Doing research/inquiry

The principle goal of the DPhil is for the student to carry out and report on some form of inquiry and demonstrate that she or he: a) possesses a good knowledge of the particular field in which the subject of the thesis falls; b) has made a significant and substantial contribution in this field; and c) has reported it in a clear lucid manner.

There are a number of policies of particular value when students are at the stage of planning the actual research or inquiry they will undertake, especially if they are contemplating any form of fieldwork. This includes not just travel abroad but any absence from the University related to DPhil work. See the University Policy Statements on Safety in Fieldwork and Supervisors' Responsibilities.

As well, aside from department- and faculty-specific training, each Division offers research training:

Humanities Training and Support (see also the useful Blogs for Researchers - Single Sign-On required)

Medical Sciences Skills Training

MPLS Skills Training (see also the MPLS Skills Training Blog)

Social Sciences Research and Skills Training


The conduct of research by its very nature involves difficulties. So, for instance, doctoral students working 'in the field' can face isolation from the usual supports, challenges related to access, and unexpected factors which need to be incorporated into their research plans. Those dealing with archival data or large data sets can also experience difficulties related to access. Similarly, students doing lab-based or desk-based research may run into experimental or analytic challenges. And, nearly all students experience issues related to writing.

While the research/ inquiry process will vary greatly both across and within specialisms, the student's personal conduct of inquiry is intended as the opportunity to develop independence as a scholar and/or researcher. This involves increasing:

  • substantive knowledge - specialized disciplinary knowledge;
  • technical skills - from conducting research so influenced by the methodology; learned through trial and error;
  • craft knowledge - technical skills to manage all aspects of an inquiry: from design to writing, to funding, to managing staff; developed incrementally through experience; and
  • personal/social skills - team work, self-confidence, independence.

Given the great variation that exists across epistemological and methodological fields, what follows cannot fully address the challenges of conducting inquiry. Our goal is to signpost the key phases and challenges which students report experiencing.

Reading and writing

A comprehensive way of thinking about the conduct of inquiry incorporates reading and writing into the process, since the thesis needs to demonstrate, in a scholarly fashion, a significant and substantial contribution to the knowledge of the field. Early on students need to develop familiarity with the literature in which they will situate their work, as this recently graduated scientist notes:

When I start a new project I'll take whatever time it takes ...and I'll just read hundreds of papers until I feel like I ...know the field ...the topic, and ...have a good grasp ...This not only helps me to refine the question if it is not refined yet [but also] to the work in ...the broader readership... which I think has helped in terms of publishing the work.

This reading will be done differently in different fields but is essential to the development of students' research focus. For example:

In the Humanities

In the Social Sciences

In Mathematics, Physical and Life Sciences

In the Medical Sciences

Later, in fields involving data collection and analysis, reading in particular may recede in importance. Still, as the thesis comes together, there is a re-investment in reading alongside writing to review and update different literatures related to the thesis.


Regardless of the field, this period of time involves coming to terms with what inquiry/ research actually is and adjusting to its challenges and triumphs. Whether conceptual or empirical, desk-, lab- or field-based, individuals are applying their knowledge to solve problems, create new insights, or challenge previous ideas. This can involve scholarly 'guess work', trial and error, thought experiments and real experiments. It can be helpful to bear in mind that much of the messiness of carrying out any form of inquiry is not well reported in the literature. As a result, students may appreciate being directed to resources which provide insight into the development of the technical and craft knowledge required for the conduct of inquiry/ research.

Challenges can vary greatly - from dealing with ethical issues, to access difficulties, to failed experiments or problems of analysis. Based on research at Oxford, many students try to manage these issues themselves without seeking help - this may enable them to develop their independence as scholars/ researchers but could lead them into difficulties if they don't have an outlet for frank discussion of the problems they face. However, if the supervisor monitors progress, it is possible to provide expert guidance in a timely way, without 'interfering' too early in the process.

In addition to supervisory and Divisional support, the following external links may prove useful:


Social Sciences


Medical Sciences

Researching away from the University

Many students travel beyond the university to complete some aspect of their research or inquiry, e.g. accessing archival information, collecting samples, observing research participants.

Such work calls on the student to be quite independent. So in planning forward, you are recommended to:

  • agree as detailed a plan as reasonable, including timelines and objectives for the work to be completed outside Oxford and taking account of the safety implications of such fieldwork activities and associated travel (see Safety in Fieldwork);
  • agree regular contact/ reporting by email or otherwise, as appropriate;
  • agree what should be delivered (possibly a written report?) by what date during the fieldwork or after the student's return; and
  • consider jointly how to manage the situation should any radical changes in approach appear to the student to be necessary whilst the student is away. A mechanism for discussing and agreeing any such change before the student spends time on the new approach should be agreed.

These recommendations are not intended to encourage supervisors to exert undue control but merely to provide proper support and guidance for their students. This can be important as students can feel particularly isolated when they are not in touch with their usual networks. They may need to draw on alternative resources, as this student describes.

This week the individuals who were most significant to my academic progress were the interviewees in all the communities I visited, the driver that accompanied me and the people who helped me with logistics. [This meant] I was able to complete all my fieldwork ...on schedule ...[also] they ensured my well-being while out in the field (Doctoral student, Social Sciences).

See the University's Health and Safety Training webpages. Training is available for students and supervisors, in preparation for fieldwork in the UK and elsewhere. E.g. Emergency First Aid for Fieldworkers, Fieldwork Planning and Supervision, Fieldwork Safety Overseas.

Researching away from the University may also have implications for research integrity, (e.g. with regard to ethical practice and research data management), especially if the student is travelling outside the UK. So it would be appropriate, in the forward planning, for student and supervisor to give attention to expectations of good research conduct and practice whilst away from the University, including reference to:

Insights from research and literature

Regardless of the field, carrying out an inquiry involves the systematic use of some set of theoretical and often empirical tools with the goal to increase our understanding of some phenomena, event, or theory. The process involves conceptual, methodological, ethical and practical issues which may challenge the student. Learning to cope with these challenges is an essential aspect of doctoral work and becoming an independent scholar/ researcher, and many students are agentive in managing the difficulties. Still, supervisory advice can often provide insight and advance the work substantially.

The above text was based on:

Boote, D.N., Beile P. (2005) Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6):3-15.

Geraniou, E. (2010). The transitional stages in the PhD degree in mathematics in terms of students' motivation. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 73, 281-296.

Kwan, B. (2008). The nexus of reading, writing and researching in the doctoral undertaking of humanities and social sciences: Implications for literature reviewing. English for Specific Purposes, 27, 42-56.

Leon-Beck, M., & Dodick, J. (2012). Exposing the challenges and coping strategies of field-ecology graduate students. International Journal of Science Education, 34(16), 2455-2481.

Pole, C. (2000). Technicians and scholars in pursuit of the PhD: Some reflections on doctoral study. Research Papers in Education, 15(1), 95-111.