Using Technology to Grease the Wheels of the PhD Process

“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse” – Henry Ford

DoctoralNet actively develops technology to aid PhD students through their thesis process.

Recently we were compared to a satnav or netflix for doctoral students. I think those analyses are apt because, like the satnav, PhD subscribers often leave the path we have suggested, go off on their own, and then, when they need guidance again, come back to the website, we re-calibrate, and off they go.  Like Netflix, students or early career researchers dip in and out of resource to see what is on offer and whether it fits their tastes. 

We have recently come back from a conference in Hannover with a new tool we are quite excited about – interactive questions, wordclouds, etc that students can post anonymously to guide webinar presentations.  Already I have seen an increase in participation and our presenters love feeling as though they are hitting the mark when they present.  To give you an idea, when asked what slows down their progress, 268 students dropped into the tool, 46 responded.  A few of the 18 answers that received multiple votes included:

  • I did not receive formal training in how to do research, find sources, or create an experimental design.
  • Even though being able to write well is the No., 1 requirement to get us our doctoral degrees, academic writing itself is hardly ever a top priority as far as how our doctoral seminar is structured and designed.
  • Balancing full-time work, school, and personal life
  • Even after knowing that I can pull it off, I sometimes doubt myself and my abilities. Maybe I think way too much about the result though.
  • Communication gap between the advisor and me

Recently, I was curious to see what other types of technology may be in use within the PhD community and so I opened up a thread asking about it in one of the LinkedIn Higher Ed groups. The results highlight just how conservative HE is in the use of technology. The order in which these are listed reflects the chronology of the responses to my post. See what you think:

  1. Skype or Zoom for interviews or remote meetings, which may help students that need to work apart from the supervisor.
  2. NVIVO etc for qualitative + SPSS etc for Quantitative
  3. EndNotes, RefWorks, etc - bibliographic software
  4. Library content online -Namely locating the research.
  5. Theoretical surveys (googling for research papers in scientific databases is much easier and faster than doing it in microfilms or paper), interviewing/polling processes and so on. 
  6. Review of documents through electronic sharing.

Interestingly, one of the participants responded with a reflective note on what technology cannot help with:

  • If you have to work to support yourself the research, etc. goes slowly. Also some departments (Berkeley was famous for this) are very picky and keep students from progressing much. I also remember one of my committee who wanted me to write an entirely different dissertation and if he had power it would have put me back for years. You have to have a good chair who wants to move you through rapidly, that's the key.

Of course I spend a lot of time reflecting on various uses of educational technology, in fact any technology as they may be used or employed to enhance the pace of doctoral work. Why our emphasis on pace? Our research has shown that the quicker you get it done, the more likely you get it done. At a very fundamental level DoctoralNet believes that in the modern world we need to not only enhance critical thinking, but the speed in which critical thinking is applied.  To do that our professional development needs to ensure what we are doing is answering their challenges.

More on these topics in future posts.

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