Friday, 26 September 2008

Completing a PhD

I always thought that the objective of universities was to foster creative, innovative, and conceptual thinkers. As I near the end of my PhD, I feel as though all of my innovative and creative thoughts have been driven out of me but not into the thesis. Instead, I am being told just to do as my supervisor says and don't try anything new. A PhD is about being certified as a researcher in a particular research paradigm. Learn the rules of the paradigm and don't shake the boat.

In my teaching, my objective has been to develop people who can think through the issues and reason their way to solutions based on having a sound conceptual framework. If as a result of this learning, the person challenges my thinking or takes a different approach based on sound reasoning then I should be pleased since they are showing the initiative that I am trying to foster.

The closer I get to the end of my thesis, the more I feel that I am trying to guess what my supervisor wants and want the examiners might want. What those objectives are become clearer with each interaction. With each lot of feedback, I realise just how much time I have wasted by being a free thinker and by not having allowed my supervisor to dictate the steps to this point.

Here is my advise to a new student on how they should approach a thesis. I would recommend that you:

  • learn what is of interest to your supervisor,
  • learn how they approach their research,
  • seek to find a way to extend their work or to pursue something that is what your supervisor want to explore,
  • follow a research method that your supervisor would use,
  • uncover the reasoning that your supervisor has for the research questions and research method,
  • follow the structure that your supervisor expects when writing it up,
  • learn your supervisor's approach to writing by writing papers with them along the way and reading all the papers that they have had some influence in writing, and
  • don't pursue anything that you might be interested in and your supervisor has no interest in.

The bulk of your learning is related to learning about your supervisor and their methods. In Thomas Kuhn's (1996) terminology, you are learning the research paradigm and becoming indoctrinated in the ways of that paradigm. Thomas Kuhn argues that a student learns the methods of the paradigm and what is or is not acceptable for the paradigm. They are not expected to challenge the paradigm or to draw on alternative paradigms. The student is to conform in order to join the community. If they don't conform then they will not receive the accreditation to become part of that community.

The bottom line is to ignore any thoughts that you might have that challenge the paradigm. Just accept it and use it. Once you are indoctrinated then you can indoctrinate others.


Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

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