Welcome to my free online doctoral programme

This site is intended as a resource for doctoral students in the disciplines of e learning, learning and instructional design and related fields. It is a collection of tips, resources, tools and examples that my doctoral students and I have developed over the years. Please feel free to use these resources in any way you feel appropriate, but remember to respect authorship and to cite responsibly.
The site is constantly under construction, and your input is welcomed. Please feel free to contribute. The structure of the site will follow the whole process from before enrolment to post-doctoral publication. The first section will consider what you have to do even before you start.  On this follows some advice on how to perform a scan of the academic environment to find a useful topic to research. Thereupon follows the writing of a research proposal, and then a literature survey. After this will be research methods, then thesis writing and finally the oral defence and publication of articles. The site links to various other useful resources. If you are the author of any of such resources and would like the link removed, then please let me know and I will do so.
There is a feedback form at the very bottom of this page.  Please scroll down and let me know what you think.

Before you start

The more you structure your life at the early stages of your doctoral journey the easier it will be.You may want to find out what a Doctorate actually is. Check out this piece by Dr Deborah Netolicky explaining what a doctorate is.  
Now ensure that you set up your environment appropriately and that you have a proper network in place. You should have taken all the steps below before you even contact a potential supervisor for the first time. 
  1. Learn how to use your technology. You need a good word processor and good referencing software and you need to use all their features from the start.  You need to be fluent in the following before you write your first page:  
    • How to define and use styles for headings, and create a table of contents automatically
    • How to use automatic captions and cross referencing for tables and insert a list of tables and a list of figures automatically
    • How to insert citations and bibliography items automatically using referencing software such as Mendeley, Zotero or Paperpile.  I use Mendeley so if you study with me personally you may want to use it too, so we can share things.
    • If you already have many hand-made plain text bibliographies in your previous writing, then create an account with WizFolio, where you can paste a bibliography into a dialogue box and export your references as a RIS file, to be imported into Mendeley or the others.
  2. Set up a communication and archiving system.  I use a whole lot of Google applications. Gmail for communication, Google drive to store my documents, Blogspot to post ideas, and of course Google Sites for static information.  Then I use Dropbox as a backup.
  3. Get introduced to the field. Start with Wikipedia. Do not listen to the snobs who say you shouldn't. It's how you use it that matters.  You begin by reading the article on the topic of your choice.  If it is completely strange and hard to understand, then you cannot do your doctorate in that field. Then, if you feel that you are so familiar with the contents that you could have written it yourself, you proceed. Now click on the "Talk" tab at the top of the article, and read the comments made by the various participants in the article.  It is here where you will start finding the issues that may or may not be worth researching.  What debates are going on there.
  4. Find out who's who in the field. Take note of the authors who commented on the Wikipedia article. Then scroll down to the reference section of the article itself and make a list of all the authors cited.  Now download Harzing's Publish or perish and check the "H Score" of each author.  Make a list of these authors and sort them according to this score. Now take the top five authors and for each, determine which are the top-scoring journals in which they publish. Now, when you have the top five authors, and the top five journals, identify the top five articles published by each of the top five authors, and identify the top five articles published in each of the top five journals. Now copy the keywords of all these articles into a spreadsheet. Sort them alphabetically and determine the five most popular keywords. You may want to draw a graph of these.  Now take the abstracts of all the articles and paste them into Wordle. The resultant word cloud will give you a good intial view the key concepts of your field.
  5. Ask the right questions. One of the most common mistakes made by doctoral candidates is to ask their potential supervisors for a topic.  Otherwise, their initial research questions are ones to which we already have the answers.  Check to ensure that you do not fall into the second category by typing your own research question, as you formulated it, into Google and see how many times your question (and its answer) actually appear.  A good research question is one that is both relevant and unique.  To find one you need to know what other people have asked (i.e. relevant) and what other people have not asked yet (i.e. unique). To do that you need to analyze the articles that you have identified even futher.  Make a table. In the first column, put the full citation of the article. in the next column, put the keywords, then the main research question, followed by the answer to that research question, and finally the author's recommendation for further research.   
  6. Now cluster the questions together around common themes, and arrange them in the order in which they appeal to you.
  7. Meet your heroes. Register with Academia.edu and Researchgate.net and follow the key authors that you have identified. Get to know who else is follwing them and get to know whom they follow. Find out which conferences they attend and what keynote addresses they have delivered. Visit their websites, and generally form a picture of the people whose work you follow.
  8. Familiarise yourself with Ethical Considerations. An important section of your proposal will deal with the ethics. Although the ethics statement is usually at the end you should consider the ethics first.  This movie from the University of Leiden is a brilliant exposition "On being a scientist". 
  9. Finally check out what you should have done within the FIRST HUNDRED DAYS.and The start and the middle of your PhD.

