In this post, Dr Andrew Foster offers guidance to PhD research students about how to make sense of their research during the PhD process. His guidance offers to encourage students through the highs and lows of research, and poses a series of questions to support reflection on the processes of research and offers constructive tips on how to overcome some of the common obstacles encountered by PhD students.
Research can be a messy business. It is never as simple as coming up with one interesting hypothesis or one good question, testing it out by various experiments, interviews or trips to archives and libraries, and then writing up your findings.
Nor are the phases of research as clear and logical as you might think. It is a process of reading around a variety of topics, considering fresh angles of enquiry, and thinking about possible research methods and sources of evidence. And then often to do that over again – and again! – at later stages, as you realise that you have gone down back alleys, devoted too much time on a particular approach or topic, and suddenly remembered a renowned authority in the field that had useful things to say on your area of interest. It is also quite often a matter of serendipity, being in the right place at the right time, finding an unexpected tranche of records, or a chance meeting with the most appropriate person to help steer you on the right course.
There are also those times of despair that can strike at any stage in the process. The awkward ‘feasibility stage’ at the start, when you flounder around trying to carve out a good topic that will be ‘original’, useful and do-able, is one obvious example of a phase loaded with anxiety and doubt. But doubts are never far below the surface, partly because, by its very nature, research is about forging ahead into the unknown, asking new and awkward questions, testing assumptions, old narratives and received ‘wisdom’. It is no longer a matter of answering examination questions set by others: it is about finding good questions to ask that will lead to new interpretations and create new data and linkages.
Research can be uncomfortable and can make others around you uncomfortable, in that you are disturbing their understandings of the world around them and what they thought they knew about the past. And that is as it should be, but it is not always easy to live with.There is also a touch of the obsessional once research gets into your blood and you learn to live with uncertainty. This is one reason why it is necessary to stand back occasionally and review progress, when more doubts can crowd in, and more reading around can make you suddenly realise that you inadvertently ignored some forgotten texts or interesting leads!
Occasionally, it is advisable to reconsider the key questions and hypotheses that have emerged, and to tweak the ‘motor’ of your research, perhaps review the very title of what you are doing – and wish to be examined under. Good material over which you have been agonising for some time can suddenly be tweaked into focus, like the adjusting of new glasses, by slight adjustments to your questions and re-alignment of hypotheses.
This process can be aided by constant return to your bibliography and wider reading in your field, now helped by more finely tuned antennae for what others have said – or neglected to say – about your interests, and checking of assumptions and sources of evidence. And you can never really say you have read a book or an article until you have been forced to re-read it several times, gaining new insights each time.
At every review stage you need to consider key questions. How is your research helping to further understanding in your field? What is new about your research? Where does it confirm, adjust or conflict with earlier findings? How have you developed new analytical tools of enquiry? How have you created new concepts, language and tools which we might use in shaping our understanding? How have you clarified our whole approach to ‘evidence’ in your field? And have you found new links and adaptations of research in previously unrelated disciplines? When it comes to drawing conclusions please try to remember that you will not only have findings relevant to one topic, but to an whole range of related debates, for matters are always more complex than we think – and you are never pitching in to just one debate.
“…remember that you will not only have findings relevant to one topic, but to an whole range of related debates, for matters are always more complex than we think – and you are never pitching in to just one debate…”
Setting your work in context with that of older and contemporary authorities is an important way of gauging the significance of what you have discovered. This will always be a process of assessing where you agree with previous findings, assumptions and use of language, and where you disagree and would like to posit new approaches and classifications – and these thoughts will be on a sliding scale, not a binary divide. What you will be aiming at – and what is your responsibility – is to offer a new set of narratives about a topic, interwoven with elements of older versions, possibly new pieces of evidence or ways of looking at ‘evidence’, opening up possibly productive lines of enquiry for others to follow, warning of blind alleys, and sometimes providing new ways of classifying and characterising events, positing suggestive new concepts through which to understand matters. This requires a lot of courage at the end, when you are likely to feel exhausted, fed-up, and inclined just to list your chapter conclusions.
Avoid that temptation, take a break, and write in a different style. What strong conclusions would you draw? What blind alleys have you gone down? How do your findings measure up to expectations? How would you proceed if someone gave you a grant for post-doctoral study? What conclusions would you like to make, but have to be tentative about for lack of evidence? What conclusions would you draw about your sources, and the difficulties you have had to overcome in writing this thesis? Where have you confirmed the views of older authorities, and where have you made modifications or rejected ideas? How would you advise others on how to follow up your research? In how many ways are the findings of your research significant, and in how many debates are you making contributions? Have you come up with new ‘characterisations’, new ‘characters’ and new ‘concepts’ that might be useful in understanding your field? The list of questions carries on and you need to be braver than ever when writing conclusions!