Varied conceptions of research

Earlier research at Oxford found a substantial spread in students' approaches to research, varying from those who take a more holistic and integrated view of their research - seeing it as contributing to the 'big picture' - to those who take a less integrated, more fragmented view - seeing their research as an isolated project. Those who took a more holistic view agreed that their research was "really worthwhile", "well integrated with existing knowledge and topics in the field", and "contributed in some way to big picture issues". They also reported trying to "discuss with others new ideas I have in my research". In contrast, those who took a more fragmented view tended to disagree with these statements (Trigwell & Dunbar-Goddet, 2005). 

More recent research at Oxford also provided evidence that students understand that discipline influences the ways that individuals conceive and approach research. Given increasing calls for inter-disciplinary work, this student’s experience of coming from a science background to the social sciences is salutary:

I think they expected you not to be able to understand qualitative research. They knew a lot of the big theorists that I hadn't heard of. So I did feel an outsider, in that respect, I must admit. I had a very different route. So I did feel quite on the outside really. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Other research found that supervisors recognise students can view research as holistic and integrated or as a discrete project. The responses of these two supervisors highlight this. In the first case, the supervisor needed to help the student see the ‘big picture’ whereas in the second case, the supervisor could engage collegially with the student in going wherever the science led.

I feel that it’s very much my role to keep an eye on her and make sure that she’s progressing appropriately. Particularly when she’s doing the work day-to-day, it’s very easy for her to get caught up in exactly what she’s doing, and kind of miss the bigger picture. (New supervisor, Medical Sciences)
We just allowed ourselves to drift quite strongly, and we wound up, almost by accident, fiddling with the bright field image [of the microscope], and eventually we had the right mixture of ideas, and something came out of that. We sort of were playing and allowed ourselves to drift off in whichever direction the science [led]. The student concerned is extremely intelligent and doesn't seem to feel that you can only do that stuff that leads directly to [the doctorate] was willing to play, as it were. (New supervisor, MPLS)

Further research also shows that students can view research as a broad training ground, not just for a future in academia but beyond academia too.

I’ve had some comments about people thinking that it’s bad for me to have taken this money to train me, to do my PhD, and then to reject that and go and work in the City, but I think they’re completely misunderstanding that a PhD doesn’t just train you to be a scientist or, you know, whatever your field is. It doesn’t just train you to be an academic. It trains you to think independently about a complex problem… [It] wasn’t a waste of my early twenties to go and just invest myself completely in one problem… it helped me to identify which job I wanted to do. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Consider these questions about research; what are your own and your student's or supervisors' views?

  • How would you describe 'research' to a new research student/ your supervisor?
  • How would you distinguish between academic research and other types of research?
  • To what extent is your view the same as that of your colleagues/ fellow students?
  • How might different views influence working together?

In a study by Kiley and Mullins (2005), supervisors reported that the following strategies helped students develop a more mature conception of research:

  • A more formal induction to research and the supervisor's way of doing research: "I explain how to arrive at a workable topic".
  • Exposing students to the approaches of others: "The best mechanism is shared experience with other students".
  • Questioning and probing: "Challenging them with questions".


Students' conceptions of research

At undergraduate level, there is much educational research indicating that students' conceptions of learning and teachers' conceptions of teaching interact to produce a profound impact on students’ final learning outcomes. 

As with undergraduate students' conceptions of learning, it is likely that postgraduate students' conceptions of 'research', and of a DPhil, guide the way they approach research and engage in the process of researching. In fact, initial research at postgraduate level suggests such implications.

Initial empirical research (Meyer et al, 2005) suggests that students may hold the following conceptions of academic research. That it involves:

  • The gathering of information or collection of data.
  • The discovery of truth.
  • An insightful process of exploration and discovery, leading to a deeper understanding of the topic.
  • The uncovering of what has been hidden, through reinterpretation or 're-search'.
  • Finding solutions to problems or answering questions.

Furthermore there were additional students' views, labelled 'misconceptions' by the researchers. These included that:

  • Correctly followed research procedures will always yield positive results
  • When qualified people do research the results are always unbiased
  • It is acceptable to modify research data if it does not look exactly right
  • Research becomes true after it is published
  • If research is properly conducted, contradictory findings will never occur
  • There is generally only one way to interpret research findings
  • Research involves gathering data that support preconceived ideas or that will back a particular argument

Clearly, if a supervisor is working with a student who might hold one or more of the misconceptions outlined above, then it would be critical that discussions occur early and often regarding alternative conceptions.

Supervisors' conceptions of research

Similarly, research suggests that supervisors hold varied conceptions of research. Such conceptions may either facilitate or act as a barrier to students' development.

Some work by Kiley and Mullins (2005) suggests the following range of foci on research within the doctoral education context, as being:

  • Technical - a scholarly process characterised by the rigorous application of systematic methods.
  • Creative/innovative - the creation of new knowledge, and innovative approaches to the discovery of that knowledge.
  • Integrating complexity - bringing together complex knowledge or data in new ways.
  • New ways of seeing - research results in new ways of seeing the world, oneself or a problem.

Bills (2004) identified a number of dimensions in supervisors' discourse about research, with a distinction being drawn in particular between university and non-university, or big ‘R’ and little ‘r’ research. This led to a view of university research as having a number of characteristics, including:

  • Being rigorous and methodical
  • Situated within a theoretical or conceptual tradition
  • Moving knowledge further
  • Involving explaining, arguing and conceptualising
  • Contributing to the development of their discipline
  • Theorising, thinking deeply and developing insights

These dimensions may be contrasted with views of non-university research, which was positioned as either fact-finding, with the collection and reporting of information, or as finding out something interesting, but that is not necessarily new or systematically investigated.

There is some overlap between the less sophisticated views of students, and what supervisors may call little ‘r’ or non-university research. It may be worth discussing the distinction between different types of research with students. Overall, the evidence suggests conceptions of research - so fundamental to research education - can vary substantially; thus it is critical that this variance be identified early and discussed.

The above text was based on:

Bills, D. (2004). Supervisors' conceptions of research and the implications for supervisor development. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 85 - 97.

Kiley, M., & Mullins, G. (2005). Supervisors' conceptions of research: What are they? Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 49(3), 245-262.

Meyer, J., Shanahan, M., & Laugksch, R. (2005). Students' conceptions of research: I: A qualitative and quantitative analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 49(3), 225-244.

Trigwell, K. and Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2005) The Research Experience of Postgraduate Research Students at Oxford . Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.