Friday, 7 February 2014

#PhD journey – choosing a topic writing a #proposal

There are many reasons for getting a PhD: career, academic interest, want to challenge your own learning, curiosity, specific areas which you want to investigate, escaping the feeling of stagnation, wanting to become top notch in your business or field of expertise, or being the first in your family to attain a doctoral degree. It ranges from pragmatic, to personal, to materializing hopes for the future. I wanted to start a PhD because I felt I had reached a limit and by earning a PhD I would be able to open up new opportunities. Whether or not that will work remains to be seen, but in the meantime I am doing it, taking charge of my own life (always a good thing in my opinion). What I share is based on personal ideas, so feel free to add what helped/s you along the way. 

First hurdle: starting a Phd. In order to start, you need to write a proposal, and in order to write a proposal, you need to find some area of interest. You will have to be working on that subject for at least 3 years. So it is crucial to understand what makes you tick:
  • Money
  • Tech development (e.g. building apps, cloud)
  • Internal human development (e.g. cognitive science, neuroscience)
  • Human Computer Interaction (e.g. user interface, android tech embedding)
  • Emerging trends and innovations (e.g. big data,
  • Reaching new learners
  • Empowering learners/regions
  • Anything will do as long as you stay true to what you want to excel in
Consider your strengths: numbers and percentages, words and interpretations, both?
Research methodologies are (very roughly here to stay brief) divided into qualitative and quantitative methods. The qualitative methods start from a hypothesis, the quantitative methods start from a research question that can look for meaning, or explore something (more of an assumption). Both methods can be mixed, but if you have a distinct preference for either numbers or words, you might want to stick to that preference and choose or propose a methodology range that fits your best capacities: quantitative for number liking people, qualitative for interpretative types of researchers, or both for those ... who like both. Currently the research trend is to mix both quantitative and qualitative, but it is always useful to work with your strengths in-spite of trends.

What if you just do not know what it is you like? Look closer to home:
Who do you look up to? What do these people do? What field of expertise are they in?
Which stories appeal to you? (Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, Kofi Annan, Ada Lovelace, …)
For me, I looked up to mobile learning people and practitioners working in developing regions making a difference through participative projects. And as I come from a long line of clergymen of all kinds, I need to have the idea of meaningfulness linked to whatever I do (which is luckily a subjective idea).

Another useful thought to find your topic of interest is to think where would you like to work in the future? Non-profit, corporate, academic? Maybe there is a bridge possible between your PhD work and where you want to go (start-up, astrophysics)

Next step – get your proposal written
Just like a PhD the proposal must reflect your thinking, or the process of your thinking. A good narrative indicating the why, who, where and how always works (when might be tough to integrate in a proposal).
Screen your topic for current research challenges (and again make sure they interest you, intrinsic motivation is important).  If you can show that other researchers point to your topic as a scientific need, it sure helps getting your proposal accepted.
References, when writing a proposal it is also important to mention just a few, but KEY researchers in your area linked to the topic you want to cover in your proposal. And it cannot hurt to add experts in that topic related to the university you want to apply to.
A good proposal offers insight to the potential challenges or the undiscovered research frontier you have found, research questions you might want to cover, expertise you might have or references that you found useful and a rational on how you imagine you will look for answers to your proposed research question. (and do not be put off by the search for a ‘correct’ research question, once you start your PhD your supervisors will help in really focusing on a subject and digging in deeper so you can come up with the best research question).
You might want to touch some general methodologies you had in mind. If you do not have any idea of what methodologies are out there (which was the case when I started to look for PhD options), then look at what your peer researchers did in the area you want to cover. Did they use quantitative approaches, qualitative methods, mixed methods… you must not get bogged down in the details of a methodology, but getting an idea of what would fit your style sure helps. For instance,  within qualitative research you might want to explore critical research, or with qualitative research you might want to screen (or ask other researchers) for current trends and see if one of those feels like an option. Again, during your PhD study you will learn A LOT as you go through the motions, so again, do not worry if you feel you do not (yet) know what it is all about. But your proposal should show that you are willing to find out, that you have an investigative mind, that you are willing and able to share your thinking process with others to prove you have it in you to become an autonomous researcher. 

Ask your network for ideas and reasons

And something which helped me a lot: roam your network to see what your peers do, hear where they think possible research exists and why. Having shared the above, I must admit I did not follow all these steps. Which is probably why I am now struggling to connect my pilot study outcomes with the goal of my main study. It feels as though the research does not align completely with what does make me tick. But... still working on it, for I do feel that personal motivation and drive make the Phd journey a bit easier.