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.


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.

Research problems: too big, too small or just right?

I have been working, in recent weeks, with two groups of postgraduate students working on research proposals. These workshops were planned specifically to assist these students with clarifying their research problem, research questions and potential argument. This is turning out to be a little tougher than I thought it would be. There seem, right now, to be two reasons for this: the first is that focusing on just one small, manageable project is difficult when there are so many possible things that could be researched and written about. The second is more about experience, and learning to trust that if one follows a research process and a supervisor, the results will be positive in the end.

Size and scope: finding a research problem you can solve

The first place you start with any research project is with the problem that needs to be solved. Sometimes, as postgraduate students (especially at more junior levels, like Honours and Masters) you may be guided quite firmly to a research problem by your supervisor, perhaps connected to their own research. Most of the time, hopefully, you are able to find one that excites and interests you, and that you really want to find out more about. In the first case, it may be easier to focus on a problem of manageable size and scope, because that may well be part of the process of guiding you to that problem. But most of the time, you will need to work out, through a process of reading, writing and working with supervisor feedback, what the right size and scope of your project is.



This is not necessarily an easy or even quick process, and finding your way to the research problem that is neither too big, nor too small, can be frustrating. I started my own PhD sending my supervisor an email outlining my research problem, thinking – here we go! She emailed back a week later outlining the four or five (!!) PhD theses I could actually be researching based on that email. She helpfully outlined them all as she saw them, and then asked me which one I wanted  pursue. This, of course, was partly very helpful and exciting, and partly anxiety-inducing. Surely just that one seemingly small problem was in no way big enough for a whole PhD? I had to trust her experience and wisdom on this, and I am so glad I did because that problem was indeed big enough, and if I had fought her and tried to think I knew better, I may have had a much more frustrating time researching and writing my thesis.

I think, based on my conversations with these students in my workshops, and my own experience, that part of the anxiety is that we make the project too big in our heads. We make it everything about ourselves and our work as students at that particular level. We try to write ALL the PhDs and MAs and Honours mini-theses in our one small project. Part of this urge to do ALL the research may stem from a fear that if we just make one small, but clear, argument we won’t be doing enough to prove we are worthy of the degree being awarded, or what comes after. Part of it may stem from an unwillingness to choose, because it means closing doors on other ideas and projects that also interest us.


What I had to learn, and what all postgraduate students and researchers need to learn, is to manage one project at a time, and to resist turning the PhD (or MA or Honours project) into everything. Especially at PhD level, which often leads to a career based on academic research, writing and possibly also teaching, the PhD is the door-opener to that career, not the career itself. It is the stepping stone to other and further research and writing, not the best and brightest piece of research you will ever do. As lovely husband kept telling me: ‘It’s a project. You have to manage it well and move on’.

What this means for finding and defining your research problem is that you need to firstly, trust your supervisor when they caution you about aiming too high and going too big. They’ve done this before you, they have learned some of the lessons already, and their advice comes from their desire for you to succeed and not spend months and years floundering on a project you cannot realistically manage or complete. Secondly, you need to be brave enough to close doors to other shiny and interesting ideas and projects and keep them closed until your PhD or MA is finished. They’re not barred forever – there are many problems to solve, and many ways to solve them and if you’re signing up for academia, you’ll have time to reopen doors and revisit ideas you’ve had to put on hold while working on the PhD or MA.

revolving doorhotel-corridor

Continuing to read, look for theory, change methodologies, look for new and more data, and so on will likely pull you in too many different directions, and will slow your progress on the project in front of you. Moreover, it may actually lead you to feeling that the project you are actually working on is holding you back from and making you give up on other cool projects and possibilities, creating a potentially negative and fractious relationship with it. It is worth remembering that this project – PhD, MA or Honours – is actually going to open doors for you to many other exciting opportunities for work and research, but it can only do that if you finish it, and get your degree, and have the skills, knowledge and abilities to move on to whatever comes next.

A first step is finding one small, defined and focused research problem that you can actually follow up on in the timeframe you have, and with the resources at your disposal. Focusing on one thing, while this does mean at least temporarily pushing other things into the background, will give you the space and time to do what a postgraduate degree is really trying to do: help you develop your capacity for more independent thinking, reading, writing and argumentation.


