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Supervising postgraduates brings the research and teaching aspects of an academic career together. To do it well, Postgraduate Supervision is demanding and challenging, requiring careful attention to details, policies, students’ needs and interests, as well as academic integrity and rigour. However, it can be exciting, rewarding and a wonderful learning experience for both the supervisors and their students.

June 2003, Vol. 6, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Building a Graduate Studies Learning Community
 
Assistant Professor Stephen John Appold
Department of Sociology
 

Last semester (Semester I, Academic Year 2002–2003) Leong Wai Teng and I initiated the course, SC5104 Foundations for Social Research. It was the first course designed specifically for graduate research students offered by the Department of Sociology. The need to develop a course specifically for our research students was strongly felt within the context of the present efforts at restructuring graduate education within NUS. Our previous graduate courses were designed for mostly part-time, employed students upgrading their skills in a course-work programme in applied sociology. We envisioned a catalytic course for students at the beginning of substantial research projects. Our intention was also to build interaction within a community of scholars, something we felt was under-developed among our students because of the absence of cohort-defining common experiences.

The Challenge

Although our graduate research students have often produced quality theses that are publishable, we feel that many students do not reach the expected potential given their prior preparation and their high level of effort. Such a situation can be attributed to the following factors:

  • Common to many social science and humanities departments in the world, students rarely work on problems defined by their supervisors’ research programmes and only infrequently use their advisors’ methodological tools or data.

  • One of the mainstays of research apprenticeship in some fields—co-authorship—has so far been infrequent in our department; supervisors encourage single authorship and expect students to work independently.

  • The high degree of student discretion in defining topic, research question, methodology and theory arguably places undue weight on the individual student and on the supervisor-student relationship.

In the best U.S. graduate programmes (and indeed in our own honours year), the student and the supervisor-student relationship are buttressed by several courses, a thesis workshop, informal interactions with other faculty members and supportive peer relationships. Unfortunately, at the moment, with our graduate programme undergoing considerable transition, we do not have an extensive supportive structure in place and many of these sources of sustenance fall away. The transition from an exam-oriented undergraduate culture to a culture of self-reliant scholarship also proves difficult for students. As one first-year graduate student put it a year ago, “You have everything to do and nothing to do at the same time.”

Such comments pointed toward the need for a stronger framework for individual progress and an improved structure of social support. Therefore, our challenge in the Department of Sociology, has been to attempt to work within the professional expectations of scholarly independence of our disciplines (anthropology and sociology), while at the same time constructing an environment that can encourage the production of excellent theses by the graduate students in our programme.

We had also found that the graduate seminar, long institutionalised in our department as a forum for students to get feedback on their research and to aid them in keeping to a timely schedule, was losing its effectiveness. When our graduate research programme admitted only one or two students per year, the graduate seminar and other more informal arrangements sufficed as supplements to the supervisor-student relationship. Inevitably, as our programme expanded, these arrangements became strained. The seminars had to convene with increasing frequency with three or more students presenting at each meeting. Students found the meetings very stressful, and not as useful as they had been when more time was devoted to each student. Staff also found that the frequency of the meetings placed a growing burden on their time, and found it increasingly difficult to attend.

These reactions highlighted the need for a different mechanism by which to address the need of graduate students to receive suggestions and critique at various stages of their work. Therefore in the spirit of transforming of our graduate programme by research, and with the strong sense that a course on research design would fulfil an immediate need, we set out to create a course that would aid our graduate students in their research efforts.

Our Response

The course, Foundations for Social Research, was meant to address the situation just described and to provide a bridge to the more ambitious, comprehensive programme we are designing within the framework of the university-wide restructuring of graduate studies. Besides encouraging early progress on the thesis and facilitating faculty feedback early in the research, the course was also intended to encourage peer support and better integrate the graduate students into the intellectual life of the department. With an initial cohort of 14 students (the incoming batch of research students with the addition of some visitors and more advanced students), this new course worked toward those goals in several ways.

Other than the weekly classes, students also attended the regularly scheduled Departmental Seminar. The Sociology Head had suggested that the Departmental seminar be revamped so that it would meet every week, encompassing three different types of presentations: those by faculty members, those by visitors to the department, and those by graduate students nearing completion of their research. These different groups would be allocated approximately one-third of the weekly slots each. Students would then discuss and critique the presentations made at the seminar during the subsequent classes. Several seminar speakers attended the ensuing classes to address students’ questions and share their research problems as well as experiences.

In addition to the extended individualised readings required of each student, we assigned a number of common readings that we discussed during the course of the term. These common readings either addressed generic issues in performing research or were exemplary pieces of research. We took a ‘rhetorical’ approach to thesis writing and assigned selections from Booth, Colomb, & Williams’ The Craft of Research. We thought their text, which is designed for a broad audience, would be general enough to include the topics and approaches of all potential students while identifying the questions that all research papers need to address and outlining the process of writing. In addition, we had students read Lave & March for their emphasis on critical tests and Latour’s Science in Action in order to place individual projects in the context of a collective effort of truth making. In addition to these methodological works, we assigned several prominently published articles that were developed from masters theses or PhD dissertations. This was done to allow the students to assess for themselves, what the authors were trying to accomplish and examine how they were able to be successful in doing what they did with the limited resources available to a graduate student.

