Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A disciplinary perspective on PhD blogs

An intriguing feature of the PhD Weblogs site is the 'Top 5 Research Areas'. From a total of 289 blogs internationally at present, the Social Science General (SSG=69) and Multidisciplinary (M=68) continue to compete for the top spot, without any real threat from Computer Science (CS=32), Language and Culture (L&C=23) and Economics and Business (E&B=14).

Interestingly, however, a preliminary analysis I conducted today suggests that there are differences between countries in terms of the 'Top 3' research areas, e.g.

USA (N=129): M(32); SSG(26); L&C(16).
UK (N=23): M(3); CS(3); Biol&Biochem(3).
Canada (N=20): M(7); SSG(5); CS(2); Physics (2).
Australia (N=19): SSG(6); L&C(5); CS(3); Arts(3).
Portugal (N=13): SSG(4); M(3); Hist&Arch(3).

As part of the registration process for PhD Weblogs, candidates are required to nominate their research area from the 27 fields from the RFCD classification - so it's important to remember that candidates are determining their research category. My preliminary analysis also reveals that PhD blogs have been created in most of the 27 fields, with the notable exceptions of Pharmacology, Microbiology, Immunology, and Architecture and Urban Environment. So PhD blogging appears to have relatively widespread appeal rather confined to a selection of disciplines.

So how do we interpret and explain the predominance of the Multidisciplinary and Social Science General fields? Does this say something about knowledge structures, social/cultural factors, or the personalities of those who have decided to blog?

There is a good deal of research around the epistemological and social influence of disciplines, for example, Becher's Academic Tribes and Territories. One of his key ideas is that the ideals and practices of academic communities are intimately bound up with the nature of the knowledge they pursue. While collaborative work with others (e.g. Neumann and Parry) has been important, the original conceptual framework remains relatively constant, viz:

Hard Pure - natural science, mathematics
Soft Pure - humanities, social science
Hard Applied - science-based professions
Soft Applied - social professions

Even though reference is made in the work of these researchers to increased specialisation and the disciplinary evolution across a number of disciplines (e.g. Molecular Biology from Biology, Astronomy from Physics), the model does not cater for inter/trans/multi disciplinary sudies.

I am interested in how others are interpreting emerging patterns associated with the research areas of PhD bloggers, e.g.

1. Is the high proportion of multidisciplinary research in PhD blogging a reaction to the convention of 'academic tribes and territories' (or are PhD bloggers just 'soft')?

2. To what extent do PhD blogs constitute a new form of knowledge community (e.g. reflecting new kinds of relationships between people, ideas and knowledge production)?

3. What are the implications of PhD blogging for research, teaching, learning, work and career development?

Monday, May 16, 2005

The doctoral experience knowledge base

One of my basic arguments is that with more comprehensive data and analysis on the current practices and experiences of doctoral candidates, not only would a number of myths associated with the PhD be dispelled, but also a much firmer foundation for the development of effective policy and practice in doctoral education would be established.

So what do we know about the experiences of PhD candidates? Where are the main data sources and what has been revealed in terms of key findings? What don't we know and what do we need to find out?

Quantitative studies such as the Australian Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire (PREQ) throw some light on higher degree students' perceptions of their experiences (see GCCA). While over 80 per cent of these students are satisfied with their overall experience (annual surveys 2000-2004), a number of shortcomings are revealed with regard to the intellectual climate in which they work (e.g. research ambience) and the infrastructure provided (e.g. financial support for research).

In terms of qualitative research, a national study by Neumann (2003) see DEST E&I Publications 2003 also found that the large majority of students are positive about their doctoral programs, with 12 per cent dissatisfied with their supervision experiences and five per cent with serious grievances. However, other studies in Australia such as Lee and Williams (1999), and in the USA by Lovitts (2001) indicate that the PhD can have highly negative aspects. The former examined dissatisfaction among doctoral candidates in the social sciences, while the latter investigated the causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study across the disciplines.

Blogs now provide a new and different means by which perspectives and insights on the contemporary PhD experience can be identified and shared. At this moment, the PhD Weblogs site contains the weblogs of 278 candidates internationally, 18 of whom are located in Australia. While there is considerable variation in terms of content and style, it is possible to detect some emerging patterns. For example, the PhD blogger's research tends to be a common focus–frequently illustrated by select readings and sites–and accompanied by various thoughts, comments and reflections. The lived experience of the blogger is also highlighted, although there is considerable variation around the extent to which personal/emotional and academic/professional dimensions are incorporated. While some blogs emphasise the highs and lows experienced, others record the nature and extent of progress made, especially in terms of intellectual development. However, a striking feature of the PhD blog is the universal desire for feedback.

Like other PhD bloggers, I too would be very interested to receive feedback, especially with regard to additional sources of data on the contemporary doctoral experience, as well as any comments regarding the perceived value of the PhD blog: not only as a learning device, but also as a research tool.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Doctoral Education – Champions, changes and challenges

A significant number of academics, researchers, students and others have been working in the field of doctoral education for some time in Australia and elsewhere. As a relative newcomer to the field, I would like to acknowledge their contributions, scholarship and commitment to establishing the existing knowledge base.

During the past few years, many have written about changes occurring in doctoral education, along with the challenges and dilemmas that are emerging as a result. For example, a recent editorial in Studies in Continuing Education, Vol 26, No. 3 (November 2004) provides a succinct state-of-the-art summary, pointing to the increased scope and diversity of doctoral education today. Editorial writers Pearson, Evans and Macauley highlight the importance of understanding the interrelationships and significance of PhD candidates’ activities as students and their status as members of the workforce, arguing that a radical rethinking of the doctoral experience is required.

The three authors are also the Chief Investigators of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project in which I am involved as a doctoral candidate. For more information about the Working Students: Reconceptualising the doctoral experience project, please see CEDAM, ANU. The focus of my PhD research is the nature of the contemporary study, research, training, work and career development interface for doctoral candidates, and its relationship to the dynamics of the environments in which they operate.

In creating this blog, I am seeking to fulfil a number of objectives. First, to stimulate debate around issues concerned with doctoral education in general, and the work practices of PhD candidates in particular. Second, to promote an exchange of views on current theories and approaches to the PhD. Third, to explore developments and trends associated with identity, authorship and publishing on the part of doctoral candidates. Fourth, to record selective thoughts and reflections associated my own doctoral experience.

I enrolled as a PhD candidate at the ANU in March 2003 and have been co-opted as an Executive Member of PARSA Postgrad & Res Students Assoc, ANU. As part of the ARC Linkage Project, I am working in collaboration with another PhD candidate from Deakin University. While he is concerned primarily with the experiences of part-time doctoral candidates, my interest is in full-time candidates.

In a co-authored paper presented at the AARE conference in December 2004, we outlined some of the processes and outcomes associated with the initial period of our candidature. Kevin used data and analysis to illustrate the changing nature of the doctoral population in Australia, while I used a narrative to reflect on my initial experience as a doctoral candidate Cumming&Ryland, 2004.

As you will note from this blog's side bar, I have flagged my interest in the learning environments of PhD candidates; processes of socialisation (e.g. in the university, profession, discipline, world of work); and knowledge production. My plan is to identify select papers and reports with a view to generating responses and interaction, either by means of a hyperlink or a conventional reference. In the meantime, I look forward to sharing and exchanging views on contemporary doctoral practices and experiences.