Does my PhD have to save the world?

This post is by Hedda Ransan-Cooper who is currently a PhD Candidate, School of Sociology at the ANU. She doesn’t (yet) have a blog but you can find her on twitter: @hedda_r

Perhaps you’re one of those people who have always known exactly what you wanted to study. I suspect, though, a lot of researchers are like me: interested in many things at once.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis wasn’t a problem in my earlier academic years because I was surrounded by other interdisciplinary students and researchers who held similarly broad research interests. Plus, I deliberately chose a flexible degree type, which allowed me to explore a range of different ideas.

When it came to choosing a PhD topic, however, I realised that being interested in too many things could be problematic. How could I focus on a research problem when my interests were so different from one another?

So, without having yet read the excellent thesis whisperer post on choosing a topic or wide consultation with academic mentors, I decided to do a bit of a research interest mash up and combine my concerns about climate change with the study of human mobility.

I came up with a topic inspired both by my interest in the experiences of mobility across different cultures and my equally long-term concern over developing practical solutions to global sustainability issues. Some of my Honours friends who went on to do PhDs took a similar approach with their topics: One combined her interest in community with concern over urban sustainability. Another connected her love of awe-inspiring landscapes with an interest in how science works/doesn’t work with policy.

During my PhD I found most of the existing literature unhelpful; at the same time the bits of my thesis topic that interested me the most were not necessarily linked to environmental issues. But this meant I was out of step with many people around me. I continued attending seminars with titles like ‘The Anthropocene and Global Meltdown: AKA how the world needs saving and what to do about it!’. I’d slip away from these presentations feeling guilty for being more interested in the aspects of my topic that didn’t immediately appear to resolve such major problems.

I continued to wonder whether I was going in the right direction, and if I shouldn’t somehow find a way to return to these other research concerns.  Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t about choosing between ‘useful’ versus ‘abstract’ enquiry. I’m describing a process in which I was trying to discern the research questions that really sparked my academic interest the most, as well as maintaining a focus on the research problem. A process particularly important in the context maintaining and sometimes reviving interest in your topic over the long period of a PhD

The early signs of where my interests as a researcher lay appeared early on in the PhD process, but I didn’t pay them much attention.

One was the lack of spark and intellectual zing I felt when I was reading particular areas of literature, like the really dense article on the concept of ‘vulnerability’, in which I was left wondering how it could apply to a real-life research problem. I struggled even to get through some material, whereas other work was intellectually challenging but could still hook me in. Somehow the insights and epistemological approaches of some authors felt more authentic and grounded.

I tended to prefer authors who were able to link theoretical questions, to fascinating context-specific dynamics and come up with a novel explanation. One such example is James Scott’s book entitled Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, in which he argues for a new way of understanding the agency of rural people in Southeast Asia through a detailed case study analysis of village life in Malaysia.  On the other hand, conceptual articles that relied on mechanistic models of human behaviour left me cold. Even macro-studies of political economy while interesting, didn’t appeal to me as much as those approaches that also drew on qualitative material.

I continued to explore these areas of research, juggling them alongside my research question and topic. And this proved to be a fruitful strategy, helping me to stretch the boundaries of my topic through developing new paths of inquiry. Going to big conferences where I could listen in to a wide range of topics and perspectives was also helpful.

At one conference, I was unexpectedly inspired by a series of papers, after which I wrote an outline of a paper in a transit lounge on the way home, at 2 o’clock in the morning! (Ok, I still haven’t written the paper but I do have the outline for when I have the time!). Other papers at the conference that I thought might appeal more to my interests, ended up disappointing me. Similarly to engaging with different literatures, conferences offer another opportunity to weed out the views you’re not as interested in while planting or nurturing the ones that do. Looking back now, this process of exploration reminds me of one of my favourite Michael Leunig poems:

Let it go,
Let it out,
Let it all unravel,
Let it free
And it will be
A path on which to travel

Giving myself permission to explore these other areas, and being encouraged to do so by my supervisor and other mentors was key to finding my ‘intellectual feet’. It was a bit hard at first, to step out of my comfort zone and explore a new research identity. Now that I’m closer to finishing my thesis, I’m still not exactly sure what I want to be (sociologist? human ecologist? Just ‘interdisciplinary’?) or what my next research project will be. But I think I’m closer to identifying the areas of research that really push my buttons.

I’d be interested to hear from others: How have you identified your research ‘g’-spots? Did you have to change your research identity as a result? How did you manage the process of re-focussing your research interest? Thanks to Deb Cleland and Millie Rooney for comments and helpful feedback.

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24 thoughts on “Does my PhD have to save the world?

