Thursday, May 6, 2021

The PhD: My many fancy notebooks for all my fancy moments

by Manpreet Kaur, PhD Life:

Organisation is key to keeping all the ideas and thoughts during a PhD in check. It is helpful to have everything written down somewhere to prevent everything from overwhelming you. Manpreet Kaur shares how having notebooks for different purposes has helped her to organise her PhD related ideas.

I love lists and tick-boxes. I get overwhelmed pretty quickly if there is too much going on in my head and one of the coping mechanisms I have found is writing things down. When I did the Sprint programme during my undergraduate years, this was one of the tips I learnt. If there is a nagging thought in your mind, write it down and then get on with your day. Allocate time to go back to those intruding thoughts and have ‘worry time’ to focus on those.

But not all intruding thoughts are negative. Sometimes, while sitting and staring at birds I remember an email I need to send or something I want to discuss with my supervisor. I’m not the most screen-friendly person and therefore pen and paper is what I like to turn to (and turns out I’m not alone in being this way; check out Ellie’s blog here). So, I have notebooks for several different things in order to keep all my thoughts organised.

The first notebook I have that probably many people do is a planner. I bought this one that I really like because it doesn’t have dates already printed so I only write weekdays and weekends are free (unless there is a looming deadline). There is a section for note-taking for every day where I write down what I did that day. This helps me with feeling productive as well as keeping track of days, and I can always go back to something if I need to.

The next notebook is for all project meetings with my supervisor. It is the place where I write it all down as we’re discussing things. Besides, I take notes from group meetings here too. It’s helpful to have a nice big title about what the meeting was about; it’s like using tags, but offline.

The third notebook is for to-do lists. Hand on heart, I have tried the Reminders app on my phone, given a chance to Google Keep, and Microsoft To-Do as well. However, my hands never grab my phone at times like this. I impulsively pick up a piece of paper and pen, and therefore decided to buy a small notebook for this purpose. I have a margin in the middle of every page, and jot down all my tasks in there.

Another notebook I have is a leather journal my sister got for me. It feels very serious, so I use it for the least serious purposes. This is where everything miscellaneous goes, ranging from notes from an online webinar about laboratory sustainability to the third draft of my next poem. This is also where I jot down notes from project-related online talks and conferences that I attend.

I also have a journal that I use as a personal diary. I am currently on my third one and I go for all the fancy textures for these ones. I have found journaling to be very motivating and writing helps me organise my thoughts.

With the papers I read, I like to make hand-written notes because it slows me down and helps me to think about what I am reading. I have several notepads for my reading, all papers numbered with an index page. This takes a long time sometimes, especially when I find a paper that becomes a favourite, however I remember that during my MRes I found these hand-written notes very useful when writing up my thesis. I’m doing this all in the hope that it’ll prove useful later on.

One thing we can safely conclude is that I am, despite being so passionate about climate action, an absolute tree killer. Believe me, this bothers me a lot, however, nothing else works. As much as I love fancy images of people sat in a comfy sofa with a laptop typing away, I am all for an old wooden desk, and pen and paper. I think I just do better when handwriting. Of course, there is the other stuff I do such as buying FSC approved paper/notebooks, recycling paper and stationery and using all the notebooks to the fullest. These notebooks truly help me with staying on top of things. It means that I have less to store in my head as it all rests safely in the pages.

Do you prefer notebooks or screens to keep organised? Tell us about your favourite habits around keeping track of to-do lists and monitoring your progress. Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Manpreet

Manpreet Kaur is a first year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. She has been at Warwick since 2016, and did her BSc and MRes here. Her research project focuses on the design of photoelectrocatalytic systems for the synthesis of nitrogen containing compounds. You can follow her on Twitter here and further details about her project and background can be found here.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Doctoral writing across disciplines: style and voice in the borderlands

by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing SIG:

I’m returning to a theme that intrigued me back when, as a doctoral learning advisor, I worked across disciplines with doctoral students who consulted me with their problems (Carter, 2011). Candidates sometimes wanted to talk about problems that surfaced specifically in the borderlands of doctoral interdisciplinarity. Back then, research interdisciplinarity was recognised as valuable but in my experience as a doctoral learning advisor, there was never a cohort of peers to ask for advice and mutual support.

