The Beginner’s Guide to the Doctorate

So this is the way forward!

So this is the way forward!

This week I ran a workshop for newly registered research degree students entitled “The Beginner’s Guide to the Doctorate”. What I set out to do was to lay bare the road ahead when it comes to a research degree, to get the participants to consider aspects of the journey that, perhaps, they had not yet thought about.

I always enjoy this kind of workshop because I am always enthralled by the enthusiasm and diversity of the new researchers who are embarking on their journey of discovery in research; the topics sound fascinating.

I started by introducing the concept of the journey from a skills development point of view, although I offer many workshops to researchers, very few of them are about upskilling researchers, more about changing the perspective of the researchers themselves toward their own development. It’s about helping them to understand what they have as a consequence of following a research degree path.

It also gave me the chance to talk about the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) which is a relatively new way of being able to describe the incredibly rich skills set that researchers have (I have written a separate blog post about the RDF as there is a lot to talk about).

Vitae have recently released an online tool to help researchers navigate the RDF, to encourage them to plan their development. The full details about that tool can be found here:

I asked the participants to talk about motivations to undertake a PhD, I think it’s important to understand what drives you so that you can remind yourself when the road becomes a bit more difficult to negotiate – that’s the infuriating thing about a research degree, it rarely if ever goes smoothly. The words of Einstein ring true here, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”.

The day was loosely structured around the sharing of hints and tips for new researchers and I used the following powerpoint slides to give the day a format although we explored lots of different areas of the RDF.

I tried to cover a lot of ground over the course of the day but I hope that the new researchers had plenty of food for thought, along with a generous helping of hints/tips to see them off to a good start.

Here’s a few more resources that I think are useful:-

UWE Graduate School webpages – Everything you need to know about the support available to doctoral students from UWE.

The Thesis Whisperer blog – A fantastic resource for all doctoral students from Dr. Inger Mewburn (Director of research training, Australian National University). A comprehensive coverage topics relevant to doctoral students covered in this blog site.

Patter; Pat Thomson blog – A blog from Professor Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, focussing mainly on the topic of academic writing. This blog is a goldmine for advice on finding your academic voice.

The Graduate School development events diary – The online events diary for all events relating to researchers – a chronological list of events with booking forms. Any of the events I talked about today, you’ll be able to find them here.

Vitae – The Researcher Development Organisation A first port of call for a wide range of useful materials relating to postgraduate research study especially on assessing how you are developing your skills throughout the process.

Researcher Development Framework The collation of the skills, knowledge, behaviours and attributes that make up a successful researcher.

The RDF Planner An online application to better enable researchers to self-audit their competencies against the RDF and help direct them to resources for professional development. e-mail if you are interested in taking advantage of a trial subscription to this. Light relief following grad students through their journey in the form of a comic strip. – A discussion and support group for people who cannot seem to finish their dissertations or theses.

What makes a good researcher?

One of the things that is central to the world of researcher development is the question of “what makes a good researcher?” In other words, what are the skills and/or competences that researchers should aspire to or seek to acquire to become good at what they do?

Around 10 years ago a bunch of folks from the UK Research Councils and the UK GRAD programme (the predecessor to Vitae) set about describing what skills a doctoral candidate should have developed by the time they complete a PhD and it was published as a Joint Statement on Skills.

This statement included the transferable skills that Sir Gareth Roberts espoused in his report to HM Government, “SET for Success” (2002). It was the catalyst for many of the researcher skills development programmes that are now on offer and provided a useful framework for researchers themselves to reflect on their own progress as a researcher.

Fast forward a few years, there were people in the Higher Education sector who felt that the Joint Skills Statement was limited by the fact that it stopped at the end of a doctoral degree and that it didn’t reflect the changing emphasis on engagement and impact of research with society. This in turn led to a project to design a comprehensive framework that would describe the researcher development journey beyond the PhD.

In 2010, the successor to the Joint Statement on Skills was launched, the Researcher Development Framework (RDF).

The RDF sets out the knowledge, behaviours and attributes of successful researchers and are grouped into four major domains, 12 sub-domains which are then further divided into 63 descriptors which are designed to aid researchers to understand what areas they should focus on to become a “good researcher”.

It was also conceived to provide skills developers like me with a comprehensive framework with which to design activities and workshops to help researchers to understand where they are in their own development.

The RDF can appear a little daunting to the uninitiated, so my advice is to try and view it at the broadest level until it feels more familiar.

I’ve started to introduce the RDF into the skills development programme I offer by colour coding the workshops listings to correspond (broadly speaking) to the major domains.

I’m interested (as ever) in the views of researchers and/or colleagues on how to improve the integration of the RDF into the programmes we run.

Vitae have produced an online planning tool designed to help individuals to self-audit against the descriptors of the RDF, have a look…


If you are interested in using the RDF Planner and are a UWE researcher then please use the form below to get in touch.