April 01, 2019
The doctoral journey is an open-ended journey and there are infinite ways doctoral students could follow. Those on a more structured professional doctorate, like the Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA), may have formal coursework that provides guidance in the initial phase. But ultimately, this is your research and you need to craft your pathway. There is an endless amount of literature to read, a myriad of methodologies, methods and frameworks to explore, skills and mind sets to trial and adopt; and all against little and vague feedback, and guidance that supervisors or peers might provide you with. There are no clear milestones, no firm control points, no ultimate guideline to follow, which leaves students at permanent doubt whether or not their work is progressing well, is up to the standard, and ultimately would survive the Viva.
Perhaps as a result of all of this, there is the phenomenon of what could be seen as a ‘silent death’ that goes along with the doctoral journey. In accordance to ‘The Chronicle’, more than 50 percent of doctoral students leave graduate school without finishing. Recent numbers in the case of Australia show that out of “437,030 domestic and international students enrolled in postgraduate research programs in Australian public universities. Only 65,101 completed within the same six-year period”. That is an attrition rate of 72%! Meaning that more than 7 out of 10 won’t make it through…
Now, given the particularities of the doctoral journey, this attrition happens however ‘gradually’ and quite noise free, and thus it seems to be a sort of ‘silent death’. It is silent because most of these 50% to 70% of the students that drop out do exactly that: they just drop out. They do it voluntarily without being forced to do so. No big fuss or legal appeals. And while the Viva is feared, it is usually not the place where things go wrong. It is much more likely that a student completes the Viva with major revisions, instead of failing, and then suffers the silent death afterwards. It is you who is setting yourself up to fail, and it is you that calls it off – and therefore you are, in principle, in full control on getting yourself through the journey. Now, with 7 out of 10 not making it through, there is a clear difference between in being ‘in principle’ and ‘in practice” in full control. So, let’s look at some of the practical points that can set you up to fail and lead to a silent death.
Where things can go wrong – the classics…
It is often the obvious things that lead to failure. So, watch out for such obvious signs and carefully assess:
1 Has the problem been properly defined and framed? And do I actually understand what a problem is?
From our experience at the DoctorateHub there are quite a number of students that struggle with the problem statement. Some find it perfectly normal that “How can I improve the return in my company?” is a rock-solid problem statement… If you are amongst those, a quick test, it has a “?”, right? So, it is a question, and not a statement…
2 Solution bias and focus on the desired outcome (the bespoke ‘solution’) instead of the actual problem (what your research should be about).
Next to defining and framing the problem is the issue of solution bias. Students, particularly those in business, are solution biased, and thus often try to define their ‘research’ over the desired solution. So if a profit margin of XX% is seen to be an issue, then the focus is on ‘how to increase the profit’, instead of asking ‘why is the profit margin falling / lower than industry standard / else?’.
3 Avoiding naming the problem altogether.
Avoiding naming the problem is usually a good indicator for students who do not understand that they really do not understanding what the actual problem is. So instead of focusing their research on understanding what the problem is, they continue to abstractly reference to the problem like “Background to the problem” and then they head on to look for solutions (see above solution bias) to an unclear problem without spelling out the actual problem, or calling it by so many different things here and there throughout their work.
4 Are there any methodological flaws, such as a poorly chosen method, or a misapplied method that calls into question the scientific validity of the thesis?
Or to put it simpler: Did you formulate your interview questions from scratch, or did you draw on existing studies? In case of the former, the likelihood is great that you are setting yourself up to fail. You are expected to draw on existing studies, which usually come with existing interview questions, variables, parameters, and the like. So, if you have to make up your interview questions from scratch, then how is this drawing on the existing studies (see the next point)? Any thoughts on this as it will be raised in your Viva?
5 Do you engage with the literature and have a clear understanding of the contribution of your thesis to the existing knowledge and practice?
