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Probation assessment

Tuesday 23 March, 11.30am-12.30pm, Workshop 1

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13 March 2010

Tuesday 23 March, 11.30am-12.30pm

Workshop 1

During this session a representative from your faculty will take you through the probation assessment process and answer any queries you may have.

Rosemary O'Day
is a long-serving member of the OU History Department, is now Professor of History and a former Head of the History Department. She received her first class honours degree in history from the University of York and her Ph.D. in history from the University of London. She has taught at the Universities of Birmingham and Maryland and has held several honours and fellowships. She is the author of many history books and articles. Her particular historical interests include the history of the professions, the family, of women, and of social investigation and reform in the early modern and modern periods. She was Director of the Charles Booth Centre. She has contributed to many Arts courses at the Open University and has supervised many students to successful completion of their Ph.D. degrees.

Robert Saunders
is a Reader in Molecular Genetics in the Department of Life Sciences, where he researches the basic biology of ageing.  In that research, he uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system, and takes a genetic approach.  From January 2008 until February 2010, he held the position of Academic Coordinator in the Research School, in which capacity he led the Research Career Development Team.  The RCD team is responsible for the delivery of career development events across all disciplines, and for all career stages.

Robert's research career followed a stereotyped path typical of the sciences.  His first degree was in Genetics at the University of Edinburgh.  Subsequently he embarked on a career in Drosophila research with a PhD in molecular genetics, also at Edinburgh.  From there, he moved to Imperial College and subsequently the University of Dundee for postdoctoral research, during which time he studied the cell cycle, and conducted genomic research, again using the fly as a model.  He continued the genomic research while undertaking a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship in which   techniques he developed for the Drosophila genome project were applied to the medically important fly Anopheles gambiae.

Robert joined the Open University in 1999, since when his research focus has been on aspects of the basic biology of ageing; specifically on oxidative stress and its relationship to the ageing process, and currently on modelling the human progeroid disorder, Werner's syndrome in flies.

Kirsty Ball
is Senior Lecturer in Organization Studies and Director of Research Degrees in the Business School. She gained her PhD from Aston Business School in 1996 and since then has held posts at Warwick and Birmingham Business Schools, before joining the Open University in 2004.  Her research interests are surveillance in and around organizations and in society, and she has published extensively, in a wide variety of formats, on this issue. She is founding co-director of Surveillance Studies Network and co-editor of the journal Surveillance and Society.  Her research is currently funded by The Leverhulme Trust, the Social Sciences and Economic Research Council of Canada, the Economic and Social Research Council and the EU-COST network.  She consults to the UK Information Commissioner’s office, producing A Report on the Surveillance Society, with Surveillance Studies Network, in 2006, and an update to the report in 2010.  The first report prompted parliamentary committee enquiries from the Home Affairs Select Committee and the House of Lords Constitution Committee, and the update will be used to inform future select committee enquiries.  She frequently appears in the media to comment on aspects of the surveillance society both in the UK and internationally.  She is also the first OUBS academic to be granted membership of the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, a privilege usually reserved for academics in the social sciences faculty (!)

Social Science
Gail Lewis
is Reader in Identities and Psychosocial Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences.  She gained her PhD from the Open University in 1996 in the Department of Social Policy and Criminology after which she joined that department as a member of academic staff teaching and researching processes of racialisation and gendering in social policy discourses and practices; and the relation between racialisation and citizenship status and experience.  She was at Lancaster University in the Institute of Women's Studies (now the Centre for Gender and Women's Studies) before returning to the OU in the Psychology Department.  Her current research interests focus on the intersecting psychic, social and cultural processes through which subjectivity is constituted, especially in relation to racialised and gendered experience.  She traces the multiple and contradictory social and psychic emotional geographies of affiliation and belonging that are inscribed in narratives of experience.  She is training as a psychodynamic psychotherapist.  She is co-editor of the European Journal of Women's Studies and on the Editorial Boards of Social Politics and the e-journal Studies in the Maternal.

Maths, Computing and Technology/KMI
Marian Petre’s
research follows two main strands – expert software design (how experts reason and communicate about design and problem solving, and how they use representations in their reasoning) and computer science education (how expertise develops).  Marian is Director of the Centre for Research in Computing, acting Postgraduate Research Tutor in Computing and supervisor of a number of PhD research students.  She was part of the team that developed the Research Degrees Skills website.  The second edition of her book with Gordon Rugg on ‘The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research’ has just been published.

Hilary Burgess
is Director for Postgraduate Studies in the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET). Her work as Director encompasses the full and part-time PhD programme, the part-time Doctorate in Education programme and the MRes programme. From 1st March 2010 she will be Academic Coordinator in the Research School and will lead the Research Career Development Team.  She is currently Chair of the National EdD Network and External Examiner for the EdD at the University of Roehampton.  She is an elected Council Member of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) with a portfolio that encompasses early career researchers and the BERA Committee for Conferences and Networks.  Recently, she was appointed as a College Peer Review member for the review of applications for accreditation as a Doctoral Training Centres and Doctoral Training Units by the ESRC.  Her own research and publications have been in the area of primary teaching and mentoring and more recently, Teaching Assistants and Workforce Reform and was a contributing consultant author to the Cambridge Primary Review. She has written numerous articles in journals and chapters in books alongside authoring Open University course materials. Her most recent book is called Achieving Your Doctorate in Education.

Lindsay O’Dell
is director of post graduate studies in the Faculty of Health and Social Care.  Her research interests focus on children and young people who are in some way ‘different’, including working children, with a visible difference and children with autism. 

