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.

Paradigm wars and perspectivism

You wanna touch me?

You wanna touch me?

On Monday (11th July) myself and Dr Sharron Whitecross from Research, Business & Innovation contributed to one of the UWE Research Centre away days by facilitating a discussion about the challenges of working in an area of research that involves many disciplines. The researchers were concerned that the different perspectives from disciplines might get in the way of making progress on research projects, possibly as a result of lack of awareness or appreciation of the validity of different approaches or paradigms.

I come from a science background which almost exclusively features a quantitative approach to data and I know from personal experience that the scientific method is robustly defended as being valid in the world of research yet even among its proponents there is often a misinterpretation of the limitations.

So the challenge for me was to think of a way of engaging researchers in a discussion about research methodologies in a way that would be constructive. It was also a challenge to be able to facilitate the discussion without extensive knowledge of the variety of research methodologies used in the social sciences. I decided to tackle it in three ways, 1) to raise awareness of what is happening with research right now, 2) to explore the differences in paradigms using metaphors and 3) to ask for suggestions on how development might help in improving cohesion, understanding and the like.

We started by clarifying some of the language involved and setting the scene in terms of where things are going using the following slides:-

The main points here are that different folks tend to use terminology that doesn’t always translate exactly into other disciplines which can confuse things. It’s also true that the contribution of different disciplines looking at issues from a varying perspectives gives a better overall picture or outcome than single discipline approaches.

On to the metaphors, I (a quick nod to Jamie McDonald who suggested this to me) introduced this by retelling the parable about the blind men and the elephant whereby they are asked to describe the form of an elephant by touch. The blind men describe a part of the elephant that they are touching yet none of them have felt the whole of the animal. Variations of this story have been spread widely over the generations and the English verse is quite interesting, John Godfey Saxe wrote in the 19th Century:-

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The poem continues with each of the men describing their part of the elephant and concludes with:- 

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

You wanna touch me?

You wanna touch me?

I thought this was quite a neat way to introduce the idea of “perspectivism”  as a prelude to getting the researchers to look at some different viewpoints on research methodologies and paradigms.

The researchers were then set the challenge of coming up with a metaphor to describe their perspective on multi disciplinary working. I separated them according to relative experience creating a group of research students, a group of research staff and a group of experienced researchers/leaders. The results were fascinating, the research students came up with a bakery theme centred around the recipe of a cake and the research leaders came up with a restaurant theme around the creation of dishes that would be appropriate for the diner. Both these examples appreciated that things could go wrong and the final product might not be as tasty or satisfy but also pointed out that the results could be well executed, a culinary masterpiece so to speak.

Interestingly the research staff group came up with a metaphor about a dysfunctional vehicle that was designed with disjointed input from all concerned and clearly was not a vehicle that was working well. I wondered if that had any significance? I think it created some food for thought.

The final part of the session was to collate some suggestions for development. Since the workshop, one of the researchers sent me the document, a toolkit entitled Practical considerations for leading and working on a mixed methods project”

As more and more collaborative research is being funded I am convinced that researchers need to broaden their perspectives on the different approaches that can be adopted to tackle the problems posed. As ever, I’m always on the lookout for any hints/tips on how this is best achieved.