Now, post-Covid, and in the face of evident climate change, it seems that solutions to tough global challenges might be best found by working across disciplines and we need to establish support for interdisciplinary doctoral research. And yet my hunch is that, in the tradition-hugging entrenched disciplinary norms and biases of academia, candidates could run into the same problems. Here’s my practice-based list of what can be tough.

  • doctoral level research undertaken in areas where the candidate doesn’t have relevant undergraduate level knowledge
  • trouble finding supervisors with the confidence to work in new and unknown ways;
  • supervisors competing with each other for dominance of their discipline’s epistemology;
  • everyone involved is always out of their comfort zone at some stage—that can cause project-damaging emotion;
  • difficulty finding examiners (potential examiners fear their own inability to understand the project in all its aspects and this makes it easy to say no to a chore);
  • innovation looks riskier when it’s coupled with interdisciplinarity;
  • employment post-graduation can be difficult to get, and for those wanting academic work, can mean teaching content that is not well-known when the only job offer is in the least well-known discipline; and
  • crossing writing styles along with crossing disciplines can make it hard to get the thesis done

Because this blog is writing focused, it is the last item on the list I am addressing here, although I know from previous doctoral learning advisor experience that often intellectual discomfort and emotional insecurity make interdisciplinary writing’s style and voice really hard to produce.

Inevitably in those past conversations we’d end up back with the practicalities: you will have to decide which journals to target, where you want to work afterwards, what you want to teach if you aspire to become an academic.

Grounded reality often directed choices about writing style.

We’d turn to consider the journals, looking at conventions regarding referencing systems, predominance of active or passive verbs, and use of personal pronouns, sub-titles, metaphors, quotation and other markers of epistemology. Choice needed to be based on where genuine passion resided in the interdisciplinary project. The student’s preference in style when they read should guide too: it helps with perseverance to like your own writing style.

Often interdisciplinarians would make the case that no particular discipline dominated their research so it felt inauthentic and untrue to their research to arbitrarily privilege one of them. But they would recognise that interdisciplinary jobs aligned with what they were doing would be unlikely to crop up. Preference of one discipline then became important if an academic job was a goal. If it wasn’t, thinking quite practically about the likely places that might offer work also suggests the kind of writing style that might be acceptable there.

Writing for journals may then become making a case for bringing in practices, literature, methods etc. from a different discipline to contribute to thinking within the discipline of the target journal. Framing becomes important. It can get round reviewer dislike of the unfamiliar to explain overtly ‘To [what is usual and familiar in this journal] I bring the benefit of [the unfamiliar] because this theory [or scholarship or methods] enables insight into [whatever it helps].

Well, framing is always important; one of the most important skills that doctoral candidates learn is that researchers must take what they find and frame it so that the worth of their original contribution to knowledge becomes clear to examiners, and to their discourse communities, and in the best case scenarios, to the rest of the world.

The need to publish may shed some light on decisions. Talk about journals as the starting point might seem off track when the most immediate need is to choose style for the thesis, but the style within the thesis should be a good fit for future publication. The upside of interdisciplarity is that research framing may make it possible to take the same research findings into two articles in different disciplinary outlets. 

Then within the interdisciplinary thesis, defence of writing choices can deflect examiner criticism. Here’s an example: ‘I chose the epistemology of Social Science with respect to how crucial it is in this area to factor in the cultural, social and political preference of users. Thus personal pronouns governing active verbs occur in many places in this Engineering thesis.’

One candidate drew on hard science methods in a highly cultural and spiritual research project ‘to counter any possibility that what I find would be dismissed as native “mumbo jumbo”’ (Baker, 2014, p. 26). Baker’s (2014) thesis is worth looking at for how bravely it crosses disciplines with a fixed purpose, how firmly it defends the crossing and how rich the result is.

That leads back to the idea of borderlands. When I wrote on interdisciplinary doctorates in 2011, I used borderland theory. That functions as an extended metaphor for the trade that people make across borderlands: often illicit, so both risky and potentially very profitable; often with rules that shift; always working across cultures. Does it help with thesis-writing to keep that metaphor in mind as confirmation that borderland crossing is something people have done for ever, because it is worth doing?

