Navigating researching writing: Guides for postgraduate research

27 July 2015
Researchers engage at the first Navigating Research Writing course in 2012.
Researchers engage at the first Navigating Research Writing course in 2012.

Postgraduate research and writing can seem daunting to the freshly initiated; so CHED stepped in with a map and compass – of the scholarly sort.

Aimed at prospective postgraduate students from any discipline, CHED's pioneering short course, Navigating Research Writing, seeks to orientate students to the unique demands of conducting research towards a master's or PhD degree.

Originally called Navigating Research Literacies and started in June 2012, the non-credit-bearing course helps students understand and articulate their research interests, develop a research identity, sustain a strong writer's voice, and formulate sound arguments; and also introduces them to the fi ner details of citation and information literacy.

Previously, CHED had offered once-off or tailor-made writing workshops and writer circles, but a focused, comprehensive course hadn't been available before this. The course design blends an intensive, one-week faceto- face component with online components before and after that week.

It's been offered twice annually since its 2012 launch, and the plan is to make it a regular part of the UCT calendar. Most students have very limited exposure to research during their undergraduate degrees, explain course convenors Assoc Prof Lucia Thesen and Dr Mathilde van der Merwe. Those who are in transition between countries, languages or disciplines, or are returning to study after an extended time in the workplace, have a particularly tough time.

"These students often fi nd adapting to postgraduate studies (with a research component) challenging," says Van der Merwe.

The course guides students through expressing an initial interest in a research topic, thrashing out research questions and articulating an argument. "The focus of the course is on writing," says Thesen. "Each student writes a 1200-word pre-proposal concept paper in which they express how their research thinking has progressed."

A highlight of the course is a day-long workshop facilitated by Dr Sharman Wickham, who guides students deeper into their research interest.

There's been an even spread of students registered, with honours, master's and PhD students from a range of backgrounds, disciplines and age groups all signing up.

Not all of the students are based at UCT and some do not intend pursuing postgraduate studies here, report the convenors.

To keep classes small, a maximum of 24 places are available per edition. And every course has been well supported, says Janet Small, who is the course development offi cer at CHED's Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching.

"An online version is being developed to offer more flexible engagement with this kind of material – which should be available by the end of the year," adds Small.

Write science

CHED also offers a companion course – aimed at science students and convened by Van der Merwe – called Write Science. The popular course gives senior postgrads from science, health sciences and engineering a chance to get to grips with scientific writing beyond their thesis. Think writing to publish in academic journals or for peer review, as well as how to communicate specialist scientific knowledge to a public audience.

While postgraduate students work closely with their supervisors in writing their theses, many are not adequately mentored into the practices of publication. Disseminating your research through publications and conference presentations is a crucial skill for any researcher to master. Likewise, learning to communicate your research to the public is the responsibility of all researchers, but a skill that needs a lot of practice.

Mixing online peer-review tasks, contact days with lecturers and three assignments, the course encourages students to practise science writing and get feedback from academics and peers – a daily experience in the world of scholarship. The contact sessions not only deal with writing, but also provide space for lecturers to share their experiences of communicating science to various audiences.

Students are expected to write a "polished" abstract (says the course brochure), a journal article introduction (specifying which journals they will target for publication), and write a piece aimed at communicating a scientific message to a non-specialist public audience.

Write Science was offered for the first time in July 2013, and has since been offered every year. Classes are kept small (20-25) in order to provide all participants with thorough feedback on their writing.

But the demand for Write Science has exceeded the number of students it can accommodate, with over 130 applications streaming in every time. And the response from students who have completed the course has generally been positive. "I am more equipped with information to guide me in my journey as a scientist" said one. "Write Science was an eye-opener!" attested another.

Van der Merwe, a genetics PhD who won the 2010 NRF SAASTA Young Science Communicator of the Year award, enlists the help of UCT's scientists to facilitate some of the sessions. The library and writing centre are also involved.


Vicki Heard, who works full-time as CHED's admin manager in the Offi ce of the Dean, was curious to take up postgraduate study, but couldn't quite settle on a topic. She took Navigating Research Writing to help her figure this out.

A goal I set myself years ago was to complete a major learning activity every ten years or so.

Having completing my BA Honours 20 years ago and a significant but unrelated learning endeavour in 2007, I have been thinking about it seriously again for a while now. My stumbling block has been the 'what' (I knew I wanted to do something in social justice and transformation; organisational psychology was also a possibility) and whether I would cope with a full-time PASS job, parental responsibilities, and the demands of higher-level study.

I ran into Assoc Prof Lucia Thesen in the CHED tearoom and she told me about the NRW course, which she said would help me to find my topic.

So, feeling encouraged, I took a week's annual leave and did the course. And what a journey! The group ranged from those who, like me, had no firmed-up idea about their research question, to those who were already writing up their PhD theses. How that worked, I don't know, but it did.

The NRW course is far more than I had expected. It is an intense and emotionally and intellectually exhausting five days, masterfully constructed and presented. I enjoyed the trip through the 'Me-search', 'Re-search' and 'We-search'.

During this process, which included several free-write blogging opportunities that were extremely helpful, I started to understand how my subject interest in social justice was a thread that reached all the way back to my very young childhood and my upbringing.

This helped me understand why I wanted to pursue this subject, and it offered me some space in which to touch on the literature around the topic.

I also realised just how very far away I was from the knowledge, and that I had a lot of research ahead of me. However, learning about and working with the databases and search engines on the course helped me feel more confident about finding resources. I completed the concept paper, but did not quite get to formulating my research question. But that, I expect, will come.


Story by Yusuf Omar. Photo by Morgan Morris.

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