Deliverables and resources

This phase should take somewhere between two and three weeks.
At the end of the phase you should have produced the following:
  • A table with a list of the top five (or more) authors in the field, their institutional affiliations and the citations of their five most cited publications
  • A graph of the top keywords in your research area
  • A Wordle cloud of the abstracts of the top articles
  • A table of the top articles, their research questions, answers and suggested further research
  • A network diagram of the top five authors, their followers and their connections.
Here is an hour long video in which I say all the stuff that is written above.


Begin with the end in mind - The draft proposal

    your own.
Now that you have a research question, you need to consider a research design. Ross et al. (2008) present a really useful overview of the types of design in the field.  Make a mindmap of the article and then on the map, highlight the areas that are most likely to yield results to the research question(s) that you have identified in the previous exercise.
Once you have a match between your research question and a research design it is very useful to put your ideas in very simple, every day language in a one-page research proposal.  On one single page, answer the following questions.
  • What do I want to know?
  • Why do I want to know it?
  • Why would anybody else be interested in the answer?
  • How will I find it out?
  • What will I not do?

Now you need a reference model towards which to work.  An excellent point of departure is the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations. You may want to start by browsing their prize-winning dissertations before searching for theses or dissertations with similar themes,

     philosophical departures or methodologies to yours.

Deliverables and resources

Here is Mc Granaghan's suggested proposal outline.

Ellis, T. J. & Levy, Y. (2008). Framework of Problem-Based Research: A Guide for Novice Researchers on the Development of a Research-Worthy Problem. Information Sciences, 11(1), 17-33. Informing Science Institute, 131 Brookhill Court, Santa Rosa, CA, 95409, USA,. Retrieved from http://inform.nu/Articles/Vol11/ISJv11p017-033Ellis486.pdf
Here is the second one-hour YouTube clip where I say all this stuff.
<div>Here is a video clip of Dr Lilia Sevillano explaining the purpose and structure of a research proposal.

Armed with your analysis of the field, its authors and its questions, as well as your one-page proposal and a reference thesis, you are now in a good position for a first meeting with your supervisor.

The Full proposal

The full proposal is your fist stab at discovering the field. The proposal says why the research should be done, and how you plan to do it. It explains the value of the research.


Now read these Guidelines for preparing a dissertation proposal by arguably the most respected team of researchers in our field, Jan Herrington, Sue McKenny, Tom Reeves and Ron Oliver.

The first thing to do in the development of the proposal is to show that this research will be both necessary and unique.


You then give the research questions. You explain what we already know, and where our existing knowledge breaks down.  Here is some good advice about quantitative research questions.

Then you say how you plan to find it out.

Here is a very nice detailed Qualitative Methods Protocol Template with example Tools and SOPs From the ACT Consortium  

Here is a possible template.

How to write an introduction

Remember to write the introduction LAST, as it is a complete summary of what you will be doing.

Here is an example of the wrong way to write an introduction (in this case to a full paper) and the correct way.

