Postgraduate study: Passion or peril?

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

I can think of a few good reasons for registering for a postgraduate degree — and quite a few reasons not to. Not least among them is because it's hard work, takes a long time and successful completion relies primarily on your own efforts. 

Some people undertake postgraduate studies because their desired professions require it for accreditation purposes. Others do so because they are passionate about an issue and postgraduate research provides the structured, supportive environment in which to follow that passion in a productive way. 

Some, though, register for a master's or PhD because they cannot get a job, cannot find a position in which to undertake the necessary articles or internship required for accreditation, or cannot face the idea of leaving university for the nine-to-five world of work. If you register for one of these "negative reasons" — because of a lack of alternative options or an unwillingness to consider such options — you will need to draw on even greater resources to overcome the rigours of independent study. 

You will need to think about what you will bring to the postgraduate experience and how you can ensure that you are marketable when you're done. It is a twee cliché that you only get out of an experience what you put into it, but where the educational structure is as loose as it is in most postgraduate programmes, this little homily bears consideration.  

I work with many academic colleagues from across the higher-education sector who are undertaking further qualifications in order to keep their jobs, as the doctorate becomes the entry-level requirement for an academic career. I firmly believe that undertaking research at the highest level makes for a stronger sense of disciplinary identity, a clearer comprehension of a field's processes and generally enhances all realms of academic life. 

But there are no doctoral candidates so recalcitrant and obstructive to their own progress as those who are undertaking their studies simply because management told them to. If you're among the thousands of South African academics undertaking doctoral study against the sound of a clock set ticking by the human resources department and under the threat of unemployment, you'd be well off to block that from your mind and search for a motivation that speaks to your interests and your sense of who you are and who you want to become. 

Postgraduate study is at least in part an identity journey. You are taking on the norms and values of a ­discipline and seeking to be recognised as a competent member of a field of study. The book Paperheads: Living Doctoral Study, Developing Doctoral Identity by Liz Harrison suggests that a stumbling block for many postgraduate students is a lack of clarity as to how to demonstrate disciplinary membership or an uncertainty of their right to claim such membership.

Higher education at all levels should prepare students as both critical citizens in an emerging democracy and as people who can contribute to economic growth. But it is at postgraduate level that students take on the identity of fully fledged knowledge producers. And this requires students to think of themselves in these terms, and it requires that universities treat their postgraduate scholars as fellow disciplinary experts. 

It is only at master's and doctoral level that graduates are counted in the national funding system as "research outputs" rather than "teaching outputs" and this reflects the particular role that postgraduates are expected to play in national knowledge production. The Academy of Science of South Africa's 2010 report on doctoral study in South Africa pointed out that, with only about 26 doctoral graduates per million, we have a very long way to go to reach the levels of countries such as Turkey (48), Brazil (52), Korea (187) or Australia (264). 

This is particularly important when one considers that the number of doctoral graduates per million is one of the indicators used to measure a country's economic stability and potential for growth. So, we really need more postgraduate research coming out of our universities. 

But I still caution people to think long and hard before registering. The National Qualifications Framework indicates that a master's degree takes 1 800 notional hours and a doctoral qualification takes 3 600 notional hours. You need to consider what this will mean for your family and social life and, if you intend studying part-time, what this will mean for your work demands.

I always recommend that postgraduate scholars have a conversation with their family and colleagues before they begin. And are you willing to give up a few hours of television every night and make other adjustments to your daily routine to fit this lengthy endeavour into your ­schedule? Part-time scholars often have a particularly difficult time of this and dream of sabbaticals and retreats from reality when they will finally settle down and get on with it. But if you can't make your studies part of your everyday routine, you'd be better off not starting out on the journey. Once you decide that you do, indeed, want to undertake postgraduate study, you will need to consider what kind of qualification to register for. At master's level, you face a choice between a coursework master's or a full-thesis master's. If you have a very clear research topic in mind, are already highly literate in the discipline and have a great deal of self-discipline, then a full-thesis option is a good one. If you are unsure of a precise topic and would benefit from a more structured induction into the knowledge-production process of the discipline, then coursework would be better.

