Starting a Research Degree

You're interested in doing a research degree (PhD, Masters, or Honours)? That's great! The purpose of this article is to provide some guidance, and let you know the next steps you need to take if you would like me to be your supervisor.

There are really four different choices for research degrees:

  • Honours - If you haven't done any research before, this is what you should look into. An Honours degree gives you much greater depth than an undergraduate degree in a small subset of the discipline. It gives you a taste of research, and can be completed in a year, so it can help you work out if research is for you.
  • Masters - If you don't have either first-class Honours, or a Masters that involved a significant amount of research (at least 20%) already, then you're best off looking at a research Masters (you can always upgrade to a PhD later if everything's going well). The aim of a Masters is to investigate the state-of-the-art in a particular research area, typically applying it to some novel application.
  • PhD - If you have a significant background in research, then you might consider a PhD. In a PhD, you not only investigate the state-of-the-art in a particular research area, you extend it. By the end of the degree you will be the world expert in your area, having significantly improved human knowledge.
  • PhDI - With similar entry requirements to a PhD, a PhDI typically has more of an industrial focus. One of your supervisors will be a professional working in the industry, and you'll carry out project-based research on an innovation within your field of expertise.

To choose which is for you, you have to consider your research experience, level of interest, and commitment (e.g. a PhD is at least three years of work).

It's vital that you choose a research area you're interested for your study. For the duration of your degree, you'll be spending most of your time thinking about your research project. In the case of a PhD, especially, this means a very long time working in one area, so you want to make sure it's an area you enjoy. To do this, start reading in the area. If it interests you, then you'll keep wanting to read more. If you get bored very quickly, then you're probably better off moving on to a different area.

Once you know the general area in which you wish to complete your research, you should start to think about the specific project you wish to conduct. To do this, it's a good idea to write a research proposal, which will help clarify your thinking and also help potential supervisors decide whether they wish to supervise your candidature.

I occasionally have suggestions for research projects, but think it much better if you come up with your own. If you're really stuck but clearly know your research area, feel free to get in touch and see if I have any suggestions (but, while waiting for a reply, continue reading in the area and you might come up with a study idea yourself).

A research proposal should include the following details:

  • Proposed title of the study - you should give the study a name that clearly summarises the aims of the project
  • Summary of the proposed study - A short (no more than half a page) description of the project and its expected outcomes. Why is this project important, how will you complete it, and what will the results give us?
  • Purpose of the proposed study - A more detailed description of why this study is important
  • Relevant background literature - What have other people done in related areas? You should show you have at least a rudimentary understanding of the current state of the field
  • Research questions or hypotheses - What is the problem you're planning to solve? Do you have any guess to their answers?
  • Research methodology - How will you go about answering your research questions or proving/disproving your hypotheses?
  • Significance of the research - Why is the problem you're discussing worthy of study?
  • Ethical considerations - If you'll be working with humans or animals, there will definitely be ethical considerations. Otherwise, there may be ethical issues you need to consider. If there are, you need to specify what these are and that you've put at least some thought into them.
  • Timetable for the research - How long will it take to complete this research? Can you break it up into a number of steps and give each an estimated deadline?
  • Anticipated problems and limitations - Are there any restrictions that limit your study, or any risks that your study mightn't work? How will you mitigate those risks?
  • Resources required for the research - What do you require to complete this research? Can you get those resources?
  • Bibliography - You should refer to relevant literature throughout your proposal and cite it inline using the standards for your discipline

Remember that your research proposal isn't set in stone; it will continue to develop as you begin your research, under the guidance of your supervisors. However, it's important to have some sort of plan in place before you begin, so a draft research proposal is vital.

Research degrees can be expensive. Currently, if you're an Australian citizen or permanent resident, then the Government will cover your tuition fees for a PhD, but you'll still need some money to live on. International students are typically required to pay fees (though your own Government might have some scholarships or schemes to help with this). There are often scholarships available, so it's worth searching to see what you can find. Supervisors are often much more willing to accept candidates coming with their funding already sorted (for example, I currently do not have any funds to cover research students).

Your supervisors are very important in your pursuit of a research degree. You won't get the same feedback you get during a coursework degree (frequent assignment marks, and marks for individual units every six months or so) - you can go years where the only feedback is from your supervisors. So it's important that you can trust your supervisors. This means that your supervisors should be experts in fields at least related to the area you want to study - otherwise, how can they really know if you're doing a good job? You also want to make sure they have enough time to spend with you, or else you might be traveling blindly down the wrong path with your research without realising it.

Once you know the area in which you wish to conduct your research and have written a draft research proposal, you're ready to start contacting potential supervisors. You should look for academics who have recently published articles in your chosen area, and reach out to them with a brief explanation of what you want to study, why you think they would be a good supervisor (i.e. how your project relates to some of their existing research), details of any funding, a copy of your research proposal, and any other details relevant to your contacting them. Understand that most active researchers are flooded with requests for supervision, so it sometimes might take a while for them to reply, and they might be too busy to be able to accept any more students.

It will probably take a bit of back-and-forth before a potential supervisor is happy with your research proposal, but once they are, you should look at the rules for their institution to see how you go about applying. You need to take the initiative here. Only ask your supervisor how to apply if you truly can't find that information (most institutions have this information very clearly on their Website). Once your application is submitted, there are some checks that go on in the background, so it can be a while before you hear an outcome. Don't pester your supervisor to chase up how the application is progressing, you should chase that up with the institution directly yourself (academics often have no idea where your application is until it gets to them quite late in the process).

  • Decide which research degree is right for you (making sure you meet the entry requirements)
  • Choose the research area in which you wish to conduct your study
  • Write a draft research proposal for the problem you wish to investigate
  • Look for funding opportunities
  • Ensure your research area aligns with your potential supervisor's research
  • Contact your potential supervisor, giving details of all the previous steps
  • After agreement with your supervisor, apply for entrance to the degree

If you wish to have me as your supervisor, make sure your research proposal aligns with my research interests and email me at David.Paul@une.edu.au!

  • miscellaneous/research.txt
  • Last modified: 2019-03-08 03:09
  • by david