If you have experience in supporting interdisciplinary doctoral writing, please post a comment, or let us know if you would like to offer a blog post on this topic. Interdisciplinary research seems more relevant now than it was in 2011, and we could share ways to support it.

And as a postscript, that borderlands metaphor is in play in a Special Issue of Teaching in Higher Education journal on doctoral education: ‘Working in the borderlands: critical perspectives on doctoral education’ which is now formally published as Volume 26, Issue 3. 


Mary-Anne Cheryl Tapu Augustine Baker, M-A. C. T. A. (2014). He Ariariatanga Whakangawari No te Maori: He Rangimarietanga i Tua o Te Arai: A Theory of Maori Palliation: A Peaceful Journey through the Veil. PhD, University of Auckland.

Carter, S. (2011). Interdisciplinary thesis practicalities: How to negotiate the borderlands. In Batchelor, J. & Roche, L (Eds.), Student Retention and Success: Sharing and Evaluating Best Practice: Proceedings of the 2009 Annual International Conference of the Association of Tertiary Learning Advisors of Aotearoa/New Zealand (ATLAANZ) (pp. 1-10). Christchurch: ATLAANZ.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Australia’s universities dominate global impact rankings

by Brendan O'Malley, University World News:


The University of Manchester in the United Kingdom has topped a table of more than 1,100 universities around the world on action towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the third edition of the annual Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, released on 21 April.

But in terms of higher education systems, Australia is the world leader, with its universities claiming four positions in the overall ranking top 10, three more than any other country or region.

In total, 17 universities from 10 different countries and regions claim a top position across the 18 rankings, including Mexico, Thailand, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The rankings assess university commitment to sustainability at an institutional, local, national, regional and global level, from carbon neutral campuses to global partnerships responding to the COVID-19 pandemic at a multi-national level.

Launched in 2019, the Impact Rankings are the first global attempt to measure university progress towards the 17 SDGs, providing a total of 18 rankings, one for each SDG as well as an overall table.

The University of Manchester came first in the overall table after achieving first place for work towards both SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and second place for SDG 14 (Life below water).

Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell said the University of Manchester is “delighted to top the world” in the rankings, “but more importantly we’re pleased to be part of a growing community of universities committed to measuring and sharing their societal impact”.

She said the university values the feedback the rankings provide about their performance on each of the global goals.

“They cover every aspect of a university’s impact: our research, our teaching and learning, our engagement with the public and how we operate as sizeable organisations in our cities and regions.”

Top 10 institutions overall

The top 10 institutions overall are: University of Manchester, UK (1), University of Sydney, Australia (2), RMIT University, Australia (3), La Trobe University, Australia (4), Queen’s University, Canada (5), University of Wollongong, Australia (=6 or tie 6th), Aalborg University, Denmark (=6), University College Cork, Ireland (8), Arizona State University (Tempe), US (=9) and University of Auckland, New Zealand (=9).

While Western countries dominate the top 10, 24 countries and regions from six continents appear in the overall top 100, demonstrating a high level of commitment and excellence across global higher education for achieving the SDGs.

Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, says the rankings – with a record 1,240 universities participating this year but 1,115 institutions ranked – demonstrate that universities are showing “just how important they are to helping global society solve some of its toughest challenges”.

He said: “The results of this year’s rankings demonstrate the cohesiveness of institutions worldwide for a single shared goal, with representatives from 24 countries and regions, and six continents in the top 100 alone.”

All of Australia’s entrants appear in the overall top 200, while the University of Sydney comes first in SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), the University of Canberra tops the table for SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities), La Trobe University takes first place for SDG 15 (Life on land) and the University of Newcastle climbs from =82 last year to claim number one spot for SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals).

Some 405 institutions entered the rankings for the first time, with Canada’s Queen’s University achieving fifth place overall and topping the ranking for SDG 1 (No poverty).

Top ranked universities by SDG

The number one ranked institution overall and for each SDG are:

• Overall: University of Manchester, UK.

• SDG 1 (No poverty): Queen’s University, Canada.

• SDG 2 (Zero hunger): Metropolitan Autonomous University, Mexico.

