I’m one year, one month and seventeen days into my PhD and I have finally finished my conceptual framework – by which I mean I’ve polished it to the point where both my promotors are mostly satisfied with it. That’s great, right? Well yes, it is very good. I’m happy to be making progress, and happy to have something to show for my work. But completing my conceptual framework means that I have to start working on the next stage of research…my research design. [Cue dramatic music.]
As someone who studied languages in my Bachelor’s, I never learnt about research methodologies. They were assumed knowledge in our Master’s degree, but I got by without knowing much about them. So what I’ve learnt about methodologies has mostly been from my own reading, which has taught me that a lot of methodology is a lot of fancy/scary labels referring to things that are common sense or basic logic. But still, the thought of doing the research design for a whole PhD project is an intimidating one, and I honestly have no idea where to start, and am feeling pretty confused by the whole thing.
Cut to this morning, when I searched ‘research design’ on the wonderful blog The Thesis Whisperer (my weekly dose of PhD inspiration) and I stumbled upon this post from 2010. The post explains the periods of confusion and befuddlement that are part of the PhD process, referring to Piantanide and Garmen’s (1999) ‘cycles of deliberation’: only by puzzling over the parts of the research that are difficult will things become clear and we can enter a new, deeper cycle of deliberation and understanding. This is key to reaching the critical thinking required for a PhD, and – normally – can’t be achieved in one step.
Of course, it can be difficult to think of it so logically when you’re where I am – unsure of how to progress and confused by all the options that lie before me.
So what’s the solution, as far as I see it? Persevere – keep chipping away at the problem bit by bit, keeping patient even if answers don’t present themselves straight away. Take breaks to think, mix your main work with other tasks (readings, organisational or administrative tasks) and give yourself small deadlines. Find out what gets your best thinking going – it’s unlikely to be sitting and staring at blank screen, so maybe taking a long walk outside, talking the problem over with friends, or thinking over it in a cafe could help.
Talking with colleagues and people who have already gone through the PhD process is key to understanding that it’s normal to go through ups and downs, and something that everyone experiences. During my first months, I found it very intimidating to be surrounded by other PhD students who were further on in their PhD and seemed to have everything totally under control – but once I realised that they had (and still were) struggling with the same problems, I was able to stop beating myself up about it.
There’s an oft-used metaphor in EU studies which compares the EU to a bicycle: it has to keep moving forward, no matter how slowly, otherwise it will fall over. Maybe it’s worth adopting that as a PhD motto: even during those slow periods, keep going! At some stage the mist will clear and I’ll realise how far I’ve come – and where I’m headed.