support, thesis management

Your research topic: the key to keeping motivated

In this post, Dr Sandy Astill (as of April 2017!) shares her shock at the self-directed nature of PhD study , the critical importance of being interested in your research topic, and some tips about the value of being stubborn, brave and bold – describing how she emailed all her favorite high-profile academic authors and received wonderful encouragement.  

The decision to undertake a PhD is not one to take lightly. This is a commitment of 3 – 4 years (perhaps more), on top of what you have already completed. Sure, you have already committed and survived a 3,4, or 5 year commitment and have your undergrad degree, and maybe another 12 – 18 months and have a post grad, so what is another 3 – 4 years you ask? Let me tell you …..

The biggest shock to me was that this was a process where no-one was there to hold my hand. No classes of peers to talk to, no tutorials to nut things out in, no lecturers steering your thoughts into the correct direction – no outside source to keep me motivated – nothing! This degree was all up to me. Yes, we have Supervisors, but I am sure that part of the test to see if you are worthy of a PhD is to challenge your sense of character! This is a time when you will need to be more self-directed than you have ever been in your academic career. And don’t forget (and this does not apply to me as my academic pathways started later in life), your undergrad was probably something your started straight out of high school, with your post-grad perhaps following straight afterwards, when all you really missed was having a social life!

For many, a PhD occurs later in life, in the midst of bringing up children, paying a mortgage, and maintaining a meaningful relationship with a partner. This is also usually a time when your financial burdens are at their peak, when you are over-committed financially, emotionally, personally and professionally. Paradoxically, this is also the time when many of us decide it is time to return to the books! Does this sound familiar? As a result, those who finish this type of degree are usually some of the most determined people on the planet; willing to make many sacrifices to ensure they have the time to dedicate to this – the most important uni assignment of their life! My point is, you need a driving force to get you through this challenge. For me, the driving force was the belief I had in my research topic. 

Choosing a topic is a challenge. I have seen universities produce lists of potential topics for HDR students to choose from. These topics are important from the university’s perspective, but for me, if I had made a choice from such as list, I would have likened it to choosing from a list of essay topics for any of my undergrad subjects; boring, confusing, and written in someone else’s words.

You must remember that throughout the PhD journey your topic, your respondents (if you are a qualitative researcher as I am), your findings, your outcomes and conclusions have to engage with you for a very long time to remain motivating. Remaining motivated will be one of your greatest challenges. If a topic does not resonate, it will not motivate, at least not for very long (this will be my catch-phrase for this blog I think!).

I was lucky. My PhD topic evolved from my Honours project. It was an organic process that added value to what I had done previously. Like I said, I was lucky. My journey has not been smooth though, anything but, yet having a belief that my topic was something that needed to be investigated meant I pushed through. It was also a topic that others felt was not worthy of investigation because of limited resources in the area of investigation, meaning that no matter my findings, they felt nothing was going to change. Luckily I am stubborn by nature, so I did not care. I had seen these people who were to become my respondents. I had had cups of tea with them, listened to their stories and saw the concern on their faces. I understood their fears, and was curious about how they would cope in the future. I was on a bit of a mission I guess, but that was my motivation. I am no Joan of Arc, but I felt I needed to give these people a voice, and if nothing else, start conversations that might build awareness.

Having this form of determination meant I also had to convince others that my topic was important, but I felt I needed to back up my justifications with something a bit more gutsy, so I wrote to all of my favourite authors. I did not care that one was a high profile advisor to the United States Congress, or that another was a highly regarded British author. I also did not care that my favourite Australian author was from a discipline that I knew little about – I email them all, and waited. I did not have to wait long for to my absolute surprise, each of them responded to my email within the week, each encouraging me to pursue the topic, with two attaching files they felt would assist me with my literature review, and one encouraging me to meet with him to ensure I fully understood his theories and conceptual models. The generosity and encouragement from these high-profile researchers gave me the confidence to put my case forward. I am very grateful for their support, and would encourage any HDR candidate to do the same.

It has been a long, arduous process, but I am proud of what I have done, grateful for my stubborn nature and pleased I chose a topic that provided the drive to push through the dark, isolating period that each PhD student feels at some stage in the HDR journey. My advice to anyone who is just starting is to choose your topic carefully. Make sure it will keep your interest, and most importantly, make sure it is motivating, and you too will write a blog one day with a similar conclusion! Remember – if a topic does not resonate, it will not motivate.

Dr Sandy Astill

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