Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


PhD as Time Team Episode

Preface:I was prompted to write this post by my colleague Andrew Basden’s interpretation of my ‘ critique’ of the area in which he researches and supervises PhDs. However, as I approach the end of this phase of my career (I leave Salford in January 2013), I have been reflecting on various activities, PhD supervison being one, and so I cast my response to Andrew in a wider setting.

Spade in soil

Spade in soil by net_efekt

The Time Team is a Channel 4 series where each programme tracks and films short-term dig.  From the footage produced, a programme of approximately 50 minutes is created, designed to inform and entertain the viewers.  We can contrast this with a traditional archaeological research excavation whose goal is to accumulate knowledge over a relatively long period. There are many ways in which a PhD research project is unlike a Time Team project that has a large team, significant resources and an immediate audience but in respect of time limitations and the need for publication we can compare the PhD with the programme.

A UK PhD is intended to take 3 years (including submitting the thesis and the oral viva voce examination).  An additional year can be taken for writing up but lateness is very bad news for the student, incurring additional expense, stress  and delay ; for the supervisor, whose supervision is extended; and for the University who will suffer in HEFCE assessment of their completion rates.

Kearns, Gardiner and Marshall found that “self‐sabotaging behaviours, including overcommitting, procrastination and perfectionism, have a role to play”, an emphasis on student agency .  Leder interprets Mamet’s advice from 1983 but highlights the role of the supervisor.

“…. successful completion of the thesis requires students to remain at university until their thesis is submitted, to become autonomous learners yet heed advice, read widely without losing the focus of the research question chosen, limit the scope of the project, write early enough and in sufficient quantity, and be prepared to polish and refine that writing – but not indefinitely. These steps assume the support and guidance of a supervisor.”

I have no empirical evidence to offer but my reflections from my own supervision, and internal and  external assessments of PhDs supervised by others indicate that a significant factor in student delay is pursuing a topic with too broad a scope. It is part of the ‘work’ of the first stage of a PhD to refine the scope as the student reviews the literature to find out what is, and isn’t, known in the area of interest. The supervisor can both constrain the scope (by emphasising topics of particular interest to them) and collude in inflating the scope (by agreeing aims and objectives or research questions that cannot be achieved within 3 years). Between student and supervisor, the scope should be continually under discussion, particularly because of the costs of late scoping.  The scope is bound to change but I would assert that the earlier focus can be achieved the better.
In a Time Team project, the team will use scanning and other technologies to focus across what might be a fairly broad area but they are under time pressure to identify areas that look promising  to deliver ‘finds’ for broadcasting.  That’s when they will start to dig deep, still doing a professional job but highly selectively.

In a research excavation, the dig may occupy a much longer time period and the knowledge be accumulated over time.

So I am suggesting that the PhD student’s research may be more like a Time Team dig whilst the supervisor’s research is more like a research excavation.

I’d love your comments on this.

Professor Andrew Basden, a leading Dooeyweerdian scholar, suggests that I

“made a critique that is relevant to applying Dooyeweerd, especially his aspects: Dooyeweerd’s aspects are too broad. Her point was that in undertaking realistic research projects, e.g. at PhD or masters level, students who use Dooyeweerd tend to go broad and shallow rather than investigating in depth. So – especially relevant for PhDs, in which researchers are learning to become independent researchers – they do not have a chance to learn and practise the skills needed for in-depth research.”

I was not making a critique of Dooeyeweerd (I don’t know enough about the work to do this), I was merely observing that a framework of analysis that required students to understand then apply 15 aspects might militate against achieving a focus to research to be achieved and written up within 3 years.


francesbell • August 9, 2012

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  1. Ailsa Haxell (@ai1sa) August 9, 2012 - 12:00 pm Reply

    Fair comment, some types of research are incredibly time absorbing. Why oh why did I choose to study change? A literature that goes from here to eternity… And why a change as it happens, when always just round the corner is what i hoped for… And compound this with a method that requires painstaking detail and where the theorists are still writing – and changing what they wrote. Oh sigh. And then there are lives that get in the way, aged parents, aging selves, broken bones…
    I would do it all again. Some issues are worth studying, and yes they sometimes take time. But I am, nonetheless, glad of a time limit, and glad of a word limit, else i might confuse the time team dig with the research excavation.

  2. Morwen August 9, 2012 - 2:22 pm Reply

    I value Frances’ comments on this.
    I admit that I tend to assume that students will
    complete their research and writing up in four years, not three,
    because the university offer letter specifies minimum term “3 + 1 years”.
    However, perhaps three years is better.

    However, more important:
    1. Dooyeweerd’s aspects should be taken together, and the whole suite,
    to do justice to his thought, and the diverse nature of reality.
    2. They are particularly good for interdisciplinary situations
    and human activity systems.
    3. So the question is: is there a way in which PhD students can
    consider all fifteen aspects and still complete in time?
    4. If not, does this mean that Dooyeweerd should is impossible
    for a PhD?
    5. That would be a shame: it would mean that no PhDs could research
    using Dooyeweerd aspects in a way that does justice to them.

    I hope that we can find a way.

    Thanks, Frances, for articulating this.


  3. francesbell August 9, 2012 - 3:42 pm Reply

    @ Ailsa The journey is of course a very important part of it. I appreciate what you way about being glad of a time and word limit. Helen Keegan and I did some work where looked at the relationship between constraints and creativity, so-called generative constraints

    @Andrew As I said above I am no expert in Dooyeweerd but idly wonder if applying aspectual analysis to something very specific (constrained in time and scope) might help focus the research.

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