route recalculation – starting the phd

Expectations are a funny thing. Particularly when it comes to the doctorate. On the one hand you want to anticipate the smoothest and most interesting route through the PhD. But focusing only on the dream doctorate can leave you shocked and miserable if things don’t go to plan. On the other hand, too much concentration on what might go wrong can make you risk averse at best, and unable to act at worst – and wondering why you’re bothering with a doctorate at all. 

It’s important to find the balance between head in the sand optimism and cowering in a corner gloom and doom. To that end, it may be helpful to know a predictable obstacle. Here goes. There are often changes to your initial plans. Yep. All of those things you write about what your research will be like. They may not happen. But don’t despair, bumpy journeys are rarely a complete disaster. 

Take your research design for instance. You spend a substantial amount of time at the start of the PhD planning your research. While most of the research methods books suggest that once you have your research plan all you have to do is to carry it out, this is often not the case. Now I’m not talking here about the experiment that fails, or the replication study that cant replicate. These apparent failures are often important in terms of the learning that comes from working out what went “wrong”. I am talking about the unforeseen event that happens which wasn’t in your original thinking. 

Say for example – you can’t recruit enough people to be in your project or you can’t recruit enough of the people you want or you can’t get the right mix of people

Or the people in charge of the places where you planned to research are having a bad day or bad year and just won’t let you in

Or the person you were partnering with decides to withdraw

Or the methods that you were using to try to get information don’t seem to lead to anything particularly interesting

Or there are some serious ethical issues that arise in the middle of your project which make you think you ought to change what you’re doing.

Or something unexpected and interesting turns up and you think it might be really important to follow it up rather than stick to your original plan

Or there are rolling train strikes and you can’t get to where you need to be at the right times.

Or there is a pandemic.

Of there is an institutional problem that is really disruptive.

Or.. or.. or…

There are numerous other problems or events you might face during your research. 

And they might be of sufficient magnitude and/or difficulty and/or significance that you have to rethink. While you can’t anticipate exactly what these problems might be, you can get begin the doctorate with a mindset where you are not surprised, devastated or unable to respond if something unexpected and untoward does happen. 

Now I’m not suggesting here that you need to think of bumpy research problems as exciting challenges that will bring loads of unanticipated benefits to your results. You may be the kind of person who does think like this. But chances are you will be initially appalled/aghast/worried/alarmed/angry/terrified/scared/sad/irritated – all of these, or a combination or several one after the other. And that’s perfectly rational and OK.

Yes, you may eventually come to think about the undesirable happening that stymied your lovely initial research plan as a good thing. You may see the positives in retrospect. Or you may always see the obstacles as unwanted and a nuisance. 

But the key thing about the unexpected hurdle is that you have to deal with whatever you are feeling now – and then figure out a defensible way over, under or around the problem. A way that still allows you to address the initial question you were interested in. A way that allows you to keep to roughly your ideal timetable. A way that produces some research that is worthy of a doctorate. Even if you have to undertake a dramatic redesign, as happened during the pandemic, all is very rarely lost. 

Unfortunately, methods texts and courses often don’t come with a ready-made route-recalculator. Nor do they have a section at the back of the book called trouble shooting your research, although at least some of them really ought to IMHO. 

But you can get some help in the sorting out stages. You probably won’t be the only one to have ever faced this particular difficulty. It’s important to get some reassurance that this is not all about you or your bad luck or worse still your lack of forethought, but is rather the way of research. And help may be at hand – your particular case might seem unique but it may well fall into a common pattern where there are already some principles to guide your decision-making. And even some known options. 

So where to look for assistance. Here’s three starting points.

  • First, your supervisor(s). A core aspect of your supervisor’s job is to help you solve problems. They have done research themselves, are familiar with the literatures and with your research goals and design. Your supervisor won’t tell you what to do, but their job is to support you to work through the options. 
  • Second, your peers. It’s important to find a cohort of PhDers who are likely facing issues of their own but who are also committed to peer support. They can provide emotional nurturing as well as brain storming possibilities and thinking through advantages and disadvantages of particular actions. 
  • Third, dedicated support groups. There are now loads of online forums devoted to support and information sharing. These can be surprisingly helpful. Searching the socials using terms such as PhD, doctorate, academic, research, methods will yield a lot of possibilities. And do ask your friends and more generally on the socials what accounts to follow.

And not to forget. If your research difficulties stem from some kind of institutional problem, then both peers and support groups may be crucial but not enough. Issues such as endemic racism or sexism require collective action – you may or may not choose to take this option. But most grad schools offer some kind of student representation and fora where systemic issues can be aired.

So – don’t drop your bundle when the unexpected happens. Sigh, scream, sob but also know that the best laid research plans often go amiss. And know that it’s important once the difficulty occurs to take charge of the direction of your research.

Research troubles happen to most of us, a lot of the time. It’s OK. It’s part of the process. Researchers are problem solvers, trouble shooters, inventive as well as resourceful when the road gets rocky. We expect the unexpected and aren’t thrown off course when it happens. 

Photo by Adam Rhodes on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral research, emotional research, research agenda, research as process, research design, research methods, research plan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to route recalculation – starting the phd

  1. whitmom says:

    Great advice and beautifully written. Thank you


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