The (Masters) Dissertation:
Skylark or Albatross?
Prof. Ifan D H Shepherd
Director, Professional Practice Programmes
Middl...
Next week’s celebrations
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
The academic gown tradition
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
Dissertation: a diverging tradition
Dissertatio (Latin):
“any formal discourse in speech or writing”
Common in the title o...
The research-based dissertation
The research PhD emerged in 19th
century German
universities -- e.g. Friedrich Wilhelm Uni...
A persistent tradition – trickled down
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
Cultural divergence in terminology
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
UK USA
Dissertation Ma...
The masters landscape (UK)
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
MA
MSc
MPhil
MRes
MBA
MProf
Su...
Roles of the masters (then and now)
15th
century: “A licence to practice theology”
-- Hart (2004)
19th
century: “Altogethe...
Roles of the masters dissertation (now)
Gives students an opportunity to:
 shine (i.e. be ‘stretched’)
 enjoy a capstone...
So…
Is everything in the garden rosy?
The masters landscape (UK)
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
MA
MSc
MPhil
MRes
MBA
MProf
Su...
An inquest into our Masters dissertation
Autumn 2008 : Department of Marketing & Enterprise
 Continuing under-performance...
An inquest into our Masters dissertation
 Poor lecture & seminar attendance
 Vague and/or confused research proposals
 ...
A problem of our own making?
 We restrict the period available for mastery of
research methods and their application
-- “...
A problem of our own making?
 We feed students unnecessary jargon
-- e.g. research, paradigm, positivism, ontology
 We a...
Research competence doesn’t come easily
Many students (especially overseas) do not come from
a western academic research c...
The numbers challenge
Large masters intake (e.g. 100+ per annum)
+
Modest-sized department (e.g. 20+ staff)
=
Supervisory ...
The ‘tangential duties’ problem
What do the following have in common? –
 Supervising dissertations
 Attending recruitmen...
One person’s honesty
“I would have been a bad don [at Cambridge].
… I would not have been sufficiently interested
in my st...
So … What’s to be done?
Sticking plaster vs radical surgery
Sticking plaster solutions (1)
 Problem: Insisting on a thorough literature review when
students may never have encounter...
Sticking plaster solutions (2)
 Leaving writing until the end of the process
Solutions:
-- write as a form of thinking (e...
Towards more radical solutions
Some awkward questions I’ve asked myself:
 What (exactly) does ‘academic’ mean in a resear...
An alternative perspective on dissertations
The academic researcher is ever on the outside looking in…
© 2013 - Ifan D H S...
The relevance of insider research
The academic style of research dissertation for part-time
(i.e. working) students is of ...
We’re moving in the right direction…
e.g. MA marketing dissertations
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Busi...
Old habits die hard…
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
Research dissertation
 Aims and obj...
We’re moving in the right direction…
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
We also have an MPro...
Research without the dissertation?
The dissertation is not the only tool we have for giving
students an opportunity to und...
Research without the dissertation?
Q: If we believe research is so valuable for masters students,
why not distribute it th...
© 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
Martin Luther King’s PhD
-- about half was plagiarised
(A...
What would we lose without dissertations?
Simon Pegg’s undergraduate dissertation:
‘Base and Supersucker’
A marxist critiq...
Thanks for listening!
