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.

Small Stories: A Research Methodology To Work With Migrant Young People and Children

This month we published The Multilingual Adolescent Experience by Malgorzata Machowska-Kosciak. In this post the author explains ‘small stories’ as a research methodology.

‘Small stories’ as a methodological framework enable prioritizing children’s and young people’s lived experience; it is placing their voice at the very forefront of a research process. Not only does it facilitate expression of migrant children’s voices but also facilitates incorporating their authentic lived experiences in the educational research. It brings together Laura Lundy’s model (2007) as it provides young people and children with affordances to express their views (Space), facilitates the expression of their views (Voice), creates opportunities for their voices to be listened to (Audience) and have their views acted upon (Influence). Thus, it goes hand in hand with the Children’s Rights framework.

What are “Small Stories”?

The term “small story” was first coined by Alexandra Georgakopoulou and is defined as “Small incidents that may (or may not) have happened, mentioned to back up or elaborate on an argumentative point occurring in an ongoing conversation” (2007:5).

Small stories that are presented in this book are more than narratives as they are combinations of saying–doing–being–valuing and believing. They become safe spaces where children’s identity work takes place.

Children’s small stories presented in the book were often constructed by co-participants (including the researcher), but more frequently they were spontaneously initiated by the young participants. Threads from these stories were very important to children as fragments of these stories recurrently appeared in their narratives, whenever the chance to talk about them occurred. They included events from the distant past “dead relatives” or more recent past “ I talk with more grown-up voice”, or were concerned with retrospective accounts of different situations “going to the pub”, generalizations “they have only one dance”, assessments of or justifications for particular behaviours “pack of lies” or choices. They sometimes signalled what role children were playing within the particular group (peers, heritage schools), how they positioned themselves within that group and, most importantly, how they exercised their agency, the choices they made and the plans they had for their future, thus, their own voice is central in the research process and the researcher becomes the new apprentice in the discovery process.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom by Kimberly Adilia Helmer.

New series: Researching Multilingually

To introduce our new series, Researching Multilingually, which we’re launching this year, the series editors Prue Holmes, Richard Fay and Jane Andrews have written this post which outlines the aims of the series.

The increasingly diverse character of many societies means that researchers from a wide range of disciplines may now find themselves engaging with multilingual opportunities as they design, carry out and disseminate their research, even if there is no explicit focus on languages and multilingualism. This book series is designed to address the methodological, practical, ethical options and dilemmas that researchers face may as they conduct their research.

  • How may researchers engage with research methodology which allows them to embrace multilingual possibilities and practices?
  • How may researchers operate with and across multiple languages in the research domain?
  • How are multiple languages reflected in research outcomes and dissemination events and products?

This series establishes a distinctive track of theoretical, methodological, and ethical researcher praxis that readers can draw upon in contexts where multiple languages are at play or might be purposefully used. The series offers critical and interpretive perspectives on research practices in a range of contexts, specifically where languages, and the people speaking and using them, are vulnerable and under pressure, pain, and tension.

For more information about the new series please see our website. Proposals should be sent to Anna Roderick.