Secrets of postgrad success

Postgraduate study can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying and overwhelming. The statistics on postgraduate students who do not complete their degree, or who take longer than anticipated to do so, are alarming.

The government’s long-standing commitment to strengthening postgraduate study and research received a recent impetus from Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s summit on tertiary transformation in Cape Town in April. Among the summit’s recommendations was a specific focus on postgraduate study and research.

My own experience of postgraduate work, as a doctoral student in pharmacology during 2006 and 2007 at Rhodes University, after I upgraded my 2005 master’s research, was so positive that it motivated me to encourage others who might be considering enrolling for a higher degree.

You do need to consider such a step carefully because it is a big one, involving major investments of time and money, and other factors.
But it can also be life-enhancing.

A student’s research supervisor, and the fit between student and supervisor, plays such a pivotal role in shaping the postgraduate experience for the student that it is a critical—and often difficult—first step. Other major considerations, such as funding, can come a little later in planning postgraduate study.

I have known students who changed universities and moved across the country so that they could work with supervisors they found inspirational. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was not only a leading academic and researcher but also allowed me the time and space in which to develop my own research and working style.

He made a point of providing his students with great opportunities to collaborate with local and international research groups. Looking back, I think that much of the joy I experienced while working on my PhD emanated from the sense of purpose and passion for research that my supervisor imparted to me and members of the research group.

Despite sometimes experiencing difficulty in accessing adequate laboratory resources, we were highly motivated and committed to our research projects. I know of postgraduate students who did not have such a good fit with their supervisors and for whom the years of postgraduate study became a nightmare.

Personality clashes, poor understanding of mentoring and learning styles, differences in values, disagreements over research findings and conflicting motives contribute to a battle in which the student is always the more vulnerable party. There are times when an unsympathetic understanding of diversity, especially concerning race, gender and the needs of students with disabilities damages relations between students and supervisors and this may undermine research output.

Last year’s Soudien report on higher education argues that the sector is transforming rather slowly and that racism and other forms of discrimination still mar universities. The student-supervisor relationship always involves power dynamics and this can be exacerbated if any form of discrimination is present.

To prevent such conflict, and to manage it constructively if it does arise, it is important for there to be a clear memorandum of understanding or terms of reference between student and supervisor in which the rights and key responsibilities of each party are explicit and mechanisms of potential conflict resolution are clarified.

Many universities have such agreements, but sometimes these are mere paper exercises and there is no real buy-in from either party or from the institution as the overall custodian.

Lack of funding often deters students from embarking on postgraduate study. Although there are many local and international funders, potential students are not always aware of these resources. Students should cast their nets as widely as possible.

They must spend time on comprehensive internet searches and inquire early on in their investigations to the postgraduate financial aid offices at their own universities or—if they are thinking of returning to study some time after their first degrees—at the universities to which they’re considering applying for postgraduate admission.

Students should think creatively about which organisations might offer funding. For my undergraduate pharmacy degree, for example, I received a bursary from Revlon after an aunt suggested that a beauty company might be interested in funding study in the pharmaceutical sciences.

Having identified a potential donor, it is important to research that organisation and understand its strategic aims and priorities, so that your application for funding can show clearly how your postgraduate research project will contribute towards the body meeting its goals. If there is no fit between the research project and the strategic aims or priorities of the donor, your application is unlikely to be successful.

In today’s competitive research environment the onus is on the student to sell his or her research project and to tailor the funding application so that the donor body can clearly see the benefit of the project to itself. Nevertheless, it is important that once funding is secured the funding agreement articulates clearly the boundaries of the relationship between the donor and the research project, so that inappropriate pressure, such as suppressing certain research findings, is not exerted on the student.

Often your supervisor—or even someone you’ve merely spoken to with a view to him or her supervising you—can play a helpful role in alerting you to possible funding bodies, types of funding options available and how to navigate the student-funder relationship. So can the heads of the academic departments in which your proposed research would be located.

Many postgraduate students have to balance the pressures of working, maintaining a family and studying and so additional funding concerns arise. As a full-time PhD student who was on a good scholarship, I could focus on my research without having to juggle any additional pressures.

But after my PhD, when I entered the world of work and decided to embark on an MBA, I struggled to find an optimal balance between the need to work and the need to spend sufficient time on my studies. I am sure that there are many working students (or employees who are studying) who have to perform this balancing act.

‘Project manage’ your study
Besides having upgraded my master’s work, one of the factors that allowed me to complete my PhD in less than the required time (submitting my thesis in August instead of at the end of the year) was, I think, the project-management approach that I adopted.

