Saturday, 26 February 2011

Making a start

After the initial joy and excitement of the first couple of weeks of a PhD, many researchers discover that much of research is just a slog.

The first bit of slog is the initial "reading" phase, when you seem to spend every waking hour grappling with journal papers which - you realise - are not written with entertainment in mind. You will probably have started on some papers and textbooks recommended by your supervisors before launching out on your own, usually by following up some of the many references and citations you see.

These days, much of this work is done on-line which certainly has its advantages in terms of sheer convenience and easy access. It also has its pitfalls, including the constant temptation of instantly flitting from reference to reference, citation to citation, until you think you might go mad. Not to mention googling, wikipedia, and general knock-about fun.

Your jobs in these early months are these:

  • read, learn from and question the literature
  • develop a research question of your own which will form that "significant contribution to knowledge" at the heart of the PhD
  • plan your early-stage research

That last point indicates all the stuff you could be making a start on when you get jaded with the constant reading.

Here are just some of the things that go into those early-stage plans:

  • what resources - physical and financial - will be required for the first investigations?
  • from whom may you need permission for access to data and/or property?
  • do you need ethical approval for any of your studies? If you think you might, get this underway at once. Getting such ethical approval may take longer than you think.
  • how much time will each of your studies take?
  • how many samples will you need for statistical significance?
  • what might go wrong?
  • what equipment or instrumentation will you need?
  • will you need visas if your studies involve travel?

Combining the hard intellectual work of reading, drafting a literature review, and developing a research question with the less intellectually demanding - but still vital - planning work, is a much more refreshing way to work and allows you time to think about your research away from the library (physical or on-line!)

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