Research problems: too big, too small or just right?

I have been working, in recent weeks, with two groups of postgraduate students working on research proposals. These workshops were planned specifically to assist these students with clarifying their research problem, research questions and potential argument. This is turning out to be a little tougher than I thought it would be. There seem, right now, to be two reasons for this: the first is that focusing on just one small, manageable project is difficult when there are so many possible things that could be researched and written about. The second is more about experience, and learning to trust that if one follows a research process and a supervisor, the results will be positive in the end.

Size and scope: finding a research problem you can solve

The first place you start with any research project is with the problem that needs to be solved. Sometimes, as postgraduate students (especially at more junior levels, like Honours and Masters) you may be guided quite firmly to a research problem by your supervisor, perhaps connected to their own research. Most of the time, hopefully, you are able to find one that excites and interests you, and that you really want to find out more about. In the first case, it may be easier to focus on a problem of manageable size and scope, because that may well be part of the process of guiding you to that problem. But most of the time, you will need to work out, through a process of reading, writing and working with supervisor feedback, what the right size and scope of your project is.

goldilocks

 

This is not necessarily an easy or even quick process, and finding your way to the research problem that is neither too big, nor too small, can be frustrating. I started my own PhD sending my supervisor an email outlining my research problem, thinking – here we go! She emailed back a week later outlining the four or five (!!) PhD theses I could actually be researching based on that email. She helpfully outlined them all as she saw them, and then asked me which one I wanted  pursue. This, of course, was partly very helpful and exciting, and partly anxiety-inducing. Surely just that one seemingly small problem was in no way big enough for a whole PhD? I had to trust her experience and wisdom on this, and I am so glad I did because that problem was indeed big enough, and if I had fought her and tried to think I knew better, I may have had a much more frustrating time researching and writing my thesis.

I think, based on my conversations with these students in my workshops, and my own experience, that part of the anxiety is that we make the project too big in our heads. We make it everything about ourselves and our work as students at that particular level. We try to write ALL the PhDs and MAs and Honours mini-theses in our one small project. Part of this urge to do ALL the research may stem from a fear that if we just make one small, but clear, argument we won’t be doing enough to prove we are worthy of the degree being awarded, or what comes after. Part of it may stem from an unwillingness to choose, because it means closing doors on other ideas and projects that also interest us.

decisions

What I had to learn, and what all postgraduate students and researchers need to learn, is to manage one project at a time, and to resist turning the PhD (or MA or Honours project) into everything. Especially at PhD level, which often leads to a career based on academic research, writing and possibly also teaching, the PhD is the door-opener to that career, not the career itself. It is the stepping stone to other and further research and writing, not the best and brightest piece of research you will ever do. As lovely husband kept telling me: ‘It’s a project. You have to manage it well and move on’.

What this means for finding and defining your research problem is that you need to firstly, trust your supervisor when they caution you about aiming too high and going too big. They’ve done this before you, they have learned some of the lessons already, and their advice comes from their desire for you to succeed and not spend months and years floundering on a project you cannot realistically manage or complete. Secondly, you need to be brave enough to close doors to other shiny and interesting ideas and projects and keep them closed until your PhD or MA is finished. They’re not barred forever – there are many problems to solve, and many ways to solve them and if you’re signing up for academia, you’ll have time to reopen doors and revisit ideas you’ve had to put on hold while working on the PhD or MA.

revolving doorhotel-corridor

Continuing to read, look for theory, change methodologies, look for new and more data, and so on will likely pull you in too many different directions, and will slow your progress on the project in front of you. Moreover, it may actually lead you to feeling that the project you are actually working on is holding you back from and making you give up on other cool projects and possibilities, creating a potentially negative and fractious relationship with it. It is worth remembering that this project – PhD, MA or Honours – is actually going to open doors for you to many other exciting opportunities for work and research, but it can only do that if you finish it, and get your degree, and have the skills, knowledge and abilities to move on to whatever comes next.

A first step is finding one small, defined and focused research problem that you can actually follow up on in the timeframe you have, and with the resources at your disposal. Focusing on one thing, while this does mean at least temporarily pushing other things into the background, will give you the space and time to do what a postgraduate degree is really trying to do: help you develop your capacity for more independent thinking, reading, writing and argumentation.

 

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