The issue of how research skills are developed before one finishes a postgraduate degree, and how doctoral students acquire practical knowledge of doing research, may also pose philosophical speculations about how knowledge is achieved. Even recognizing the oversimplification, it could be said that such understanding comes from two different traditions: the one that sees knowledge as a rational individual construction and another that sees it derived from the world outside ones’ mind (Marton et al. 1997, p.8).
For doctoral students, knowledge is mostly achieved through the process of reading and critically thinking about the act of doing research. Masters in Research (MRes) programmes, for instance, typically include taught modules on research methodology where research paradigms and the epistemological understandings that underpin research methods are presented and discussed. Learning about research, at this level, is very much a highly theoretical process. However, even if one accepts the idea of knowledge as an entirely cognitive process that happens solely in an individual’s brain, questions still arise about what to do with such knowledge and how to use it (Marton et al. 1997, pp.9–10). Research is, after all, something that must be done.
Already in the 1980s, Zuber-Skerritt (1987, p.78) tried to answer the question of how to integrate theoretical and practical knowledge and recognized the need for a ‘progressive development and integration of student research skills’ at postgraduate level. The solution proposed is (a) the designing and implementation of seminars, lectures, workshops and tutorial discussions to help with dissertation and thesis writing, (b) the development of an awareness of how epistemological understanding affects the choice of research methodology and the analysis of findings, and (c) students’ adoption of a reflective stance towards the learning process of doing research. The focus is very much on the development of ‘academic’ knowledge and skills. This model is still what can be found in most universities in the UK.
Academic institutions have been trying to bridge the gap between theoretical learning and the empirical experience. At the School of Education at the Open University, for instance, doctoral students enter a 1 + 3 programme where the first year is actually an MRes degree. The syllabus includes an introduction to research and modules on quantitative and qualitative methods coupled with workshops and conferences on methods of data collection and analysis. At the University of Leicester support for research students is done through a programme of generic skills training workshops and online training resources available on the VLE. These attempts are based on both institutional perceptions of the internal need to have better potential researchers joining the academic staff and on external pressure. On the one hand, external pressure comes from Higher Education authorities through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Both Universities have skills development audit and assessment procedures based on the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) created by the UK Research Councils. The RDF suggests that the skills doctoral students need to develop should include, broadly speaking, research techniques, research management skills, understanding of the research context, communication, networking and team working skills, as well as personal effectiveness and career development skills. On the other hand, there have been demands coming from the industry for the development of more commercially oriented skills and a growing concern about models of PhD research training and their suitability to meet the needs of future careers in the labour market (Enders 2005; Harman 2002; Musselin 2004).
Valuable as those guidelines, programmes and workshops are, in general, students still have little opportunity to actually experiment with different research methods and tools, acquire experience using them, or solve the problem posed by dealing with matters of logistics, management and communication. Vicarious experience can never be dismissed since is it generally unfeasible for most doctoral students to have practical knowledge of investigation practices that greatly differ from the ones adopted in their studies. However, even taking time, economic and institutional constraints into consideration, opening small windows into the practice of doing research could prove invaluable to the development of future researchers. Working as a research assistant in projects led by experienced academics may be one of these windows.
- Enders, J., 2005. Border Crossings: Research Training, Knowledge Dissemination and the Transformation of Academic Work. Higher Education, 49(1/2), pp.119-133.
- Harman, K., 2002. The Research Training Experiences of Doctoral Students Linked to Australian Cooperative Research Centres. Higher Education, 44(3/4), pp.469-492.
- Marton, F., Booth, S. & Booth, S.A., 1997. Learning and awareness, Routledge.
- Musselin, C., 2004. Towards a European Academic Labour Market? Some Lessons Drawn from Empirical Studies on Academic Mobility. Higher Education, 48(1), pp.55-78
- Zuber-Skerritt, O., 1987. Helping Postgraduate Research Students Learn. Higher Education, 16(1), pp.75-94.