• SDG 3 (Good health and well-being): Oregon Health and Science University, US.

• SDG 4 (Quality education): Aalborg University, Denmark.

• SDG 5 (Gender equality): Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, Saudi Arabia.

• SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation): University of Sydney, Australia.

• SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy): King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Thailand.

• SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth): University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

• SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure): Four universities tied in first place: University of British Columbia, Canada; Delft University of Technology, Netherlands; Technical University of Munich, Germany; and University of Toronto, Canada.

• SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities): University of Canberra, Australia.

• SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities): University of Manchester, UK.

• SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production): University of Manchester, UK.

• SDG 13 (Climate action): University at Buffalo, US.

• SDG 14 (Life below water): University of Plymouth, UK.

• SDG 15 (Life on land): La Trobe University, Australia.

• SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions): Queen’s University, Canada.

• SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals): University of Newcastle, Australia.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, said its top ranking for SDG8 – after coming 48th last year – was an “exceptional feat”, but its work in tackling global issues was also demonstrated by its top 100 ranking overall, in 92nd place.

He said the university remains “steadfast in supporting the UN SDGs through our research, teaching and learning, community outreach and engagement, stewardship and knowledge transfer”.

La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar AO said the rankings were an “outstanding endorsement” of the university’s commitment to improving quality of life, health outcomes and the environment through high-impact research, teaching innovation and meaningful partnerships on a local, national and global scale.

“Coming first in the world for protecting life on land highlights La Trobe’s leading role in investigating better ways to produce high-quality foods and medicines while reducing environmental impact and restoring vulnerable ecosystems.”

He said the rankings reflect how closely La Trobe’s values and ambitions “resonate with important global issues and the very real work we are doing to align with and advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals”.

Russia is most represented country

Russia (86) is the most represented country or region in the rankings, with an additional 33 universities ranked in at least one SDG table since 2020. Japan has 85 ranked institutions, followed by India (57), Turkey (55), UK and US (both 52), Brazil (47), Pakistan and Spain (both 40) and Iraq (38).

Baty said: “The THE Impact Rankings offer a platform for universities in every corner of the planet to showcase their active commitment to sustainability. The record turnout this year shows how universities are standing up to be counted and fulfil the vital role they play in society.

“Success in any of the SDGs means being responsible at every level, from the individual institutions, all the way up to the multinational. Therefore, we are thrilled to see the growing number of debutants who have qualified this year, as it shows just how seriously they are taking their roles in helping to ensure a sustainable future.”

In this year’s ranking postgraduate-only institutions were included for the first time.

A ‘catalyst for action’

According to THE Chief Data Officer Duncan Ross in his explanation of the methodology, it is hoped that the rankings “can be a catalyst for action, a mechanism for holding our universities to account, and an opportunity for them to highlight great work that they are already doing.”

The THE Impact Rankings assess universities on metrics across all 17 UN SDGs. Data was collected from universities and Elsevier and the metrics were developed in partnership with Vertigo Ventures.

The findings are displayed in 18 league tables, one for each of the 17 individual SDGs and one overall ranking table. To appear in the overall ranking table, universities must have submitted to SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals) and a minimum of three other SDGs.

According to THE, a university’s final score in the overall table is calculated by combining its score in SDG 17 with its top three scores out of the remaining 16 SDGs. SDG 17 accounts for 22% of the overall score, while the other SDGs each carry a weight of 26%. This means that different universities are scored based on a different set of SDGs, depending on their focus.

A university’s contribution to individual SDGs is assessed on the basis of research metrics (27%) and other evidence-based criteria. So, for instance SDG 1 (No poverty) is based on research on poverty including scale and citations, as well as the number of papers co-authored with a university based in a low- or middle-income country; other factors are the proportion of students receiving financial aid; and evidence of university anti-poverty programmes providing student support and community support.

Comparison with previous years’ rankings is difficult because the number of participant institutions increased by 211 (or 38%) from 556 in 2019 to 767 in 2020 and further increased to 1,240 this year; secondly, the number of SDGs included rose from 11 to 17 between 2019 and 220, increasing the number of metrics ranked.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The PhD: a very neat hack to avoid repetition and duplication

by Pat Thomson, Patter:


Do you repeat yourself? Most of us do. It’s not unusual.

