A doctoral journey: The first steps
Making the right choice
The first question I asked myself when I decided that I was going to take the plunge and embark on a doctoral journey was, ‘Where do I start?’ You often hear about people commencing their research or entering into this phase or that, but not about what they actually had to do to reach that stage. Hence, I would like to share with you the first steps of my doctoral journey and how I experienced them.
My first step was to locate a university and a doctoral programme that suited my needs and was also affordable. Yes, the financial aspect cannot be ignored. Most importantly at this stage, I felt that it was necessary to find a university that had suitable supervisors in my field of interest. This is crucial, as you need people who have the expertise to provide you with appropriate supervision. I spent hours searching through diverse doctoral programmes in the UK, Australia, the USA, and Switzerland. It took me 12 months to make my choice. This was because I was simultaneously developing my research focus and questions and it was only when these became clearer that my choice of university, doctoral programme, and potential supervisors did as well.
I chose the Doctorate of Education (EdD) programme offered by the Open University in the UK because their department for educational technology has a lot of expertise in the area of open education and they are involved in diverse global initiatives. I am particularly interested in language teachers’ use of open educational resources and their open educational practices. I consciously chose the EdD rather than a PhD programme because of the practical implications of the EdD on policy and education. This is also something that you will need to consider when journeying along this path. Additionally, when browsing through potential doctoral programmes it is vital to check the prerequisites for entry. These will vary depending on the institution. In my case, it was necessary to have already completed a 60-credit point course in research methodology, which can take nine to 12 months of your time.
Reviewing the literature
Developing a provisional research topic and formulating the ensuing research questions can be a lengthy process because you first need to review the relevant literature. It is here that you will discover what has and has not been researched and how your potential project could add an interesting perspective to the current body of research or perhaps fill a small gap that has not yet been considered. You need to be able to build on existing research and justify to your university of choice as well as the ethics commission why your project is worthwhile pursuing. Justifying what you are doing and why is key throughout the whole process. You need to be able to defend your choice of theories, research methods, choice of research instruments, sampling strategies and so on. Therefore, I would recommend taking the necessary time to dig into the literature rather than trying to rush through this part of the process.
When engaging with the literature, you need to view everything through a critical lens and dig through peer-reviewed journals, books, blogs, and social media. The latter might sound a little peculiar for those of you who are not used to using sites such as Twitter or Facebook for education or research. But think again! The professional connections I have made through Twitter have been invaluable. I have skyped with some of my new contacts and have been able to discuss my field of interest in more depth. People have been extremely generous and have shared research articles, books, and links; I have reciprocated in the same manner. Do not underestimate the power and dynamics of networking through social networking sites. I have located numerous current research articles as well as relevant live events through these online participatory spaces, and I have met some wonderful and inspiring people. It is worth trying them out.
Besides the path I have taken, there is also an alternative route to developing your research focus. During my search for a suitable university, I uncovered a couple of instances where doctoral supervisors were looking for doctoral students to work on a particular topic. This is another avenue that you can pursue. However, it is by no means a shortcut. You still need to submit a research proposal, which means you cannot avoid the extensive reading and writing process. This is a process that will continue up to the thesis writing stage because you have to keep up-to-date with what is happening in your field.
Writing the proposal
Once you have settled on your research topic and central questions you can commence with writing your proposal. The OU website was extremely helpful here and even had sample templates of what a proposal could look like. Fortunately, this meant that I did not have to start from scratch but had examples of headings and a format that I could use. The most difficult part was trying to compose a sound argument for my topic together with all the other information that was stipulated and then glue it together in a very tight 3,000-word proposal. In my case, I had to provide an abstract, an argument defending my research topic, followed by a discussion of my conceptual framework and proposed methodology, as well as policy implications.
I also had to explain how my project could possibly contribute to educational research. To top it off, I was required to design a comprehensive three-and-a-half-year work schedule detailing what I planned to do each month. I somehow managed to pull it all together and the educational technology team from the OU opened their doors to me a few months later. I have been provided with two supervisors who are very active in the field of open education globally so I feel very fortunate to be supported by such knowledgeable people.
Doctoral programmes inevitably vary in their structure but it seems as though most provide an obligatory residential weekend at the beginning of the first year. Let me guide you through my experience of the OU’s residential weekend. I arrived on a Friday afternoon in Milton Keynes and proceeded to check out the campus and locate where all the seminars were being held. Good thing I could read maps as I ended up being the tour leader for some of my cohort as the weekend progressed. One wrong turn and you landed in the gym instead of the library, or even worse, you found yourself heading off on one of the many maze-like trails in the surrounding countryside. Need I say more! We managed to stay on track and arrived punctually at all the organised events.
I was a bit nervous about the Friday evening session as we were divided into our groups of interest and then in an informal round had to present our research topics, conceptual frameworks, and proposed methodological approaches. Leading up to the residential weekend, I imagined scenes of interrogation and not being able to get a coherent word out but it was the complete opposite. All of the supervisors were extremely helpful and a very lively and engaging discussion ensued, punctuated with regular bursts of laughter. Needless to say, it was a really enjoyable and invaluable session. During the course of the discussion, we were all told that we would have to narrow down our research focus. It was made clear that the consequences of attempting to cover a research area that was too broad could result in a thesis that lacked depth and only superficially covered the relevant literature. And it was unlikely that a thesis written in this manner would be able to stand up to the critical scrutiny of experts in our research fields.
