Dion's random ramblings

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Some steps to follow if you're wanting to do a research Masters or Doctoral degree in South Africa.

There are many reasons why people wish to do senior degrees in South Africa. Foremost among them are that we have one of the highest standards of Graduate education in the world, whilst our prices for registration are among the lowest in the world.

We follow the European / British system in most Southern African Universities. That means that most South African students would have at least two degrees before registering for a Masters degree (a Bachelors degree within their field - unlike the US Bachelors degrees, South Africa degrees, like those at Oxford and Cambridge, are already with a field (e.g, Bachelor of Theology, or Bachelor of Commerce, or Bachelor of Arts, or Bachelor of Science). After completing a Bachelors degree (normally 3 or 4 years) one will go on to do your first degree that involves some measure of independent research - an Honours degree within your field (again this is different from a Degree with Honours received in the US. An honours degree is an independent degree, normally taking a year to complete, and it allows direct access to a research Masters degree. Once again, this degree is subject based).

So, if you wish to study at a South African University and do a Masters degree you will need at least a 4 year undergraduate degree, or a Bachelors degree and an Honours degree.

So, you've arrived at the point where you are ready to start independent research (writing a Thesis, or Dissertation, as the case may be). Here are a few suggestions for persons wishing to start this process (these thoughts stem from a few emails that I have written for students over the last few years, but particularly from a note I wrote for a friend who is considering doing a Masters Degree in Theology):

1. A common question: Can I work out my research area and write my research proposal before registering officially at a University? In theory this is possible - one can start reading, researching and working towards your Masters degree before you register. However, in reality it is essential to work with a chosen supervisor. The reason he or she works with you is to help you learn the skill, and gather necessary content, for your work (much of which you will need guidance in since you are only setting out in self directed research at that level).

I am yet to hear of a student who works out their topic, finds a supervisor, and does not have to spend 6 months to a year reading additional work, reworking their proposal, and then only starting to write. My suggestion would be that you try to find someone to work alongside (e.g., a friend of someone whom you know who already has a doctorate, and preferably someone who has experience of supervising Masters and Doctoral students) who can at least point you in the right direction, help you to formulate your thoughts and narrow your research topic. But, if you choose to start your work on your own it is likely that when you register there will be some need for change, flexibility and negotiation, on both your research topic and your content. A Masters or Doctoral is always a joint effort between the student and their subject matter expert. HOWEVER, you must at least have some idea of what you want to study (e.g., Which books of the Bible are most commonly used in student sermons in the Methodist church of Southern Africa and what this tells us about the theology of Methodist Student ministers). Once you have that broad area it is best to contact a supervisor and start working out the nuts and bolts...

2. A very good book to help you succeed in your Masters and Doctoral studies: There is a wonderful book out there that I suggest to all M and D students I supervise and work with. It is called: ?How to succeed in your Master?s and Doctoral Studies?. Mouton, J. Van Schaik Publishers. Cape Town, 2000. ISBN062702484. This is an invaluable resource! You should be able to get a copy at most University libraries, I have even heard of it being in some public libraries - however, I would suggest that if you can afford to, buy yourself a copy. An M is sure to lead to a D! In that case you will use it again.

3. How decide on a research topic or area? With regard to your research area it is essential that you try to do a few things. First, make sure you have a topic that is achievable. Second, make sure that there is enough information out there to conduct your research. Third, be sure that no one else has already done the research you wish to do.

This is the reason why one does a research proposal. There are basically 3 steps to preparing for your research proposal (which will need to be approved both by your Supervisor and the Higher Degrees Committee):

  • Work out exactly what you wish to research (it has to be achievable, narrow enough to be covered, and capable of being written up within the scope of your project and the time limits set for your degree (most Masters degrees have a maximum limit of 3 years and PhD's 5 y ears). Your topic must also be something that is scholarly and not yet done by other scholars. A common mistake among students when they start out is making their topic too large or wide! The image that I use to explain the difference between this level of research, and what one does in your undergraduate degree, is that your research should not be like an open cast mine (shallow and wide), rather it should be like a shaft mine (deep and narrow). The reason for this is that in order to award a Masters degree one must prove that one has MASTERED all of the literature, issues, discussions, and research, in that area. So if your topic is too wide you will never be able to read all the books, interview all the people, understand all the issues, trace the arguments, and then present them in a scholarly report. For example, students often suggest a topic like "The use of Wesley's hymns in the Church" doing research on ALL churches in the world, and ALL of Wesley's hymns is just impossible! So, you either need to narrow your demographic (i.e., their use among black clergy in rural areas), or set a clear boundaries for your research (e.g., most often by introducing things such as dates (between 1980 and 1985), geography (within Methodist Churches in the Johannesburg east circuit), or population groups (women's organisations in urban Methodist churches in Gauteng). Doing this makes the research and the reporting on the research possible).

  • Once you have your clearly defined research area, and research question, you need to make sure no-one else has done already covered that research topic (search the internet, go to a University Library, ask the Subject librarian, e.g., in Theology, to search the ATLA databases for words around your topic, get as many of the articles, chapters, and books on this subject and make sure it is worthwhile researching, try to find others who may have done similar research and speak with them). This will also help you to start compiling your reading list and bibliography for your research proposal. You will need to supply at least a basic understanding of the seminal arguments, scholars, and texts in that area. Moreover it will also help you to clearly formulate what you aim to cover and how you'll do it (i.e., will you interview persons, will you send out questionnaires, where will you get your statistics from, how will you interpret them? Then how will you relate what you find to the area of your research. For example if your study is in Theology, how will you relate what you've discovered to Christian doctrine, or Church practice, or passages from scripture, or what has happened in Church history).

  • Once you have all this data (a suggested topic, a defined research area, an idea of the literature and issues in that area, a proposal of how you will conduct your research, who will supervise your work) then you write up your research proposal according the guidelines of the University at which you intend to register (each University has slightly different requirements).

If I can offer you some advice to persons wishing to do senior degrees in South Africa, I would suggest that you include an African element in your research. I suggest this for a few reasons:

  • It is less likely that a topic with an African slant would have been covered by someone else (e.g., Prophecy in Methodist Churches in the XXXX Circuit).
  • It is important that we ask questions that are relevant to our context (this is both a responsibility to scholarship and a responsibility of our faith). Since the African voice has not yet gained extensive prominence in world scholarship we have a responsibility to make discoveries about our context and the richness that it can offer to all of humanity. I firmly believe that the African voice needs to be heard, we must contribute towards the international debate on important issues. Moreover, as a Christian if you are going to spend a great deal of time and energy doing creative and novel research, do it as an act of stewardship and service (not just to gain a degree). So, add something of value that has not yet been done. Moreover, when you do that you will find that your Thesis can quite easily be turned into a book (these things all open doors for ministry and further scholarship), or at least be published in some journal articles.

So, these are a few suggestions - I hope they offer some help and encouragement to persons wishing to engage in research degrees here in South Africa. There are few things quite as rewarding as contributing to scholarship and knowledge in areas that have not yet been charted.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any suggestions or queries.

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