PhD students need help developing a 'writing voice', educationists say

Report says doctoral candidates are not prepared for research-driven environment, writes Zoe Corbyn

September 25, 2008

Academics are failing to prepare their doctoral students to participate in a research-driven university environment, according to scholars in the UK and Australia.

Alison Lee, a professor of education at the University of Technology in Sydney, this week said that not enough doctoral research was being published, either in the form of journal articles or books.

"We see the lack of widespread and systematic publishing of doctoral research... as a significant problem in the effectiveness of doctoral education in preparing students to participate in research cultures - a problem that requires serious pedagogical attention," she writes in a co-authored paper "Bringing pedagogy to doctoral publishing" in the October edition of Teaching in Higher Education.

Dr Lee laid the blame for the problem, which she said was particularly acute in the social sciences, firmly at the feet of PhD supervisors.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, she criticised the traditional PhD model where the research was followed by a set period of "writing up", which was then followed by "sporadic and ad hoc" attempts to secure publication of the work. She said this left students ill-prepared for the textual practices of scholarship.

Dr Lee called on academics to incorporate the practice of writing for publication - be it for conferences or through writing groups - into the heart of students' doctoral experience.

Students needed to be educated in developing a "writing voice" appropriate for different journals, working out when and where to publish and how to deal with rejection, Dr Lee said. She said "new-route" PhDs, in which a student does not write a thesis but receives their PhD by the publication of journal articles, were an important innovation.

Patricia Thomson, professor of education at the University of Nottingham and author of the book Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Doctoral Supervision, said there was variation in how much support doctoral students received between subjects, countries and institutions.

She said that, although there was an "increasing awareness" of the problem in the UK, more action was needed. "Things such as the Roberts review - which raised the question about career formation - has put some of this on the agenda but it has not necessarily produced a lot of attention about how this is to happen," she said.

She said that, while some doctoral students received some generic research training, it was often "pretty low level".

She called for writing groups and writing retreats, which are often on offer to early career researchers, to be "pushed down" to doctoral education.

Dr Lee's paper used two case studies to illustrate the type of support that could be given to students. One was a peer-review writing group for students planning to publish during their PhDs and the other was a process to supervise publishing from a doctorate.

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