There’s loads – and I mean loads – of good stuff out there about ‘how to do a PhD’:
- How to write a literature review
- How to do successful fieldwork
- How to write a good PhD thesis
- How to deliver a conference paper
- etc etc
And yes, these guides can be really great for helping you get started on a particular aspect of your research that you might be struggling with.
But – and here’s where it gets a little radical:
What if you don’t actually need these guides?
What if you leaned more on your intuition and ‘felt’ your way to doing successful, effective research your way?
Before you freak, hang in there and hear me out…
There’s no one way of doing a PhD
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t accept any advice about your PhD. I’m also not saying that these guides aren’t useful at all and should be completely disregarded.
I’m saying that you shouldn’t get too hung up on following these guides to a T because there just simply isn’t a single, clear-cut way of doing any piece of research, and trying to adhere too strictly to these guides can end up being more constraining than helpful for your PhD.
A key part of doing a PhD is about proving your adaptability, versatility and resourcefulness as a researcher.
In other words, it’s not just about what you are researching, but how you are doing that research. You’re being assessed on the ‘how to’ component of doing research, so it wouldn’t make sense that there’s an exact, ready-made template and method. If there was, we’d all just replicates those exact steps, and there would be no need for examination.
Every piece of research throws up its own unique questions, challenges and obstacles. Further, every researcher brings with them their own perspectives, epistemologies, positionality, reflexive thinking.
I don’t care if you’re a scientist who proclaims ‘100% objectivity’ and that you have no ‘influence’ over your research. No matter how ‘objective’ a piece of research is, it is a still a human being conducting experiments and bringing all possible margins of human error into them.
It is a still a human being analysing the data, selecting the theoretical frameworks they believe to be most relevant, discussing the results and presenting their interpretations.
It is still a living, feeling, reacting human being responding to things going wrong in their research and deciding on the (next) best course of action to take.
There is no one text in the world that can definitively tell every researcher in every discipline, how to do all of this.
And the sooner you get to terms with the fact that there is no single ‘how to’ guide for any part of your research, the less stress you’ll be inviting into your PhD life.
So, what on earth should I do?
You’re probably thinking – well, if I don’t follow any of those guides, then what on earth do I do?
First of all, I want to clarify that this blog post isn’t giving you permission to just do whatever you want! There are always going to be some guidelines and conventions that every PhD candidate should follow and it’s important to find out what is required or expected of you in your discipline/field or institution.
Generally, every PhD should:
- contribute original knowledge to your field (i.e. what you have set out to investigate / answer)
- demonstrate substantial understanding of the existing literature and research in your field (i.e. literature review, discussion)
- offer clear explanation and justification for what you have done in your research project (i.e. your methodology/methods)
But how these three components of research are conducted and written about will vary significantly from one PhD to another. How one PhD candidate conducts their research or writes their thesis is not going to be the best way for how you conduct your research or write your chapters.
So, sure, allow those ‘how to’ guides to ignite fresh, creatives thoughts for/around your own research. Let them offer you options for how you might approach your research. Use them to find inspiration and ideas for how other kinds of research are done.
But they are not strict technical manuals for how you must ‘do’ your own PhD.
Instead of trying to force your PhD into a template or to conceptualise of ‘how to’ do it like someone else, it would be more helpful to work loosely around broad guidelines and conventions (like the three outlined above).
Then, keeping those overarching guidelines in mind, take the actions that are most immediately accessible and doable for you. You might not be able to map out a step-by-step, precise ‘how to’ roadmap for the entirety of your project because you can’t see that far ahead and/or things change and evolve throughout the course of the research.
But, you can take next immediate step in front of you. What can you read right now? What decision can you make in this moment? What part of your data collection can you do or prepare for given the current resources you have?
The unique ‘how-to’ plan of your PhD will unfold itself to you with each of the steps you take, and as/when you allow your research and data to reveal and take you in the directions you need.
A big part of doing effective research is, paradoxically, in not having a strict plan, but in being open and adaptable to new ideas, directions, perspectives, theories, ways of writing. That place of not-knowing can encourage you to discover alternative, original ways of doing research that you might not otherwise consider if you just follow a cookie-cutter template.
Doing research is like making a casserole
PhD researcher Shelby Judge (and a great ‘messy’ PhD pal) has an excellent analogy for this method of customising your research, where she likens the process of doing research to using/adapting recipes when cooking.
I’m borrowing her metaphor here, and using the example of casserole: Let’s say you find a great new recipe that you want to try. But the original recipe calls for carrots, which you dislike so you swap them out with parsnips, and you decide to replace leeks with shallots and onions. You’re also vegetarian, so you omit meat altogether and use beans and lentils instead. You’ve run out of coriander, so you use thyme and parsley because that’s what you have. Then you realise your oven isn’t working properly, so you just cook the whole thing on your stove top instead.
In the end, you’ve only loosely followed the recipe but you’ve got a much richer casserole that’s better suited to your tastes! You’ve still produced a casserole, but in your own way – and neither your version or the original recipe is more ‘correct’ or ‘wrong’ than the other.
I’m all for using ‘how to’ guides – but use them flexibly, like a recipe, and allow yourself to mix things up and adapt methods for what will work best for you, your ways of working and your research objectives.
‘How to’ guides are just that – guides. They shouldn’t be a rule book. Holding yourself too closely to these ‘how tos’ can ultimately be constraining, closing you off to what other things your research may be telling you or to alternative, creative directions and methods you could take.
So, to return to my original question: what if you don’t need to know ‘how to’ do your PhD? What if, instead of getting overwhelmed by all the guides and by comparing yourself to how everyone else is doing their research, you just do you:
Do what you do know.
Do what you can do right now.
Do by being led by your research instincts and trusting in your ability to make the right decisions for your unique research project.
You don’t need to know exactly ‘how to’ do it all. You just need to start to do; the rest becomes clearer as you do.