PhDers sometimes find writing the thesis methods chapter a pretty tedious business. But the methods chapter is a key part of the examination process – it shows that the researcher knows how to research. You see, examiners make their decision – yes or no, this person can be Dr – on the back of this chapter. It’s not all that matters for sure, but get this chapter wrongish, and doubts arise, questions are asked, corrections loom.
Examiners are looking for the evidence in the text, and any accompanying appendices, that will allow them to tick the box that says the researcher can DO research.
And when examiners decide on methods, they are acting as stand-ins. They speak for both the discipline and the wider scholarly community. When they bring their knowledge of ‘standards’ to their evaluation of a doctoral text and viva, they aren’t reading and deciding as an individual, but as a gatekeeper.
So examiners read the methods chapter very carefully.
It is helpful therefore for doctoral researchers to understand some of the concerns that examiners bring to their reading. Understanding what examiners are interested in can guide the revision of the thesis. PhDers can make sure that all bases are covered before handing in.
So here are some of the key things that examiners look for.
- Is the researcher’s positionality made clear? (This may not be expected in some disciplines)
Why was this methodology chosen? What does it have to offer? What claims does this methodology allow and disallow?
What methods were chosen? What data are to be generated and how will these help answer the research question? Given that data are partial and particular, how are the inevitable blank spots acknowledged?
Is the choice of setting explained? How does this context connect with the research question? Does the rationale for choice recognise the limits as well as the benefits of this context?
Why was this sample selected? Was a particular approach used to make this choice?How was this done? If it is necessary for the reader to understand particular details about the sample, are these details provided and clearly signposted?
- DATA GENERATION
What is the data? Are there important implications arising from inclusions and exclusions? When, where, and how was data generated? Was a theoretical or conceptual framework used and is this explained – or referred back to if it is presented earlier? Are the tools used available to the reader? Is a clear audit trail provided?? Were there any particular considerations or issues involved?
What approach is taken to ethical concerns – is this explained? What approach to anonymity and confidentiality has been taken? Were there any particular ethical concerns that arose during the research and how were these addressed?
In what tradition is the data analysis? What are the implications of using this approach?
How was sense made of the data? Is this made clear? Is (some of) the working available to the reader? Are the workings defensible/accurate?
What steps were taken to ensure rigour? Is it clear how the full range of data is to be brought together? How has theory or conceptual framing informed the data work?
Now these don’t make a complete list. Nope. Sorry, there’s more. Specific disciplines and research approaches will add their own criteria. Supervisors know these and can add them in.
But these are at least a head start – and maybe a heads up.