first stumbling steps along the road less travelled

So… the big question is, what is the question??

The first thing that needs to be established when undertaking a PhD is, “is the question that I am asking answerable?” If the answer is no then it becomes obvious that a more viable question needs to be found. The question need not be complex, in fact the simpler the question the better because if the question itself is simple and direct then surely it will follow that the research involved will be the same.

so… that’s my current dilemma, what is my actual question? I came back from Viet Nam thinking that my topic was workable and that there was an answerable question in there somewhere. Now I’m not so sure and the frustrating thing is that the more research and reading I do and the more that I think about the topic, the less sure I am of what the question could be.

But I am assured by all around me that this is a perfectly normal phenomenon and that, after nearly four months of solid reading on a wide variety of topics, I should be feeling some ambivalence about the direction in which I want to head. However, being assured that this feeling of frustration is perfectly normal is one thing, finding the solution that will end the frustration is another.

Fortunately I have a great supervisor and the School that I am with runs weekly post-grad workshops on a variety of relevant topics to help the weary traveller on their way (you see… I’m likening this process to a journey). One such workshop that unfortunately I missed was conducted by Senior Lecturer Dr. Rod Lyon on the subject of methodology. However, I have the notes and I would like to share what he had to say about the overall process, if for no other reason than to clarify it for myself by writing it down.

Dr. Lyon likened the PhD process to a theatrical piece. He said:

A good PhD is a drama in 3 acts.
1st act outlines the intellectual puzzle
2nd act explores the puzzle in a new and meaningful way
3rd act revisits the puzzle in the light of the findings from the 2nd act.

A bad PhD is a melodrama in 3 acts
1st act identifies an intellectual puzzle
2nd act explores the puzzle in an angst-ridden and unsatisfying way, with a set of descriptions about the hypothesis in various contexts
3rd act repeats the puzzle with no new meaningful messages.

Meaning of this parable is that the 2nd act is the core of your thesis

Dr. Lyon also advised that we need to be practical about a PhD which is nothing more than a journey from A to B (you see, that “journey” again).

So… I need to ask myself a question that can be answered and not try to overcomplicate the task. Then I need to think about the best way to organise my journey which really means working out how to test my provisional hypothesis.

My supervisor suggested that I spend some time dumping out some “brain garbage” and spend an hour or two each day brainstorming the question onto paper. So for the past few days I have been writing onto a note pad anything that comes into my mind that is associated with the question in the hope that clarity will emerge out of what is now a vast “unknown”.

So far, nothing has emerged. Maybe I’ll go take a hot bath in the hope that, like Archimedes, something will become apparent and I can run naked down my street screaming out “Eureka” at the top of my voice.