Where to Start When You Don’t Know Where to Start: Building a Philosophical Framing for Your PhD Research

This month we published Research Paradigm Considerations for Emerging Scholars edited by Anja Pabel, Josephine Pryce and Allison Anderson. In this post Allison explains where to start with your PhD journey.

When you start a PhD, there is usually a lot of emphasis on ‘defining your topic’, ‘stating your question’, ‘outlining your research aims and objectives’, or ‘finding your hypothesis’, which is usually quite fun, as it is nearly always in an area you know a lot about already. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to read everything related to the topic, and there is often some discussion about your theoretical framework and your methodology. All of these aspects support the confirmation of candidature process that you go through in the first six months of your PhD, which is generally quite an affirming and exciting process as you stride with confidence into your ‘publication plan’ and ‘milestone schedule’. Everyone tells you it’s going to be hard, and you listen, but really don’t see how that will happen with such a robust plan ahead.

When I started my PhD, I thought my methodology was simply a description of whether I used surveys or interviews to gather data, how I decided on sample sizes and what computer program I would use to analyse it all. I didn’t fully understand that I would need to connect these choices back to my personal viewpoint, how I view the world and the specific perspective of my research.

My supervisor started introducing the terms ‘paradigm’, ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ as things I should be thinking about in my philosophical framing. I honestly didn’t know what a philosophical framing was, let alone what mine was, or what that of my research was. And worse, I hadn’t really allowed for this in my plan and I was feeling a little out of control. So I started reading. And to be frank, that really did not help. The definitions of these terms as described in formal sources were actually less helpful to my novice mind than those in Wikipedia. I was beginning to realise the importance of doing this, and I was frustrated at my lack of grounding and understanding, as well as at the lack of clear guidance available. I wondered whether I was really cut out to write a PhD at all.

I talked to my friends who were also doing PhDs. And I realised that I was not alone – nearly everyone I spoke to was having similar experiences with a lack of clarity or knowledge from their supervisors, a lack of grounding in philosophical thinking, and not knowing where to start. It became evident that we all needed to start somewhere, so we gathered together a core group of around ten PhD students from a diverse range of disciplines across the university and called ourselves the ROPE Group – talking about Research, Ontology, Philosophy and Epistemology. We found Jo (Pryce, co-editor of our new book), a delightful member of the academic staff who was very interested in paradigms and generous enough to attend our fortnightly meetings. I made sure to book the tea room in one of the faculties in the hope of engaging with other academics, and brought biscuits each week to keep the energy going. Jo introduced us to Guba & Lincoln’s (1994, 2005) table of paradigms, ontologies and epistemologies, which was a watershed moment for all of us and guided us on our exploration of the paradigms.

The ROPE group kept me sane throughout the highs and lows of my PhD journey, providing support, kindness, guidance, calories and the deep, reassuring knowledge that I was not alone. We all went on to complete our PhDs and as we did, we realised that PhD students everywhere face these challenges, not just within our group. Jo suggested that we write a book that might help others in the same situation, with each chapter covering a different paradigm used, how we applied it in practice and a reflection on our experience of using it. Anja (a fellow ROPE member) took the lead and reached out to our broader networks to invite submissions, and now the book is being released.

If you don’t know where to start when things get murky with paradigms and philosophical framings in your PhD journey, start with a group of fellow PhDs, a packet of biscuits, a tea room, Guba & Lincoln’s (1994, 2005) table of paradigms, ontologies and epistemologies, and very importantly, a knowledgeable and engaged academic who is prepared to spend time guiding your conversation. If these things are not available to you, consider buying our book. Or maybe just buy it anyway. It will help!

Allison Anderson

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Qualitative Methods in Tourism Research edited by Wendy Hillman and Kylie Radel.