Check whether you read the literature with a “solution lens” and look for confirmation of assumptions, or for random things that might provide solutions to a vague problem that you resist looking at (see the first three points). The purpose of the engagement with the literature is to understand and examine problems in a non-biased way. Or at the very least, to explore it from more than the angle that you as the researcher initially assumed would be the main pain point to be resolved. Students should locate the problem within the respective literature field and clearly work out what is already known about it and what is not. This will allow you to establish boundaries, which is crucial for focused work and to advance. Without boundaries the likelihood of getting lost is high. While we are at it…, please also check if you speak through the literature only instead of critically engaging with it. For example, was Fischer (1998) saying that you should use Action Research in your study that takes place in 2019? Very unlikely. Fischer (1998) likely suggested to use Action Research for the reasons of ABC once investigating XYZ. And thus, you are expected to pick on the ABC/XYZ. While such a level of detail makes the writing admittedly time consuming, it is a great remedy for avoiding common sense writing, opinionation, and to stay focused.
6 Understanding that research is non-linear, while your thesis is…
To those who have gone through the journey it is perhaps obvious that your research is non-linear and that there is a juggling across literature review, problem and question framing, and data collection and analytics. What will be linear, however, is the story as it is written up. There are some techniques that can help you to get through this juggling, and if you consider training you are welcome to join our next webinar on ‘Mirroring Techniques’on 13 April.
7 Assuming that the University support system will bring you through as it would do at the Bachelor and Master level.
The University support system at the doctoral level is quite different than the one at the Bachelor and Master level. For instance, any preparatory coursework is exactly just that: preparatory. What matters is the thesis and passing the Viva. For this, you need to complete your research and write it up. While you will be assigned one or more supervisors, don’t expect them to be the main source of support. Try to get as much support from the different sources from where you can and as you need it. Take the opportunity to present at conferences, join academic communities, virtually or locally, understand your training needs: do you have sufficient academic writing skills, and do you know how to apply research methods? If not, seek out training. Consider joining a practical course on a topic that you feel you need, be it in framing the problem, writing a literature review, or on how to run a focus group for instance. If you lack the time to immerse yourself in the academia world, consider a personal coach/mentor that will be your partner in the critical phases of your journey.
Above all, avoid the silence that leads to the slow death within the doctoral journey, and if you consider yourself as potentially belonging to any of the above, feel welcome to reach out to us.
Already submitted your thesis but now worried once reading this?
If the thesis has already been submitted but you now worry about it being up to the standard, perhaps it is the time to think about contingency strategies in response to the respective flaws your thesis might have. Your work will be questioned and probed in the Viva, and notably along the following criteria:
#1 A general inability to answer questions about the thesis – to such a degree the examiners are led to question whether it is really the candidate’s own work.
#2 A significant deficiency in the candidate’s knowledge of the literature, such that s/he cannot confidently be held to understand the relationship between his/her work and literature.
#3 A significant inability to justify the decisions made in the course of the journey, calling into question the candidate’s ability to construct a successful research project
#4 Repeatedly giving answers that are so severely wrong that they call into question the candidate’s competency in the field.
While the Viva is a pass or fail, in most cases if you stay calm, provide well-considered replies, show a good understanding of your thesis and the subject area and demonstrate critical and self-awareness, your Viva will most likely run smoothly. Most of the examiners questions are benign. Nevertheless, in cases where you raise the examiners’ anger or a suspicion that there is something wrong with your work, you may be asked some hard, sharp questions. Things that might give wrong signals to examiners include: a false modesty, exaggerated claims you cannot sustain, distortion of facts to fit what you want or ‘flannel’ to try to hide something.
Therefore, work out your thesis’ main arguments, find fields that are likely to be questioned and work out contingency strategies, and get a Mock Viva to train for the big event. In the Mock Viva we offer at the DoctorateHub, we look into strategies on how to defend any shortcomings identified, as well as tips on what still needs to be developed further (expressions, reasoning, behaviour, argumentation styles, defence and buy-in techniques, etc).
Already gone through the Viva and got majors?
Getting major revisions in the Viva means that you did not manage in all those years prior to the Viva to write up your thesis at the required standard. Therefore, you might want to critically evaluate how likely it will be that you manage to address the shortcomings in the short time frame of 18 to 24 months after the first Viva? This should include to understand of whether you have the motivation and mental power sufficient for this final sprint. In case not, you will be welcomed if you reach out to us at the DoctorateHub and explore how we can help you avoid the silent death and achieve your doctorate.