Research questions

So this week I’ve been grappling with research questions. Not my usual ones of ‘What am I doing with my life’ and ‘Have I made a terrible mistake’, the questions underpinning and guiding my PhD research.

When I submitted a research proposal, I knew it was a fluid document. By that I mean the subject matter has similar properties to a liquid: messy and difficult to grasp. Changing and refining your topic is a massive part of doing a PhD, I just had no idea I would struggle this much with it.

The warning signs were there. Whenever people ask me what my topic is, I have a rehearsed pitch that I recite. It’s in writing somewhere too. I had to write something because when I improvised, I ended up using the words “development” and “community” four or five times in one sentence. I am powerfully reminded of the newsroom interns I once terrorised: “If you can’t tell me what your story is in one sentence, you either don’t know enough about it or it’s not a story.” Dammit past-me, show a little compassion, I’m working on it!

I did have a vague research question in mind and casually inserted it into my class group’s Google Doc for feedback. Feedback is good. Feedback is helpful. Even if I don’t get any hugely helpful research question feedback, at least I’ll be connecting with my fellow researchers who are no doubt struggling with the same things I am! Bless your cotton socks, past-me, you are a heartless tyrant who is as naïve as a new-born babe. When I checked the doc a day or so later, it was full of my peers’ submissions: multiple research questions, all carefully thought-out and meticulously worded. I was in trouble.

The spreadsheet looked like this:

feedback

You can guess which was mine.

The problem is not that I’m a lost 7 year-old (though that would explain a lot), it’s more that everything is just too damn interesting. Especially for those with as short an attention span as mine. Each research question I’ve come up with so far has the shelf life of milk in the sun. Either Google Scholar slaps them down, they don’t stand up to the standard research questions tests or I find something that interests me more.

I had yet another lightning bolt of inspiration last night (my third or fourth of the week) and swore that this was it! This is the question! This is the one! But. In the cold light of day, things look different. Who have I woken up with? The honeymoon period is over and I don’t know anything about this question. Initial research is promising but we’ve got to cover the big issues: is it robust enough? Does it share my view on qualitative research? What are its theoretical constructs? Will it still love me when I’m old and grey and wrinkled, which is how I’ll look at the end of this PhD?

We’ve got some things to work through, research question #12 and I.

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“You’ll understand when you’re older.”

If I have a spirit animal, it’s this dog:

Somehow, I was under the impression that legally being an adult meant you suddenly were in possession of a wealth of knowledge and experience. Yet here I am, verging on my quarter-century birthday, thinking of this dog on daily basis. “What did you do next, science dog?” I ponder. “And how did you get your protective goggles on?”

Like many an amateur psychologist, I’ll blame my upbringing. There seems to be an evil underground culture of parents lying to their children about life.

“Hey kids! On December 25th a fat, bearded man from the North Pole will break into our house and bring your presents!”

A timely, classic tale of betrayal. A global conspiracy between parents and shopping malls. But do you know what the biggest lie is? It’s not the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. It’s far more sinister. It’s the endlessly repeated catch-cry of:

“You’ll understand when you’re older!”

When? I’m older, much older. When exactly will this understanding be taking place? A precise time and date if you could.

Nothing yet. Just older, no wiser.

One could argue, if absolutely necessary, that perhaps I put myself in situations like the one science dog has found herself in. A challenging career, moving overseas, enrolling for a PhD.

Oh, that’s what this post was about. I’ve been accepted to study for a PhD.

It’s just you and me, science dog. For the next four years.

Dear thesis

Dear thesis,

It’s time for us to say goodbye. Not forever, just for now. It’s time for you to go out into the world, strike a path of your own, leave the nest and learn to fly. *Sniff*

You’ve grown up so much over the course of a year. You started as a vague little idea, a direct product of my musings and research. You grew into something polished and considered. Something grown-up, in my opinion anyway. And now it’s time for you to go out into the big wide world. I’ve done everything I can to prepare you for the big, mean world and the scary examination panel that dwells within it. But your paragraphs are clear, your literature review is comprehensive, and your references are immaculate. You’re ready. I’m not sure I am though.

We’ve had our rough periods, especially during those rough teenage months. I didn’t know what you’d become, you thought I was old-fashioned and stuck in my old ideals. It got so bad I couldn’t look at you, and you crashed. A result of a binge, an overdose: too many tabs open, too many pending actions. But we got through it with a little help from some friends. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It definitely takes at least a suburb to make an honours thesis.

Now it’s time, armed with your lodgement forms and statements of originality, you’ll travel back to Australia to learn your fate. Our fate.

I won’t be congratulating myself or celebrating just yet though. You’re the academic equivalent of getting a puppy to see if you’re ready to have a baby. The practice run. But we made it and that sure as hell counts for something.

So good luck, little thesis puppy! May your arguments be strong and your word count be overlooked.

Love,

Bridget

July is going to be busy.

Yikes. So marks are out for uni. Somewhat surprisingly, moving overseas at the start of exams didn’t impact my marks as badly as I thought it would. Little bit disappointed but probably shouldn’t be, all things considered.

Now that marking is finishing and I’m “settled”, my supervisor and I finally had a chat over Skype about how things are shaping up. He was happy but had a few pointers. And by pointers I mean massive overhauls to the entire focus of my thesis. There was much talk of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY.

Anchorman-well-that-escalated-quickly

What started as a little radio project has snowballed to something much bigger, but still (hopefully) focussed and within scope. Writing about how to improve democracy is great for the old ego. *Climbs on to soapbox.* But it presents the challenge of a near-complete re-write of my two-thirds complete thesis. While trying to write a novella. While writing pitches for articles to earn money. *Gets off soapbox and hides under table.* Hmm. July is going to be busy.