Finding a problem to solve: searching for your doctoral thesis

I am working with a new PhD student, as a co-supervisor. He is just starting out, and recently emailed us with a slightly panicked email about what title he should have for his PhD? He sent a few ideas, wondering if they were too broad or too narrow or off-topic. My first response was to think: never mind about the title yet – we’re still trying to work out what the study is about! But he was genuinely concerned, leading me to wonder where this panic about his title stemmed from. It became apparent that he had to write down a title on a form in order to register, and he was worried that this would commit him to sticking with that title from now on. We could reassure him that this was just a form, and had no bearing on his PhD proposal or final topic. But it also pointed us to a bigger conversation: how to search for, and find, your PhD.

Bureaucracy and forms aside, do we fixate on finding a title before we have located a problem we can solve? I remember (and have proof in my research journal) scribbling down several possible titles early on in year 1 of my own doctorate, long before I knew precisely what the parameters of my study would be. Unsurprisingly, they were largely discarded along the way and I ended up somewhere quite different. I still do this in writing papers. I think it is, quite simply, because playing with words and titles is more fun, and immediate, that spending months reading, writing and speaking about my research in the effort to find a problem that is small and focused enough for me to research and write usefully about.

I do think that having some notion of a title might be helpful – it gives you a basic search area to focus on, and a way in to your reading, writing and speaking journey. But it should be seen, at this early stage, as a movable placeholder, rather than a limitation. In other words, you know you want to say something about, for example, teaching in Physics and how students learn effectively, but you remain open to further refining and reading around that issue, as opposed to discounting any reading that is not strictly about what you think you are researching.

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I have written here about research problems, and return to the notion of a corridor of doors: at the early stage of a research project, like a PhD, you don’t want to have too many of those doors already closed. If you know the answer or solution already, why do the research? You want to remain open, read widely, and as you keep your reading journal and start to piece the field together, you then start closing doors to refine and focus your study on one problem you can viably research and respond to, making a useful and original contribution to knowledge in this field.

The reality is that you have to spend about a year reading, writing reading journal or annotated bibliography entries, making connections, taking a few wrong turns and doubling back, and talking a lot with your supervisors and peers about your study, working out where it needs to go, why and how. A great deal of the writing you do in this first year will not go into the thesis (although hopefully much of it will end up in your formal proposal*); it will be writing in your journals, writing for yourself, writing for your supervisors to guide you and offer feedback.

All this reading and informal writing can feel, at times, frustrating: you’ll read papers and even books that will be profoundly helpful, and others than you will never cite or include. You will write many words that will never progress beyond drafting/thinking/scribbling stage. I often felt as if my time was not being well-spent, especially as a part-time student with so many other things to do, if the reading was not exactly relevant, or the words were not all for The Thesis. At times, I felt I was paddling around in a circle, rather than slowly crawling forwards towards a complete thesis.

But, with hindsight, I can see just how much I gained from all that reading, scribbling and talking, even if none of it is now visible in the final thesis I wrote. In writing for myself, and giving myself permission, if you like, to just read and not panic too much about my topic or title, I slowly read and wrote myself into my research problem, locating, refining and focusing it until I was doing just one PhD (instead of the apparent four I initially proposed to my supervisor!). I found my voice through becoming immersed in the research in my field, both directly connected to my PhD and indirectly as well. I gained confidence that I was making a useful contribution as I wrote, and spoke with more knowledgeable peers, about what this contribution could be.

one way signWhile the original spark of an idea, and impetus for doing a postgraduate degree by research may find you and light you up, driving you forwards into a PhD (or MA) journey, the searching for and refining of a specific, clear and viably solvable research question or problem is a long process. Before you fixate too much on a topic, or sexy title, take the time to open yourself up to reading in and around your idea, write for yourself and your supervisors, find your researcher voice, and try your ideas out on peers and colleagues. You won’t, of course, be reading indiscriminately, but try not to hem yourself in too much with a title or topic that limits you before you have searched your field and found your PhD within it.

*In most South African PhD programmes, most of the first year of a doctorate is spent developing a formal PhD proposal, which then has to be approved by a ‘higher degrees’ committee before ethical clearance is granted and a student has permission to begin the study proper.

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