How Research Groups Work

It’s a common misconception that Ph.D. study is about the courses you have to take. It’s not. It’s about the work that you do, but it’s hard to find the roads into that work early in one’s program. Sometimes courses help with that, sometimes they don’t. I have heard that Ph.D. programs in other countries contain no coursework at all. That would be even more disorientating. A Ph.D. is disorienting enough even with the rudimentary road map coursework provides. No coursework at all sounds like bicycling with one’s eyes closed, in the dark, in the fog, with your flashlight turned off, on the wrong side of the road, and a little tipsy (that’s Ray Bradbury’s description of the writing experience, btw). In education, we often try to mimic Ph.D. training in the hard sciences by replacing the “lab” experience with the research group (RG) experience. We compound that confusion by trying to tie that experience again to coursework. Unwary doc students are then left to navigate the process on their own. This blog post is in response to questions about the LDT Ph.D. program’s courses: IT678, IT693, and LEES 602 that endeavor to integrate the RG experience into coursework in LDT.

magnetic poetry saying "together you and I dream better"
Magnetic poetry done by my daughter 愛怜夏, age 7. The gentle sentiment of “together you and I dream better,” the idea behind the collaborative research of research groups, contrasts with the 7 year old observation that “a thousand luscious raw sausages smell repulsive” …which is equally as applicable to research groups. In a research group, you learn how the sausage is made.


The Research Group (RG) should be your home base

The purpose of research groups (RGs) is to learn to do research. In the hard sciences, one hears, “I work in so-n-so’s lab.” It’s a similar dynamic here in LDT. The research group is where you get your real training. It’s where you learn from others, share your frustrations, and find mentorship from both more advanced students and your faculty mentor. Eventually, RG is where you will lead your own research project when you are ready. While the adviser is the one running the research group, he or she is not likely the one doing the talking.

RGs move both intellectually with the field and physically with the resources. In education we don’t actually get a dedicated space— we can barely afford a conference room. In the hard sciences, learners might gather in a permanent lab, but in education, we need to be a little more resourceful. I have seen RGs survive through many changing locations, and even into cafes and restaurants. I know of a faculty member who ran one out of her living room for a year after a devastating car accident prevented her from getting to campus. It’s not about the space; it’s about the people and the work. The RG is the primary locus of advisement and learning in a Ph.D. program in instructional technology; I imagine it is likewise in most disciplines within educational research. Some programs contain only RG courses. Often RGs will have a reading list for first-semester students. Sometimes students will read through the content together and meet separately from the main group. Crafting a foundational reading list is often a RG’s first task. 

Milestones instead of final papers

RGs do not adhere well to the semester system of graduate school, so I have created a milestone system instead. Courses end in a semester, but RG often takes more time and runs consecutive semesters. RGs also run through the summer, regardless of registrations. If a program is large it might have several RGs being led by different faculty. Sometimes faculty will share a RG. If a program is small, likely there is only one RG per faculty member. If you are in a large doctoral program, one can visit several; I did just that. If you are in a small doctoral program, visiting another RG might mean changing to a different doctoral program within that department, or enrolling in a different program altogether. Sometimes RGs are temporary, constructed simply around one line of research that once published, does not re-emerge. To accommodate the structure of grad school and make RG a reality, I created a milestone system.

In a RG, you bring your voice to the current work of the group, but this can take time to come up with the idea and bring it through the paces. Therefore, it is much wiser to break the process down into parts to make it more manageable. The components are the milestones of RG. RGs usually rely heavily on the expertise that the adviser brings to the group.  Often, it’s a methodological approach that unifies the group, and students voice areas where they are interested in exploring. Sometimes a current event or development may cause a RG to focus entirely on one topic the adviser is into, such as when a RG gets a grant. Some advisers will run more than one RG if two groups deal with different topics. I tell my students to bring their topic to everything they study, in every course they take. The same goes for research groups.

Since RG participation does not always directly parallel course registrations, you shouldn’t have to be registered for credits to attend a RG. Once you start coming, you may need to come beyond the end of your registered semester to finish the milestones you started. This fluid nature of RG can be valuable. Some ABD candidates stop attending RG to focus on drafting the dissertation, some continue attending to provide structure to their progress. Dissertation time is always stressful- some RGs help alleviate that stress by providing access to other students, and the support one needs to keep going. With so many variations and customization to life situations, faculty interests, and student objectives, many people from outside, or just starting, see the RG process as unbearably vague. It can be, that’s for sure. One expectation that I have seen consistent across faculty expectations is that with time, a learners’ role is expected to become more independent and leadership-oriented.

