The PhD as Quest: The Movie!!

In 2013, I presented a paper at the excellent biennial Stellenbosch conference on doctoral supervision. It drew on the poet W.H Auden’s discussion of the ‘hero’ as a key component in Quest literature, a form of story known to all cultures throughout recorded history. Auden used The Lord of the Rings to illustrate his discussion and, while I was reading his it, I realised just how close the Quest is to the doctoral experience and that the ‘Quest’ is a much better metaphor for the doctorate than the much more often-used ‘journey’. When I got back to Adelaide, I wrote the piece up and it was published in the International Journal for Researcher Development under the titleThe quest for the PhD: a better metaphor for doctoral education‘.

Since then, I’ve used the piece as the basis for my introduction to the development opportunities and the resources available to University of South Australia research students  during the Orientation event which introduces new doctoral students to their period of study. It seems to have gone down well and appears to strike a chord with most students irrespective of discipline or whether they are domestic or international students.

The notion of the PhD as quest has now reached the next phase in its development and is available for your delectation and delight on Youtube as a movie. There is a musical soundtrack so its best watched with the sound on.

I hope you find it useful and would welcome any feedback you might have.

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How many references should I have in my thesis? How many references do I need in this paper?

Its the question everyone has asked at one time or another. Its also the question every supervisor is asked by almost all of her or his research students. ‘How many references should I have in my thesis/chapter/conference paper/article?’ Put simply – How many citations are enough?

When asked this question my approach has always been to say, ‘As many as the piece needs’ and then to go on and talk about what references are for, why we include them, and how to decide which earlier writers to cite. You’ll know the sort of thing. You’ll generally need a reference if:

  • you make an assertion of fact that is not part of the common knowledge of the society. For example, if you say ‘the sun rises in the East’, that doesn’t require a reference. If, on the other had, you say ‘As we all know, the greater bearded senior professor is most commonly found in the Senior Common Room during daylight hours’, a reference to the source of this tidbit of information would be most useful;
  • you make a statement of the ‘Researchers (or studies) have found…’ type;
  • you quote someone or some document (or even yourself!);
  • you use someone’s general argument or structure;
  • you want to close off a line of argument. For example, you write something like, ‘This last point raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of the day-to-day activities of the greater bearded senior professor, but these have been addressed elsewhere.’ Tell the reader where that ‘elsewhere’ is and be thankful you don’t have to do the research!
  • you want to guide the reader to some interesting areas or readings that you don’t have space to pursue in your current piece of writing or which don’t quite fit your argument.

But did I think science would come to my aid in answering the ‘How many references are enough?’ question? I did not. But it has.

I found the following frame in a very recent post in PhDComics.  Its a Figure from a 2002 article by Abt and Garfield and it shows clearly that there is a relationship between the average length of a paper and the number of references both of which vary across disciplinary areas but the relationship between the two is sufficiently strong for a formula to be derived which will guide you in the number of references to include. Here’s the Figure and the formula.

number of refs

Of course, its not quite as simple as that and different papers will require different numbers of references even if they’re within the same discipline. But this will give you a guide and a sense of whether you’re in the right ballpark area. If you find you’re not, there may be very good reasons why not, but at least this will help to make you think about those reasons and be prepared to answer any questions about your citation practice.

In the meantime, isn’t science great!

A short Post Script (8 Dec 2015). I have just returned from a writing retreat where I presented on a couple of issues and introduced the formula for calculating how many references a paper should include. One of the participants caught me after the presentation and said that he’d run the formula on his draft and it said that for its length the paper should have 72 references. He actually had 68. Another satisfied customer!!

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Invitation to complete a short survey on ‘Influential literature and scholars in the field of doctoral education’

As is easily discovered, I work as part of the Research Education Team in the Learning & Teaching Unit at the University of South Australia and I am currently working on a research project examining:

(a) the most influential and important literature to have come out of the scholarship of doctoral education/higher degrees by research, and

(b) which scholars are regarded by the broader community as being the most influential in the field.

If you can answer ‘yes’ to the following question, you are a member of that broader community, and I am inviting you to participate in a short, anonymous, online questionnaire (there are four questions in total) which should take between 2 and ten minutes to complete (depending on how much feedback you choose give).