An important part of the course was also the regular discussion of the students’ own research, when we asked them to explain and defend their work. Both students and instructors were free in asking questions, offering comments, contributing critique and advancing suggestions. In general, we did not give students advance warning of our intention to discuss their work. In fact, in the beginning of the semester, we often did not know whom we would call on because many of the queries developed out of the discussions of the readings. Later in the semester, we became more systematic in the interest of approximately fair coverage. In order to allow students to present their research at an early stage to fellow students, we set up a sub-site within the course website that included student pictures and research statements.

Students were asked to prepare three short papers of 10–15 pages in length. These papers gave students the opportunity to outline and justify their (a) research question, (b) methodology and (c) the claim they hoped they could make on the basis of the research they were beginning to perform. Towards the end of the semester, we asked each student to deliver a presentation similar to one that might be heard at a professional meeting. As part of their work in the course, we asked the students to evaluate the presentations of their fellow students.

Reactions

We found SC5104 to be a very intensive course to teach. Informal discussions almost always lasted more than an hour after class ended and students often remained in discussion after the instructors left. Having two instructors turned out to be valuable in giving students feedback from multiple points of view. Each instructor reviewed all three papers (and sometimes additional revised versions). Reading and critiquing student writing demanded more time than we had anticipated. Students came for what often turned out to be extensive consultations. As we encouraged students to consult frequently with their advisors; particularly those advisors with multiple students also found themselves periodically inundated with consultation requests.

We were very pleased at the group dynamics in our class. Lively classroom discussions were matched by lively break time conversations. We were also struck by how much students working in seemingly disparate areas had to share with each other. It was clear in this respect that this class played an important role of helping to build a community of scholars among the Department’s graduate students. Our main regret about the class is that we did not have more PhD students in this first class because the course was only made compulsory to students starting in the Academic year. The presence of more students with prior independent research experience would have improved the quality of the interaction.

We did not anticipate that assessing student performance would be so difficult. We explicitly did not want to take the place of the advisor or (very prematurely) the examiners of the thesis, in terms of the kinds of comments we made. In fact some roughly equivalent courses at other universities are not graded at all. Our department decided against that option because it wanted to send a strong signal to students that their research progress was being taken seriously. In the end, we graded students on how well they fulfilled class expectations with respect to the degree of progress they had made, either in their conceptualisation of their research design, their choice of methodologies and implementation or the collecting of data.

Unavoidably, the class was a difficult experience for students. Those who had been on U.S.-style campus employment visits would be able to identify with the intensity of needing to defend all aspects of one’s work from many different angles. We were essentially asking beginning students to go through the same experience. Students needed to learn how to deal with such questioning. An initial reaction was sometimes an offer to change topics. Our response was that we did not necessarily want them to change topics but, if necessary, to develop adequate responses to the points raised. It is a simple point, but it was helpful to emphasise that a good journal article may go through half a dozen or more very thorough revisions before it appears in print. Also, it was necessary to emphasise that doing research is an entrepreneurial venture—that can mean many false starts. Incoming students did not realise that the inspiration-perspiration mix leans heavily towards the latter.

We have learned from our initial experience. As we revise and fine-tune the course for the coming year, we are concerned about the level of commitment of the University to sustaining the restructuring. On the one hand, there is a timely call for the redesigning of graduate education; but on the other hand, there is increasing pressure to increase class sizes and threats to cancel classes which do not reach a certain enrolment. The mandated faculty-student ratios are becoming less favourable to mounting graduate level courses where cohort sizes tend to be small, and certainly will be small for the time that it takes to mount and sustain an excellent programme over a sufficient period of time to gain the recognition needed to attract large numbers of good students to our University. In designing this course and planning additional course work that will guide students in preparation for their theses, we have become aware of how very important this course and others are in motivating and equipping students to embark on a programme of excellent research and constructing top quality theses. Will NUS be willing to support the expanding number of courses that is mandating for research students, even with the initial small numbers? We certainly hope so, because, we have come to see how important these courses are to nurturing and guiding our new generations of graduate students to world-class excellence.

References

Booth, Wayne C.; Colomb, Gregory G. & Williams, Joseph M. (1995). The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Lave, Charles A. & March, James G. (1975). An Introduction to Models in the Social Sciences. New York: Harper and Row.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Improving the Medical Graduate Programme and Supervision of Postgraduate Students
   
Graduate Research and Supervision in the School of Design and Environment
   
Building a Graduate Studies Learning Community
   
Bibliographic Instruction: Search Strategy for Graduate Students
   
The Graduate Tutor Training Workshop in the Department of Mathematics