Extra content

Gail Lewis (Workshop 1)

 Social Sciences Probation Assessment (Tuesday, 23rd March, 2010. 11:30 am)


I am here in the session for the probation assessment for the social sciences students. She is talking about the bureaucratic process of filling in the forms but it is also charting the students’ progress for the next few years. It is a useful process.

We’ve gone around an introduce ourselves – there are 14 people in the session.

We have to spend 2 sentences talking on what our projects are. Students found it not too bad to say what their projects were in two sentences.

Gail continues now.

The probation process is not too solid but there are some chores to do – it is still in process. For example, looking at appropriate methods and writing up the chapter. Through writing the chapter you will refine and distil what you’re doing. In the end you’ll be doing one question although initially you'll think something large – you will have to narrow it down to something small.

1st Year Timetable

Timetable for the first year full-time student (double for part-time):

  • Summary of PhD Skills: End of month 3 (December)
  • Probation Report: end of month 9 (June)
  • Oral presentation: End of month 10 (July)
  • Mini Viva: End of month 10 (July) 
  • Development plan and progress file summary: end of month 9 (June)

Mini Viva Outcomes

Two different assessors would read your probation report and sit down and discuss your report with you where they’ll also do a grading of it.

Outcomes of the mini-viva based on the probation report:

  • Pass (sometimes refer to the upgrade) – you’re of sufficient standard to continue your PhD
  • Pass subject to conditions – need to rectify some shortfalls in the report
  • De-register – there are irresolvable problems – unlikely to happen but can occur.

Mini-viva: there are two assessors who are not your supervisors. May or may not be from your department. They may suggest directions in which you may want to continue along. The assessors write a report and decide what level of pass is recommended. They have to say whether the students’ performance was adequate. The mini-viva lasts 1 ½ to 2 hrs.

Probation Report

The probation report focuses on two parts:

  • Theoretical arguments: the epistemological arguments, engaging with the theories, showing where your research fits, finding the gaps
  • Methodological arguments: how you’re going to fill the gaps – and stating the established methods that work in your area.

The probation report must include the following:

  • 8000-1000 words
  • Viable research question (s)
  • Critical literature review (situate your research)
    • Stating what other people have done and what is good or bad about it
    • E.g. the field says this and this. They overlap this way, and they’re different from each other because of this. And they fall short in the following ways ...
    • Pointing out the gaps
    • Work plan for the rest of the project

The supervisor has to provide an evaluative commentary about what is good and also where there may be possible or actual problems. This is all part of the probationary form. The project proposal goes in together with the probationary form. Some of these problems may have to be rectified before a pass can be recommended.

The students have to provide a summary of their skills audit and their development plan.

The student has to provide an oral presentation in a public forum e.g. a departmental seminar or the research centre.

Detailed probation report

Probation Report consists of:

  • Articulation of a feasible research question
    • Realistic - can be answered in the time for a PhD
    • Directed to ones project
    • Distillation process of your thinking and showing some clarity
    • The core around which all other activities have to be organised
    • Review of existing research that sets your question in context
      • Finding the gaps in the literature
      • Particular angle of vision on something that have already been done i.e. the particular take
    • Description and justification of the approach/methods
      • The tie up between the research questions and the methods
      • Why the methods address your research questions
      • Conversation on methodological literature – it may overlap with the literature review or it may not.
      • Include how you’re going to do your methods not only the literature i.e. who you’re going to talk to, how you’re going to get there – i.e. ‘doability’
    • Functional work schedule or plan with timeline
      • Make sure the tasks are realistic – i.e. real periods of time

Research questions

Gail is asking the students about their research questions and how they were able to distil it down.

One student is talking about how people asked him to cut down bits of the research questions – and he says can only do it in conversation with other people who know more about it that you and questioning you exactly what you want to do.

Another student started with an overall question and then increased to two sub-part questions after reading the literature.

Gail indicates that after reading the literature, the questions would change and need to relate to establish knowledge as the thesis has to contribute to knowledge that exists.

One student indicates that the additional questions that students want to pursue but are unable to do it because of time etc. – these can be put towards the section of future research.

Gail is asking the students how they can show a contribution to knowledge:

  • Is it publishable
  • Is it making a contribution to knowledge
  • The probation report is the first way of showing where and how you’re making the contribution to the knowledge
  • Is it the new take on the old questions
  • Is it the new methodological approach

Literature Review

For the probation report:

  • You’re not expected to know everything but at least the key debates in your area
  • Good enough to sustain the logic of the question and it emerges from the literature in the field
  • Appropriate to the research question
  • Showing that you’re probing the literature
  • Identifying the gaps – opportunities where you can make contributions

Research Approach/ Methods

  • Stating what particular aspect you want to focus on
    • the analytical lens
    • the range of methods such as the mixed methods approach (as this might add newness to the research)
    • add visual methods (what might be distinctive about them and ways of producing knowledge)
    • what is established and can work for your questions

Work plan

  • Be feasible
  • Allow contingency time
  • Reflect dissemination activities


  • Sits somewhere between a supervisory discussion and a PhD viva
  • Your supervisor may sit in during the mini-viva
  • You’ll be asked to give an overview of your research
  • You can discuss possible assessors with your supervisors – these are people who can usefully give you some ideas or discussions on your report
  •  Do not choose someone who you will want to use are your internal examiner

Anesa Hosein
14:48 on 23 March 2010

Embedded Content

Gail Lewis's presenation for Social Science students

Gail Lewis's presenation for Social Science students

added by Anesa Hosein


Anesa Hosein
12:31pm 23 March 2010 (Edited 2:49pm 23 March 2010)

This was an interesting discussion.

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