The question is: ‘Have you actively engaged with the academic scholarship of and research into higher degrees by research (doctorates, Masters by research, research degrees) either as a researcher, a manager, a practitioner or someone who works in some other capacity with research degree students?’

If you answered ‘yes’ and want to contribute to the project, you will be asked a question about your geographic location and two further questions:

1. Who do you think have been or are the most influential writers in the broad field of research degrees? Please feel free to name up to five individuals in order of their influence.

2. If you were asked to nominate up to ten published items (books, articles, reports etc) for inclusion in a library of important and influential works in the field of the scholarship of higher degrees by research/doctoral education, which items would you select? (Please provide the authors and titles of the items.)

To participate in the survey, please follow this link: Influential literature and scholars in the field of doctoral education survey

Participation in the survey is entirely voluntary and participants may withdraw from the research at any time. Data will be collected anonymously and will be stored for five years in electronic format before being destroyed. Because the data collection is undertaken through an anonymous online questionnaire, it will not be possible to associate any particular data with any individual. No personal information will be collected. (This also means that once completed, it will not be possible to withdraw data already submitted.)

No risks to those participating in the research have been identified and any benefits will arise from your membership of the community of scholars and practitioners engaged in the field of doctoral education/higher degrees by research about which more will be known once the research is completed. It is anticipated that the project will feed into one or more journal articles and a report detailing the responses as regards the literature in the field. The publication of these will be advertised through the normal community networking channels, including the email lists through which participants have been recruited.

This project has been approved by the University of South Australia’s Human Research Ethics Committee. If you have any ethical concerns about the project or questions about your rights as a participant please contact the Executive Officer of this Committee, Tel: +61 8 8302 3118; Email:
If you have any questions or comments about the project, please feel free to contact me directly. My details are at the foot of this post.

I hope you will be able to contribute to this project.


Professor Alistair McCulloch, PhD
Head of Research Education
Learning & Teaching Unit
University of South Australia
Room P2-35, City East Campus – CEA-16
North Terrace
Adelaide, SA 5001

Phone: +61 (0)8 830 21150 Fax: +61 (0)8 830 22363

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How to select an examiner for your PhD

Some great advice on choosing an examiner for your PhD or Masters by Research has just been published on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog.

The piece is titled ‘Choosing the examiner: It’s in everyone’s interests to get students involved’ and is written by Claire Aitchison, one of Australia’s most respected researchers and practitioners in the area of doctoral education.

Claire outlines the key considerations when thinking about examiners and then lays down a four step process for considering examiners which should begin 3-4 months out from the point at which you think you’ll be submitting your thesis.

This is a must-read for all research students!!

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Responding to email and tweeting conferences – a beginner’s guide for the experienced user

Dealing with the digital world is not always easy, particularly for the beginner. In addition to the technology, which can be daunting, there are also issues associated with the etiquette of the various media. So, it was pleasing earlier today to receive news of two helpful blog posts dealing with two of the most ubiquitous forms of contemporary communication.

The first, from the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, relates to responding to email and admonishes us to refrain from the instant, knee-jerk return email. Much better, it argues correctly, to think about the why, the what and the when to respond rather than to leap in feet-first and have to put things right later. One of my former colleagues was fond of quoting the old Mafia saying ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. I think it applies equally well to email, especially if the email is one that gets you annoyed or flustered. Think first and then think again should be the order of the day

The second, from Hook & Eye, gives six basic rules for tweeting conferences. These are as follows.

1. ‘Every single tweet must contain named attribution’ for the idea(s) being tweeted. Don’t let the idea become disconnected from its originator.
2. ‘Try not to over-tweet’.
3. ‘Be aware of other tweeters’ and what they’re tweeting.
4. ‘Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online’ and remain part of the audience/discussion rather than becoming apart from it.
5. ‘Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented’.
6. ‘Be aware of the form of your tweet’.