Clarifying the murky mess of proposal writing

We have recently had a swimming pool built or put in, or whatever the correct verb is. Maintaining a swimming pool is hard work. There are all these different, fiddly things that have to be in alignment or balance to ensure that the water is clear, sparkling and appealing to swim in. There’s the pH, the alkalinity, the acidity, the amount of chlorine, and the amount of stabiliser. If even one is off, as I am finding out this week, the water will be murky and less appealing. Getting the balance back is frustrating, and involves trial and error, a few tantrums, and not a small amount of money spent on chemicals and advice.

Writing a good PhD proposal (or any research proposal, really) can be like maintaining a swimming pool: a balancing act that is achieved with no small amount of hard work. It needs to contain different sections and parts – literature review, research questions, theoryology, methodology, data, significance or contribution to knowledge, etc –  that mirror the structure of the final thesis, and they need to fit together to tell an appealing, clear, coherent story about the research you plan to do, and are proving you are able to do in the time allotted to you. The parts all have to be connected into a whole, rather than simply addressed as parts.

Proposal writing, as I have said before in this blog, is difficult because this is a tricky genre in which to write. Unlike a paper or thesis, you are not reporting on research you have done, and so have clearly set out before you to recount and tell your readers about. Your research is not yet a fait accompli. You are trying to show your readers/judges what you aim to do, what you think is important and viable research, what you hope you will find and be able to write about in the thesis. And, when you are starting a major research project like a PhD, sometimes these aims, thoughts and hopes are very murky things indeed. So, the question then becomes: how can I make what I plan to do as clear as possible, and appealing to read (and approve), without writing something facile, or impossible to achieve once I have to actually do the research?

One of the first problems proposal writers seem to encounter is writing a proposal that actually contains more than one research project within it, rather than just the one you are required to do. A PhD, in particular, just seems so huge compared to previous degrees that the proposal can feel like it has to be huge, complex and dazzling in order to do justice to the enormity of the task ahead of you. I apparently had 4 possible PhDs within the first few drafts of my proposal thinking. One of the things I found very helpful at this early stage was feedback: I sent my ideas to my supervisor, and asked her if she thought any or all of them were viable or made sense. The email she sent back had taken what I had written and delineated 4 possible projects I could do, with some overlapping, and she then asked me: which PhD do you want to do? Looking at my scribbles in that form made it easier for me to choose the project I felt most drawn to and passionate about. Your supervisor(s) should be able to offer this kind of help and guidance, but peers and mentors who have gone through this process of choosing and outlining one research project out of many possible ideas and questions should also be able to offer you some insight at this stage into where your scribbles and thinking might be taking you, so you can consider where exactly you want to go.

Another problem proposal writers encounter is getting the balance right. It can be tempting to write a lengthy literature review, including just about everything you have read thus far which might be quite a long list of papers and books to show your readers/examiners how competent you are. It can also be tempting to go into great detail about the theory you are using, engaging your reader in a lengthy account of what the theorists have said (usually quite abstractly). It can be more difficult to go into great detail about your methodology, and the kind of contribution your research will make to the field. I found this part of my own proposal difficult, as the actual generation and analysis of the data was not something I had done when I wrote the proposal,  but I could say a fair bit about my reading and theory. Getting the balance right in order to create a coherent picture of a whole research project that can be completed in the allotted time is important: if your methodology is too vague, the examiners of your proposal may wonder if you know what you are doing; if your theory and literature are not selected and discussed in direct relation to the research questions you are seeking to answer, they can come across as standing alone, and not integrated knowledgeably into the whole project.

Writing a coherent proposal is not just important as a step in the MA or PhD process; post-MA or PhD you may well need to continue writing different kinds of proposals to attract research or grant funding for new research projects, either on your own or with colleagues. Taking the time to seek feedback is valuable. Reading successful proposals in your field, and even seeking out their writers if you can to ask them for advice could also be helpful. Working to an exemplar of the genre you are trying to reproduce in your own writing can at least provide you with a basic map to follow, which can make the writing of your own proposal a little less anxious. Tricky though this task may be, writing a solid, clear, balanced proposal can provide you with a firmer foundation and more focused way forward for your full research project.

