Does my PhD have to save the world?



Perhaps you’re one of those people who have always known exactly what you wanted to study. I suspect, though, a lot of researchers are like me: interested in many things at once.

This wasn’t a problem in my earlier academic years because I was surrounded by other interdisciplinary students and researchers who held similarly broad research interests. Plus, I deliberately chose a flexible degree type, which allowed me to explore a range of different ideas.

When it came to choosing a PhD topic, however, I realised that being interested in too many things could be problematic. How could I focus on a research problem when my interests were so different from one another?

So, without having yet read the excellent thesis whisperer post on choosing a topic or wide consultation with academic mentors, I decided to do a bit of a research interest mash up and combine my concerns about climate change with the study of human mobility.

I came up with a topic inspired both by my interest in the experiences of mobility across different cultures and my equally long-term concern over developing practical solutions to global sustainability issues. Some of my Honours friends who went on to do PhDs took a similar approach with their topics: One combined her interest in community with concern over urban sustainability. Another connected her love of awe-inspiring landscapes with an interest in how science works/doesn’t work with policy.

During my PhD I found most of the existing literature unhelpful; at the same time the bits of my thesis topic that interested me the most were not necessarily linked to environmental issues. But this meant I was out of step with many people around me. I continued attending seminars with titles like ‘The Anthropocene and Global Meltdown: AKA how the world needs saving and what to do about it!’. I’d slip away from these presentations feeling guilty for being more interested in the aspects of my topic that didn’t immediately appear to resolve such major problems.

I continued to wonder whether I was going in the right direction, and if I shouldn’t somehow find a way to return to these other research concerns. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t about choosing between ‘useful’ versus ‘abstract’ enquiry. I’m describing a process in which I was trying to discern the research questions that really sparked my academic interest the most, as well as maintaining a focus on the research problem. A process particularly important in the context maintaining and sometimes reviving interest in your topic over the long period of a PhD

The early signs of where my interests as a researcher lay appeared early on in the PhD process, but I didn’t pay them much attention.

One was the lack of spark and intellectual zing I felt when I was reading particular areas of literature, like the really dense article on the concept of ‘vulnerability’, in which I was left wondering how it could apply to a real-life research problem. I struggled even to get through some material, whereas other work was intellectually challenging but could still hook me in. Somehow the insights and epistemological approaches of some authors felt more authentic and grounded.

I tended to prefer authors who were able to link theoretical questions, to fascinating context-specific dynamics and come up with a novel explanation. One such example is James Scott’s book entitled Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, in which he argues for a new way of understanding the agency of rural people in Southeast Asia through a detailed case study analysis of village life in Malaysia. On the other hand, conceptual articles that relied on mechanistic models of human behaviour left me cold. Even macro-studies of political economy while interesting, didn’t appeal to me as much as those approaches that also drew on qualitative material.

I continued to explore these areas of research, juggling them alongside my research question and topic. And this proved to be a fruitful strategy, helping me to stretch the boundaries of my topic through developing new paths of inquiry. Going to big conferences where I could listen in to a wide range of topics and perspectives was also helpful.

At one conference, I was unexpectedly inspired by a series of papers, after which I wrote an outline of a paper in a transit lounge on the way home, at 2 o’clock in the morning! (Ok, I still haven’t written the paper but I do have the outline for when I have the time!). Other papers at the conference that I thought might appeal more to my interests, ended up disappointing me. Similarly to engaging with different literatures, conferences offer another opportunity to weed out the views you’re not as interested in while planting or nurturing the ones that do. Looking back now, this process of exploration reminds me of one of my favourite Michael Leunig poems:

Let it go,
Let it out,
Let it all unravel,
Let it free
And it will be
A path on which to travel.

Giving myself permission to explore these other areas, and being encouraged to do so by my supervisor and other mentors was key to finding my ‘intellectual feet’. It was a bit hard at first, to step out of my comfort zone and explore a new research identity. Now that I’m closer to finishing my thesis, I’m still not exactly sure what I want to be (sociologist? human ecologist? Just ‘interdisciplinary’?) or what my next research project will be. But I think I’m closer to identifying the areas of research that really push my buttons.

I’d be interested to hear from others: How have you identified your research ‘g’-spots? Did you have to change your research identity as a result? How did you manage the process of re-focussing your research interest?

Author Bio: Hedda Ransan-Cooper who is currently a PhD Candidate, School of Sociology at the ANU. She doesn’t (yet) have a blog but you can find her on twitter: @hedda_r