Research design essay blasted


in M.Phil thesis, Oxford, Politics, Science, The environment

I just got the feedback on my research design essay, and it is enormously less positive than I had hoped. The grade is a low pass and there are two written statements included: one that is fairly short and reasonably positive, the other longer and far more scathing. It opens with “[t]his research design is not well thought out.” Both comments discuss the Stockholm Convention and Kyoto Protocol as though they are the real focus of the thesis; by contrast, they were meant to be illustrative cases through which broader questions about science and policy could be approached.

The shorter comment (both are anonymous) says that “the general idea behind the research is an interesting one” while the longer comment calls the cases “well-selected… [with] fruitful looking similarities and differences.” The big criticisms made in the longer comment are:

  1. The nuclear disarmament and Lomborg cases are unnecessary and irrelevant.
  2. I haven’t selected which key bits of the Kyoto negotiations to look at.
  3. My philosophy of science bibliography is not yet developed.
  4. Not enough sources on Kyoto or Stockholm are listed. Too many are scientific reports.

It blasts me for not yet having a sufficiently comprehensive bibliography, and for the irrelevance the commenter sees in the nuclear weapons and Lomborg examples. The whole point of those is to address the question of what roles scientists can legitimately take, and how the policy and scientific communities see the role of science within global environmental policy making. The point is definitely not, as the comment seems to assume, to compare those cases with Stockholm and Kyoto. Taken all in all, this is hands-down the most critical response to anything important I have written for quite a number of years.

To me, it seems like the major criticism is that the thesis has not been written yet. I mention being interested in the philosophy of science, insofar as it applies, but have not yet surveyed the literature to the extent that seems expected. The same goes for having not yet selected the three “instances or junctures” in the Kyoto negotiations that I am to focus on.

As is often the case when I see something I was quite confident about properly blasted, I am feeling rather anxious about the whole affair – to the point, even, of feeling physically ill. I always knew there was a lot more work to be done – a big part of why I have decided to stay in Oxford over the summer – but I expected that the general concepts behind the thesis plan were clear enough. The long comment definitely indicates that not to be the case. I can take some solace in what Dr. Hurrell has said. He has more experience with environmental issues than probably anyone else in the department and has also had the most exposure to the plotting out of my particular project. Of it, he has said: “[the] Research Design Essay represent[s] an excellent start in developing the project and narrowing down a viable set of questions to be addressed.” Still, I would be much happier if the examiners had said likewise.

The major lesson from all this is to buckle down, do the research, and prove them wrong for doubting the potential and coherence of this project. The issue is an important one, even if it is more theoretical and amorphous than many of the theses they will receive. A simple comparison of Kyoto and Stockholm would be enormously less interesting.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben July 4, 2006 at 4:59 pm

I wouldn’t be too disheartened. The problem is these criticism can mean one of two things: either a bad project idea or a potentially good thesis with a bad design essay. In your case, more likely the latter.

As such, I’d be tempted to just ignore them, though I warned you the same people may examine the thesis. My supervisor thought one of the final comments on my MPhil thesis didn’t show much understanding…

Milan July 4, 2006 at 5:14 pm


The way I saw this research design essay was as a staking out of the terrain in which the thesis would be found: like the orange ropes archaeologists use to make a grid on a site. The thesis itself would be written about the most important stuff found therein. It was therefore rather less developed, in terms of specifics, than some of the work other people have done.

All that said, it also means that a lot of work remains to be done. Prior to this, I was getting a bit complacent about the ‘research over the summer’ plan.

Thanks for all the comments, by the way.

Rob July 4, 2006 at 11:43 pm

It souns to me like the problem is that you’re not being sufficiently socially scientific – which, so far as I am concerned, might not necessarily be bad thing. Social scientists tend to see themselves as descriptive, rather than evaluative, and the question about the role of scientists in various international bodies dealing with the environment seems rather evaluative. That – in the sense that it would motivate the thought that you haven’t shown enough interest in what actually goes on in these various bodies, which looks like the substance of the criticism about an excess of scientific papers and insufficient attention to the mechanics of Kyoto and so on – could well be the problem. I wouldn’t worry that much about it though: the research design is at best an outline of a plan to undertake a piece of research, and outlines of plans tend to far even worse in contact with the enemy than actual plans.

Antonia July 5, 2006 at 5:23 pm

I’m with Rob, (whoever you are, Rob) – it’s the outline of a plan and not the thesis itself; a framework for looking into and developing the thesis rather than the framework of the final thesis. They appear to have given a lot of feedback which is useful in terms of gauging your aims while writing it, even if only to consciously dismiss the directions they seem to advocate.

Milan July 5, 2006 at 6:59 pm

I assume that ‘Rob’ is Robert Jubb, as listed on the Oxford bloggers page.

Milan July 5, 2006 at 6:59 pm

Incidentally, I like the image of my thesis plan “coming into contact with the enemy,” despite the strife and confusion that will surely involve.

Milan August 26, 2006 at 1:18 pm

At least some people have suffered worse criticism:

“Jack Gibberd, my former coursemate from Aberystwyth must have been the first
person ever to have been awarded 0% on an IR dissertation without
plagiarising nor submitting late. On the website you can find the very
amusing comments of the first marker (Hidemi Suganami) along with Jack’s
reply. I first saw them last year and now they seem to be spreading over the
internet. Highly amusing.”

Via Alex Stummvoll

Milan November 14, 2006 at 6:25 pm

If you want to read the comments on my RDE in their entirety, they are on my wiki.

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