Repetitive writing takes many forms – several sentences that say the same thing using different words, a word or phrase used over and over, paragraphs and sentences that have identical beginnings, one point made multiple times using different examples.

But repetition is not necessarily a problem. Purposeful repetition can be a stylistic choice. Rhetorical theory for example lists anaphora – the repetition of a word of phrase at the beginning of a sentence or clause used to create dramatic emphasis and affect. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which poetic reiteration built up a picture of a possible future, a socially just United States. There’s also episeuxis – the serial repetition of word, usually within the same sentence – as in Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education.”

Repetition can also be integral to a professional practice. Teachers for example deliberately repeat themselves. Saying the same thing in different ways is a pedagogic strategy which gives students varied ways into a topic, gives options for understanding a concept or process. Inclusive teaching practices rely on multiple illustrations and explanations. And restatement is an approach often taken in pedagogic blogs like this one – I often say the same thing a few times in different ways, in case my first explanation doesn’t make things clear.

But repetition can also be a problem. Readers and listeners get bored and switch off when hearing or reading what rapidly becomes the same old same old. They may even get irritated if it takes them a while to find the point amid the verbiage. Writers are thus always advised to revise by checking for unintended repetition. Cutting out the déjà vu effect is part of becoming concise – making the point as simply and effectively as possible.

So to revision. You may be aware of some of the places in your writing where you repeat yourself. I often repeat someone’s name at the start of every paragraph when writing references. Dr X does this. Dr X is, Dr X worked for me and …  Because I know I do this, I can check my first draft for this particular problem. And another of my first draft problems, I often use superfluous sentence beginnings – It is clear that, it is worth noting that … and I know to look for these false starts during the revision process.

Checking sentence and paragraph beginnings can quickly locate some repetitions. However, it’s not always so easy. Searching for repetition can be tricky. Part of the problem is that we often use what are called “crutch” words – single words, phrases or clauses that are habitual. We use “crutch words” in drafting because they help us get the ideas down. Because they are so familiar, we often miss them when we come to revise.

Checking by reading aloud for “so, but, therefore, thus, nevertheless, however, on the one hand, not only but also” may pick up places where you need to get rewriting. You can also print out your text, using a highlighter every time you find a sneaky “crutch”. You might alternatively use the search function in Word. Searching is particularly helpful when checking for repeated common research terminology as well as specific disciplinary terms.

Duplication can be a real issue when composing the meta commentary used in academic writing – we might use the verb “argue” or “investigate” rather too often in a few paragraphs. Sometimes you can pick most of the repetitions hiding in plain sight if you change your font, or put your manuscript into an e-reader rather than read it on your customary screen. 

However – and here is the point of this post – there is a short cut. As the illustrations suggests, one of the very best hacks for finding duplicates and repetitions is to make a word cloud. What a gift it is to put an entire chapter or paper into one of those free platforms that looks for either words or phrases. Almost instantly you can see what terms are used most frequently. If there are any that are a surprise, or are used rather more than you would like, you can then simply use the search function in word to check for each one. Word clouds can save hours of reading and highlighting. Yep, a word cloud can be one of your close revising friends.

Word cloud made from the first draft of this post.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The PhD: Should the COVID-19 pandemic be addressed in doctoral writing? And if so, how?

by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing SIG:


The DoctoralWriting SIG has had a few posts on what was so huge and different about 2020, churning over what has happened to us all, how we might best handle it, and how kindness to each other is one very positive response to something that is generally frightening, depressing and worrying: a global pandemic.  I’m sure that you will have your own experience of how COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns have affected the doctoral writers you know. We all know that we’ve lived through something extraordinary.

There are some pretty impressive empirical studies investigating the effect of the pandemic on the academic community, and on early career researchers in particular, and on doctoral researchers to be precise. One early analysis comes from Vitae working in conjunction with SMaRteN, the UK’s student mental health research network. With data from just under 6,000 doctoral students, Byrom (2020) reports:

We found that more than three-quarters of respondents were experiencing a negative impact of the lockdown on their ability to collect data, discuss ideas and findings with colleagues, and disseminate research findings. More than half also identified a negative impact on data analysis, writing, and working on grant or fellowship applications. In addition, almost a third of respondents identified that they had reduced or no access to the software that they needed for research … (n.p.).

