Rationale of a PhD

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Rationale of a PhD

Postby Richard » 10 Aug 2018 10:21

There's an interesting article on PhDs at https://www.theguardian.com/higher-educ ... emic-kudos

Overlooking issues like 33% of students get depression, 50% don't finish, and the average completion time is 13 years, there are some important things here.

The main argument seems to be that the prime goal of a PhD should be to have an impact on the real world rather than publishing for other researchers to read. Do you agree with this argument? Does it apply to your own research? When judging students' proposals for topics, should we be judging them on their real-world impact rather than the likelihood of leading to a quality publication (as at present)?
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Re: Rationale of a PhD

Postby Sachiko » 13 Aug 2018 10:29

It’s an interesting coincidence that I happened to read this article and had some discussions with a friend of mine a few days ago.
“The main argument seems to be that the prime goal of a PhD should be to have an impact on the real world rather than publishing for other researchers to read. Do you agree with this argument?”
I’d like to say ‘yes and no.’ As far as I’ve come to understand up till now (through 1 year of my PhD journey), research is about making a contribution. This contribution can be as big as, for example, offering groundbreaking findings that will have a huge impact on language teaching and/or theory, and it can be as small/local as helping to improve some specific aspects of language education system at local schools. Whatever the form of the contribution, it is of worth being spread and read by other researchers who may then take on an even further investigation to challenge or support your findings. That said, being read by others, such as getting a bigger number of citations or getting published in major journals should never be the end-goal.

This is a bit personal story, but something I wanted to share:
Last February, I was talking with a friend of mine (experienced researcher) about my concerns and anxiety related to my PhD study through email exchanges.
In one of my email lines, I wrote:
My biggest fear and worry is that I won't be able to get my work published in good journals.
Then he wrote:
Why do you want to be published in journals?
I replied:
Good question. I was going to add the information.
That is one of my goals as a researcher. I've asked myself so many times, 'why do I want to?' I don't really get an answer. But I do want to get published. I don't really know why. Maybe it's one way of seeing some degree of accomplishment? It can also be a type of evaluation of my work, I believe.
Then he wrote:
Yes. Those kinds of goals are useful but not before having something to say
This message struck me. That time I realized that I had been so wrong about research and publication. It was one of the milestones in my academia life, and I owe him for that, just as I do with many of those who have supported/helped/gave advice to me. tears tears… ;)
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Re: Rationale of a PhD

Postby sgtowns » 13 Aug 2018 21:56

I agree with Sachiko above. I also have mixed feelings about this article. I agree with the article's assertion that Academia at the PhD level is a broken system, especially in western countries. And I agree that there is a link between being a PhD student and experiencing mental issues such as depression or anxiety. (We can save a discussion of what that link is and what causes it for another post.)

But in my opinion, changing all PhDs to be more "real-world" focused is not the answer. First of all, research and theory is still needed in order to apply the frameworks and findings in the real world. PhDs and academia in general are here to develop and to argue and to agree about that theory. Secondly, how does one judge when a student has "made a difference in the real world"? What is "a difference"? Saved millions of people and changed history? Or made just one person's life better?

Having said that, I strongly believe that we should do what we can to make the world a better place. So why can't we have separate doctoral tracks in academia for every field -- one for theory and one for more practical pursuits? This is already done in some fields. A medical doctor (MD) earns a doctorate, but the focus is on practical experience. A JD is a doctorate of Law, but again it is more applied than a PhD of Law. However, the goal for MD or JD is not "you can graduate because you have already made a difference in the world" as this article talks about. It is more along the lines of "you can graduate because you are ready to go out and make a difference in the world".

It seems to me that a professional doctorate in Applied Linguistics would make sense. It would prepare doctoral students to be English teachers who can apply research findings to their classroom. A separate research doctorate would be for students who want to do research in the future, or who are more interested in theory, or who want to teach/supervise doctoral students.

I am curious to hear what others think of this idea...
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Re: Rationale of a PhD

Postby linhai » 20 Aug 2018 08:46

I have mixed feelings towards this argument. Prior to my PhD journey, I believed, naively, that a researcher would be like a world changer or a game changer. Right now I still feel that there is some truth to it, since researchers are able to find or recognize problems and then attempt to fix them. However, looking at my own study, I start doubting if it has a considerable effect on the real world. Even though it does, how could I know and how can people measure the impact? Every time I am asked to talk about the influence of my research, I can confidently say ‘my study...to resonate with others, to reach out to policy makers...’ But, is that true?
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Re: Rationale of a PhD

Postby Richard » 21 Aug 2018 13:29

Harris makes a good point in asking about how we can tell the impact of our research. Identifying expected research impact is something that is commonly asked for in research funding proposals (and I don't normally know what to write). If you work in engineering producing a device, or in computing producing software, you can probably talk about its impact. For applied linguistics, however, and especially for research like Harris' thesis, there are no concrete products. If the main output of the research is an article, how can you tell its impact?

The traditional way is to count number of citations (one reason why publishing in Q1 journals is important). However, as the Guardian article points out, articles are not necessarily cited because they produce important results. The article mentions that the author's most-cited paper is a comparison of definitions, not the research he is most proud of. (An alternative way of generating a large number of citations is to get something published that people will want to contradict - Truscott published a couple of heavily-cited papers arguing that corrective feedback on writing has no real effect, many of the citations are in papers countering this).

Other less traditional ways of measuring impact include number of page views for your article (which should show the number of people who have at least looked at your article online), and altmetrics (also mentioned in the Guardian article). These count social media mentions of an article. There are also mainstream media monitoring measurements, such as PlumX (I recently proposed to the university that KMUTT should create a similar system for monitoring Thai mainstream media mentions of academic output).

None of these are really satisfactory, but they can tell you that some people have at least read your work. Is this enough to say that your research has had "a considerable effect on the real world"?
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Re: Rationale of a PhD

Postby SayamolPan » 22 Aug 2018 10:40

I'm not sure that my answer below addresses the issue in the article but I want to share something about myself.

My original purpose of doing the PhD is very simple. I'm in the teaching field, so I (and some other people in the field may) think obtaining PhD is a must in terms of career promotion. I didn't even have a specific of what I wanted to research or how to do 'good' research. Everything starts here. Now, I'm still teaching but my perspective on research has changed. Of course, I need to have my current research done at least in the way that satisfies my supervisor and the committee in order to finish this long and exhausting journey, but if I continue doing research after this, it will be mainly based on my interest rather for any other reasons. I currently see myself as an apprentice who needs to practice hard to excel at research skills to do more of interesting research in the future. And yes, I wish to get published in good journals. It's like when I put effort into some work, I want my product to be acknowledged by people rather than leaving it unknown.
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Re: Rationale of a PhD

Postby Raj » 26 Aug 2018 22:43

"The argument that the prime goal of a PhD should be to have an impact on the real world rather than publishing for other researchers to read". I agree to this argument in a sense that any piece of research should impact on the real word in one or other way. To me, I am doing a PhD to understand how research works, pretty much personal motivation and a genuine curiosity but i will not be very happy with myself if i spent few years to a thing that has no impact to the real world. The current trend that is going after the number of citations sounds a little absurd as citations may not really guarantee the quality of work in all cases. I think, to answer this question in a better way, one has to research on cited articles vs non-cited articles in terms of their impact to the body of knowledge.
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