Why a Postgraduate Degree Is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Part 2

Why a Postgraduate Degree Is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I likened postgraduate studies to rollercoasters for provoking peaks and troughs alike. Students begin their degrees with curiosity and glee. For an academic, there is probably nothing more satisfying than an inaugural LLM or PhD lecture: students smile at each other, laugh at our jokes, and sometimes even applaud our performances. To the delight of my colleagues and I, PG students are earnest and engaged. 

Yet, the speed at which the positive vibes evaporate is dizzying. Just as most students begin their degrees with enthusiasm, a disturbing proportion end them in dismay, at least among those who complete the degree at all. Not only have the smiles withered, but so has attendance, with students absconding from lectures, supervisory meetings, and sometimes the university altogether. Those who remain undergo a metamorphosis, often not even recognising themselves. It behoves academics to reflect on the part we play in this downward slide. The pattern should also give prospective (and current) students pause for thought. What happens and can you prevent it from happening to you? This three part-series is my contribution to the struggle.

In the previous post, I detailed the nature of the master’s and PhD. I felt this essential because of the misunderstandings that prevail which, when merged, exacerbate the despondency students eventually succumb to. In Part 2, I push this point a little further. Using the work of Thomas Kuhn, I provide a conceptual framework for PG studies that will help students appreciate the nature of academic research. With greater awareness, you’ll be more apt at producing scholarship that fits the bill.

Academia is a peculiar space. We are an insular bunch who mostly dialogue inwardly. Other than an academic, who suffers journal articles? Even we are loath to read them. Policymakers, lawyers, and civil servants—professionals who enrol in law PG programmes—find our self-referential approach to research perplexing. Does our sectarianism not undermine the validity of our findings?

The answer to this question rests with Kuhn and his representation of scientific developments. An understanding of this frame will benefit students in most PG programmes. We expect PG students to excavate, investigate, and (to a lesser degree) pontificate, but we expect them to do so within defined parameters and to a defined group. PG programmes go to great lengths to highlight the importance of this point. Still, students seem to lose sight of the parameters, inviting difficulties they could otherwise avoid.

After setting out a Kuhnian frame, I explain how to render this into an academic debate. As I am known to do, I use a metaphor to decode my meaning: my PhDs will recognise my favoured dinner party motif. I also rely on language from quality assurance agencies which, when merged with the metaphor, situate PG performance within concrete activities. Awareness of the standards will help you produce scholarship that coheres with the expectations universities have of you, facilitating your progress and eventual success.

1- The Structure of Scientific Research

Despite the differences between PG programmes highlighted in Part 1, some aspects of PG studies are universal. An indispensable commonality is the nature of academic research. Here, Kuhn is invaluable. Few scholars have provided a more astute exposé of scientific development. 

Kuhn was a physicist, then a historian of science, and finally a philosopher. Scholars revere his seminal work—The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—for setting out a theoretical frame that captures the essence of scientific change. I should mention that it is one of the most cited academic texts of all time.

Kuhn argued that scientific development is neither uniform nor linear, alternating between two tendencies: normal and revolutionary. Normal science is the archetype and is equivalent to puzzle-solving. Think crosswords, Sudoku, or chess. Solving each of these puzzles requires two elements. First, familiarity with the boundaries: if the player cannot differentiate between a bishop and a rook, doesn’t speak the language of the crossword, or lacks basic numeracy, they will flounder. Second, familiarity with problem-solving methods: for example, to identify an unknown word in a crossword, build the surrounding words and populate the letters; to speed up your Sudoku game, apply the process of elimination.

Alongside familiarity, the player requires ability. This element is more nebulous and even a tad unfair, at least to the egalitarian in me. What distinguishes Lionel Messi from other footballers is not his familiarity with the game’s rules or tactics, but with his ability. Why is Messi more able than you, me, and every other footballer who has ever graced the beautiful game? Like most geniuses, he processes information at a quicker rate. In the same way that IQ measures the ability to spot patterns, a footballer’s IQ is contingent on her or his ability to foresee the run of play and of the players, and to adapt accordingly. This makes ability unfair. Messi’s insane ability to read the game allows him to do things that appear mystical to everyone else. 

What do familiarity and ability mean for science and PG studies? First, both are vital to playing the science game. Scholars who are more familiar with the parameters of their fields, scholars with greater ability in deploying its theories and methods will unpack problems with greater ease. They will conceive of fresh ways of engaging these problems, and will probably uncover ones we didn’t even know were there. Second, the parameters ensure that even the most idiosyncratic thinkers are playing the same game. Think of Angela and Julian, Alonso and Priya, and Kevin and me: our worldview might be proximate or poles apart, but we operate within the same disciplinary parameters. Using an unfamiliar language in a crossword or moving a pawn backwards violates the rules. Other players will reject these acts as illegitimate. And they would be right. Consider this: are IR and IL interoperable or incompatible? Some brave scholars venture into the fields of others, often never to be seen again. 

