Tuesday, 2 June 2009

PhD - From Enrolment to Successful Viva

This week I have been asked to complete my annual progress reports for my PhD students. Last week I saw one of my PhD students successfully defend his thesis at a very scintillating viva voce. Next week I shall be examining a PhD thesis at the University of Essex. All this makes me reflect on what makes a successful PhD student. From my experience, first, there has to be an appropriate research question – this is an issue many doctrinal researchers could well fall prey to. I have examined many a thesis where there is simply no research question. The PhD student has simply described the state of the law – be it, the law on electronic bills of lading in Nigeria to some fine exception in the law of cheques. There is no discovery to be made and no theoretical question to be tested. This is where perhaps the empirical or jurisprudence researcher is usually so much better at – it seems to me that their disciplines much more readily lend themselves to a clear delineation of the research question. Secondly, a manageable methodology. It really goes without saying that a research without an appropriate methodology is like cooking a fancy meal for the first time without a recipe. Thirdly, a constructive relationship with the supervisor. The researcher certainly deserves much autonomy in the research process and experience, but without constructive criticism and discussion with his or her supervisor, the work is not properly tested and is much more likely to collapse during examination. Fourthly, the right motivation. I have interviewed more PhD applicants than I care to remember who have no idea what they want to research and are “quite happy to do whatever I suggest”. A refrain, in bad syntax, I hear often is “Can you please suggest me a topic?”. To me, these students simply have no idea what the PhD is about. Lastly, the commitment and determination to complete the thesis. The going will get hard and it takes sheer determination and much support from peers, friends and family to see oneself to the “bitter” end. However, I feel compelled to add that whilst confidence is a good thing, over-confidence is a dangerous trap. Humility as to the depth and wealth of expertise out there help tremendously to appreciate the amount of work needed to produce a good thesis.

In all this, the research environment in any law school is exceedingly important. It is in that environment that the student will learn from his or her supervisors, college and peers. Here at the University of Westminster I think we provide much support for the student to succeed. For this I feel very proud.



John Flood said...

Your key points are determinative. Without a research question and appropriate methodology, a student is lost. It is these that makes a thesis analytical and critical rather than tedious description.

I've externally examined two theses this year. One was very good as everything you mention fell into place. The other however was beleaguered by a changing series of supervisors and the student was lost.

One thing I've noticed is that not all research students realize how long a PhD can take and how long one must be committed to a particular topic. I usually say, think of yourself as writing a book which will pick you up a degree along the way. It puts it into perspective.


jason said...

I like the book analogy. We shd really something like this when interviewing PhD applicants.

Not long ago, I examined a PhD which had taken 18 years to complete ... and yes, it was in the UK.