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The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research – Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre

I just finished reading yet another book about PhD research, and I really enjoyed reading this book. After reading around the internet tons of valuable information contained in blogs and reading a few books about doctoral education, I have the impression that, by now, the main ideas keep coming back repeatedly. However, this book, was a true joy to read. The writing style is truly witty, and it made me smile throughout the entire reading.

Here are some random aspects from this book which I especially enjoyed:

1. The three golden rules of public speaking

1. Don’t lie.
2. Don’t try to be funny.
3. Don’t panic and blurt out the truth.

I’m going to memorize these rules and keep them printed onto my brain for a long time. It just captures really well the most important things about speaking.

2. Cabinet-making

This book often refers to the thesis as some kind of master piece as produced by craftsmen in the past who followed a master-apprentice system. Your thesis should provide you with the opportunity to demonstrate that you master the whole range of skills which you should have to be a member of the scientific community as a researcher.

3. Blood in the water

Another great metaphor used in this book, “blood in the water” refers to flaws in your thinking/research which would seduce “sharks” to come after you and bite you. There are a few great checklists (especially in the chapter about writing) to help you identify some typical “blood in the water” mistakes which novices make.

4. Reading

Reading of course is a vital element of a researcher’s life. I particularly enjoyed the insight that a researcher’s core is about 50 to 100 pages which contains their main working knowledge. There is also a great section titled “reading habits of lifelong readers” which gives great advice on how to make reading large amounts of literature and vaguely related papers a habit. Also worth looking at is Table 2, which shows how a student evolves from entering student (surveys, collects and reports literature) to a completing student (who reads to know what isn’t already known and judges information).

5. Paper types

– data-driven papers
– tutorial papers
– method-mongering papers
-consciousness-raising papers
– theoretical papers
– review papers
– demonstration of concept papers

More information about these types of papers is found in the book, and it made me realize that I can write even more than now. I am now mainly focusing on reporting test data and my conclusions from those, but I never thought of writing a review paper.

6. Academic writing

One great advice on learning how to judge the quality is this:
” Go through important documents that you write with two highlighters. Highlight in one color anything that an intelligent layperson could have said and anything where nobody would think of saying the opposite. Highlight in another color anything that only someone with detailed knowledge of the field could have said; anything an intelligent layperson could not have said; any tangible facts (references or data) or achievements; any other signs of excellence. Delete the former, and make sure there is at least one of the latter per paragraph.”

Chapter 11 (the process of writing) also contains bulleted lists with wonderful advice for writing up your thesis. Since I haven’t started yet on writing the chapters for my thesis, I can’t really try these out, but I’ll make sure to go over this list again when my time of writing up is there.

To conclude, I’d recommend reading this book if you like a lighter writing style, a good dose of wit, advice packed in bulleted lists and a lot of focus on reading, writing and presenting.

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This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. Thanks for the review – I too have this book in my possession and shall be reading it in the coming week. While having a quick sneak preview I quickly realised that this book needs to be read from cover to cover and maybe multiple time (or at least parts of it).For anyone who is doing a PhD Research or is thinking of going down this route – this book is a must much like the amounts coffee intake during the research.

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