A thesis-based degree, whether at the masters or doctoral level, is designed around a research project. As I explained in an earlier podcast, the project itself provides opportunity to develop an array of research skills intended to prepare the student for future activity in research, whether in academia or beyond. To reiterate another earlier point, a successful PhD involves not merely a quality output but also understanding of a body of knowledge, familiarity with research methods and techniques, and the capacity to design and adapt a research project that makes an original contribution to a scholarly debate. Each element is vital in its own regard and a student ignores any one of these elements at their own peril.
Due to the dynamic character of research, it is important to note that the development of a project is an evolutionary process. Like most things in life, your spark provides an excellent starting point. What I mean is that the idea, the question, or the impetus behind your pursuit of a doctoral degree is a useful springboard into the project. Your spark, however, is limited and your project is sure to grow, even morph over the coming years. To ensure that the evolutionary process – a mix of the systematic and the serendipitous – does not lead you astray, it is vital that you situate yourself in the literature; that you join a scholarly debate.
In the following podcast (hosted on soundcloud), I provide guidance on precisely this: how does a student identify a scholarly debate, how do they compile and categorise the relevant literature, and how do they tackle a mass of material and produce in the process the infamous literature review? My suggestions will guide you in charting the evolution of the debate as well as the evolution of your place within the debate.
I conclude by highlighting a key technique in ensuring that you achieve an original contribution: your project must be built upon sound research methods (the forthcoming topic in my three-part series).