The big doctoral writing question that the 2020 pandemic raises is whether doctoral candidates should describe how the pandemic affected their research, and if they do write about this, how they would do so. Is the thesis a place where the COVID-19 pandemic should be present?

This question challenges a central assumption that a candidate’s life outside of their research project is irrelevant to what goes into a thesis. Doctoral examiners are asked to check that methods, methodology, literature review, data analysis, critical analysis are all appropriate within a thesis. They are not asked to consider personal difficulties or challenges when they mull over whether expectations are met, whether the original contribution weighs in, and whether limitations are reasonable. In fact, examiners generally declared that they were not influenced by content in thesis acknowledgements even when the researchers showed this was unlikely (Kumar & Sanderson, 2020). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown light on how much life circumstance affects doctoral research, though, and maybe it is time that the circumstances of life need to be considered when they are extreme. I’d recommend that doctoral writers do write about the pandemic if it affected them negatively. There’s structural impacts relating to lockdown, and personal effects relating to the pandemic. Will writing about any of this be seen as seeking a sympathy dispensation, or is it a sound approach to something significant that should be mentioned?

For doctoral writers now, considering whether to write about the pandemic in work they submit for examination may mean that they are stretching the boundaries of what is done in their disciplines. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine just not mentioning something as significant. So, how do we advise and support doctoral writers considering the possibilities they have?

Here are some options:

The objective ‘insurance claim’ list: It would be possible to itemise what affected the research, such as restricted access to equipment, gear, and data sources. Cultures might die in locked up laboratories; the lockdown may mean not being able to get out in the field for data. Most of the research coming through suggests that doctoral candidates have generally been satisfied with the support their institutions have given them, but lockdown conditions cause somepractical obstructions to completing research.

The psychology report: Data from Byrom’s study shows widespread anxiety, stress, and depression amongst doctoral candidates. When participant rates had reached almost 6,000, data showed that 75% of them suffered in terms of mental well-being due to the pandemic (Byrom, 2020). Such stress might be something that current candidates have in common for ever, and mention in happier future times; right now, though, it’s a factor that may affect how much research was successfully accomplished within the time frame of a doctorate. Discipline epistemology is likely to guide whether it is reasonable to mention psychological obstacles to progress or not.  

The longitudinal observation: Would it be wise for a candidate to point out that they have been short-changed by the happenstance that a pandemic settled in during the few rare and formative years of their doctorate? One article speculated that ‘Of those affected, early-career researchers, including PhD students and postdocs, perhaps bear the brunt of the blow, as crucial timetables in their career development are disrupted’ (Cheng & Song, 2020, [my italics]). This one is risky, I think, to write into the thesis, as it draws attention to the fact that perhaps the writer has not reached full independent researcher capability.

Silence: Silence has the benefit of showing that a candidate knows the traditional premises of doctoral work, that any personal experiences unrelated to the research question do not belong in a thesis. But silence also could be read as a lack of interest in the academic community’s current dilemma, a lack of confidence and supervisory support and a failure to show interest in the wider assumptions of how research and examination ought to work. Then, quite simply, examiners might want to know how the pandemic affected the research. Is this time when we might welcome change?

Of course, disciplines affect how to write—silence about personal factors is foundational in STEM subjects, whereas it has been challenged in Social Science. In Social Science, it is expected that an author needs to position herself within her research writing as an act of integrity. Readers can best assess claims when they know what it is that the researcher herself brings into the study.

It’s common in any discipline, though, to write about changes in the research project due to factors beyond the researcher’s control. Seasonal change that affects habitats can limit the ability to study the natural world. Social changes can mean that access to participants is unexpectedly withdrawn. When there are unavoidable changes to research, that usually makes a story somewhere in the introduction, discussion and the conclusion. The story goes: ‘Initially, the research design included … However, circumstances beyond my control called for a change of plan. The circumstances were … To compensate for this … A limitation of the new design is that …’. Somehow in there too, I think perhaps a case should be made for how response shows learning: ‘Yet, my response has demonstrated flexibility, a quality that, arguably, is an essential skill in an experienced researcher …’.

