What to Expect as a College of Business Research Student

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What to expect as a research student

Studying a research degree is not really like anything you’ve done before. If you want information about what processes you’ll be going through and what the University expects uou to take responsibility for as a College of Business research student.

Following are some comments based on research student’s personal experiences. These comments have been gathered by talking and listening to other research students and academics, and from information in research projects presented at conferences and in books.

So what should you expect as a research student:

  • You will feel lonely at times.
  • You will share special moments with colleagues
  • You will feel totally unsure about what you are doing at times (if not most of the time).
  • You will feel great joy.
  • You will have some kind of problem/s with your supervisor.
  • Life will interfere.
  • You will be the expert (eventually).
  • You will battle with inadequate computers.
  • You will have to work independently (work on your own, come up with ideas, work, solutions, seek out resources yourself)
  • You won’t know how to do everything at the start and you’ll have to learn it (either from books, courses or seminars).

Starting out

When you first enrol you may if you are lucky have some idea about what you are doing. For the rest of us the first few months are bewildering as we think we have no idea what we are doing. It’s also very isolating. If you are not taking the research methods course you don’t really get much opportunity to meet other research students. This makes it hard to work out if you are going at the right pace, if you are the only one who doesn’t know what they are doing or what strategies to use to come up with/refine your topic (somehow imperatives to read everything ever written in the area and just hope it comes to you just doesn’t seem that efficient) or how many days a week you spend working on your research project. It has been suggested that a full time research student should spend four full days a week on their research project. For more ideas on this and other aspects of being a research student it may be worth your while looking at some of the other universities research websites.


Supervision is a key issue for research students because that is our major source of contact with the university and the academic world.

You have to rely on your supervisor and this is tricky. Doubts plague you as to whether your supervisor knows what they are talking about, whether they will ever have enough time to meet with you for an appropriate uninterrupted amount of time, or how much they expect you to do and just how far they will guide you. Also your supervisor can have radically different expectations of your relationship than you do. It is important to negotiate on the terms of engagement with your supervisor early into your candidature to ensure that misunderstandings that could have been avoided do not arise.

Supervisors Are Not All the Same

If you read books on supervision, or research papers on supervision it becomes very clear that supervisors differ enormously in how they supervise their students. Some supervisors are like your mum, telling you what to do, how to do it, giving you articles, chasing up your work, listening to your personal and emotional problems, going out to dinner or drinks with you. Some supervisors are more like collaborators, expecting you to be a lot more independent, and the relationship to be quite business like. They might expect you to decide yourself what you are doing, how you are going to do it, what is going to be covered in the meeting and how they can help you achieve the goals you set for yourself. They definitely won’t want to hear your personal and emotional problems and they probably won’t go to dinner with you.

I suppose there are two things to remember:

  1. It is your research not your supervisors. We have to do it, we have to sign off at the end that it was ours and we have to commit years to working and learning how to do it.
  2. We can always change supervisors. I heard this great comment that if your supervisor won tattslotto tomorrow you’d most likely have to find yourself a new supervisor.

Of course these are not the only styles supervisors adopt, nor do they necessarily fall in to either of these categories exclusively, it just gives you a picture of how different they can be.


When you do research there are always crises. Computers will die, or be stolen with all your work on it (as happened to one unlucky student a few years ago at a rural university), or maybe files will just be randomly (or accidentally) deleted. No-one will agree to participate, or participants withdraw at a crucial moment, or the license for your data source expires. Personal life issues arise; someone in your family gets sick, you start a family, you lose your job/scholarship/financial investments, you’re involved in an accident – the list is endless. The trick with crises is that they are part of life. Also the university has quite a lot of support to assist you, from people and services including counseling to simply taking leave of absence to allow you time to get things back in order.

What can help?

While our supervisors are often cited as our major point of help that’s not much good if they can’t/won’t/don’t know how to help. Also, sometimes they want us to have at least a cursory search on our own before coming to them for help (that independent learning thing again). However, research degrees are not new and many students, universities and books have great ideas on how to help you get through your research degree. Here are some:

Turn to the books

Funnily enough there are a lot of books on how to be a research student, how to design your research, and how you write a research proposal/thesis. These books can also tell you how to do research if you are struggling. Take research design books for example, Yin’s 1989 Case Study book literally tells you how to do research as a case study. (Of course there are a few choices you have to make like single vs. multiple case studies but it’s pretty clear). Also, it’s best to look up a few other articles/books in the area to confirm (or perhaps contradict) information and flesh out the details. Then our job is to follow the instructions. Just check out the electronic library catalogue for resources.

Do that research proposal.

Research proposals are fantastically structured to ask all the questions that you need to ask yourself to be able to design your research.

Use the thesis structure

Set up the structure of the thesis and file articles/information under the chapter headings.

Find a template

Try and find an empirical article in your area that you could use as a template for your study.

Provide a psychological goal

If you are having trouble with motivation then find the bottom level academic’s salary scale and pin it on your wall – Even though it may seem strange to academics that their bottom salary levels could be attractive, being able to earn even the bottom level salary seems attractive for students on a scholarship (or struggling to support themselves).

But don’t take my word for it. Below are a number of comments from past (and current) RMIT Business research students.

These comments were prepared by Liz Merlot, part-time Research Officer at the RDU and a PhD scholarship holder (at the time).

Some Issues of Particular Relevance to Part-time Research Students

As a part time research student and full time worker some of the pressures in finding work-study- life balance can be tricky to say the least. Time is a scare resource for everyone these days, especially for part time research students.

The need to plan in advance and be organised is of critical importance and even then unexpected situations will arise which will impinge upon targets that you have set for yourself. I have found it important to remain focused on what I am trying to achieve and necessary to be disciplined in setting aside sufficient time to allow the balance between competing demands to be met. If there are pressures from work in excess of the ordinary at a particular time then for a while, work may dominate at the expense of my research but then when things settle down again a getter focus on my research makes for a refreshing experience. It is however, important to ensure that work or other commitments are not constantly cutting across your time for research.

Isolation tends to be an issue that is common to all research students, but I think that part time research students are especially vulnerable to feeling isolated in their research. Typically most research is done by part time students off campus at home or in a quite place like a library. The opportunity to meet with other research students tends to be limited (although opportunities exist at Orientation, and workshops, seminars and conferences run at School, College and University level).

Being a part time research student is both rewarding and challenging. Often you will feel plagued with doubts about what you are doing and why you are doing it especially when you already have so many other things to occupy your time. It is completely normal to feel like this from time to time, and if you are struggling with such thoughts it can often be helpful to get in touch with your supervisor. As a part time research student you are often in a position where if you are working in industry you are able to implement or test aspects of your research so that you can see the practical and applied benefits and outcomes of what you are trying to achieve and address in your research.

Comments on being a part time research student provided by Bronwyn Coate. Part time PhD student in the School of Economics and Finance and full time Research Officer at the RDU (at the time)

For further information see

Managing your Candidture

Research Supervisors