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School of Social and Political Science: Graduate school


1st Year Board Paper

At the end of their first year of study, all PhD students are expected to complete a Board Paper. This should be around 10,000 words in length and outline the research problem, relevant literature and research questions before outlining a feasible and coherent research strategy. This paper is put to a panel of two members of staff who are not your supervisors. They read through the paper and ask questions about it. On this basis you can 'progress into second year', be asked to make revisions before proceeding, or - in exceptional cases - discontinue your PhD. It is an important part of the PhD cycle and you need to complete this process before embarking on PhD research. For more details on what we expect from the Board paper read on:

Board Paper:

The Board Paper is meant to be an end of 1st year exercise. The basic function of the paper is to develop a coherent research design and structure that highlights the reasons for doing the study, refers to the existing debates and says what you intend to contribute and how you are going to do this. An important point to note is that it should stand alone: it should be self-contained and self-explanatory rather than depending on absent work or on presumed knowledge.

In sum, the Board Paper is meant to define the problem to be researched and provide an outline of how you will do this. It should take the form of a proposal of research that will be put before four people (your supervisors and two others) for them to determine whether you have the requisite expertise to continue.

Word Count: The Board Paper should be around 10,000 words and certainly no more that 15,000 words in length (excluding bibliography and footnotes). Board Papers vary depending on topic and supervisors. The following represents an indicative break-down of chapters and highlights the aspects you should be looking to cover:

Problem definition (approx 1 - 2,000 words)

This section should outline the question to be addressed or the problem that will be discussed. It should set the context of the paper explaining why this question is an important and valid area of research. It should also act as an introduction to the paper as a whole and give structure to it.

SPECIFICALLY: This section should introduce the key problematic. You should provide a BRIEF history of the debates on your topic (water sustainability for example). Then you could point out the topicality of these debates and the importance of your research. Explain the central focus of your research and then outline how you are going to approach the problem: ‘Firstly I will conduct a literature review and outline the context within which the research will take place. I will then review the methodological literature in order to determine the best means of researching this problematic … In conclusion I will offer a detailed research design'.

‘Literature Review’ (approx 3 - 5,000 words)

This part should be an overview of the literature on this issue. What have other people said and what is the status of the debate at present. In concluding this section you should highlight the unresolved issues and questions that remain to be explored and which you will pursue in your research.

SPECIFICALLY: In this chapter you could highlight the key contributors to the debate. So: ‘Winch, Taylor and Giddens have all intervened in this debate and proposed solutions. Brief description. What they have in common is x – but where they fall down is y. These issues are left unresolved …'

Research design/plan of intended work (approx 7 - 9, 000)

This is the central aspect of the BP. It is where you show that you not only have a problem to research but that you have a clear idea of how you are going to do this and why you are doing it in one particular way and not another. This chapter, in other words, constitutes both your research design and the justification for your specific methodology. It will look at issues of access (what contacts do you have or have you made?), sampling (who will you talk to/what archives will you use),and ethical considerations.

SPECIFIC: In this section you should give a detailed breakdown of the work you intend to do:

  • Empirical: Outline what methods you intend to use, and review the pros and cons of doing so. Think through how you will access people and who you aim to research. Think through the ethical issues: for respondents and for you as researcher.
  • Theory: Conduct a close reading of the key literature and its critics: This should outline which literature you will be analysing and why you have chosen these texts rather than others. You should also say what you hope to achieve with such a close reading and how you will do this (content analysis, textual analysis or just reading for internal inconsistencies?).
  • Both: In conclusion you should mention what sort of results you expect to end up with and how this will help in the resolution of the problem.

Conclusion (approx 1 - 1,500)

This chapter should bring everything together and reiterate why this is important and how the preceding will enable you to intervene constructively in the discussion. In effect this section should say how your work will contribute to the field.

Chapter Overview and Rough Timetable (approx 500)

This should be a brief and sketchy outline that will give some structure to your work in the coming months and provide a viable timescale.

Accompanying material (no more than 3, 000 words)

This is basically an appendix where you can add in some of you more substantive work to help flesh out and clarify points made in the BP such as an interview schedule or ethical review form.

What a Board Paper is not:

  • A BP is not a thesis in miniature. We are looking for an outline of what you propose to do rather than a summary of advanced analysis.
  • A BP is not expected to have substantive findings/contributions though it may report back on a pilot project: You should show how you intend to arrive at your findings rather than presenting them. The end of first year is too soon to be making concrete assertions.
  • A BP is not a part/aspect of your work. It should be self-contained and readers should be able to understand the material as it stands.
  • It is not the finished article. It is a plan of research that raises questions and shows that you have thought about how to investigate them further.
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