Friday, April 29, 2011

Re-thinking the viva

I've had a lot of conversions recently with numerous colleagues and students from various different universities who have had less than satisfactory experiences in the doctoral vivas which left me wondering....what the hell is happening to the viva? All of the books and website that students routinely read prior to their doctoral examination say useful and helpful comments along the lines of;
  • "you know more about your work than anyone else on the room"
  • "The examiners do not want you to fail"
  • The viva should be a discussion amongst peers
However from the individuals I've spoken to lately there is a real sense that students felt that their work was more under attack than under review with examiners dismissing the approaches taken, the epistemological underpinnings of the work and the standard of writing, leaving them demoralised and disillusioned. 
This made me think that may be students and their supervisors are under estimating the importance of careful selection of examiners and independent chairs. Indeed I was surprised to find that some universities do not have an independent chair for vivas which makes the student even more vulnerable. Is it fair, or even appropriate that the work of, for some students , 5 years or more is approved or otherwise by two people on one day? It's time for a re-think. Maybe it is time for a feedback website so that students can highlight good examiners or even for an examiners registry so that potential examiners can upload their areas of expertise and methodological interests so that examiner selection can be focused and relevant rather than being based upon who a student's supervisor think will be OK as it is at present. Or should we go further and try to think of a new way in which PhDs can be assessed - maybe by open access peer review?
If PhDs could be loaded onto secure websites for, say, a month and could be thoroughly reviewed by a minimum number of global reviewers - how much more valid would that be?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The High Cost of Low Risk Research

I write this post immediately after attending a seminar on the ‘Psychology of Sustainability’ and feel inspired to write about my views on the trajectory of the sub-discipline. I also invite responses from readers who are far wiser than I about the whys and wherefores of academic research, generally.

I will begin by saying that I enjoyed this seminar. I have learned to expect variety in the intelligibility and quality of the conferences and seminars I attend but this one was particularly satisfying. For the majority of the day, apart from the odd daydream here and there, I held my attention and actually followed much of what the speakers were talking about – a not insignificant personal success.

But as the afternoon drew to a close and the speaker rushed through her presentation in an attempt to bring the timing of the day back into its rigidly pre-prepared schedule, my mind began to drift towards some ‘metathoughts’ about the state of the discipline as I have observed it by attending this seminar series (this was the third of three which have been held over the last six months or so). I don’t claim to have stumbled upon some original thoughts or insights on the matter and I apologise if I have ‘borrowed’ somebody else’s analysis -- probable and likely -- but am unable to reference or credit them for it.

What I want to talk about is the incremental, slow-build approach to developing knowledge in the environmental psychology discipline. Environmental psychology began to emerge in the latter half of the last century and has its theoretical roots in the more established social psychology domain: this is clearly evident in contemporary environmental psychology research, for example, in studies of social norms in pro-environmental behaviour. This is a sensible and worthwhile endeavour; however, research invariably concludes that the findings that were expected to be found were realised and that “more research in this area is needed to understand demographic differences/underlying psychological processes”, and so on. In other words, future research should concentrate on uncovering ever more elusive truths in ever more finely defined detail. Justifying this approach to research no doubt is a conviction that “this is how we build knowledge; this is how we sculpt the fine details of our theories”. This may be so but I would argue that there is an opportunity cost to this: while the best minds in the field are focused on sharpening what there already is, they are not imagining any great leap into the untried and unchartered territory that may deliver the knowledge that we need for the future. The everyday language of academia is hyperbolic and boasts of a commitment to innovation, but to what extent do we follow through on our talk? Are we willing to let our imaginations run riot with regards to research ideas? Are we willing to stake time, finance, and reputation on research just to see what happens? Alternatively, will we continue to design studies that only serve to confirm what we probably intuitively knew already? More broadly, this makes me want to ask: to what extent is prospecting for new research fields restrained by the commitment academics are expected to show towards intellectual rigour (its only rigorous because we already know it or can expect to know it) and narrow theoretical development? I am not suggesting that we abandon all sensibilities towards our research endeavours, but instead that we can begin to endorse an attitude towards research that is not so risk-averse. Truly, if the consequences of human behaviour for climate change are to be believed, and if environmental psychology intends to throw its weight behind the search for solutions, then is it not worth loosening the restrictions that may restrain the intellectual creativity that the discipline needs?