I’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts on this topic. The pandemic is something new to the world of doctoral writing, and it would be great if we could mull over how to respond to it in the thesis together.


Byrom, N. (2020). “COVID-19 and the Research Community: The challenges of lockdown for early-career researchers.”  eLife 9, no page numbers, DOI:

Cheng, C. & Song, S. (2020). How early-career researchers are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Mol Plant. 2020 Sep 7; 13(9): 1229–1230. Published online 2020 Jul 27. doi: 10.1016/j.molp.2020.07.018

Kumar, V. & Sanderson, L. J. (2020). The effects of acknowledgements in doctoral theses on examiners,  Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57:3, 285-295, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2019.1620625

Monday, February 22, 2021

A century that profoundly changed universities and their campuses

by Geoff Hanmer, The Conversation:

This history of the development of universities is the first of two articles on the past and future of the campus. This is a long read, so set aside the time to read it and enjoy.

Image: The Conversation

Once the first atomic bomb exploded on 16 July 1945 in New Mexico, the world would never be the same again. Scientists and engineers had turned an obscure principle into a weapon of unprecedented power. Los Alamos, the facility where the bomb was designed, was run by the University of California.

This was a turning point for universities. As they increasingly focused on scientific research, the role of universities worldwide - and their campuses - changed.

Before the first world war, the largest investment on most campuses was the university library. After the second world war, investment shifted decisively to laboratories and equipment.

A key reason for the increasing focus on university research was the lessons of the first world war. After the war, governments of rich countries took an increasingly interventionist role in directing and encouraging the research and development of artificial materials, weapons, defences and medicine. Universities or institutes associated with universities did much of this work.

By 1926, the Council for Science and Industrial Research, the predecessor to the CSIRO, and the organisation that would become the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) had been founded in Australia.

A gradual turn towards research

In the UK, many of the older universities were not that keen on applied research. Chemistry, engineering and physics were taught at Oxford between the wars, but by 1939 the chemistry cohort was just over 40 students, of whom “two or three were women”.

It wasn’t until 1937 that Oxford drew up a plan to develop the “Science Area” with new buildings, but in that same year, the university also agreed to reduce its size to avoid a fight with the Town over “further intrusion on the Parks”.

Facilities at Cambridge for physical sciences were slightly better, but not by much, despite its historical focus on mathematics. The Cavendish laboratory in which the New Zealander Ernest Rutherford discovered in 1911 that the atom had a nucleus was small, dark, damp and ill-equipped.

The room used by Ernest Rutherford for his atomic research
A century ago, universities provided modest facilities for researchers like Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford. Science Museum London/Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

This relative lack of interest in experimental sciences at  Oxbridge was unhelpful for science research in Australia, because our six small state-run universities tended to follow their lead. As an indication of its priorities, the University of Adelaide built its humanities buildings in stone and its much more modest science facilities in brick.

Nobel laureate and University of Adelaide Professor W.H. Bragg carried out his pioneering experiments on X-ray crystallography in Adelaide during 1900 to 1908 in a converted storeroom in the basement of the Mitchell Building. His lab is now a storeroom again.

The post-war transformations

The application of university research had been a German strength since well before the first world war with the rise of the Humboldtian model of higher education, which favoured research over scholarship. A key reason the Allies prevailed in 1945 was that the United States in particular rapidly improved its capacity to carry out and apply research, based on the Humboldtian model.

In 1917, MIT established a naval aviation school. The University of Washington soon followed MIT’s example.

This decision had a direct bearing on the success of the Boeing company following construction of the Boeing wind tunnel at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus in 1917. It led directly to the development of advanced aerodynamics for the Boeing 247 of 1933, which provided the template for all subsequent commercial airliners.

The Australian university system between the wars offers no such exemplars. The focus on applied research was foreign to the prevailing university culture in Australia at the time. As  Hannah Forsyth writes in A History of the Modern Australian University, not until the 1940s did “scholarly esteem began to move away from ‘mastery’ of disciplines towards the discovery of new knowledge”.

