Interview: PhD perspectives

We chat with biologist Dr Paul Richardson and geographer Dr Mike Clark about PhDs across disciplines and down the years. Dr Richardson completed his PhD on plant cellular water relation in 1993, and now works in e-learning. Dr Clark wrote his thesis on maritime studies and town planning in 1981 and is currently a tutor in geography at Edgehill University.

HC: What role did your supervisor play during your PhD?
PR: I was very concerned about developing hypotheses, whereas my supervisor was more interested in data. At the start of my PhD, I was told, “we must get your publication record off the ground as soon as possible”. At the time, I thought that sounded very supportive, but looking back, really it was setting the bar, and when he said “we” he meant “you”. So that was my responsibility, and it was very challenging. I was in a research group and I drew on my friends, who were very supportive – I learnt a huge amount from them.

MC: I was in two very different departments, one with a traditional focus on town planning and the other with a relatively rare focus on maritime geography. My supervisors encouraged and supported my investigations, but did not provide specific direction – that was my responsibility. Students in my area don’t tend to receive very much instruction – they really are the boss. The supervisor doesn’t have very much control over what the student does or when they submit.

HC: What do you think the role of the supervisor is?
PR: I believe that the job of the supervisor is to induct the student into their way of thinking, to get the student to become like them. If you want the student to succeed in academia, to become a professor, then the supervisor is going to have to do an awful lot of work with that person. On the other hand, the current system accepts that only a small fraction of PhD students will succeed in academia.

MC: The main thing I teach as a geographer is how to discriminate between different sources of information. The nature of the research process in geography involves selecting what’s worthwhile and communicating it to those outside of our discipline.

The main thing I teach is how to discriminate between different sources of information – Dr Mike Clark

HC: During your PhD, did you understand the wider context of your research?
PR: Yes and no – I spent a lot of time in the library and understood a bit about my discipline as an undergraduate, but I was shocked by the theoretical complexity at PhD level. It was incumbent upon me to come up with hypotheses, and I wasn’t up to that. I was still getting my head around the theoretical side, but on the practical side I was ready to go. But I don’t think I was in a good position to make conceptual sense of what I was doing at the time.

The complexity of any field is overwhelming. My supervisor told me to read a textbook to understand my subject, but after reading it I thought “I don’t even understand this book, so therefore I don’t understand it”. Then I went to use an electron microscope and was told I’d have no trouble at all so long as I knew about X, Y and Z, but I didn’t have the first clue about X!

Before learning, there is confusion. If you’re not confused before learning something then you haven’t understood the complexity of it. So a state of confusion is a very positive thing, because it means you’re about to learn something if you have a direction. It’s very normal to be confused whilst doing a PhD – the difficulty is that you have to use that confusion positively.

A state of confusion is a very positive thing, because it means you’re about to learn something if you have a direction – Dr Paul Richardson

HC: What was the most difficult aspect of your PhD?
PR: Trying to develop a hypothesis that I knew that I could test that had meaning in the broader context.

MC: Mine was finishing on time and tying it down, and also going back into the theory, which was underdeveloped at the time. I also got sidetracked on other things, and although I published a few things on it, I didn’t publish much initially.

HC: As a PhD student, I find it very difficult to read academic papers. Is this something you found?
PR: Papers always start with some assumptions, and how understandable a paper is depends on what those assumptions are. Often students are expected to struggle to understand papers, because that’s what their supervisors did when they were students. When I was a PhD student, I made flash cards of important papers. On one side was the metadata for the paper, and on the other I wrote my interpretation of the outcomes of the paper. The other thing that helped was chatting to my mates about it in the pub.

MC: In my field, where the majority are not particularly mathematically minded, it’s a problem when results are presented in the form of equations. Often massive assumptions are buried inside the maths, and those assumptions may not be justified.

HC: How did you find writing up?
MC: I was writing anyway, so it wasn’t a problem. This was in the days of the electric typewriter, so I had to pay a typist to have it typed and bound. Any revisions were made in pen on the hard copy.

PR: My thesis was an odd hybrid between word processed and hand-done, as we didn’t have any technology to process images. I had to print it off and separately mount photos with scale bars. The writing itself was an iterative process, using papers as a starting point.

HC: The goal of a PhD is an original contribution to the body of knowledge. Do you think this concept is realistic, and how does it transfer across disciplines?
MC: What I did during my PhD hadn’t been done before, and the research we did altered our understanding of town planning and industrial sites. For a PhD, you need to devise a methodology that will work, establish that it works, produce some outcomes, discuss them and put them into a wider context.

PR: In the natural sciences, you need to have a couple of questions that are testable, and you need to know that you are one of a few people who can answer those questions. In the natural sciences, often what you’re doing isn’t entirely unique, but you might be looking at a different species of wheat, for example.

HC: Did you have a good work life balance during your PhD?
MC: I did my PhD full time for two years, then I got a job as a tutor and carried on with my research part time, but my social life was rather minimal at that time.

PR: I started my PhD at the age of 34, and my work life balance wasn’t very good, because I had recently ended a relationship, so I had quite a disrupted personal life and that meant my social life was quite busy at that point. I spent way more hours in the lab than I should have done, and not all those hours were productive.

HC: What role does teaching play in your discipline?
PR: In the natural sciences, teaching is often seen a a burden, and it’s something that more senior members of staff don’t want to do. PhD students in science often don’t get much opportunity to teach.

MC: I think teaching is a great way of learning. As people who want to be active in research within our discipline, our main role is teaching undergraduates and postgraduates, but this is of no use if it’s not informed by being up to date with contemporary issues and we need to be active in research to do this.

Many thanks to Paul and Mike for an sharing their thoughts in an interesting discussion.

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