Happy to answer your questions
and hear your own solutions
Ifan1@mdx.ac.uk
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Dissertations keynote Ifan Shepherd

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  • Transcript of "Dissertations keynote Ifan Shepherd"

    1. 1. The (Masters) Dissertation: Skylark or Albatross? Prof. Ifan D H Shepherd Director, Professional Practice Programmes Middlesex University Business School Middlesex University Annual Teaching & Learning Conference 11 July 2013
    2. 2. Next week’s celebrations © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    3. 3. The academic gown tradition © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    4. 4. Dissertation: a diverging tradition Dissertatio (Latin): “any formal discourse in speech or writing” Common in the title of 17th century scientific books e.g. Jacobi Bernouilli (1685) Dissertatio de Gravitate Aetheris 19th century American culture: "An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting…" -- Alexis de Tocqueville (1835) © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    5. 5. The research-based dissertation The research PhD emerged in 19th century German universities -- e.g. Friedrich Wilhelm University Traditional dissertation chapters appeared: ‘Methodology’ ‘Literature review’ ‘Results/Findings’ ’Analysis and Interpretation of Findings’ This structure closely linked with scientific experimentation © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    6. 6. A persistent tradition – trickled down © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    7. 7. Cultural divergence in terminology © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School UK USA Dissertation Masters PhD Thesis PhD Masters
    8. 8. The masters landscape (UK) © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School MA MSc MPhil MRes MBA MProf Subject emphasis Research emphasis Academic emphasis Vocational/Professional emphasis
    9. 9. Roles of the masters (then and now) 15th century: “A licence to practice theology” -- Hart (2004) 19th century: “Altogether a teacher’s degree” -- McLaughlin (1917) 20th century: “Preparation for a doctorate” -- ‘Second cycle’ in Bologna Process 21st century: “A PhD is not enough these days … You need something more to stand out. Go do an MBA … or a masters in patent law” -- Unemployed Australian PhD student (2013) © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    10. 10. Roles of the masters dissertation (now) Gives students an opportunity to:  shine (i.e. be ‘stretched’)  enjoy a capstone learning experience  acquire mastery of research methods through application  be inducted in the ways of the (academic) researcher “Your [masters] dissertation is the physical evidence that you [can] be accredited as a competent researcher” -- Hart (2004) The PhD dissertation is the “centrepiece of graduate education” -- Boyer (1990) © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    11. 11. So… Is everything in the garden rosy?
    12. 12. The masters landscape (UK) © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School MA MSc MPhil MRes MBA MProf Subject emphasis Research emphasis Academic emphasis Vocational/Professional emphasis
    13. 13. An inquest into our Masters dissertation Autumn 2008 : Department of Marketing & Enterprise  Continuing under-performance by a significant percentage of students submitting a dissertation Distinction 13% Merit 18% Pass 32% Fail 19% } c.40% failed or Referred to Registry 18% } referred for plagiarism [ 2007-2008 academic year, n=39 students ] © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    14. 14. An inquest into our Masters dissertation  Poor lecture & seminar attendance  Vague and/or confused research proposals  Late submission of research proposals  Highly plagiarised literature reviews  Weak methodology  Superficial data analysis  Inability to express ideas coherently  etc. © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    15. 15. A problem of our own making?  We restrict the period available for mastery of research methods and their application -- “Dissertations within masters programmes follow the completion of taught modules” (MU Learning Framework)  We atomise the research process, and wonder why dissertation chapters are disconnected © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    16. 16. A problem of our own making?  We feed students unnecessary jargon -- e.g. research, paradigm, positivism, ontology  We adopt categories of dubious value -- e.g. quantitative vs qualitative data/research  We nurture expectations of original knowledge -- “an emphasis on independent and original study” (ITS) © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    17. 17. Research competence doesn’t come easily Many students (especially overseas) do not come from a western academic research culture Research methods mastery can’t be achieved within the one-year masters Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours rule’ for mastery/expertise is a salutary reminder not to have exaggerated expectations © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    18. 18. The numbers challenge Large masters intake (e.g. 100+ per annum) + Modest-sized department (e.g. 20+ staff) = Supervisory problem  5-10 students per annum per supervisor  Frequent demands from needy students But this is not simply a numbers problem… © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    19. 19. The ‘tangential duties’ problem What do the following have in common? –  Supervising dissertations  Attending recruitment events (e.g. open evenings)  Visiting placement students  Answering student emails promptly Evidence of a module-based silo mentality © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    20. 20. One person’s honesty “I would have been a bad don [at Cambridge]. … I would not have been sufficiently interested in my students ... I’m not humble enough, and the capacity for ordinary work is not in me. The necessary sense of duty to my students would have been missing.” © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    21. 21. So … What’s to be done? Sticking plaster vs radical surgery
