A Better Approach

So far, one of the most frustrating aspects of my PhD ‘journey’ has been finding the methodology that best fits what I actually want to learn/explore/discover… even deciding on which of those words (among many more) is part of the process!

Before I started my PhD, I had not done much academic social science research.  I did history research for my undergrad degree, a small project in my Masters, and a semester-long graduate certificate in Educational Research immediately before starting the PhD.  This certificate was my first real taste of the sort of research I would be doing for the PhD, but given the time constraints, I completed an extended literature review rather than involving any participants.  It didn’t feel like ‘real’ research.  In short, I quickly felt like I was in over my head with the PhD.  The topics of my research weren’t unfamiliar, but anything to do with methodology or frameworks definitely was.

For the first six months, my supervisor had me “hike through the Methodology Mountains” to explore the area and start to make some decisions about the direction I wanted to go in.  It’s not so much that I would get lost… more that I would wander down lots of different trails and get distracted.  There were lots of “ooo look at this” and “no, no, no” moments where I tried to work out what my research would look like through different methods.  Once, early on, I wandered into a landslide after a miscommunication, but luckily I made it out alive!  Eventually, this process became more frustrating than helpful.  It was all very interesting, but I didn’t feel like I was making progress, so I was called back to base camp to report on my decisions.

I thought I had it.  This was My Plan.  Great, off I go… through a series of six more changes in methods/ analysis.  Each change was an evolution of the last and brought me closer to the research I want to do, but each change was also incredibly frustrating.  Hours of reading and writing were no longer “useful.”  Chunks of texts were deleted.  Each change felt like I was getting knocked back to the beginning.  This, coupled with a delay in getting all my ethics approvals, became quite stressful.

But then things started clicking.  First, I came across this post (https://patthomson.net/2017/06/26/three-things-examiners-look-for-in-methods-chapters/ ) which helped to explain that getting your PhD is a bit like getting a license to do your own research- so you need to understand different methodologies before you’re allowed to do future research.  Makes sense.  Second, I attended a seminar where the presenter explained that many methods are autobiographical, that we are drawn to the ones we have experience with, and that our identities as researchers can come to light through our choices.  Reflecting back on the methods I had considered earlier versus the ones I am currently undertaking, that rings very true.  The presenter also commented that the PhD is something of a safe space to try out different methods, which linked up with the blog post I had read.  So, all the reading and thinking about other methods seemed like slightly less of a waste of time (still a bit frustrating…) and more like what I was meant to be doing.  It has certainly given me a much better understanding of the wide variety of options out there and has allowed me to draw on a variety of different ideas of how to approach my research.  More importantly, and practically, in the short term, it has given me more confidence that the methods I have chosen best suit my goals and developing skill sets.

Coming to the PhD, I had a perception of it as a pinnacle of sorts where you need to Know What You’re Doing and have expertise in what you’re aiming to do.  Now, I’m starting to see that this is back-to front.  At the end you become the expert in your particular area through your particular set of methods, you don’t start as an expert.  Back to the license analogy- I had some experience and understanding of how to drive a car before I attended my first formal driving lesson, but I definitely shouldn’t have been let loose on the roads alone.  So for the PhD, sure I came to it with some content knowledge and a general sense of how to conduct research, but I definitely wasn’t ready to go out into the field yet.  While most of my earlier ideas on methods would have been viable options, they would not have helped me to gather the kind of data I really wanted or allowed me to tell its story the way I really wanted.  Each progression brought a better approach- both to my research and to my understanding of working on a PhD.