Post-Graduate Research and Marking Criteria for Theses

John Roxborogh

1.    Research

Research is used with several slightly different connotations which are important to distinguish.  It is not always used in the way that is associated with thesis work for higher degrees.

A. Research as gathering information

The emphasis is on locating information, gathering data, finding out what people want or think.  This may be associated with things ranging from market research, to looking things up in a library or on the worldwide web.  Whatever else you do, these sorts of research skills are important.  This sort of research may be quite pragmatic and interested in relevance to the here and now.

B. Research as establishing new understanding and investigating its quality

This sort of research has been associated with universities and science labs.  It has the idea of checking and questioning information, not just locating it and gathering it.  It expects researchers to challenge old theories and formulate and test new ones. This sort of research may be quite abstract in its concerns.

Both these are valid enterprises.  Ideally B should include A, but some concern to set up theories is impatient with testing them in actual human situations.  Sometimes those committed to A do not see a lot of point in B.  They want to find out, but they also want to get on with the job, and A can use very sophisticated techniques (it is not for dummies either).  Sometimes B concerns become so fascinating those engaged with them forget to leave their theories long enough to connect with the real world.

Masters theses and above are concerned with B and assume (sometimes wrongly) that students can already do A.

Undergraduate research papers may be entirely A at Diploma level, but need more of B at degree level, especially for BD students.

2.    Theses

 A thesis is a particular type of writing.  It is good for some things.  It is useless for others.  PhDs are not a valuable award in relation to some key aspects of the maintenance and preservation of life and faith.  Doing a doctorate is not necessarily the highest form of human endeavour. A PhD can be useful when it is important to establish understanding which can be tested and establish a person's capacity for sustained critical thinking. Doctoral theses are not appropriate instruments where the primary intention is to evoke ideas, inspire feelings, or speculate about the future. 

Research theses do not present a situation where the burden of interpretation is shifted to the reader or observer.  They create situations where the truth being tested lies in intentions of the writer not the effect on the reader, though it is the reader who will judge whether or not the writer has succeeded. 

Doctorates should not be undertaken by people who know what they want to tell the world and think that the letters PhD will make people listen.  Those who matter will still not listen. It is an unnecessary award for prophets.  If you already know the answer and only want research to back you up, this sort of thing is not for you.

In higher education most places in the world are still dependent for their ethos on British or American models though there are differences between these. It can be difficult to move from one set of expectations to the other and some questions are considered legitimate in the American setting which the British are less confident about, but there is variety in both. Cultural reasons may lead us to one or another. It can be confusing as much as enriching when students try to relate to the language and assumptions of both at the same time.  If it is possible to identify these assumptions then some misunderstanding can be reduced.

In the past there was often the assumption that criteria for postgraduate awards did not need to be set out in detail because if you needed to ask what the criteria were you were obviously not qualified to study at this level!  In the sciences those moving to postgraduate awards were often selected to be part of teams working on large projects where the goals were already set.  In arts, students were expected to know for themselves what they wanted to do and how to do it. They would look for an institution whose ethos was congenial, even if the available supervisor might have limited abilities in the specific area they were interested in.  Sometimes a supervisor’s availability, knowledge about standards and processes, and network of contacts may be more important than their specialist knowledge of the topic..

Fortunately in many places there is a move to be more specific about requirements. A useful book is Estelle M Phillips and D S Pugh, How to get a PhD, Second edition, Open University Press, 1987. It should be required reading for all who aspire in that direction, or who have to advise those who do. A good deal of what it says applies also to masters level research. Another important book is Wayne C Booth, Gregory G Colomb and Joseph M Williams, The Craft of Research, University of Chicago Press, 1995. James Bradley and Richard Muller’s Church History. An Introduction to Research, Reference Works and Methods, Eerdmans, 1995, is thorough and up to date, though its style of presentation is more traditional and it does not engage with the global church.

Broadly speaking, the traditional degree structure in British universities can be summarized:

University education in this tradition is intended to enable students to think critically for themselves. As the specialization of human knowledge expands there is a shift to more vocational awards. The goal of having a university where every discipline interacted with all the others is now remote, but the value of seeking to be able to relate one’s own specialization and skills to what others are doing at that level is still worth maintaining.

