Lost and found and lost again: searching for your ‘question’

A mentor suggested last year that you know you are ready to hand in your thesis when you have found the question you are trying to answer. If that is so then sadly I am still not ready to hand in my final thesis, but I think I’m close. Last year, when I was trying to get my head around my theory/conceptual framework chapter, which just felt HUGE at the time, I drew this picture in my research journal: spiral image PhD

I was trying to think about how I wanted to structure the chapter so that I could take the reader logically from the starting point, through the various concepts and tools, to the point at which the next chapter needed to start. (I didn’t know what that chapter was going to say at this point so it was a slightly abstract exercise). This spiral was helpful, to a point, but it is actually more helpful to me now in terms of thinking about the process of trying to find the question I am asking and trying to answer.

The way I see it now is that the PhD is a version of being lost and found and then lost and then found, except that you get lost from and find yourself in progressively different places as you go. This is particularly so when it comes to the Research Question; that elusive little bugger that keeps slipping away from you just when you think you have finally managed to pin it down in a sentence (or eight). I can look back a bit from where I stand now and see that I have been moving in slowly decreasing spirals towards this elusive Question I am trying to answer. The more I write and think and scribble, the closer I get. It started as a very hesitant and not entirely crisp and clear thing in the proposal, and then disappeared for a while while I was busy getting lost in mountains of theory that took a while to make sense of. Then I found it again but it looked a little different – less vague and a little more grown up and also not exactly what I started out asking in the proposal. Then I started writing the theory chapter and by the end of that process the Question had wandered away again. When it came back, after I started drafting my methodology chapter and was busy collecting my data, it was even more grown up, dressed in sharper clothes, looking more confident. I managed to hold onto it for a longer period of time, but by the time I had finished transcribing all my notes and videos and organising all my data, it had left me again. It returned when I drafted the two chapters on my case studies, even more grown up and much more neatly groomed. I was profoundly happy to see it again, and to recognise it as an almost-there version of what my study is trying to answer.

Now I am revising all the chapters I have written thus far and am trying to find conclusions and an introduction in all of this. It’s gone, again. But I am a lot less panicked about this than I was when my Question first started wandering off without leaving a note as to where it had gone and when it would be back. I know it will be back, and probably soon. I hope soon. The spirals have gotten shorter and my focus has sharpened as I have gone round and round, and each time my Question wanders off and and comes back I am in a different place in this process, and I see things a little more clearly. I suppose if I could go back and give 2nd year PhD-me a hug and a piece of advice it would be to say this: don’t despair. Your Question will come back, and it will make more sense and be clearer when it does. You just have to be patient, and trust that this process will take you where you need to go. In an adaptation of the words said by the ghostly voice in Field of Dreams, ‘If you write it, it will come’.


  1. Thank you. Just, thank you. My question is terribly erratic and irresponsible and is mostly off somewhere, training to be a magician, I think. I shall take your advice and try not to despair.

    • It is hard to not despair. So much of what you go through early on only makes sense near the end. The journey is often conducted seemingly in the dark with neither a torch nor a map and only small patches of light blinking on and off to show you if you are still on track or not. Hang in there. It will all come together, but you have to also try to let the process take its course.

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