I had a clear timeline and schedule and broke down my research project into distinct portions that could each be mastered and completed timeously. At the beginning of my postgraduate study I decided that I would write up my thesis as I went along, doing so chapter by chapter as I concluded the experiments relevant to each.

Because of this strategy, which is perhaps more suited to some disciplines than others, I did not find myself with a large amount of writing to do in the months before submission of my thesis—a familiar source of stress for many students. I handed my supervisor a copy of each chapter as I finished writing it and he was excellent at providing prompt feedback.

I would immediately work on and then resubmit the revised chapter to him. This allowed both of us to keep a close eye on the systematic progression of my research and I was able to benefit from the wisdom of his guidance and feedback from the early stages of my studies.

I wrote up my literature review, a significant part of the thesis, in the first three months of postgraduate study, before I had even conducted any laboratory work. Of course, I revised and updated it constantly over the course of my PhD, but the bulk of it was written early on.

I know that many students leave writing the literature review to the end of the research process, which can be stressful and tedious. When you’re starting a postgraduate programme, your research project can take on mammoth proportions in your mind.

You might feel overwhelmed and the uncertainty generated by being new to the world of research and perhaps the different structure of a new degree can lead to a sense of insecurity and helplessness. But, with adequate guidance and support from your supervisor, you will develop a holistic view of your research project and—where appropriate to your discipline—understand its practical implications and significance.

I centred my own research on making a contribution that would enhance the quality of life of cancer patients. Such centring helps to provide a focal point and grounding that anchors you in difficult times—and there will be at least a few of these.

The research proposal
The next step is to explore the research proposal and basic principles of research design and methodology.

You may have to submit a short research proposal with your application for funding but, if not, you are likely to be required to do so by the faculty or department in which you are studying. Proposals are not always compulsory but I would recommend that you still prepare one and submit it to your supervisor for consideration and feedback.

A research proposal can be likened to a road map of what your intended project will be about and how you will go about conducting your research. Preparing your proposal helps you to focus on your research question—the hypothesis that you wish to test—and to determine ­optimal and practical ways of answering it.

A good proposal contains:

  • Some background to the research problem;
  • A concise, short literature review;
  • Identification and discussion of a gap in the existing body of knowledge on a particular topic and how your research intends to fill the gap;
  • A clear ‘problem statement” detailing what the research project will be investigating;
  • Practical procedures the research will follow in leading up to answering the research question;
  • A detailed methodology that explains the rationale for using particular methods. You should include draft questionnaires or interview questions, if appropriate;
  • A schedule and budget, if needed;
  • Details of any special authorisation that may be required. For example, if human or animal subjects are to be involved in the research, the approval of your university’s ethics committee is likely to be needed;
  • Details of any collaborators or other people involved in carrying out the proposed research, including their roles and responsibilities;
  • A quality control framework within which the proposed research will be assessed continually and the validity of results and conclusions checked; and
  • A risk analysis of possible factors that could hinder the research project and a contingency plan showing how these risks can be prevented or minimised.

Often students produce a research proposal that is replete with background information but does not contain clear objectives of the proposed research or sufficient detail about the methodology to be used. Considering these practical issues in the initial stages of your postgraduate study will stand you in good stead later because it will give you a focused approach to your research project from the outset.

Research design and methodology
Research can be quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative research approaches, such as surveys and laboratory experiments, focus on obtaining so-called “hard data”—numbers. Qualitative approaches, on the other hand, such as interviews and focus-group discussions, focus on obtaining “soft data”—people’s feelings, thoughts, perceptions and opinions, which can be subjective.

Quantitative and qualitative approaches can be combined and this is called triangulation. Although triangulation is more complex and resource intensive, qualitative and quantitative approaches can complement each other to provide deeper insight into the research problem.

Any research approach has its own benefits but also limitations, which means that it is important that you justify your approach and its associated methodology. It could be, for example, that you have chosen to administer a survey because you do not have the necessary resources (such as time and interviewers) to conduct interviews.

You would then have to acknowledge that, even though you would be able to ascertain how many respondents agree or disagree with a particular statement, this is not likely to provide insight into why respondents have answered as they have. This in turn will affect how you formulate your research objectives and draw conclusions from your findings.

I cannot overemphasise the importance of a considered, planned and structured methodology. Even if you are going to be performing only desk research (as opposed, say, to laboratory work) and so think that articulating your methodology is not relevant, think for a moment: you will still need a strategy to sift through all the literature on your desk. What are you looking for and how are you going to look for it?

