The PhD pinata (or, groping for research questions)



I raise my arms and swing them, blindly, above my head. The full force of my swing lands on…nothing. My hands, still gripping their bludgeon, fall impotently by my ankles. I raise them and swing again. And again. And again. My misses fall awkwardly. I should be embarrassed. Before the blindfold was wrapped around my eyes I caught a glimpse of the piñata and I’m sure that I’m standing directly below it.

Or am I?

With each desperate, awkward swing I feel I’m getting closer and closer to the target. But my flailing arms fall in wider and wider arcs. My bludgeon, the pen that I once thought was mightier than the sword, no longer even skims the elusive edge of the piñata that is my PhD topic.

At this rate, I’ll never refine my PhD question, let alone finish the thesis itself.

And so it seems, a year into the process, that I’m doomed to the intellectual spiral of getting closer and closer to The Perfect Question without actually arriving at it.

This is significant and worrying because doing a PhD in the humanities in Australia means I have to come up with my own question. I don’t have the luxury of having one devised for me by my faculty or the research project director. Instead, I must tinker and twiddle and tweak my own ideas into something resembling a respectable question to spend three or more years answering.

Of course I had to come up with a question when I applied for my PhD program. That wasn’t difficult. Back then I was so ignorant of my chosen research field that any proposal I put together would invariably sound brilliant to my naïve ears. Now, more than twelve months on, I know better. And that knowledge burdens me so heavily I can scarcely swing at my metaphorical piñata with confidence or accuracy.

The PhD question, you see, is an elusive thing. It’s an intellectual horizon; the closer you approach, the further it recedes. The more I read (and read and read and read and read and read) about my subject, the more detail and controversy appears from which I could fashion a specific, unique, significant question. Which, naturally, makes it all the more difficult to select one!

I won’t bore you with the details of my actual research area, but suffice it to say I feel like I’m in the Department of Life, The Universe, And Everything, and have chosen the rather broad but nonetheless noble topic of World Peace. My initial PhD application was some impressively worded guff about a hunch I had that more hugs in the world will make everyone more peaceful.

Now I need to create a methodology that interrogates the nexus of hug-giving, hug-receiving and incidence of warfare since the invention of the hug in 703BC. Then I need to decide whether my thesis will be titled ‘Statistical regression modelling of war ameliorating properties of human-to-human non-sexual physical contact’ or do I want it to be ‘Guerrillas in the mist of tears; practical applications of hugging for counter-insurgency’. And how do I incorporate the fascinating but possibly irrelevant topic of tree-hugging?!

Apart from the insanity-inducing back-and-forth about the exact wording of my PhD question, my metaphorical piñata is also one of Meaning, capital-M. My question – and yours, and everyone else’s who has ever done a PhD – needs to solve all the world’s problems in approximately 80,000 words. Doesn’t it? I mean, why else write a thesis. Right? It’s there to shift paradigms; to re-write policy; to offer game-changing insights. The temptation is certainly there to create something monumental. A PhD, after all, is supposed to add to the sum of human knowledge. That seems like a pretty large – and humbling – task.

But maybe I shouldn’t be as hard on myself as I am on that imaginary piñata? Maybe it doesn’t really matter than much, in the grand scheme of things, if I take a post-structuralist-hug approach or the formalist hug theory to deconstructing World Peace. Maybe nobody outside some dank politics department will care. Or maybe at this level, with everything I have learned and experienced, it makes little difference because whatever I apply my analytical attentions to will be unique. Useful. Profound. Worthwhile. Groundbreaking, even.

With my confidence restored, I swing again. It is now almost irrelevant where exactly my hits land – slightly to the left, slightly to the right – because it is all relevant and important, provided I then pursue the question I land on with vigour and intellectual integrity.

How about you? Have you found the Perfect Question yet? Or are you still swinging?

Author Bio: Paula Hanasz is currently writing a thesis on the geopolitics of water security in South Asia at The ANU. She is enrolled at the Australia National University but currently spends more time on her couch than in her office or the library.