The Saturday and Sunday were full of interesting talks and interactive workshops with numerous topics covered, such as research ethics, methodologies, literature reviews, online library searches, interviewing techniques, and so on. Every couple of hours we had scheduled meetings with our supervisors to discuss our individual projects and what changes we felt needed to be made. Yes! You heard correctly. We were already starting to make changes. This is something that you will also need to get used to. A research topic or research questions are not fixed in stone. It is quite possible that your final thesis topic will vary considerably from your initial proposal. It is apparently part of the process.
Throughout the course of the weekend, we had time to socialise during meals and at the bar in the evenings. This gave the cohort an opportunity to get to know one another better and to make contact with research students with a similar focus. Overall, it was a very valuable weekend both for the intellectual discussions and also because of the opportunities I had to meet my supervisors and my fellow research students. So, if you get the chance to participate in a residential weekend, embrace it. The supervisors are there to assist you and to give you advice. Remember that they had to go through the same process as well, so they know what it feels like. We can learn a lot from them, including very practical things like using reference tools and managing large amounts of literature and data.
Getting back to the structure of the EdD programme in the UK, I chose this route because I like the fact that we have essay deadlines throughout the entire programme. These relate to our work, are formative, and can be used, in part, in the final thesis. Naturally, they will need to be developed and polished further, but for me they are like creating pieces of a puzzle with frayed edges. I have, for example, just submitted a literature review, and in a few months I have to submit an essay about my methodology. These two topics are normally chapters in a thesis, particularly one that is written in a traditional manner. So, although it feels like a lot of work at present, in comparison to doctoral students who do not have to submit regular essays, I am completing pieces of work that can be integrated into my thesis regardless of how much I need to rewrite and edit them later. At least some of the arguments have been developed and the relevant references attached, which means that I will not have to start my thesis from scratch.
At the end of Year 1, we also have one summative assessment, which is a 15,000-word report covering our pilot study. This is assessed by external examiners and needs to receive a pass in order for the research student to continue with the doctoral programme. It is a means of checking whether you are competent enough to work at this level. A bit scary, I must admit, but there is a chance of doing slight modifications if the examiners are not entirely satisfied with one or more aspects of your report. I have spoken to a couple of people doing doctorates in the UK and they need to go through this summative process as well. I am not sure what it is like in other countries but these are things that you can reflect on when choosing your preferred programme.
Narrowing the research focus
On returning from the residential weekend, I needed to revisit the literature in order to refine my research questions and to narrow my research focus. It took me another few weeks of intensive reading before I finally decided to focus on freelance English language teachers in Switzerland. Initially, I thought the meaning of freelance would be clear but after discussions with some teachers I realised that in some cases interpretations differ. Hence, based on the literature I have redefined the term ‘freelance’. In relation to my project, the term refers to English language teachers who are paid on an hourly basis and whose teaching hours depend on the number of students available. In the literature, these types of teachers are often referred to as having sessional or fractional contracts but can also be called casual or part-time employees (Borthwick & Gallagher-Brett, 2014; Leigh, 2014; Stickler & Emke, 2015). The latter is not to be confused with part-time workers who have access to the same conditions as their full-time counterparts. The hourly paid teachers I am interested in work in more precarious conditions due to the fact that teaching hours are not guaranteed. Some may have one or more contracts with a company or educational institution, as well as having private students. It may be that they work entirely with private students. Hence, these teachers are generally quite flexible and their working hours variable.
My rationale for choosing this particular group of teachers in Switzerland is because they are largely under-researched and, as a result of their working conditions, they are often quite isolated and do not have access to the same professional development opportunities that a teacher working in the Swiss educational sector might have. Therefore, my research topic has evolved from, ‘An exploration of language teachers’ use of open educational resources and their open educational practices’ to ‘Open practices as a professional development tool for freelance English language teachers’. However, there is a real possibility that this will change again after I have completed my pilot study.
The pilot study
The pilot study is an integral part of the first year of the doctoral programme. It is an opportunity to test your research methods and instruments, refine your research questions, and establish what is worth pursuing. It is quite possible that something emerges out of the data that you had not considered and you find it of more value than what you were originally aiming to research. At the time of writing this article, I have just launched my pilot study and I hope to share my experience of it with you at a later stage. However, before I could get to the launch phase I had to seek ethics approval in the UK. This was a lengthy process and one that should not be underestimated. I will share that experience with you another time. For the moment, I hope I have been able to shed some light on what initial steps you can expect to take when you make the decision to commence a doctorate.
Borthwick, K. & Gallagher-Brett, A. (2014). Inspiration, ideas, encouragement: Teacher development and improved use of technology in language teaching through open educational practice. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27(2), 163-183. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09588221.2013.818560?needAccess=true
Leigh, J. (2014). “I still feel isolated and disposable”: Perceptions of professional development for part-time teachers in HE. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 2(2) 10-16. Retrieved from http://jpaap.napier.ac.uk/index.php/JPAAP/article/view/105/pdf
Stickler, U. & Emke, M. (2015). Part-time and freelance language teachers and their ICT training needs. In R. Hampel & U. Stickler (Eds.), Developing online language teaching. New language learning and teaching environments (pp. 28-44) London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
About the Author
Patricia is a member of the ETAS Publications Team and has been teaching English as a Foreign Language in Switzerland for more than 20 years. She is a freelance English language teacher with a focus on Business English, and English for University Studies in the area of Tourism, Hospitality, and Business Management. She is currently a doctoral candidate and her research interests include open education, open educational resources and open educational practices, and professional development.