You must be able to justify why you are performing each step or activity in your proposed methodology and how each step or activity will contribute towards meeting your research objectives and ultimately answering your research question.

If possible, conduct pilot studies. These often provide crucial information about whether your broader approach is likely to achieve the results you hope to achieve.

You need to remind yourself constantly of your research question so that you do not lose focus and become side-tracked by interesting information or findings that are certain to arise as your research proceeds (this is one of the pleasures of postgraduate study) but are not relevant to your specific research project.

Finally, students sometimes shy away from methods or techniques with which they’re unfamiliar.

I’ll take statistical analysis as just one example. Students daunted by such analysis might want to avoid such methods completely, or try to develop their own competence in these methods, for example by attending workshops or reading textbooks, or to outsource this function, say to a collaborator in the university’s statistics department.

If you decide to outsource, it is important not to abdicate responsibility for this section of your research. Try to learn the basic principles underlying the expert’s function so that you can understand how your data is analysed, which may enable you to detect errors. It is your research, after all, so take ownership of it.

Draft thesis
In my first section, I said it is a good idea to start writing up your thesis as early as possible and to submit chapters to your supervisor regularly instead of expecting feedback on a whole draft thesis shortly before the submission date.

This is because it is essential that you know early on in your postgraduate programme what writing style your supervisor expects and that you become used to feedback from him or her.

I also mentioned the importance of the literature review, and I suggested the benefits of writing the first draft of it at the beginning of your postgraduate study. Many students prefer to put off writing until they “have a clear idea” in their minds about the significance of their findings; others delay their writing because they say they’re still “reading the literature”.

These are often valid reasons but, like any other reasons we might find to delay the moment of putting pen to paper, they can mask a fear of writing. This is understandable: writing involves a lot of effort and self-discipline, for a start. And then there’s the self-exposure many of us fear: we’re opening ourselves to criticism, after all.

I would say that writing a thesis is a dynamic process. Many revisions have to be made before the final product is ready, but having something written down that you can then revise makes it much easier. Writing a small part every day can make the prospect of composing an entire thesis less daunting—and it’s a way of avoiding writer’s block.

Read some of the theses completed in your department or faculty to get an idea of the ways in which you are expected to write. As a scientist, I was expected to write in a lean, condensed way, with few adjectives, and to cite exact figures where possible.
At some universities, there is an informal system of “writing buddies”, in which students team up and provide each other with regular feedback and support, making the writing experience less lonely. If there isn’t a buddy system among your fellow postgraduates, why not create one?

Writing for publication
My research supervisor encouraged us to publish our research findings in academic journals before we submitted our theses. A list of publications at the beginning of your thesis greatly enhances its credibility. Having some of these published in peer-reviewed journals with high impact factors is even more impressive.

Either way, publication starts to establish you as an expert in your field. My supervisor at Rhodes University was Professor Santy Daya, who is currently based at the Ross University School of Medicine, Grand Bahama Island. He says: “The most difficult part of writing a paper is often the opening line and then knowing what to put under which section. This task can be made simple if you follow a few guidelines.”

These guidelines will differ across disciplines, but merely to illustrate (rather than prescribe), Daya’s suggestion to postgraduates who were preparing material from their ongoing PhD research for possible journal publication was to jot down these headings: Introduction; Materials and Methods; Results; Discussion; Conclusion; and Abstract.

He described these headings as “section reservoirs”. You could start filling any reservoir first: for many, “Materials and Methods” was a comfortable beginning. And then, he recommended, there were specific moves of thought you needed for each section reservoir. In the Introduction, for example, he suggested there are four moves: describing the field, saying what research has been done before and by whom, identifying the knowledge gap that you have addressed in your research, and introducing the reader to your study.

Describing these and other moves further would take me too deeply into one methodology appropriate to my own discipline—and so too far away from my hope of using my own recent doctoral experiences to assist prospective postgraduates in any field. So I’ll jump rather to the outcome of your submission to a journal. If your article is accepted, great! If not, don’t take it personally. Study the reviewers’ comments as these provide valuable feedback for improving both your research and your writing.

Dr Layla Cassim is a part-time senior lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Cape Town, a practising locum pharmacist and managing director of Layla Cassim ERS Consultants, specialising in facilitating academic and research development workshops. She completed her doctorate at Rhodes University in 2007 and is now enrolled for an MBA. She writes in her personal capacity and can be contacted on [email protected]

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