  1. anthokosmos says:

    Great post! I identify my research ‘g’-spots, by practicing (drawing) …and as a result the PhD which I always thought that it was a theoretical matter became surprisingly a practical matter, an investigation based on practice and my experience….

  2. The Geeky Gardener says:

    Thanks for your insights! One day, I’ll put a sign on my door that reads “When I grow up, I want to be a polymath.” I’m still pondering whether a PhD’s the right thing for me as I’m interested, like yourself, in so many topics/approaches in my personal as well as my professional life. Your article has shown that it is possible. Thanks

  3. marieandtheappletree says:

    Your phd sounds very similar to mine; which is what is the future of a specific rural area (including health) relating to the impacts of climate change, and particularly ageing (the human and environmental landscape), many happy, sad, depressing,drudging and insightful moments! good luck!

  4. mickeyonacoustic says:

    Kristin Luker–in her book “Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-glut” shares a neat strategy for doing precisely that: finding your research “g-spot” (she doesn’t use that term! :)). The process entails creating what Luker calls a “bedraggled daisy.” A bedraggled daisy is essentially a Venn diagram with as many circles as you need for capturing each of the areas the intersection of which your research interest will lie. Typically, there are enough Venn diagram circles that the circles start looking oval, like flower petals. Hence the name, “bedraggled daisy.” If you can think of what lies at the intersection of all the petal’s topics, then there lies one of what you might call your “research g-spots.” I have tried this, and when I stare at the tiny space at the intersection of all the interests I have identified and added to the bedraggled daisy in the form of an additional circle, ideas pop in to my head–including research questions! Pages 80 and following in her book outline the process and how to use the bedraggled daisy to start reading and lit searching strategically . . . and project planning. 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Great post, I have recently changed my research thesis and have begun to adapt my academic identity to it, remaining very a very interdiscipliary, and often unsure place. However, the more interested I become, the more that I am ok with not being so traditional.
    A reassuring post!

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  6. dianaothman481 says:

    In writing a thesis, how can i identify ‘the gap’ of the study?  I usually feel lost when someone read my proposal and said that i have no focus in my writing and they adviced me to find the gap of the study.. 

    Sent from Samsung tabletThe Thesis Whisperer wrote:

    • anthokosmos says:

      in “Helping Doctoral Students Write”, Barbara Kamler & Pat Thomson, there is a really good text:
      chapter 3, “Persuading an octopus into a glass: working with literatures” suggested by “thesiswhisperer”. It has helped me a lot.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Ungenerous comments are not welcome here. Please try to understand the point of view expressed in the post and, if you disagree, tell us why as politely as you can. Thanks.

      • mcdeltat says:

        Wow. I am so sorry if I have offended you or your blog, but my comment was meant to be both enlightening and humorous. If you are looking for generosity, then the internet is not the place for you. With that said, why would you write a book, article, or blog post about anything if it didn’t effect someone somewhere in a positive way. Are you not wasting people’s time if you write about, for instance, sex and werewolves? Write about the problems of democracy, or equal rights for all living things. Something that makes a difference, is that not the point of a thesis?

        By the way, if you think that comment was bad, then you should see what I put on other people’s blogs.

        Your welcome…

    • Darby says:

      Thanks a lot for being my personal coach on this area. My susope and i enjoyed the article very much and most of all cherished the way in which you handled the aspect I regarded as controversial. You are always incredibly kind towards readers really like me and let me in my living. Thank you.

  7. ahonag says:

    Thanks for this – it is something I have struggled with and that is just as an Honours student! I eventually picked the supervisor not the topic and focused on keeping my research meaningful and manageable – important for an Honours thesis! I will probably be working with the same supervisory team for my PhD and we are focusing on identifying a few meaningful gaps I can plug, as well as theoretically coalescing the current literature within my field.

  8. Red Punch Buggy (@_redpunchbuggy) says:

    Thanks for the great, and timely post. I’m half way through my Honours Thesis and whilst I’m loving, and simultaneously, hating it (perfectionism is a cruel and heartless slave driver) refining the scope and approach has been a nightmare. My very understanding and patient supervisor has to keep reminding me “this is only Honours it’s not a Phd”.
    I am very jealous of fellow students who know what their topic and area of interest is – I am interested in so many wide and varied subjects the thought of formulating a PhD project is extremely daunting – maybe even scaring me off. So long story short hah! It’s refreshing and encouraging to read similar struggles and important to follow your own intellectual instincts, even if it is a path less travelled (insert citation). Besides whose world are we saving anyway? Maybe just our own. Maybe that’s enough.

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