Criticality in the PhD – nine things to avoid


Doctoral writers are expected to show “criticality” in their thinking and writing. But what does this actually mean?

Criticality has a specific academic meaning. A meaning that isn’t quite the same as the one that is in ordinary use. It’s a bit like “argument”. Outside the scholarly world, an argument is where people disagree with each other. Inside the scholarly world, an argument is about making a persuasive case, using evidence from published and new work to back an interpretation and claims being made. There’s a similar difference with criticality.

Ordinarily, being critical is taken to mean being negative or disapproving, perhaps expressing dislike. However, being critical can also mean analysing strengths and weaknesses, merit and faults. Think for example of food critics who offer their take on restaurants and how good the meals and service are. Or book critics who discuss the ways in which authors have dealt with their subject and how well they have constructed their text. It is this latter version of critical which is closest to the criticality so important in scholarly work.

In academic circles, criticality is a state of mind as well as a practice. Scholarly work is simultaneously appreciative and sceptical. Scholars read and use the work of others, but at the same time they don’t take any material at face value. We scholars continually evaluate our own and other people’s work. All of our texts for example are subject to continued scrutiny – every assumption and premise is up for examination. The conduct and credibility of research is always open to examination.

So there’s an implication or three here …

First. As we read and research, we think continually about our own practices as researchers and writers. We look for the ways in which our own blind spots and taken-for-granted views might hinder our work. ( We often called this reflexivity – the process of looking back at yourself and your actions.)

Second. You don’t build criticality overnight. Undergraduates and taught postgraduate students are expected to show that they are learning how to be critical. And often their level of criticality is a key to their grades. However, doctoral researchers are expected to demonstrate the same kind of criticality that is routinely demanded of all scholars in their field.

Third. The thesis in particular is not the place to display criticality L plates. Examiners deliberately look for criticality in the thesis text. And they are likely to ask people to rewrite sections that do not show the kinds and levels of criticality that they see as the norm.

So what does this all mean in practice? Well, here’s a bit of a start to thinking about where and how criticality is important in the thesis. I’ve presented these as things to avoid, rather than things to do.

Here’s nine uncritical things to avoid in doctoral research and thesis writing. Don’t do any of these if you can help it. Look for these when revising.

  1. The researcher has a question which they take as sacrosanct. The question can’t be challenged and/or changed after its initial conception.
  2. The researcher does not explain crucial terms that are used to construct the problem, shape the methods used and frame the analysis. Definitions are not justified and alternative options not canvassed.
  3. The researcher takes all of the literatures at face value. There is no examination of the underpinning dis/agreements in the field. There may be a list of texts leading to a statement about what’s not there (gap talk) but no evaluation of the shifts, trends and debates in the field. The researcher doesn’t ask whether there are other ways of thinking about the topic. There is no canvassing of other ways in which the topic in hand has been researched and why the researcher has taken a different approach.
  4. The researcher confuses criticality with being negative. Everyone else’s work is taken as deficient, and the proposed research offered as a remedy. The researcher/writer does not seem to understand the benefits of having different approaches to the same topic and the importance of potentially complementary lens and/or even-handed rigorous interrogation. The researcher does not seem to understand that scholarship advances through debate.
  5. The researcher presents their research design as if it is unproblematic, rather than offering a discussion of the partiality of methodologies and methods – no research design can do everything. The writer does not make clear how they established boundaries and exclusions in order to make the research do-able. Nor do they discuss the various decisions they made along the way which affected the outcomes.
  6. Ditto the analysis. The researcher’s approach to analysis is explained but not justified. There is no discussion of the ways in which their interpretation is the best one, why it was chosen over others, or how it might be varied. Ambiguities and possible alternative interpretations and blank spots are not recognised or remarked on.
  7. The researcher takes their conceptual or theoretical framework as comprehensive rather than it doing some things, and not others.
  8. The researcher presents their results and conclusion as if they are inscribed on a tablet of stone, rather than being limited. Limited yes, but entirely defensible and the result of the best thinking and thorough process that the researcher has been able to do. Counter positions are not recognised, areas for further investigation are not elaborated.
  9. The researcher confuses criticality with negativity, being self-effacing about their own research. Their discussion of “research limitations” actually undermines their research and their expertise. The researcher-writer just sees that they haven’t done everything. But there is always more to do. And this doesn’t negate what the researcher has done and how they’ve advanced understanding of the topic.

Now, the key to avoiding these nine “mistakes” – and the many others associated with criticality – is the researcher adopting a criticality attitude. Our scholarly tradecraft relies on us being curious, sceptical, living with uncertainty, wanting to know more, finding different possibilities, speculating, testing, pushing further with what’s known and said.

We scholars aspire to a restless intellect. We are disposed to keep plugging away, questioning the basis on which we claim to know. Accepting that what we hold as known is change-able and changing. We’re prepared to hold a lens up to our own work as well as that from others.