Research Group is more about research practices than topics

RG does not determine the topic of your dissertation nor your research trajectory. RGs are sometimes framed as apprenticeship experiences, and different faculty may envision the exact realization of apprenticeship differently. Therefore, some RG may stray further off the advisor’s topics than others. However, I have not yet encountered a case where a learner cannot get the training they need in a research group in their program simply because their areas of interest were too different than the topic the group dealt with. My perspective on RGs was crafted by experiences in several groups at Indiana University between 2007-2012, most of which were quite productive. However, none of the groups I attended had foci on my content area– discourse analysis in instructional communications. So, I always brought a discourse topic to the group, and the group investigated it with whatever methods they were using. It is unwise to look to a RG to find your exact topic area. The focus of the group is wider. Instead of looking for a topical area to be handed down, embed your topic area as part of the agenda of the group by framing it within typical foci of the group. For example, I was in a group that used conditional probabilities to generate claims about teaching and learning (MAPSAT under Ted Frick at Indiana University). I created a discourse protocol that was then used in conditional probability research and later published; we called it the anonymity study. My dissertation was also conceived in conversations within that RG. My focus on discourse within instructional design was never the topic of the group, but always the topic that I was pursuing. The focus of the RG has very little bearing on the research topic of a doctoral student in instructional tech.

The fact that your RG experience may be a different topic than your primary research interest may be a good thing. In a RG studying design learning under Elizabeth Boling, I studied design discourse and worked on articles revolving around the method of knowledge building that became termed as the instructional design case. The studies completed in this RGs were years in the making, and brought me to some readings I would not have done otherwise. However, it also expanded my scholarship and resulted in a larger scope of my work. The RG did not determine my topic, but it did equip me with a second line of research that supported my main interest in discourse. 

Your role in RG should expand throughout your program of study

Participation in a RG is intended to be progressive. In the first semester, one acts as an observer. In the second semester, learners should be formulating a research design, and possibly collecting data. In the third, fourth, or fifth semester of RG, a learner should be writing, submitting a manuscript, and sharing revisions with the group. These processes often span several semesters. Sometimes a certain task may span semesters because of complications. Oftentimes, universities will require RG credits to be taken in consecutive semesters; I don’t believe UT has the requirement, perhaps due to our small size. Typically, I have seen several PhD students attend RGs outside their actual registration times. Some students attend for the entirety of their program.

The RG experience does not have to start immediately upon arrival. While one can sign up for RG credits whenever they want, I would advise students not do so in their first semester, especially if they are coming in without a master’s in instructional technology. For my group, I would hope to see a new member have completed some basic introductory Instructional Design courses before generating scholarship in instructional design. Completing the research methods and at least one of the LDT advanced core woud situate one to do well in RG. Having said that, it is never too early to attend a research group and get a taste for how it works. In my own first year, I was in a rather large PhD program. There were several to choose from so I attended as many as I could. I then made an informed decision. While this presented faculty with the image that I was perhaps a stray dog, or unwanted doc student, it afforded me a wide range of to select from. I learned a ton from Charlie Reigeluth, Curt Bonk, Tom Brush and Elizabeth Boling’s groups—even though my dissertation came out of Ted Frick’s group.

Read between the lines

One is not always asked or invited to participate in RG. This is an unbearable vague aspect of doctoral training, especially for non-native speakers and others new to the American educational system. One is allowed to just watch. However, no one makes progress that way. Nothing can be more important than approaching your RG learning with the intention of getting involved. Some students perform poorly in research groups because no tasks are assigned; nothing is ever “due.” Without intention and motivation, doc students can easily lose the interest of their peers, flounder, or miss much of the experience. One must volunteer, take initiative, and eventually lead. I’ve another blog post for that, called Strategizing Group Research. That post offers some of the strategies I saw in various groups that were consistently performing well, publishing research, and getting students involved.

One thought on “How Research Groups Work

  1. Pingback: Understanding a PhD Program of Study in Learning, Design, and Technology at UT Knoxville « craig dennis howard

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