Moving from your proposal to chapter the first

You have written a proposal that has been approved, possibly revised a few times, and now you have been given the green light to get going and do the doctorate. This is an exciting moment in a doctoral candidate’s life, and one that brings both relief and feelings of ‘uh oh, now what?’ with it. What now, indeed? Once the proposal is approved, what next? What to write, or read, first, second and so on? Do you forget the proposal exists and start your thesis, or have you, in fact, already started it?

Screenshot 2015-11-05 08.52.51

My proposal was a fairly lengthy 20 pages, which is pretty standard in the social sciences and humanities, certainly in South Africa (as far as I can make out). It contains within it all of the parts that would need to be in the final thesis – literature review, methodology, theoryology, details about the data and the proposed analysis of it, and of course, the research questions and objectives. I was told by one of the supervisors in our programme, in my first year of the PhD while I was working on my proposal, that about 1/4 of your thinking needs to be apparent in the proposal. In other words, the proposal is not separate from the thesis – it is a fairly significant first step towards the thesis that indicates your ability to do research at this level, and your ability to complete this one viable, valuable research project.

After my proposal was approved I felt, simultaneously, elated and freaked out. The proposal was a difficult genre to write, and I felt a bit at sea, not really sure what I was supposed to be doing, exactly. It can be argued that it is not terribly difficult to show your proposal readers what you have read thus far, where the gaps are and what your research questions therefore are. It is not even terribly difficult to explain, quite abstractly, the theory that will help you to answer these questions. But the methodology? The data and how you will build a ‘translation device’ or analytical framework to interpret the data and answer those research questions? Yikes. I really had no idea what I was doing in this part of the proposal. I mean, I could tell you it would be case studies, and qualitative data generation and analysis, and I could tell you I would generate data from documents, participant interviews and observations of teaching. But as to how I would organise all of that, or analyse it, I was pretty clueless. That was over a year away! I had no idea what I would even find, and while I had a grip on the theory, it was a fairly shaky one, and I was still making sense of how the theory, data and method pieces would fit together.

The struggles in writing significant parts of the proposal meant that coming out of that phase of the doctorate into actually beginning the thesis, and doing the actual research, was quite stressful, and I felt quite lost, initially. I started with more reading, but the more I read, the more I confused myself (at least initially), and I kept losing my research questions and my basic plot, which was alarming. I thought, for a while, that all this meant I was a fraud, and that the committee at my university had approved my research plans in error. It took me a while to realise that I was mainly freaking myself out because I had forgotten the comment from one of the supervisors in our group: that about 25-30% of your thinking is within your proposal, which is your blueprint for the doctorate. I had already started my PhD – I wasn’t just starting now.

Along with this realisation, which was comforting, what helped me past this was my own supervisor’s advice to begin the writing of the thesis by copying and pasting a chunk from my proposal – from the theory or literature review – into a new file and to start writing around it, modifying, adapting and obviously adding and extending it. This advice helped me to physically see that I had made a start on the writing, and I had a basis to build on. Very few of the actual words from my proposal are in the final version of my thesis – much of my thinking and expression of that thinking changed over the course of doing the research – but the parts of the proposal I copied into new files gave me ‘holding texts’ to work with towards creating chapter the first, and then the second, before I was up and running and could leave the proposal behind.

While a PhD or MA proposal is often seen as a hurdle to be vaulted in progressing from candidate to graduate, and while some supervisors may even advise their students to leave the proposal behind so as not to be limited by it, I think it might be helpful to see a proposal as some of the supervisors on my doctoral programme do: as a significant, although early, step towards the PhD thesis, and as more than just a ‘test’ to be passed. The proposal, ideally, should be your PhD’s holding text – not the final thing, of course, but a document that gives readers a fairly clear idea of what the final thesis could or may well be. As with all blueprints, there is and must be room for change, modification, improvement – but the research you actually do and write about shouldn’t be wildly different from the research you proposed to do.

