Making the jump from M to (Ph)D: supervision and literacy development

Although this blog is primarily focused on writing a PhD thesis, and more latterly on writing for publication, I have become aware fairly recently that I have several readers who are Masters students. This post considers the move from masters to doctoral study, and the supervision needs to scaffold further development in (Ph)D students’ literacy practices, building on the M(A).

Perhaps a good place to begin is with a generalised sense of what an MA thesis is, compared to a PhD thesis. A colleague recently commented that, if you want to be an academic working in some form of higher education institution these days, the Masters is the new school leaving qualification and the PhD is the degree. This signalled to me that, certainly in academia, the PhD is the basic standard if you want to be taken seriously, and in all cases I know of you need an M degree of some kind (MA, MSc, MPhil, MFA etc) to apply for and be accepted into a PhD. A Masters degree by coursework, involves a good deal of reading, writing shorter and longer papers on aspects of your reading, both assigned and self-selected, and culminates in the researching and writing of a thesis of around 30,000-40,000 words; an MA by research only involves choosing a research focus, designing an appropriate study, and researching and writing a thesis of around 60,000 words.

Giuseppe Momo's spiral staircase at the Vatican (thetimes.co.uk)

Giuseppe Momo’s spiral staircase at the Vatican
(thetimes.co.uk)

The point about an MA being a prerequisite for PhD study implies that completing a Masters degree would act as a form of preparation for PhD study, and that if you succeed, you will be well able to make the step up from MA to (Ph)D study. I have to say, in my own case, I did not find this to be quite true. My own MA degree, a mixture of rigorous coursework and writing shorter papers with a longer research paper (during which I was not well supervised), did a rather poor job of preparing me for my own PhD, which I started five years after finishing my MA. I did well in my MA – it felt mostly familiar to me as it was structured similarly to my previous Honours degree. The literacy demands were greater, especially around the reading and seminar preparation, but on the whole it felt manageable. My first year of PhD study was a shock to the system.

The main reason for this shock, on reflection, was that I really had no clear idea of what a PhD actually was or what researching and writing a thesis entailed, and working on my own, on one (huge) research project just felt like far too much, too soon. It was not really like my MA at all.

PhD thinking capA key difference between the (Ph)D and the M(A) is the demand for an original contribution to your field. The M degree generally does not require originality; rather, the requirement, generally, is that you show that you are able to design and conduct a research study, and create a well-written account of it in the form of a thesis. If you do make an original contribution that is a bonus, but you won’t be failed or held back from graduating with your MA if you do not. With a PhD, however, treading solely over previously trodden ground and making no new contribution to your field is considered to be a failure to meet one of the basic requirements, and may well result in you having to make significant revisions, or even being failed by some examiners. This, I think now, was behind the shock to the system: how was I going to up my game as a reader, thinker and writer to make this original contribution to my field? What previous literacy practices and skills could I draw on?

This points me to an issue that does not seem to be as readily realised in academia as it should be: that at each level of study, from first year to final year of an undergraduate degree, and in each different postgraduate degree, as well as beyond postgraduate study, the literacy demands made of students and writers change. Yet, the support offered to students post-first year seems to fall away at varying rates, based (it seems) on the assumption that the literacy practices they have been taught and expected to master (!) early on will carry them through the rest of undergraduate study. Postgraduate supervisors often seem to assume that the literacy practices and skills mastered in undergraduate study will carry through to and adequately support postgraduate reading, thinking and writing, and supervision does not often seem to involve helping students with developing their PhD-level literacy.

Without turning to the research on this, I think anyone who has been a student or taught students at both under and postgraduate level can see the problem here. Literacy demands change, and writers have to change to meet them, but without relevant support, teaching, feedback and guidance at each level to make the demands and shifts clear to writers, there will be repeated shocks to the system as writers progress through their levels of study. Believing yourself to be a good writer, based on your success at school, and then finding that you are not doing the right kinds of writing expected at university can knock your confidence enormously; by the same token, doing well in an MA and then finding yourself completely at sea starting a PhD can have the same effect. And knocks to confidence lead to other kinds of issues, like slow progress, self-doubt, strangled writing and misery.

Jorge Cham phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham (phdcomics.com)

Thus, I suggest (as a start) that we need to think far more carefully about the ways in which MA and PhD study connect, especially in terms of the literacy demands (taking into account the differences between writing and researching an MA versus a PhD in different contexts). We need to critically examine the connections (and gaps) between the literacy practices involved in completing an MA and those in completing a PhD, and finding clearer ways to supervise and guide students at PhD level that can scaffold them up from MA to PhD level. This is not a task for students to work out alone and without clear guidance – that way dropping out lies. Rather, this is a task for students to work on with strong supervision that not only focuses on the knowledge that students are writing about, but also how they are writing about it, and what they need to be doing with their writing to move up a level in terms of their ability to read, think and write more independently, more critically, and with a view to finding a strong voice capable of making an original or novel contribution – even in a small way – to their field of research and practice.

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