15 lessons from doing doctoral research
Work on my final chapter is progressing well and I should have the draft finished soon. Meanwhile, my supervisor asked if I would jot down some lessons I had learned about research through doing the doctorate. Whilst the list below is not exhaustive, it is hopefully useful to postgraduate research colleagues and possibly others.
- Reviewing the literature is a continuous process. Keeping abreast of relevant abstracts, preferably via a learned society in your field is essential. Maintaining an accurate electronic library of sources from the beginning makes checking and cross-referencing so much easier.
- Printing source material may be costly and is not environmentally friendly but doing so and having it constantly on-hand, significantly aids your review. Spending time sifting through the literature and reflecting helps you to fully comprehend the conversation that you are joining.
- Searching electronic databases is essential but do not ignore the benefits of simply walking around the university library. Useful publications can unexpectedly leap off the shelves. Know the value of a book as opposed to a journal paper. A book enables you to see how a sustained argument can be (well or badly) constructed.
- Getting into the habit of writing, right from the start, makes the task of drafting chapters easier and more enjoyable. A regular writing routine pays huge dividends in productivity and can be very gratifying.
- Keeping a monthly blog during the research provides an arena for thinking out loud about emerging ideas and conclusions. It is also helps to introduce discipline into your routine.
- Doing doctoral research part-time whilst occupying a professional role that entails different forms of writing makes it more important to distinguish between your academic and managerial forms of writing. Do not be afraid to share what you have written and nurture your academic voice as well as your academic identity.
- Doing doctoral research is a form of continuous meditation. The cognitive process is never entirely switched-off. Always be prepared to record emerging thoughts and ideas, whatever time of day or night. Those light-bulb moments really do happen.
- Pilot data gathering is an effective way of refining the overarching research question. Do not underestimate the value of testing out your initial ideas and be open to variations. Your question is likely to change.
- Understanding the heuristic value of combining your existing practical knowledge of the field and the newly formed scholarly knowledge gained in doing the research helps you to manage boundaries and determine what is data. Do not see every scenario as a data gathering opportunity.
- Transcribing is time-consuming and using a professional transcription service helps to save time. Do your own transcribing wherever possible and if you do use a professional service, check their transcripts against the audio-recorded data before commencing any analysis.
- Taking the opportunity to assess the data analysis tools at your disposal means that your ultimate selection is well informed and can be justified, even if you decide not to use any.
- Listening to the opinions of others (especially your supervisors) about content and structure aids reflection. Do not worry if those opinions are variable or if your supervisor’s opinion changes from draft to draft. Take time to consider them all but remember that the ultimate argument you are making, and therefore justifying, is yours.
- Researching researchers who share your discipline can make it easier to communicate concepts through a common vocabulary. Do not be surprised, however, if your participants turn your questions back on you. Utilise such exchanges to enhance your reflexivity.
- Explaining your research to others, both inside and outside the academy, helps to crystallise your argument. Unlike you, others are not immersed in the topic and do not feel passionate about it in the way that you do. Treat every encounter as an opportunity to question your own assumptions.
- Backing up your work may be a no-brainer but do not take it for granted. Always take your memory stick away with you. If the house burns down you will at least not have lost the countless number of hours you have spent on this project. A colleague once said to me, ‘it is only a PhD’ but losing the work would be catastrophic.
What you cannot account for is the stuff that happens along the way. Since starting the doctorate in October 2008, I have been divorced and remarried, I have changed jobs and I have moved house four times.
So what, you might well say…