Normal scientific development operates within prescribed and often immutable boundaries. To use Kuhn’s preferred terminology, normal scientific development is cumulative. New research builds upon past research. We accept past premises, theories, methods, and conclusions. Even where we challenge them, our critique takes place within the same frame. We can devise unique methods for speeding up our crossword game, just as we can develop an unknown technique for besting Carlsen. We can even propose a tweak of the parameters (as Wenger has done for that heretical offside rule). Consistent, however, is our respect for the parameters; even geniuses play by the rules. 

Revolutionary science is a different animal altogether. In contrast to the cumulative character of normal science, revolutionary science is transformative: we are provoked into revising an existing scientific belief which, in turn, unravels the parameters we took for granted. Think Aristotle and Eratosthenes (the earth is not flat but round) or Copernicus and Galileo (the earth orbits the sun). Think telegraph, the splitting of the atom, the World Wide Web, monotheism, republicanism, gender equality, capitalism, and communism. Each scientific milestone transformed the course of human history, breaking with the beliefs and parameters of the past. 

In most instances, revolutionary science does not simply happen. Kuhn was not describing fortuitous discoveries. Rather, the appearance of an anomalous puzzle is to credit (or blame). Being anomalous, scientists cannot solve it through the application of normal science. Researchers thus extend their enquiry beyond the orthodoxy of the disciplinary matrix. What we took for granted during the normal period now appears anachronistic. Returning to Copernicus and Galileo, once they verified that the earth orbited the sun, astronomy would never be the same. Such is the nature of revolutionary science. It engenders a break or, to use Kuhn’s language, a paradigmatic shift. 

Consider an example from international law: is TWAIL normal or revolutionary science? TWAIL is difficult to classify. To a wide degree, TWAIL scholars have upended international legal scholarship. Earlier this week I attended a lecture organised by the European University Institute entitled European Approaches to International Law in Historical Perspective. Were it not for TWAIL, would publicists acknowledge and theorise the Eurocentrism of international law? The answer is obvious. Yet, is the confrontation between TWAIL and orthodox scholarship the product of an anomalous problem? Have TWAIL scholars pried open the parameters of the discipline? While these are contentious questions, I note that even TWAIL denizens accept the parameters, if only begrudgingly. Regular readers of Opinio Juris will recall the Symposium on Critical International Law that we hosted in August 2020. Tony Anghie caused a stir by adorning himself in quasi-positivist garb. If familiar with TWAIL, there was little surprise. TWAIL embodies a theoretical innovation, but not a paradigmatic shift. Our research is cumulative—and legitimising—even if we wished it were otherwise.     

How does Kuhn’s analysis relate to PG studies? Contrary to what many idealistic students believe, academia is not a site of revolutionary science. It happens, of course, but infrequently, for academia is a bastion of normal science where academics deliberate with academics. For the deliberation to make sense, scholars must agree on the parameters: theories, methods, premises, and axioms which combine to establish the boundaries. Not only do we need parameters, but we must accept and abide by them despite their clear contingency. The alternative is moving pawns backwards. Your supervisor will thus encourage you to build on the work of others, and to continue down a similar path. Like normal science, PG research is cumulative.

I’m afraid you must suffer another metaphor. Reflect on the gold rushes of Australia, California, and the Klondike. The earliest prospectors were adventurers (and settler-colonialists). They had some loose idea where gold might be, but they explored the wilderness at length, overcoming or succumbing to unknown challenges along the way. Like the rollercoaster, prospecting is not for the fainthearted.

Prospectors relied on a manual technique known as panning. Many of you have seen this in cartoons and films. A person submerges a pan into a stream, scooping up sediment. They shake it vigorously, separating the gold from the gravel (usually the gravel from the gravel). While the cost of the activity was low, the risk was high. Many knew that their endeavour would end in failure, but they set out anyway. Those who enjoyed success, prospected many sites. If one did not yield fruit, they moved on to the next. However, once they made a discovery, a new stage began. They moved from prospecting to mining, precipitating the arrival of other actors to scale up the extraction process. They dug deeper holes and built bigger installations. 

To a large extent, this metaphor captures the difference between cumulative and transformative trajectories in science. Prospectors blaze new trails, scouring lands and waters at length. Miners build upon the trails laid by others. They improve the rate of extraction, make sites safer, and expand the scale of the enterprise. The contrast is notable: prospectors transform while miners grow. Both are invaluable, but they are different. 

