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Growing your PhD Research

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The Book of the Lost (2011) by Su Blackwell

In the first year of your PhD, thoughts often feel scattered. Your PhD floats around unanchored and sometimes it feels like a living, moving, even evolving organism that somehow lies outside of your control.

This post is for generating the earliest ideas of a PhD thesis, when you have just the bare bones of your proposal, a small but promising concept, or an auspicious gap in scholarship. It is at this stage that you will have to hold yourself back from prematurely fleshing out your ideas – lest you end up with a Frankenstein’s Monster’s of a thesis – a composite of disparate parts, grafted hastily together from borrowed ideas, that has been reanimated and tries to run before it can walk.

It seems a lot of students (myself, included) are troubled or unsettled by this phase – the urge to hastily tie everything together in a neat little bow is sometimes overwhelming.

This is the stage that is often ignored by students and universities alike. As a result, lots of talented, capable researchers who cannot wait to start writing, researching, and giving papers can often get stuck advancing an argument they  do not wholeheartedly agree with.

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Wildflowers of the British Isles (2013) by Su Blackwell

Step One: embrace the question mark

In my first  meeting,  my supervisor made sure to emphasise that she would be happy for me to start by recording much of my thoughts and research with question marks, rather than with a hasty full-stop. We discussed the benefits of writing and reading in a speculative mode, and talked about the importance of keeping questions open, of slowly unpacking them instead of closing them down.

In an effort to allay the anxiety that can threaten to swallow up precious time working on your PhD, the endless questions that seemed to be lurking around every newly read article, thesis, or book chapter, – it is often important to make a pact with yourself to not to be afraid of the question mark.

In the earliest beginnings of a thesis– before you begin detailed research, before you attempt to definitively map out your argument,  before everything – the question mark is your best friend.

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Wildflowers (2014) by Su Blackwell

Step Two: envisage your dream thesis

 To get in touch with your ‘dream thesis’ imagine that you are going to the library or browsing its catalogue. What is a book that you wish was there waiting for you, the book you would quite happily, despite its size, or dusty cover want to immerse yourself in completely?

Does it sit in the confines of a particular discipline? Or does it cross into multiple fields?
Does it have a particular set of approaches attached to it?

This exercise does not have to be solely focused on the subject – it can be about the writing style, the layout of the argument, or the integration of varying, perhaps divergent texts.

As for the dreaded methodology – what avenues of research really appeal to your work process? Do you like looking closely at texts and drawing out the intricacies of language? – Do you enjoy seeing an overarching trend shaped from quantitive data? When looking at another scholar’s research – what methodology do you find most appealing/ compelling?

Now is not the time to attempt to  answer your thesis – but to ask questions of it.

How then, if we are asking so many questions, do we pin anything down at all?

My personal preference, perhaps as a student looking at natural history, is to ‘tag’ or taxonomise the various threads of your argument, to keep track of them, but let them organically shift without pinning them down.

Now is the time to ask, in detailed particulars rather than in sweeping generalisations, where your interests lie, and how would you metaphorically (or literally) ‘tag’ your research?

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Nature in Britain (2012) by Su Blackwell

Step Three: find a community

At this point it can be a good idea to discuss your thoughts with a friend and see if you can learn more about your research this way. Get them to ask you questions that will help  you organically explore your intuitive line of argument. – It can be a great idea to buddy up with a fellow PhD student and “swap” brainstorming sessions, half an hour your topic, followed by half an hour on theirs. 

Twitter can also offer a warm and welcoming community for academics. Particularly those who cannot regularly make it up to campus or to an academic milieu like The British Library. I have found ‘lists’ particularly useful to ‘classify’ Twitter accounts according to my academic interest, or to keep track of groups of students that have attended certain events. – Storify, which, ‘lets you curate social networks to build social stories, bringing together media scattered across the Web into a coherent narrative’, is also a great tool  for either following or curating an event.

 The collective reassurance and even practical help offered by the Twitter community is sometimes astounding. On numerous occasions when I have been unable to find a source, date, or detail about my research my Twitter followers have come to my aid at the blink of an eye, providing retweets, advice, and detailed insight.

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Wildflowers (2006) by Su Blackwell

Step Four: optimise your environment

Writing and researching effectively can be difficult. Sometimes it is all too tempting to think in terms of shortcuts and arbitrary lists. You have to overcome obstacles like mis-managing time, lack of self-belief, procrastination,  and everything else in between.

I found writing a list of everything that is preventing you from working, no matter how seemingly trivial, extremely useful.

Include both obstacles that are external, like needing a place to write, and internal, like procrastination or a lack of archive-navigating skills.

Then, write a specific, tangible solution for each obstacle.

Try not to cloak your problems in a nebulous feeling of ‘I can’t do this’ – if you flesh anxieties out and, in effect, make them corporeal, you will have a higher chance of successfully exorcising them from your PhD.


I hope you found this post, in some way, useful. Good luck!

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