Conceptualizing tensions and contradictions in doctoral research methods learning

  • Gregory Hum, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

    Research and scholarship to support doctoral research methods learning (DRML) is an important need in the hard (Feldon, Maher & Timmerman, 2010) and soft (Henson, Hull, & Williams, 2010) sciences. This paper presents a reconceptualization of 20 years of research relevant to RML, framed in the lens of activity theory (Engestrom, 1999) and workplace activity and learning (Billet, 2006; Eraut, 2000). It is further informed by this lens’ related uses in staff development (e.g. Trowler & Knight, 2000; Webster-Wright, 2009) and doctoral development/non-formal learning (Hopwood & Stocks, 2008; Hopwood 2010a; Hopwood 2010b). This reconceptualization highlights key contradictions and tensions in DRML that occur in lived contexts, summarizing important challenges, and suggesting ways forward for research and policy.

    One area of tension concerns the intent and learning outcomes for DRML. For example, while a breadth of research skills and knowledge is required for better/interdisciplinary research (e.g. Feldon et al. 2010; Henson et al. 2010) or for employability, this is often in tension with the need for individuals to develop a depth of specialized research methods and practices for their own specific research focuses (Craswell, 2007; Gilbert et al. 2004; Pearson & Brew, 2002), and, with students’ personal preferences for given methodologies (Cotner et al., 2000; Murtonen, 2005). More generally, policy imperatives for employability often contradict the traditional role of the doctorate as academic research-focused rather than research training, a complex issue given that while many students begin degrees envisioning academic careers, many ultimately engage in non-academic work, making student needs shifting and unclear (Barnacle & Dall’Alba, 2011; Enders, 2005; McAlpine, Jazvac-Martek & Hopwood, 2009).

    Another area of tension exists between and within means of promoting student learning. While formal learning methods are the most obvious way to influence DRML, they are ineffective at fostering non-formal and practical learning, crucial for research practice (Eraut, 2000; McAlpine et al. 2009; Trowler & Knight, 2000). Unfortunately, non-formal DRML is inherently problematic as engaging with a research community is key to its development. However, while in the hard sciences (e.g. chemistry), this is consistent with an established culture that includes research teams and journal clubs, this is contradictory to the soft sciences (e.g. education) which focus on individualized research interests, making similar opportunities for community engagement difficult to create and promote (Chiang, 2003; Golde 2007; Pyhältõ, Stubb & Lonka, 2009). Also problematic, formal learning avenues are not as influential in many contexts as is often assumed. Supervisors are commonly peripheral figures in student development (Franke & Arvidsson, 2011; McAlpine & Amundsen, 2011; Pearson, 1996) and coursework can have limited effects on graduate learning (Smeby, 2000; Murtonen, 2005).

    Participants in this session will receive a summary of relevant literature organized in a table to highlight these and other tensions/contradictions. They will discuss and add to the table (in pairs) based on their own experiences. Then, in an open discussion, participants will be asked to share their own experiences from the perspective of their own academic role(s), and discuss potential ways in which tensions can/should be addressed.