    22. 22. Sticking plaster solutions (1)  Problem: Insisting on a thorough literature review when students may never have encountered a journal article Solutions: -- Support practice in critical reading -- Bibliography only of read items -- Appendix of annotated read items -- Reduce assessment weighting  Problem: Foisting a full research methods course on students when < 20% relevant to their research project Solution: -- A la carte rather than table d’hôte research methods course © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    23. 23. Sticking plaster solutions (2)  Leaving writing until the end of the process Solutions: -- write as a form of thinking (e.g. ‘research journal’) -- write early to permit supervisory feedback -- write throughout to avoid the deadline guillotine -- write often to permit plagiarism checks © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    24. 24. Towards more radical solutions Some awkward questions I’ve asked myself:  What (exactly) does ‘academic’ mean in a research context?  What do our employed students do at work that could make a contribution to knowledge?  How do you wrap research around professional activities?  Is the disinterested researcher an outmoded ideal?  How can knowledge (academic as well as professional) be generalised? © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    25. 25. An alternative perspective on dissertations The academic researcher is ever on the outside looking in… © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School …while the professional practitioner is an embedded researcher
    26. 26. The relevance of insider research The academic style of research dissertation for part-time (i.e. working) students is of questionable value -- actionable knowledge is equally valuable -- action research can be equally rigorous -- team-based research may be more relevant Maybe we should replace ‘academic’ by ‘relevant’ as the criterion of ‘level 7-ness’ We have considered two variants of insider research:  R & D projects  Professional practice dissertations In both cases, there is a bigger role for assessing the research process itself -- e.g. through students’ critical reflection © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    27. 27. We’re moving in the right direction… e.g. MA marketing dissertations © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School MA Marketing Management MA Marketing Communications MA e-Marketing & Social Media Research format Research OR R&D format R&D format Marketing is following a well-trodden Business School path e.g. HRM, Accounting, Finance, MBA, etc.
    28. 28. Old habits die hard… © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School Research dissertation  Aims and objectives (10%)  Literature review (25%)  Methodology (20%)  Findings & analysis (20%)  Conclusions & recommendations (15%)  Language & presentation (10%) R&D dissertation  Client needs (10%  User needs (10%)  Clients/user requirements (10%)  Team R&D process (10%)  Technical & organisational specifications (20%)  Implementation (30%)  Evaluation (10%)
    29. 29. We’re moving in the right direction… © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School We also have an MProf in Professional Practice for: Accounting, Business, Economics, Enterprise, Finance, Human Resources, Management, Marketing Includes APL/APEL, Review of Learning, and a practice- based research project centred on the practitioner’s organisational activities No longer based on the mini-PhD template
    30. 30. Research without the dissertation? The dissertation is not the only tool we have for giving students an opportunity to undertake research  Fieldwork and residentials  Local business consultancies  ‘Open’ paper  Mini-projects  etc. Submissions encouraged in non-textual media © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    31. 31. Research without the dissertation? Q: If we believe research is so valuable for masters students, why not distribute it throughout their programmes? Instead of the dissertation, we could have other kinds of ‘deliverable’:  reports  audits  evaluations  proposals  etc. © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School
    32. 32. © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School Martin Luther King’s PhD -- about half was plagiarised (After a formal enquiry, Boston University decided not to strip him posthumously of his doctorate) What would we lose without dissertations? A useful reminder that while there may be shortcuts to producing a dissertation, there are no shortcuts to becoming an effective researcher
    33. 33. What would we lose without dissertations? Simon Pegg’s undergraduate dissertation: ‘Base and Supersucker’ A marxist critique of Star Wars, comparing the film to the Cold War © 2013 - Ifan D H Shepherd, Middlesex University Business School Ros Barber’s DPhil thesis: ‘Writing Marlowe as writing Shakespeare’ = blank verse novel + commentary (70k words + 50k words)
    34. 34. Thanks for listening! Happy to answer your questions and hear your own solutions Ifan1@mdx.ac.uk

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