Generally speaking, you should make sure that at least 50% of the credits in a coursework master's programme comprise a research ­thesis, otherwise it will hold little credibility as a research qualification. There are some professional master's degrees for which the 50% rule does not hold sway, though, and for which industry recognition of the programme is what counts. In this case, you should chat to recruiters in your (prospective) industry, find out which programmes are most valued and attempt to get into one of these. 

At doctoral level, coursework and fieldwork can form aspects of the programme, but are not awarded credit. It all comes down to the final tome sent out to experts in the field to examine. The qualification is awarded on the successful completion of a research project at the most advanced level, which makes a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of the discipline or field.

There is a new qualification on the horizon, though. With the revised higher education subsection of the National Qualifications Framework, as of January 2013, universities are able to offer professional doctorates for which the research project will comprise at least 60% of the qualification and work-integrated learning and coursework will make up the rest. This new qualification will no doubt be offered through discussion with particular industries and in response to their particular needs.

Having selected the qualification type, you have the difficult task of deciding where to register. There are numerous factors at play here but, by and large, I'd take the advice given to me: choose your supervisor, not your institution. 

This is particularly true for full- thesis studies in disciplines where you'll be working on your own in conversation with a supervisor. I had the benefit of meeting someone who was very encouraging of my work long before I considered doing a PhD. When I felt I was ready to undertake this mammoth task, I knew that she was the person I wanted as my supervisor because of her cutting-edge work and her supportive manner. 

Many guidebooks on undertaking postgraduate study recommend getting the top scholar in the field as your supervisor. But there are pros and cons to this. The top scholar is often so busy, you might battle to get timeous and useful feedback from her. Chat to others being supervised by this person and find out about their experiences. 

The only golden rule here is to ensure that your supervisor is an active researcher. If your supervisor has not published anything since her own doctorate 20 years ago, she will probably be unaware of recent developments in the field. Read your potential supervisor's research. Get a sense of her interests and approaches. 

In some disciplines, particularly in the natural sciences, you need to look around for a project that appeals to you, rather than an individual supervisor, because you would be joining a team engaged in shared research. Increasingly, institutions are developing master's and doctoral programmes where you can join a vibrant group of fellow researchers who can sustain each other. Find out what is available in your field, where the best research is happening and where the current scholars speak highly of their experiences. 

As much as you are scrutinising potential supervisors and postgraduate programmes, they will also be scrutinising you. Because we have such a limited number of potential supervisors in this country, most are oversubscribed. 

So once you have decided who to approach for your future studies, take some time to get your introduction right. I regularly receive emails that make me raise my eyebrows in disbelief. Sending an email that reads: "Hi prof, I wanna join your programme. I am hardworking and need to get a PhD. Pls send me application forms," will not endear you to a future supervisor. 

You need to craft your application. Take the time to show your commitment, to outline what you are interested in researching, and why you have this interest. 

Professor Sioux McKenna is the higher education studies ­doctoral co-ordinator at the Centre for Higher Education Research, ­Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University

What students say

Professor Sioux McKenna asked students in the PhD programme she co-ordinates at Rhodes University what advice they would give to prospective postgraduate students:

• "You have to ask yourself: 'What do you want to achieve by engaging in postgraduate study?' Then, you need to do some thorough introspection about whether your motivation is enough to keep you going when things get tough,  because they really do get tough." 

• "Identify a broad subject area that you are passionate about which is going to be your research field. Do not lose focus on this area of passion as you continue to engage with your studies because you need passion to keep you going."

• "You need to know your ­character and personality. The journey requires that you draw a lot on your internal resources. Are you consistent, persistent, do you have the ability to keep going against all odds? These are some of the character traits you need to keep going."

• "You need to find a supervisor you are comfortable with and work on developing that ­relationship. Discuss your expectations and find out what she expects from you." 

• "Doing a PhD dispels any romantic notions about a voyage of discovery to new knowledge. Be prepared for a long, tedious haul."

• "You have to have an ongoing inquisitive itch that you're willing to keep scratching for years. Be ­prepared for sheer drudgery and hard work with occasional moments of insight and excitement."



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