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.

Turning a PhD into a book

Here at Channel View Publications we’re very proud of our track record of publishing successful books based on PhD theses. Finding and developing young authors is central to what we do, and both we and our series editors are happy to work with authors who have recently finished their theses to turn their work into a book.

Unlike publishers who will republish PhD theses largely as they are (with no real expectation of them gaining an audience), we do ask our authors to do a significant amount of re-thinking and re-writing before we will publish their PhD research: we don’t believe it is in anyone’s interest to publish books which no-one buys or reads! Equally the work of early-career researchers is not just padding for our list, and so you can rest assured that if you do the work on your manuscript, we will match it by giving your book the time and attention it deserves.

Examples of recent Phd-to-book transitions
Examples of recent Phd-to-book transitions

When we discuss a proposal we always prefer to see that the author has understood the level of rewriting that will probably be needed before publication. So a good first step is to contact the commissioning editor or academic editor of the series you think your manuscript would be most suitable for, and discuss it with them. You might also find it useful to have a look at a few successful PhD-to-book transitions that we have published recently.

There are a few main things you’ll need to think about:

Audience You need to consider the change in your audience, and what they might be looking for in your text: PhD examiners and supervisors are looking for a demonstration that you understand how to do research, that you’ve read everything you need to, and that you can write up a piece of research diligently; book-buyers need to be drawn in and encouraged to make connections between your work on a community/topic that may be of no particular interest to them and their own interests.

Content Your readers should be familiar with the literature (or most of it!) and they’ll assume that you are too, so your literature review can be cut down considerably. Similarly, they’ll assume that you know how to conduct research, so you don’t need a long discussion of methodology, unless methodological concerns are particularly important. Do you need all those tables and appendices? Are they there to demonstrate that you haven’t missed anything, or will your readers find them enlightening?

Style and structure Could you start presenting your data right at the beginning of the book? It’s your new material that your readers are likely to be interested in, so give it to them! Can your work be restructured and ordered thematically rather than introduction-literature review-methodology-data-conclusion? Does your writing style need lightening to draw in the maximum possible audience?

When you’ve just defended your thesis and are more than ready to move on to something new, we understand that the idea of revisiting it can be off-putting, to say the least. But we’ll be there to support you every step of the way to publication and beyond…

You can find our proposal guidelines on our website.