International Criteria

A change which needs to take place is to determine intercultural criteria which make explicit what are the equivalent (rather than the identical) levels for masters and doctoral studies in different cultural contexts. This is aided by the breakdown of the assumption that Enlightenment values are trans-cultural and normative. As minority cultures and issues such as feminism affect Western Universities at the same time as Christians around the world seek to determine what is authentic within each culture, it can be expected that new formulations of higher level research criteria will arise. Writing in a second language presents special challenges and adds to the time frame needed for completion. It is important that foundational research and writing skills are mastered before higher level degrees are attempted.

Many universities now have ethics committees which monitor the appropriateness of different research projects. Criteria relevant to advanced theological education may be along the lines of looking for the level of responsible critical judgment in their own culture expected of people who hold comparable status and function to the roles traditionally associated with masters and doctors in European society.

One difficulty in this is that not every culture values originality or criticism in the same way as European universities understood themselves as doing. However we need to make an advance on the situation in which there is wide disparity between the quality of judgments people make about situations in their own cultures and the confidence they have about assessing issues in a field they perceive as essentially belonging to another cultural tradition. The traditional assumption that this flows from helping a person become bicultural does not necessarily work as it is possible for the maturity of judgment of each to be kept in separate compartments, with theological thinking in another compartment yet again.

The criteria which follow do not go very far in addressing the cross-cultural difficulties. They come from various sources and some are my own. There is some overlap.

3.    Masters level Criteria (John Roxborogh summary)

To be able to understand what is “going on” not just what happened.


To be able to read, summarize and discuss quality texts and research which has been carried out at a doctoral level.


To be able to make evaluative judgments with a degree of confidence comparable to those of a person of masters level status in one’s own culture


To be able to locate information efficiently and use it critically


To display empathy with the intentions of sources


To be able to cope with contradictory and hostile interpretations and formulate a defensible option


To work from a topic area of concern to formulate questions of importance and develop these into research proposals of a logical structure appropriate to the question and time and other resources available.


To be able to recognise which legitimate research proposals can be the basis of a valid thesis (i.e. both verifiable and falsifiable - something which can be tested for truth).


To plan and execute appropriate strategies for researching a thesis


To be able to describe and defend the methodology of the research


To be able to make full and efficient use of library facilities including OPAC key word search facility, Religious Indices One and Two, Library of congress and British Library Catalogues (available in book form in universities and online through Internet/Worldwide Web), CD-ROM data-bases, Worldwide Web search engines and Inter-Library Loan facilities.


To be able to locate material in an archive, follow archival etiquette, and make use of archival material in appropriate ways


To be able to use relevant computer programmes including word processor, database, spreadsheet, and presentation software.


To be able to present written research in an appropriate format and following a recognised style guide


To be able to critically evaluate alternative viewpoints, from the basis of an understanding of fundamental issues relating to the topic and the use of primary sources


To be able to identify significant quality texts relating to the topic area.


To able to write in a way in which points made can be logically defended.


To be able to make an oral presentation of the topic so that it is understandable by those who may not be familiar with the particular discipline and covering the questions dealt with, the method used, the conclusions reached and the issues raised.


4.    Doctoral Level Criteria (in addition to Masters Level Criteria)

Be able to make successful grant applications for funding


To be able to make adequate arrangements for the support of family and self.


To believe that the research project is of sufficient value to justify the cost to oneself and others.


  Phillips and Pugh: (pp.19-21)

You have something to say your peers want to listen to


You have a command of what is happening in your subject


You can evaluate the worth of what others are doing


You must have the astuteness to discover where you can make a useful contribution


You must have mastery of appropriate techniques currently being used and be aware of their limitations


You must be able to communicate your results effectively in the professional arena


This must be carried out in an international context. Your professional peer group is world-wide.


If you have to go along to your supervisor after you have done your work and ask if it is good enough, you are clearly not ready for a PhD, which is awarded as a recognition that you are able to evaluate research work (including your own) to fully professional standards.


Melbourne College of Divinity:

Has explicitly set out substantive aims and objectives for the study and has clearly defined its scope, assumptions and limitations.


Mastery is reflected in the use and citation of primary and secondary sources.


Has clearly marshalled the evidence and formulated the problems raised by it.


Has dealt with the problems in an orderly and creative way.


Has demonstrated highly developed analytical, critical and synthesizing skills.


Arguments and supporting evidence are coherent and set out in a logical fashion.


The methodology is sound and appropriate to the aims.


Key terminology has been clearly outlined and consistently used.


Competency in the languages required.


Is (a) An original work, enlarging or modifying previous knowledge and/or (b) gives significantly new interpretation of the work of other scholars.