 The wrong way to write an introduction The correct way to write an introduction
 This chapter describes the research method and design employed to facilitate this study. Limitations and the ethical compliance are also discussed in the closing sections of this chapter.
(Author withheld to protect innocent parties involved)
 Using Schatzki’s practices framework as a lens, this paper reports on the practices of university students accessing learning resources at a research-intensive  university in South Africa. Using a mixed methods approach, 1001 survey responses and six focus groups were analysed to explore how students in three professional disciplines access learning resources, with the focus on digitally-mediated piracy practices. The findings suggest a blurring between the legal and the illegal and indicate the normalcy of piracy practices, with nuanced distinctions and understandings manifest. Czerniewicz, L. (2016) Student practices in copyright culture: Accessing learning resources. Learning Media and Technology,  DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2016.1160928

Here is the late Prof Chris Kapp's "Formula" for a gripping introduction:

Opening Moves: This is the hook to get your reader interested. You could use a general statement that would be a "catch all", you could use an anecdote or describe an event - people love a good story. You could use statistics, quotations or provocative facts.
Common ground: Here you present the context in a way that will resonate with the reader. Show why this research is relevant and significant. Describe the current status of the problem. Discuss previous studies and show their benefits, but specifically also their limitations and omissions. Explain where your research fits into the current body of literature.
Disruption: Now it is your turn. Explain what does not work. (On the other hand...). Show gaps, inconsistencies or misunderstandings in previous research. Finally show the cost of leaving the matter unresolved, or the benefit of the solution.
Resolution: Present YOUR response to the problem What is the purpose of your research and how will it differ from others. Indicate your research methods, clarify concepts and give an indication of what is to follow.

The methodology

In deciding what you are actually going to do for your research project you need to get a good overview of the rich diversity of methods at your disposal. An excellent online point of departure is the Web Center for Social Research Methods.   Another useful online text book is Dr Christopher L. Heffner's Research Methods, for students in education, psychology and the social sciences. For students from Africa, in particular, but also for everyone else, here is a link to the amazing resources of the Research Methods Library of Alexandria. It is aimed specifically at quantitative research.


In the design fields, including Interaction Design, Experience Design, Instructional Design and Learning Design there is much emphasis on methodologies that involve the development of some tangible outcome. 


A useful way of approaching this is through Design Research or Project-Based research.

Here is a link to Prof Tjeerd Plomp and Nienke Niveen's booklet on Educational Design Research.

Ethical considerations

  1. Here is a very useful summary of ethical considerations by Deborah Smith. There are any number of good ethics text books. Of particular value is the APA's Code of Ethics.


The most important aspect that I would like to outline, though, is that of conducting research with your own students.  Here are two good sets of guidelines from Canada.

Deliverables and resources

Submit a proposal to your supervisor.
Ask two critical readers to critique your thesis according to this check list and submit the check list along with the proposal.

Here are a number of thesis templates that you may wish to adapt.
Here is the critical reader checklist of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology

The reality check

Once your proposal has been approved it is time for you to get the study under way. It is at this stage that you will start making the most mistakes. So why not review this article by Varun Grover about Successfully navigating the stages of doctoral study.

The literature review

A good literature survey can be published as a research article on its own. Thus it follows the same basic structure as any other piece of research. Here is a nice pre-print of an article by Pickering and Byrne, explaining how to do it. And HERE is the definitive PRISMA STATEMENT of Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses.

In your literature survey you need to ensure that you have covered all the classic works in your field. Here is a list of the most cited work in the social sciences.

You begin by saying why you did the research, then how, and then what you learnt. In the text box that follows you will find a link to an excellent article about the literature review, as well as a checklist for what makes a good, publishable literature review. Read them now.

Before you go any further, paste whatever you have written into a free plagiarism checker such as http://www.duplichecker.com/


Deliverables and Resources

Then integrate the rubric you find at the end of his review with the following anonymous checklist of differences between a good and a poor literature review.
No use a "Google Sheets" spreadsheet to make your own checklist for a good literature review.
Texas A&M University Writing Centre's YouTube Clip of Candace Shaefer's presentation Get Lit: The literature review
Dr Lilia Sevillano of Massey University on Defining, Organising and Writing the literature review.

