Thus, whatever their discipline, students have to dissect the work of academic researchers in six subjects, to assess how the disciplines vary. They have to answer questions as esoteric as "what are truth and evidence?" and as practical as "who has the intellectual property rights?". And they will emerge as an efficient breed, able to budget and timetable their research.

Mr Daniels described the course recently at a conference on research supervision hosted by the University of Bristol. It began three years ago as a diploma in research techniques. Now it has expanded into a masters in research - or it can be done as part of an MPhil or PhD. He has more than 50 full or part-time students signed up.

Although they do the core courses together, the students sometimes split up for courses more specific to their disciplines.

Mixing together students with aims that vary from moving on to PhDs and MPhils to doing non-academic work encourages open-mindedness, according to Mr Daniels. "Some people come on to the course planning just a diploma or masters, change their minds and go on to a higher level when they are able to talk to someone doing an MPhil or or PhD."

The core courses include "Issues in Research", which tackles concepts such as the nature of truth and evidence. It also addresses common problems such as risk assessment, quality, public funding and ethics. Each time, students have to revert to their thesis topics and assess them in the light of the research issue.

There is also "Research Planning". Students deliver 15-minute research papers to each other. They also draw up research plans, including a budget and timetable. They learn how to communicate, how to present and how to work in groups.

Another course dispels the myth that academia provides the only research career. Through case studies students look at the differences between academic research, consultancy and industrial projects At the end of the course, the MPhil and PhD students are judged to have been successful by the most pertinent test possible: successfully registering their MPhil or PhD title with the institute's research degree committee. Masters students hand in a dissertation.

Mr Daniels's MRes has an eye on the outside world as well as academia. "Only a minority of students doing research will become academic researchers. Most will go into other careers. Many will go into industry, many will be managers."

Increasing numbers of students will become research managers in the health service and elsewhere. He wants his students to be able to make judgements about other people's research projects.

Daniels has met opposition to the multidisciplinarity of the course but is unrepentant. "We are concerned with equipping people for careers and turning out well-rounded individuals," he says.

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