Tuesday, 3 July 2012

When Teflers want to take Tesol to the next level…

Matt Salusbury asks academics about the motivation and choices behind taking an ELT-related doctorate

(From the April 2012 EL Gazette)

Why take a doctorate in ELT, Tesol or a related subject? We asked ELT/Tesol academics what motivates Teflers to take a doctorate, what influences their choice of university and how they go about seeking and getting on a PhD programme.

Dr Nick Andon, programme director for MA ELT and applied linguistics at King’s College London (KCL, part of the University of London) and his colleague Dr Martin Dewey say that both the proportion of international students and of students choosing ELT-related topics are increasing. There are between thirty and forty PhD students in ELT and linguistics; of these probably about half are ‘related to ELT’. About half of its PhD cohort are international students. KCL’s PhD programme includes extensive training in research methodology and academic writing for native speakers as well as non-natives.

Many PhD students know how to apply for a PhD, having done an MA, often at the same university they have in mind for a PhD. But for students coming from a different university system, it can be confusing. Andon and Dewey argue that it is essential to find supervisors who are experts in the student’s chosen field. They concede that finding information on lecturers’ expertise is not easy as there are ‘lots of ways to get information. Making this information more accessible is something we’re working on,’ says Andon. In practice, most enquiries about PhD courses come in the form of emails to individual academics – ‘Students contact us because they have heard of our work.’

One ELT and applied linguistics student at KCL surveyed fellow PhD students’ motivations for embarking on a PhD. These included ‘to pursue their own academic interests, to use the gained knowledge practically in their own contexts, and finally to further their careers’. Current PhD students commonly mention their enjoyment of learning and a PhD’s ‘value for their career advancement’. One international student cited ‘increased competitiveness’.

Doctoral candidates in EFL and linguistics choose a university for the ‘expertise of the staff members … close relationship with the staff members, supportiveness of staff’ as well as location and ‘availability of funding’, while international students ‘commonly mentioned international ranking’, according to the same survey.

English literature lecturer Leigh Wilson supervises all twenty PhD students in the University of Westminster’s Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies. Of these, between a third and a half are ‘international’ and ‘probably two’ are doing PhDs directly related to ELT; English literature PhDs account for a far bigger proportion of the intake.

Westminster PhD students start their course registered for an MPhil. After about a year and a half working on their doctor ate, there’s an interview which, if successful, transfers them to the full PhD programme.

A PhD supervisor won’t necessarily know how their student’s chosen area of research fits into a particular subject. ‘You don’t do a doctorate in a particular subject,’ says Leigh, while her colleague Andrew Caink, a linguist, says of PhDs, ‘Whether it is called linguistics or something more specific, each PhD will be focused on both a very specific issue and the wider implications for the wider field.’

A UK PhD differs from one taken at a continental European university in that ‘you’re not inserted into a programme, it’s about the topic … and your relationship with your supervisor. In other countries you are much more inserting yourself into an existing programme.’ This difference is an attraction to those coming to the UK from overseas, says Wilson.

After about four years of work, PhDs in the UK end with a viva, with the candidate having to defend their work verbally to university staff and an external examiner. In continental Europe vivas are in front of an audience, but in the UK they’re always behind closed doors.

KCL offers both a PhD and an Education Doctorate (EdD). Andon says the EdD is ‘considered more professional … the EdD in King’s is more structured: students submit a number of papers, their thesis is half of the degree’, while in a PhD there is only one thesis.

Dr Indika Livange, senior lecturer at the School of Education of Griffith University in Australia, said its EdD ‘is structured and has coursework which leads to a writing of the thesis later on (practitioners such as teachers who don’t have a background in research find it more conducive), while a PhD is entirely research-based. Both qualifications are equal.’

Brett Baker of the research programmes team at the University of Melbourne’s applied linguistics department said of students’ motivation to do a PhD, ‘The main reason is professional advancement. Nearly all candidates are experienced language teachers – usually, but not exclusively, in Tesol.’ Melbourne’s arts faculty now has a first-year ‘compulsory coursework component of two subjects’ after which students have to defend a 10,000-word research proposal before they are ‘confirmed’.

After that, explains Barker, candidates are ‘expected to complete their dissertation in the following two years, though it is common to take three years’. Australia’s PhDs are ‘fast by international standards’, typically done and dusted within four years, due to restrictions on students extending their PhD candidature if they’re not finished by year three.

Michelle Plaisance of the English Language Training Institute at the University of North Carolina in the US said of their Tesl doctorate candidates, ‘Many want to pursue teacher education at the university level, while others wish to assume leadership roles’ in public-sector schools or ‘positions in global education networks and government organisations. I only know of one student in our programme who is not a native speaker. He was planning to open a bilingual charter school in a neighbouring country.’

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