Welcome to part three of our Multi-Study PhD blog series. This blog is a follow-up from parts one and two where we introduced the concept of multi-study theses and answered several FAQs. In this blog, we spotlight five students who completed their theses at the Faculty in the last three years and used a multi-study approach.
My name is Yishu Qin, and I officially graduated from the Faculty of Education in 2019. My thesis aim was to develop an implicit association test that captures people’s unconscious bias about empathy in scientists.
At the beginning of my PhD, I wanted to solve one BIG problem and make the world a better place. But when preparing for the registration report, I started to realise that there were many small questions to answer before it is possible to answer the final one. Then I decided to break down my project into multiple studies.
Every step took longer than I had expected! My supervisor, Sara, made sure that I kept writing at every stage. For example, after finishing data analysis for Study One, I started another round of data collection right away, while at the same time completing the writing for my Study one. In this way, I saved time for my final thesis writing because all the small pieces I wrote before could be used (with some modifications) in the final thesis.
Do not be afraid to make changes to your plan. When I finished data analysis for Study One, I found that the reliability and validity of the key instrument I chose were not acceptable so I could not carry on using it. And there were no alternatives. I was so panicked. But after I calmed down, I changed the aim of my next study to improving the instrument itself and it all worked out.
Do not ever stop writing. When you are at the stage of data collection, write for your Methodology section; When you have your data, write for your Result section; When you start the next study, write for the Discussion section of the last study… keep on writing! Avoid blaming yourself for not making progress. It is completely fine if you are not in the mood for writing or doing anything related to research sometimes. Just relax. Do something to cheer yourself up instead. You will be back in the zone soon.
Associate Professor in Applied Psychology
School of Educational Sciences, Yangzhou University
I am Dr. Ashton Brown. I still haven’t officially graduated because of the pandemic, but I submitted my thesis in September 2019 and passed my viva six weeks later. My PhD thesis aimed to draw on theoretical models and empirical findings from the fields of economics, psychology, and education in order to define a theoretical framework to model the developmental trajectories of cognitive and non-cognitive skills in primary school children and capture the role that parenting plays in the joint evolution of these skills.
My PhD ended up being a hybrid between a multi-study and a larger project. I structured it around three main chapters: the methodology chapter introduced and explained the theoretical and statistical model I proposed; then, I applied this chapter to data from the UK to provide a ‘proof of concept’; finally, I presented an application using a Canadian data set to demonstrate the model in another context. Although the three chapters will each form a journal article, the thesis itself technically only had two studies.
When I first decided to structure my PhD in this way, there were not really any examples that I could reference; this was compounded by the fact that my project focused on secondary data, and a lot of the guidelines from the faculty focused on how to conduct primary research. Because of this, I often had to discuss how to make the Faculty timelines and guidance and figure out how to modify them to fit my situation while still satisfying the relevant requirements. My supervisor (Anna Vignoles) was very supportive of this, but I did find that I had to spend extra time in my registration report and viva explaining why I would not be ticking all the usual boxes.
Even if you are thinking of your PhD as taking the form of several studies, you still need it to have some sort of cohesive thread linking all three together in the thesis. For me, this meant that after I had written the three separate ‘studies’, I had to go back and make sure to not repeat myself too much and write the introduction, literature review, and discussion to wrap around these and make them into a cohesive package.
Although you might not be following the typical schedule proposed by the Faculty, make sure you have your own set of internal deadlines and progress checkpoints. It can be easy to spend too long on one part of the thesis and find yourself a bit rushed to finish the rest.
Andrew & Virginia Rudd Research Associate in Quantitative Methods & Education Practice
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
I am Janina Eberhart, and I graduated in March 2021. The goal of my PhD thesis was to explore different measurement approaches of self-regulation and executive functions, and to examine the association between children’s daily experiences in the classroom and their executive function development.
The decision to undertake a multi-study PhD emerged over the first year when I developed my research questions and study design. I realised that I wanted to study two related but different questions, and it seemed to be feasible within the scope of the PhD. I still submitted a traditional PhD thesis (monograph) and did not do a PhD by publication. However, my PhD thesis was structured as if there were two separate studies. For me this worked well, and I think it is also beneficial in terms of planning to publish academic papers out of your PhD thesis.
