The Cook, the Chef and the Thesis

Cooking to a recipe
Following the recipe

In my office there has been a lot of discussion relating to The Great British Bake Off (GBBO for short) – for those who haven’t been exposed to this programme, it features a number of amateur bakers battling it out week by week to impress the judges with their creations.

All this talk of cooking reminds me of an issue that is bugging me in the world of doctoral research that I have been meaning to write about for some time. It’s around the  purpose of a thesis in demonstrating that a candidate has progressed from being an amateur to a competent researcher. This blog post is a work in progress…

In early 2015 the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) published the results of a survey The Role of Publications and Other Artefacts in Submissions for the UK PhD – which looked at the diversity of doctoral theses and what elements go into the assessment of whether the candidate has demonstrated “doctorateness“.

I think this is a fascinating debate because the Arts and Humanities disciplines have long been grappling with how to demonstrate doctoral achievement in practice-based and practice-led research in the submission for examination.

But there are also worrying noises in this debate pertaining to the sciences questioning the need to write a thesis in the traditional sense that was summed up in this article from the Times Higher, PhD: is the doctoral thesis obsolete?

The debate is about inclusion of published papers as part of the thesis. Some scholars want the submission of published papers to constitute the entire thesis – dispensing with “the filler” that is viewed as wasted effort.

Why do I worry?

I think it’s a little too convenient for some supervisors to have doctoral researchers churn out papers rather than focussing on writing a thesis – it does no harm to the volume of research outputs attributable to them. I fear it reduces the researchers’ work to a formulaic approach of reportage of results without any real contextualisation of their work.

I am noticing that more doctoral researchers are being asked to resubmit at viva, and often this because of a lack of breadth in the thesis – the candidates cannot express how their work fits into the bigger picture because they don’t have enough knowledge of the foundations that their work is built upon.

It pushes researchers in the direction of being technically competent but lacking in wider understanding of their work.

I fear it pushes researchers to be like a cook – able to accurately reproduce a recipe as written – instead of a being like a chef who has the foundational knowledge to create recipes from first principles.

I’m still working on the analogy but let me know what you think.

Researcher Development Folks Researcher Skills

Paul Spencer View All →

I'm a former researcher into the microbiology of the mouth who now runs a skills development programme for other researchers.

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