Dismantling Common Perceptions of Research Proposals Through South African Doctoral Students’ and Supervisors’ Experiences

Walters Doh Nubia, Shan Simmonds
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 737-756

There is a significant amount of research on supervision, assessment, and socio-economic benefits in South Africa. However, there have been relatively few attempts to analyse the research proposal phase, which remains a critical part of doctoral education in South African.

As part of the broader transformation agenda in South Africa, universities are under pressure to produce vastly more high-level doctoral graduates. The aim is to allow South Africa to build its knowledge base so it can address the socio-economic problems inherited from the apartheid regime. In South Africa, quality in doctoral education is mainly understood and measured in terms of throughput rate. The danger is that greatly increasing the number of doctoral graduates will have a deleterious effect on the quality of the studies done. At present, the general view is that the research proposal phase is an administrative requirement or merely a planning phase in doctoral education. However, the research proposal phase is when doctoral students have their first opportunity to show their capacity for high-level intellectual engagement. This article explores what doctoral students and supervisors regard as necessary for a quality research proposal and how they view this phase of the doctoral journey.

This qualitative research used phenomenology to capture the lived experiences of participants. There were nineteen (19) participants from three South African universities. Eleven (11) of them were supervisors and eight (8) were doctoral students. Semi-structured interviews generated the data that were used to explore how participants experience and construct their understanding of quality at the research proposal phase.

The study makes three contributions: (i) it increases our understanding of the research proposal phase of doctoral education, (ii) it provides an alternative understanding of quality attributes: those centred on research learning. At present planning to meet administrative requirements dominates notions of quality; and (iii) it positions the doctoral research proposal at an intersection of different views of knowledge production: mode 1 that favours disciplinary knowledge production, mode 2 that favours cross disciplinary knowledge production and mode 3 that favours quadruple helix innovation systems of knowledge production.

The findings indicate that participants understand quality in terms of planning for research, compliance with administrative requirements, confinement of research ideas within disciplinarity boundaries and the calibre of academic support. These understandings inform the common perceptions of the research proposal phase and its quality attributes. Participants’ narrow understanding of the research proposal phase and its quality attributes have, in turn, supported the view that writing of research proposals is a matter of technical compliance. This has deprived the research proposal phase from harnessing the full potential of research learning. It has also restricted the epistemological imagination of students, as econometrics parameters are being used to measure the production of knowledge.

The possibility of enhancing the quality of the doctoral research proposal phase could be increased if those directing doctoral education were more aware (i) that the support programmes should encourage significant doctoral research; (ii) of the importance of having courses that are an integral part of the research proposal phase, which enable candidates to develop the ability to sustain a cohesive, coherent, critical and logical academic argument, and (iii) of the necessity for interdisciplinary research at the level of doctoral education.

Researchers from diverse social and cultural contexts need to improve the quality of their research proposals through engaging in research learning. This would require deeper understandings of social and cultural diversity of the context from which the research proposal phase is being experienced. This requires further research on understanding how students negotiate the transition from different social learning contexts into doctoral education.

Implementation of the recommendations would help to establish a robust standard of doctoral education, which could enhance the personal, professional, social, and economic growth of South African society.

Future research should explore different approaches to support services to identify the kind of support services that would enable doctoral students to engage in quality interdisciplinary research.

doctoral education, research proposal phase, doctoral students, supervisors, quality
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