I think the overall coherence of the PhD thesis is particularly important with a multi-study PhD. I tried to connect the different studies with an overarching theme and emphasized how the different parts correspond to one another.
My name is Esinam Avornyo. I completed my PhD studies at the Faculty of Education in November 2018 and graduated in October 2020. The main goal of my PhD thesis was to understand the role of play in early years learning in Ghana. I addressed this in two ways. First, I examined what stakeholders (parents, teachers, and headteachers) think about play and learning in the early years classroom. Second, I examined how play is represented in the Ghanaian early years curriculum and also in classroom practice.
I decided to conduct a multi-study for my PhD because I already had some experience working with qualitative data. I wanted to deepen this and also acquire first-hand knowledge and skills in collecting and working with quantitative data. I believed this would enable me not only to gain knowledge but also prepare me for the early stages of my career as an academic.
Completing a multi-study for my PhD was a challenging experience. I followed a sequential mixed methods design (collecting quantitative data before qualitative data). At the time of collecting data, I had basic knowledge of statistical analysis. I had to quickly learn how to use different statistical software (in particular, STATA), use that to analyse my questionnaires and score them before I could proceed to collect my qualitative data (the selection of participants for the qualitative phase was based on the results of the quantitative phase). As a novice in statistical analysis, this was a very difficult process. But I succeeded because I had the passion and determination to learn to improve my statistical knowledge and skills set.
When structuring your PhD as a multi-study, it is important to present your results/findings in a way that gives a full picture of the issues you are presenting. For my PhD, I presented the quantitative and qualitative phases separately (with a discussion for each). I then followed up with a general discussion where I synthesised the different sets of data. Doing this effectively requires creativity and flexibility. It is therefore important to seek help when you need it. Avoid keeping your work to yourself. Aside from your supervisor’s guidance, make good use of opportunities to present and discuss your study with colleagues and friends (including those not in your area of study). Also, prior to commencing a multi-study PhD, read the literature thoroughly to understand the different variants and which one will be more suitable for your intended project.
University of Cape Coast, Ghana
My name is Junlin Yu, and I completed my PhD in the 2019-20 academic year. Across three studies, my thesis investigates the motivational processes contributing to the gender gaps in school engagement and achievement. An article-based thesis aligns well with my goal of pursuing a career in academia. This format is common in my subfield (psychology of education). Writing theses in this format provides useful training for writing journal articles and has helped me build my CV and get hired after my PhD.
With an article-based format, writing up papers is simultaneous with writing up the thesis. I wrote my first article using secondary data while I was collecting new data for other studies. I ended up submitting a relatively short thesis (~40,000 words) that contained three papers at different stages of the publication process.
Here are a few things that have helped me:
1. Have early conversations with your supervisor. Design and propose multiple studies as part of the registration report, with a view of turning them into journal articles. Sometimes it is difficult to dissect one large study into separate papers in an ad hoc manner.
2. Coherence across studies is key. Are they collectively addressing an important issue? How do they build on each other? Use the introductory chapter to provide a rationale for the different studies and the discussion chapter to synthesise the findings.
3. Read article-based theses online to see how others structure their theses. But always follow the local guideline.
Lenka Janik-Blaskova is a Lecturer in Education Psychology at the University of Exeter. She researches peer relationships, mental health and wellbeing, and playful learning. Twitter: @LenkaJBCam
Laura Cashman is a second-year PhD student quantitatively researching stakeholder engagement in education in the Global South. Twitter: @LauraNiChiosain
Bea Simpson is a second-year PhD student who is researching “Early Childhood Education Provision, Access and Learning Outcomes in Uganda Using Government Sources and Citizen Led Data”. Twitter: @beasimpson19
Gabby Arenge is a second-year PhD student researching the processes and catalysts of pedagogic change in Botswana primary schools. Twitter: @GabbyArenge
Featured photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash.