Writing an MA dissertation is probably your first step towards learning how to do independent research. It is useful to think of it in terms of “unfolding” a research project. It is again useful to think of it in terms of a stage in the development of your research project, something that can be continued with a PhD application, a PhD proposal and three to five year of independent research as a PhD student.
Moving from the status of undergraduate student to the status of a student learning to do research is sometimes difficult and it requires a change in the atttitude. You need to be pro-active, you need to seek help, find your community, find your colleagues; you need to pester your supervisor and insist on regular meetings. You need to discuss your ideas, get feed-back, talk with colleagues, get help. You will need help at every stage in developing your research (in order to get the latest publications in your field, in order to develop and test your argumentation, in order to refine and sharpen your claims etc.). You also need to see how good, high standard research is done. Acquiring research skills involve a lot of learning by doing.
Unfortunately, the educational system in Romania is such that it does not always provide the things you need – you might find yourself relatively isolated, lacking proper feed-back, for example. You might find that it is difficult to reach the most recent bibliografical information. You might find that it is difficult to discuss your ideas with colleagues etc.
The answer is simple: you have to reach out, to the academic community at large, learn how things are done in other parts of the world. You have to find your colleagues in other cetres and universities and obtain help and feed-back in the cyberspace 🙂 Independent research does not mean working alone (in fact, I do not believe one can achieve results by working alone). Becoming an independent researcer simply means a freedom of choice – you can choose your own community of colleagues and collaborators.
Tips: One of the most important secrets in this process of “doing research” and “becoming an independent researcher” is that it requires evaluative skills. You need to evaluate yourself and your work by comparison with other researchers/works/findings in the field. You need to learn what is good research and evaluate your own work in comparison with that.
Where do I find “good research”?
The results of good research are published in good journals. But seeing the results is not always helpful – you need to learn more about how research is done in its first stages, about how research projects are developed etc.
One thing is clear: you cannot find “good research” in the classroom. You need to reach out, where some results are communicated: conferences (be careful: there are good and bad conferences), research seminars, departmental seminars, PhD seminars. In good universities, interesting research is done in the PhD school. Most departments have research projects and most research projects have associated research seminars. It would be useful to hung around such places for a while.
If you cannot find such activities in your immediate vicinity, there is also the cyberspace. There are research communities with interesting blogs, many research projects have an online component. There are electronic lists of research communities. Try to join such lists and engage in discussions. Listen and read carefully.
Here are some tips from Dave Gifford (MIT):
- Read recent proceedings of the best conferences, and ask more senior people what were the best papers. Try to figure out what makes a great paper (and thus what makes great research).
- Keep a notebook that contains your research notes. Put all of your empirical data and initial ideas in the notebook. Make notes on a paper as you read it and think about the assumptions of the author and the importance of the results.
- Follow references from one paper to another until you know an area extremely well. Don’t count on your advisor to hand you all of the relevant papers out of his file drawer. He doesn’t have them all!
One thing you need to learn relate to the academic standards, rules of academic behavior, rules of collaboration etc. I have touched this issue in the previous posts, but maybe it is time for a comparative study of academic standards and rules for doing graduate research in various countries and in different universities.
It is worth having a look at the academic standards for graduate research as defined by the top universities (most universities have special pages or documents explaining such standards and requirements).
Learning by doing (I): reading and evaluating dissertations
Our first exercise in thsi course is to read and evaluate dissertations: MA and PhD dissertations. Again, it is worth beginning with some introductory readings: what are the academic standards in various PhD schools? How does a dissertation look like? What is the recommended structure?
Some PhD schools have quite precise requirements for what a MA or PhD thesis should look like. Find some such requirements here and here. It would be also useful to have a look to the kind of theses/subjects supervised in some of the top departments. Here are some examples from Harvard, Princeton, and an interesting lists of alumni and their work at the HPS department in Pittsburg. Look for the HPS departments at Notre Dame, Cambridge and Oxford. It is worth doing the comparison. Another useful resource is a list of theses in philosophy someone has compiled – you might find interesting theses (and colleagues) there.
The next step would be to read two-three dissertations from the same field – or even with the same subject as yours. It might prove tremendously useful. Choose carefully – and try to find dissertations coming from good departments.
Reading the dissertation: Preliminaries
Don’t just read it as a book. Begin by searching the author (try Google scholar and Academia.edu). Who is the author? What did she/he do since the dissertation? Did she/he publish parts of the dissertation? Where? Search then the department. What were the requirements for a PhD/Master thesis in that department?
Reading the dissertation: what to look for
First thing to look for: the thesis/major claim. Once you have found it, open the dissertation at the end and look at the list of bibliography. Evaluate the bibliography (how many title? What proportion between books and articles? The newest titles? Are they “new enough”? Is the bibliography “up-to-date’? Is it specific enough for the requirements?). Then read the state-of-the art chapter.
You might stop here and decide that the dissertation was badly constructed and move to another disertation. Or you may want to continut and read through the argumentation and evaluate the dissertation.
Evaluating the dissertation
Here are some questions a dissertation needs to answer:
- The thesis: is the thesis clearly formulated and sharpen enough? Does the author explain the importance, scientific relevance and significance of the thesis she/he want to defent?
- The state-of-the art chapter: is it clear, comprehensive and convincing? Does it cover the relevant materials? (does it explain why the materials covered are relevant?). Does it provide a good context for the discussion/defense of the thesis?
- What are the steps in the argumentation? How does the author defend/prove her/his thesis?
- Engaging with the academic debate in the field: does the author engage in the academic debate in the field? Does he/she prove awareness of the discussions surrounding the subject? Does she/he respond to the criticism? Does she/he imagine possible objections someone might raise against her/his thesis? How does she respond to them?
- Does the author pursue original research? (more on this in a special post)
- Concluding remarks: read carefully the concluding chapter – does the author summarize the results? Does she/he explain their relevance, importance etc.? Does the author place her/his results in the context of further research to be done? Is he/she making it clear how this research project can be developed in the future
- Re-read the introduction: go back now and read the introduction. Does the introduction “square” with the rest of what you have read? Is it a good intro in the subject? Is it clear? (there are many things you can find out by re-reading the intro: for example, when did the author hand in the dissertation – whether the dissertation was written in haste etc.)
Write a short evaluation report of the dissertation. Highlight its good points, its strengths and weaknesses. Compare it with another dissertation on the same subject and see what are the good and the weak points of both.