A good place to start your thesis, therefore, is your proposal: your thinking – at least part of it – is already in there, and proposal approval indicates that it is solid and useful thinking thus far. So, begin with what you have already written and write and think from that base, building upwards and outwards as you modify, adapt and hone your research going forward.

How should I propose?

I was skimming through my PhD proposal towards the end of last year, trying to see how close or far my final argument and question was from what I proposed it would be in 2011. It got me thinking about the proposal itself and the art of writing a proposal that is both vague enough to give the researcher wiggle room and specific enough to convince the faculty committee that you know enough to be getting on to the next step.

I went though several drafts of mine, and spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with individual words and sentences to get it just right. There was a lot I did not know – my methodology especially was terribly vague  – but I had to sound convincing and convinced of my own knowledge and ability. I think that an important part of proposal writing and presentation does have to do with being convinced yourself of your own ability to actually do the PhD you are proposing before convincing others.

I think proposal writing is an art as well as a bit of a science. It is an art because you have to be persuasive, using your words to show how your ideas, reading, and thinking are connected into the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework that will enable you to carry forward your study and answer your research questions. It has to be polished. It has to say that you are indeed, while just starting the process, a competent and capable student-researcher. It’s also a little bit of a science because there are technical issues to get right as well: there are word and page limits, so you need to choose very carefully what to include; there are specific referencing styles and there are also certain sections that need to be included and probably in a particular order too. There is no one format for a proposal, so understanding what your faculty wants and why and how to achieve that is, for me, both an art and a science – an exercise in both rhetorical and technical proficiency.

Proposals can be difficult to write because they are not flippant pieces of writing. It is true, I think, that it is not crime to change your focus slightly as your research starts in earnest and you find that your question is being rephrased and honed, or changed a little to something more appropriate or answerable or interesting. Changes are almost certainly going to be made and I think supervisors and higher degrees committees do understand this. Changes like adding certain substantive theory later as data requests it which you could not have foreseen in the proposal stage, or shifting focus a little, or further refining your frameworks to cut out some of the earlier thoughts are par for the course. But, while you can make small changes, you cannot really make major changes, like throwing out a big chunk of or your whole framework and starting again without re-proposing your research or at least going through some kind of formal process.  If you have to change big things, then perhaps (might reason a committee) you were not really ready to move onto the research proper in the first place. Thus, proposals have to be thought about carefully, and written as if they are indeed a road map for your research and your eventual thesis.

I was told by another supervisor in our group that about 30% of your overall thinking goes into PhD proposal – and that it acts as a pretty clear road map for the thesis you will write. It tells your readers what your study is about and why it should be done, and it outlines (in differing amounts of detail depending on your field) your frameworks for the study – theoretical and methodological. It also contains mandatory bits, like a statement about the ethics of your research, your initial research questions and a bibliography of what you have read thus far. So, to get to proposal stage you have to do a good deal of reading and thinking. You need to have what is, in brief form, the first draft of a literature review which lays out the pertinent debates/conversations you are joining, and indicates where you fit into them with your research. Why are your questions timely and important? What gap are you trying to fill? Why should it be filled and how? These are all questions the proposal needs to consider.

I am not sure that all proposals can be very clear on the methodology and the anticipated findings. Mine wasn’t, and I know several others who have battled with this. I could say that I was doing interviews and observations and that the research was qualitative and would use case studies. I could say that I would behave ethically and get consent and all that, and I could say that parts of the theoretical framework would be adapted to create a more practical analytical framework for working with the data and give a small indication of how. But that was about it. I really only worked out how this actually all worked when I got there and was actually gathering data and looking at it.

So what I took away from this process was a sense that I did not have to have it all worked out – that would be the thesis, wouldn’t it? What I did need, though, was a proposal that showed that I had done sufficient reading and thinking to allow me to move on to the next step, which was doing the actual research. Things will always change and shift – this is an essential part of the process of research. But if you spend enough time writing a clear and defined proposal/map you may well find at the end that you pretty much did what you set out to do, with a few changes here and there. And that is quite a satisfying feeling.