Friday, October 26, 2012

Concepts of Research

The sixth, and last, fortnightly topic for the research supervision course I am undertaking is the conceptions of research which students and their supervisors have. Somehow half way through I strayed from the topic, into the area of student diversity:

What The Candidates Think

As part of the ANU Information & Human Centred Computing group, I attend fortnightly research presentations (this week: “Computer games for rehabilitation”). In this area "research" is synonymous with "experimentation" using the scientific method. Students do literature searches and build hardware, but only as a precursor to experiments, where they carry out repeated tests under controlled conditions using human subjects. Students are expected to have already conducted such research as an undergraduate, typically in Honours. Some are doing research into policy, but only after proving themselves in experimental work.


Course Notes

"HDR candidates" divides the topic into four:

1. Student Motivation

The notes distinguish between those interested in research and those interested in a qualification for career advancement. International candidates are singled out as being typically motived by career advancement. But this analysis of student motivations is not then linked to practical outcomes.
The research presented suggests that about half of doctoral graduates go on to work in higher education, but no split between administrative, teaching and research positions is provided. The notes appear to be trying to obscure the fact that most research graduates do not go on to a career in research.

2. Conceptions of research

The notes discuss common student misconceptions as to what research is, such as only gathering data to support preconceived ideas and suggests it is critical for a supervisor to discover if students hold such misconceptions. But if such misconceptions are as common as indicated, then I suggest the appropriate action is to have a formal test for all students and then set work to correct the misconceptions. This should not be left to some informal fireside chat between supervisor and student.

3. Student experience

The notes suggest that as well as supervisors, others will be important to the student, such as librarians, technical support and lab staff, family, friends and peers. The importance of written and oral communication skills is emphasised.

The "Ideas & tools" section of the notes references "Life as a doctoral student - more than research" (Oxford Learning Institute, 2011), which shows a page out of a student diary to emphasise that university is about social as well as study activities. It suggests these steps:
  1. Building relationships
  2. Learning to be proactive
  3. Developing new skills and identities
  4. Communicating one's research
  5. Imagining a future beyond the doctorate
Perhaps the university could update this approach by making the student's e-journal part of the assessment.

4. Diversity

The notes point out that about 14% of Australian doctoral candidates are international students. The top three countries for international PHDs in 2008 were: Malaysia, China and Indonesia. Also 36% of students were part time for at least part of their program, with the proportion of part time students increasing over time. The notes point out that full-time candidates are more likely to complete, but the part-time candidates who do complete do so in less time.

Oxford's "Student diversity" points out that UK Higher education institutions are subject to legislation protecting against discrimination by age, race, sexual orientation, religion and gender. Australian universities are subject to similar legislation, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and are required to anticipate the requirements of their students. It is not lawful to wait for a student to ask for special access. This principle was confirmed in the case of "Maguire v SOCOG 2000" (for which I was one of the expert witnesses).

As a part-time coursework student I have faced considerable impediments to study, where courses and administrative procedures have been designed on the assumption that the typical student is on-campus, full time, young, nimble and has good eyesight. It must be much more difficult for a student from a remote part of Australia, or overseas, who has work, family, religious or cultural commitments, which prevent them studying to a fixed timetable and location. This contrasts with studies at an online university, which I found set up for a diverse student population.

Other Readings

Åkerlind  (2008) point out that there is much less literature on academics' experience of research, than of teaching. They point out that the increasing emphasis on measurement and accountability of academic research activity, in‐depth exploration of the ways in which academics experience research, and of their underlying intentions in being a researcher and undertaking research, become important.

Åkerlind  (2008) examines ten phenomenographic studies using interviews of students and supervisors, mostly in technology disciplines. Studies looked at the extent to which academic value research in terms of contributing to goals of individual researchers and the research team. In addition they looked at the quality of the research, how it contributes to knowledge and is of general benefit and solves practical problems.
The authors note a difference in outlook of those conducting research into research, in terms of outcomesprocess, or intentions. They then conducted their own research of of 28 academics at an "research‐intensive university in Australia" (most likely ANU). The results were summarised as "Being a researcher as ...":
  1. fulfilling academic requirements
  2. establishing oneself in the field
  3. developing oneself personally
  4. enabling broader change
Bills (2007) investigated the questions: what is research, what is good research and what qualities make a good researcher, what makes a good research student and why do research? Rather than interviews or surveys an ethnomethodology, with analysis of focus group discussion was applied. The major finding of Bills (2007) was that it is the supervisor's own concepts of how research is conducted (and in particular who is in charge), which can cause problems for students, as much as the student's perceptions. Also it is suggested that undertaking a research degree is largely a process of socialisation into a discipline.


Bills, D. (2007). Supervisors' conceptions of research and the implications for supervisor development. doi: International Journal for Academic Development, Vol. 9, No. 1, May 2004, pp. 85–97 Retrieved from

Åkerlind, G. S. (2008). An academic perspective on research and being a researcher: an integration of the literature. doi: Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 33, No. 1, February 2008, pp. 17-31. Retrieved rom:

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