Try thinking of situations where you’ve responded too quickly to an email and lived to regret it or where your Twitter feed has been overwhelmed by tweet after tweet after tweet on a single conference session and you’ll soon realise that these two blog postings provide very good advice, no matter whether you’re younger or older, highly experienced or very inexperienced. They offer that priceless commodity – worthwhile guidance.

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After the UK REF, the IREF…the Intergalactic Research Excellence Framework

For the last couple of decades, exercises to assess the extent to which university research is excellent have been all the rage. The UK led the way with the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) to be followed by Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong among others. With the passage of time, increasing amounts of research funding tend to be allocated on the basis of the results of these exercises and, so important have they become to individual universities, these exercises now drive the research cycle in the same way as national or general elections drive the economic cycles of individual states.

Over time, the standards required to hit the top of the rankings have increased (in terminological terms if not absolutely). In the 1992 and 1996 RAEs in the UK, for example, standards were set in terms of ‘attainable levels of national (and) international excellence’. By 2001, the concept of the ‘star’ ratings of the top rating had evolved thus dividing submissions achieving a 5 into 5 and 5*. Seven years later, national and international excellence had been joined by ‘world-leading’. I joked then that the next stage had to be the search for research that was intergalactic in terms of its excellence. Today an email arrived in my inbox which brought my vision just a little bit closer. It was from the English higher education funding council, HEFCE. It read:

“Views on an international REF invited

HEFCE has published a survey inviting views on an internationalised system of research assessment.

This survey forms part of a project exploring the benefits and challenges of expanding the UK’s research assessment system, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), on an international basis. At the broadest level, this means an extension of the assessment to incorporate submissions from universities overseas.

This follows an invitation earlier this year from the then Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, for HEFCE to provide an opinion on the feasibility of an international REF. The project belongs in a wider context of international interest in the exercise, on which HEFCE frequently provides information and advice to higher education policymakers and university senior management from overseas.

Responses are invited from any organisation or individual with an interest in higher education research or its assessment. The survey will be open until Wednesday 12 November 2014.

To complete the survey visit:

Having been involved in all the UK RAEs between 1992 and 2008, I shall of course be responding and I shall be claiming  prescience and IPR (as well as research impact points for the Australian ERA exercise to which I am now beholden in my current job in that country) should the outcome of the consultation be what I am about to propose.

I propose that the next move should not be an international REF. Let us not be timid. Let us go for broke. Let us aim for the stars and institute an Intergalactic Research Excellence Framework where all universities in the Milky Way are judged one against the other by a jury drawn directly from the Gods of Yore ( (c) Olympus and Valhalla) and the League of Superheros ( (c) Marvel Comics), the outcomes of this exercise in terms of grades awarded to be:

  1. Awe-inspiring
  2. Earth-shattering
  3. Stellar
  4. Better than beyond the edge of the Universe
  5. Completely out of sight, AND
  6. Completely out of sight*
  7. Completely out of sight (binary*)

In order to be funded, research achievement has to be ‘stellar’ and in the case of a dispute about the borderline between  ‘Completely out of sight’, ‘Completely out of sight*’ and ‘Completely out of sight (binary*)’, the adjudicator should be the Ghost of James Brown

I shared this proposal with a colleague and he suggested a refinement (thanks Mike), ‘the results would have to be benchmarked against the other galaxies in the universe – let’s see whether Andromeda is interested in helping with providing some benchmarking data’

Remember…you heard it here first…and remember, the sky’s the limit…

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Tips for interpreting research…the do’s and the don’t’s

There’s an increasing volume of research being published, driven in large part by the ‘publish or perish’ culture and the associated regular national assessments of research quality, and also university league tables. Because research is presented in print form, this research takes on a status and an authority that may sometimes not reflect its real value or worth. Knowing how to interpret and make sense of this outpouring of research is a key skill for new researchers and also a skill that more experienced researchers need to practice and reinforce on a regular basis.

Two academics from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University have just published in The Conversation an easy-to-read but very effective guide to the ‘10 stuff-ups we all make when interpreting research‘. It cautions against relying on just one study, misinterpreting significance, misinterpretation of effect, and the quality-quantity fallacy (among others).

Its well worth a read and is also worth distributing more widely amongst both commencing and experienced researchers. I commend it to the congregation…

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