 Once you have read the articles you may want to read a few good literature reviews yourself.

Here is one by Mary Reynolds.  Look how well she describes how she found her sources. The link takes you to Chapter 1, the introduction, as well as to Chapter 2, the literature survey. See how they are linked.

This literature survey by Anne Strehler has an exemplary introduction, in which she explains why the literature survey is done, how it is organised, and then how the literature was obtained.  You may want to read these two literature surveys critically and run them through the rubric that you have designed as a part of the exercise in the text box above.

Here are some examples of literature surveys that have actually been published in peer refereed journals:


The following document provides a brief outline of the "Structure of a literature survey".

Research design

During your literature survey you will have refined your research aim and your research questions. You will also have developed appropriate sub-questions. It is now necessary for you to develop an appropriate research design

The design you select could mean that you would do your research in a laboratory, an office, or in the field. You would also have to decide if you plan to develop an intervention of some kind or not. An example of an intervention would be lesson you teach before testing its results. The lesson would be the intervention, and the learners' performance and opinions would be the data.

Alternatively the intervention could be a product you design, build and test. The product would be the intervention, and what you leant during building the product, and/or what you learnt while testing it on users would be the data.

The intervention

Watch this space for information about the design of interventions such as lessons or computer-based learning programmes. 

For those of you wishing to develop products, here is Jorn Messeter's guide to setting up a thesis project.

Data collection

Regardless of whether you have conducted an intervention, or whether you are conducting a survey it is necessary for you to develop instruments to obtain data.

A really good point of departure is the resource page of the Office of Assessment at Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.
Data collection instruments include log sheets, rubrics or check lists, interview and focus group protocols and questionnaires.


Here are some useful links:

Writing it up

There is no excuse for taking too long with the thesis. Once the data is in, the exciting stuff starts.

Start with an executive summary in the form of a story. Complete these sentences. (I am unable to find the original source, but it is all over the Internet)

The thesis as a story

  • Once upon a time researchers believed that …………………….. (literature review).
  • But then I thought that maybe ……………………… (aims),
  • so, what I did was ………………………………………… (method),
  • and I've discovered that …………………………. (findings),
  • which changed the way we …………………. (contribution to knowledge).

Check out this very useful slideshow by Dr Shawn E Nordell on How to write your Dissertation/Thesis on 30 minutes a day.

Then check out this AMAZING collection about Writing Your Thesis

Kim Thomas provides the following 15 top tips for finishing your PhD thesis.

Here is some excellent advice from Theresa MacPhail on The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation.

And here are Herber Lui's Four basic writing principles you can use in everyday life.

One of the most important skills to learn in writing a thesis is how to "take your reader along with you". Graaphics are very useful in this respect. Digital inspiration provide this chart to find the right chart for your data.

The first chapter that you will finish completely is Chapter 4 - the Findings. But before you start on the chapter, it is very useful to gather your thoughts by writing an academic paper about your single most important finding. Think of the paper as a micro-thesis. So, ask yourself, if someone on the bus were to ask you "so what did you find in your research?" what would you answer?  That is the topic of your paper.

And this is its structure.

So, to contextualize your chapter, check out the logic of a thesis.

Also take a look at these 25 tips for doctoral students.


Then break out the word processor and write


Here are the outlines of the other chapters.

Some references

  • Plomp, T & Niveen N. (Eds). (2007). An introduction to Educational Design Research. Proceedings of the seminar conducted at the East China Normal University, Shanghai (PR China), November 23 – 26.
  • Plomp, T. & Niveen, N. (Eds). (2013) Educational Design Research. Enschede, Netherlands: SLO
  • Ross, S. M., Morrison, G. R., Hannafin, R. D., Young, M., van den Akker, J., Kuiper, W., ... & Klein, J. D. (2008). Research designs. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 3, 715-761.



Please help me improve this site by submitting the form below.


 Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.