We reach my ultimate point about Kuhn. Tension abounds between normal and revolutionary science, creating a conundrum for universities. While universities pride themselves on being sites of innovation, they mostly do two things: transmit known information and build upon known information. Miners hold the reins. In fact, as Kuhn observed, some scientists will even ostracise pioneers. They resist refuting key premises, theories, methods, or findings in their field for two reasons: ideology and utility. First, it is common for scientists to believe in these theories. Galileo’s compatriots imprisoned him for what turned out to be true because he posited what others regarded as heresy. Foundations fund research into large scale food fortification but not food sovereignty or communal land ownership to prevent the emergence of rival ideologies. Ideology is a powerful force in science. Second, many scientists built careers on these boundaries. Once Galileo’s revolution picked up steam, texts premised on the earth being the centre of the universe were defunct. Scholars had to rethink their life’s work to account for the inaccuracies that were now palpable. Who gives up their legacy without a fight? Do you want to be remembered for being wrong? As Kuhn concludes, this is an irresolvable conundrum. We crave the future but our commitment is to the past; we desire innovation but source it from the status quo; we want to resolve today’s problems but rely on yesterday’s thinking. 

PG students would benefit from reading Kuhn. Universities are centres of normal science. The institution and your supervisor expect you to engage with and build upon the work of others in your field. Be as critical as you like, but avoid chasing revolutions. It’s not that we don’t wish for one, but that PG programmes aren’t designed to provoke one. What does this mean for you in practical terms?

4- A Dinner Party Can Save Your Degree

I favour the dinner party metaphor. We take part in dinner parties for a range of reasons. At a minimum, we wish to socialise with the other guests. The same is true for academic research. Which scholarly debate do you want to join? Who is at the table? What are they serving? What did each guest bring? What contribution will you make? Mirth aside, the metaphor is invaluable. Just as you wouldn’t want six guests to bring tiramisu or for one to turn up with Szechuan chicken and another with baba ghanoush, you must pursue disciplinary harmony within your scholarly debate.

The party can be idiosyncratic, risqué, or garish, but it must cohere with itself and with your topic of investigation. I visualise the topic as the main dish. What are you serving? How does it relate to the entrées of your guests? Does your contribution complement, challenge, or supplement the debate? How will your guests respond to the menu and ambiance you’ve cultivated? To belabour the metaphor, these questions are the bread and butter of PG students, or they should be. No matter how memorable you want your dinner party to be, above all, it must be normal.

We observe the importance of normal science for PG studies from the benchmarks of government agencies responsible for tertiary policy. To be sure, universities must comply with national standards when designing their programmes. Cambridge and Warwick, Tsing Hua and Fudan, Melbourne and Monash, might seem like autonomous bodies, but their national governments regulate their activities, including the standards they comply with when designing programmes and awarding degrees.

In the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency dictates PG standards. In China, it is the Higher Education Evaluation Centre. While agencies differ, their core comprises standards and assessments because this approach is built on a belief in the power of bureaucracy to precipitate consistent (and equitable) outcomes. PG students should know that standards apply to both the master’s and PhD, with each criterion underscoring the tension between normal and revolutionary science.

To illustrate, we learn from the UK’s Quality Code for Higher Education that, to graduate, a master’s student must show “systematic understanding of knowledge… at the forefront of their academic discipline.” They must be familiar with established research methods and be capable of applying them. Agencies expect more of doctoral students: newness, originality, and the production of quality scholarship are at the forefront of the pursuit. Above all, they must evidence an ability to design, implement, and adapt projects that will extend a field of knowledge. These criteria centre the training aspect of the degree: training to conduct research that will advance knowledge within a discipline as verified by members of the dinner party, including your supervisor and viva committee. 

Spot the key words: familiarity with established methods and an ability to extend a field of knowledge. This is normal science with a sledgehammer. Criteria such as critical awareness, originality in application, and the creation of new knowledge generate an impression that PG students are prospectors, setting out into the unknown in search of discoveries and riches. On balance, they are in the minority. PG studies are more akin to mining than they are to prospecting, with a historic body of knowledge providing the parameters. In academia, the dead are eternal. 


Academic research is exciting and excruciating; it is stimulating and stultifying. We dream of revolutions, but refine normalcy. Such is the nature of our craft. Once you understand this framework, once you decide who to invite, who to shun, and what to prepare, your dinner party, your dissertation, and you will flourish.

[So long as you don’t forget the background music.]

In the final part of this series, I provide some dos and don’ts for PG studies. Spoiler: ducking your supervisor is a don’t. I conclude with a short riff on the seven deadly sins of academia.

Photo by Adrian Dascal on Unsplash.

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