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Advice and Notes from SIGCSE'98 Doctoral Consortium

This collection summarizes many points from the SIGCSE'98 Doctoral Consortium, which was held February 25, 1998, the day before the SIGCSE Technical Symposium began in Atlanta, Georgia.

Overview of opening remarks by John Lewis

"Things I wish someone told me..."

  • knowing your own goals; "finding your right place"
  • "It's all about details"..."an upwardly-spiralling activity"
  • where it fits into the bigger picture
  • not succumbing to the "LPU" mentality

Some notes on 'how to fail' or 'impediments to completion'

There seemed to be classes of obstacles typical to three broad stages of research:

  • for those closest to completion
    • writing
  • for those in the middle
    • reading and sifting
    • making sense of the welter of information
    • fragmentation and loss of focus
  • for those starting
    • conviction
    • motivation
    • commitment

But many other obstacles were named, including:

  • competing demands (work, home, family)
  • poor supervision
  • the politics of approval (e.g., getting work past the committee)
  • convincing those concerned that the topic is 'worthy'
  • getting the writing done
  • situating the work in "the big picture"; expressing the individual line of thought in the context of the reasoning in the literature and field
  • life
  • geography

Marian's list of 'generic viva questions'

  • What are the main achievements of your research?
  • What has your thesis has contributed to knowledge in this field?
  • What are the major theoretical strands in this area: what are the crucial ideas, and who are the main contributors?
  • What are the main issues (matters of debate or dispute) in this area?
  • Where is your thesis 'placed' in terms of the existing theory and debate? How would the major researchers react to your ideas?
  • Whom do you think will be most interested in this work?
  • Why did you choose the particular research methodology that you used?
  • What were the crucial research decisions that you made?
  • If you were doing this research again, would you consider using any other research methodology?
  • What do you see as the next steps in this research?
  • What was the most interesting finding in your results?
  • Were you surprised by any of your results (if so: why, and what was surprising)?
  • What is your plan for publication?

Marian's Ten Top Tips for Research Students

  1. Read, read, read. Seasoned researchers typically have an evolving 'reference set' of around 100-150 papers that forms the core of the relevant literature in their specialty, and with which they are conversant. Students need to read enough to form an initial reference set.
  2. Write, write, write.
    • Writing is a skill that requires practice. The more you write, the easier it gets.
    • You should aim to write up as you go; this will both make it easier at the end (when you re-write it all) and give you something to show people who are interested in your work.
    • Don't throw writing away; date it and store it in an 'out-takes' file; that material can be useful.
    • Revising is often easier than writing new.
  3. Keep an annotated bibliography. This is the single most powerful research tool you can give yourself. It should be a personal tool, including both all the usual bibliographic information, and also the date when you read the paper and notes on what you found interesting / seminal / infuriating / etc. about it.
  4. Form an 'informal committee'. Try to find a small set of reliable, interested people who are willing to read for you, comment on ideas, bring literature to your attention, introduce you to other researchers, and so on. They may be specialists who can provide expertise on which you can draw, or generalists who ask tough questions.
  5. Expose your work. Make your work public in technical reports, research seminars, conference papers. The best way to get information is to share information; if people understand what your ideas are, they can respond to them. Making your work public exposes you to questions and criticism early (when it can do you some good), helps you to 'network' and gather leads, and gives you practice articulating your reasoning.
  6. So what? Learn to ask the other questions. Students often get a result and forget to take the next step. "Look, I got a correlation!" "So what?" Learn to go beyond your initial question, learn to invert the question in order to expose other perspectives, and learn to look for alternative explanations.
  7. Never hide from your supervisor. 'Hiding' is a pathological behaviour in which most research students indulge at some point. Communicating with your supervisor is pre-requisite to getting the most out of your supervisor.
  8. Always make back-ups (and keep a set off-site). More than one student has had to start writing from scratch or to repeat empirical work because he or she neglected this most basic of disciplines.
  9. Read at least one completed dissertation cover-to-cover. Reading something that has 'passed' is an excellent way to reflect on dissertation structure, content, and style - and on 'what it takes'.
  10. A doctorate is pass / fail. Part of the process is learning when 'enough is enough'.


References made at the doctoral consortium

  • Darrell Huff (1954) How to Lie with Statistics. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-013629-0.
  • Kenneth O. May (1973) Bibliography and Research Manual of the History of Mathematics. University of Toronto Press. (particularly pp 2-27)
  • Estelle M. Phillips and D.S. Pugh (1987) How to get a Ph.D.: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors. Open University Press: Milton Keynes. ISBN 0-335-19214-9.
  • Robert M. Pirsig (1991) Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Bantam Press (particularly pp 22-29)
  • Potter & Wetherell (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology. Sage Publications. ISBN 0-8039-8056-6.

Bibliographic packages



Page prepared by Vicki L. Almstrum.Department of Computer Sciences at UT Austin
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