Boeing 247 aeroplane on the runway
The wartime construction of a wind tunnel at the University of Washington enabled development of the Boeing 247, which provided the template for commercial airliners. Ken Fielding/FlickrCC BY-SA

New research facilities and new campuses

New technologies led to a host of new post-war industries, including commercial aviation, television, plastics, information technology (IT) and advanced health care. The demand for skills to operate these new industries was the primary driver of an explosion in university enrolments.

University science research in Australia only got a serious start in 1946 with the foundation of the Australian National University (ANU) and the Commonwealth Universities Grants Committee, which became the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Australian National University sign on Canberra campus
The founding of the Australian National University in 1946 marked a shift in Australia towards more research-focused universities set on very large campuses. EQRoy/Shutterstock

As Robert Menzies, the prime minister from 1949-66, later wrote:

The Second World War brought about great social changes. In the eye of the future observer, the greatest may well provide to be in the field of higher education.

In Australia, about 80% of our universities have been founded since the second world war. The growth of the sector has been startling.

chart showing postwar growth in university student numbers in Australia
Author provided

All of the institutions founded during the Menzies era were sited on large campuses in the suburbs or beyond. Although mainly Commonwealth-funded, they were designed and delivered by state public works authorities to tight budgets on land provided largely by state governments. UNSW, Monash, Griffith, La Trobe, Flinders and WAIT (now Curtin) share a heritage of economical buildings on large parcels of land.

The key reasons for this approach were to minimise cost and maximise capacity for growth and change. Low to medium-rise buildings on land surplus to state needs maximised bang for buck. Development costs per square metre of building were about half that of a campus in the central business district (CBD) of cities.

This was not a new discovery. The universities of Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, Tokyo, Wisconsin and Peking, all founded in the 19th century, used this model for similar reasons.

Fortunately, the states were generous with land they didn’t need. Of all the universities built in the Menzies era, only UNSW with 39 hectares has a significant land area constraint. The other universities have at least 50ha and several have well over 100ha. This has given them some headaches, but also lots of options.

Research by ARINA, an architectural firm specialising in higher education, community and public design, shows that virtually all universities built since 1949 - that’s more than 90% of universities in the world - have large campuses with densities less than 500 students per hectare. The University of Bath, built in 1966, is typical of post-war UK universities with 59ha and 16,000 students in 2021, less than 300/ha.

The same is true even in small city-states such as Hong Kong and Singapore. The National University of Singapore has a campus of about 140ha with 37,000 students (264/ha) and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has 55ha with 11,000 students (200/ha).

Campus of National University of Singapore
The National University of Singapore has a campus of about 150ha despite the city-state’s small area. EQRoy/Shutterstock

Most new universities in Europe, Asia, India and the Middle East still rely on the large campus model. The University of Paris-Saclay, for example, is being built on 189ha of former farmland 15km south of the Paris orbital motorway.

Broad-acre campuses are popular with students as measured by surveys of educational experience such as the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) and the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NESSE). The most popular campuses in Australia are Bond, New England, Griffith and Notre Dame. RMIT and UTS, the highest-ranked CBD campuses finish in the middle of the pack, a long way behind the leaders. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the UK and the US.

Campus model goes corporate

The ARINA research indicates broad-acre campus models have also become increasingly part of the physical organisation and accommodation of many commercial operations.

In 2020, 63% of the top 30 US Fortune 500 index and 87% of the top 30 tech companies in the index were located in suburban and extra-urban settings, mostly campuses. This includes well-known tech companies such as Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Tesla and HP, but also less obvious candidates such as Walmart, Exxon Mobil and Amazon.

Chart showing locations of top 20 Fortune 500 tech companies
ARINAAuthor provided

In the UK, 28% of all FTSE 100 companies and 54% of FTSE Techmark 100 companies by market capitalisation are based outside greater London.

Chart showing locations of top 20 tech companies in the UK
ARINAAuthor provided

The reasons for this are straightforward: capital and operating costs for research-based firms are lower outside a CBD. While some Australian universities are choosing to head into the city, much of the new economy appears to be heading for the suburbs. It’s happening for the same reason that universities started to migrate there over a hundred years ago.