First steps in your research: PhD peer review classes

By Jorrit Kamminga, February 2015

During my PhD trajectory, I spent six months in 2011 as a Visiting PhD. Research Scholar at the Department of Sociology of the London School of Economics (LSE). That allowed me to strongly improve both my theoretical framework and research methodology. One element of my scholarship really proved to be of added value: my enrolment in a PhD peer review class. I attended the peer review course (SO500 ‘Aims and Methods’) given by professors Dr Nigel Dodd and Dr Paddy Rawlinson. Such courses intend to help students formulate clear research objectives and methodologies, limit the scope of research to feasible proportions, and come up with a good planning of the research trajectory.

If not already part of the mandatory programme, I strongly advise students to look for such courses themselves, even outside their own faculty (where you may sit in on these courses as observer). If they are not available, the second-best thing is to try and start your own peer review group with a few fellow PhD students. The latter is still very useful, especially if you could talk a professor into joining the group from time to time on an informal basis. The support and feedback of professors is of course very important – especially as most PhD students start off with a plan encompassing ‘three PhDs’ or with unrealistic expectations or methodologies. Your own supervisor will, of course, normally help you avoid research pitfalls, but the feedback of other experienced professors, both within and outside of your research field, is a bonus.

But what is most interesting of peer review courses, especially early on in the PhD process, is the role of the ‘peers’ themselves: your fellow PhD students. They can provide you with ideas on where to focus your research, what additional sources (or theories) may be available, or on how to limit the scope of the research. In addition, they can be a great source of inspiration and motivation, especially as you realise you are not the only one struggling with difficult challenges early on in the research. The latter effect you may also get from talking to fellow students in the pub, but the formal structure of a course works better as you will be asked to present your research in a formal way.

Presenting the initial research methodology and plan to your peers stimulates you to think critically about what you are trying to achieve and how realistic your methodology is. It also gives you a deadline to present a research plan or progress made so far, which forces you to take your research to the next step. Peer review courses work best if students are asked to present their research at least twice, which means progress and the process of addressing challenges can be tracked.

Lastly, listening to and providing feedback on the research of others may also provide you with new ideas. It may even completely change your mind on the size and scope of your own research. I remember that I was quite ‘shocked’ when I heard a student had limited her research area to just one square in a Latin American city. I also remember the work of another student that did her research on the evolution of the concept of the ‘American dream.’ I never had thought about PhD research in terms of such ‘narrow’ (but complex) approaches, and it definitely helped to further narrow down my own research.

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