Methodologies

This post will not be about all the types of methodologies you can use in your PhD work. That really is for you to research and uncover. It is a main part of the PhD work, particularly if you are in the sciences. Methodology is also very particular to a project, and no two PhD theses will have the same exact methodology, unless you are purposely trying to recreate a project previously done.

What this blog post will be about is how to talk about your chosen methodology(ies). It is often a separate chapter in the thesis (definitely if you are STEM). It is also, usually, the second easiest part of your PhD to write, next to the literature review. The Lit Review is about reviewing other people’s research. The Methodology chapter is about talking about what methods someone else has already created that you have chosen to use for your thesis. Once again, it’s mainly other people’s research and how it can work for you.

Some people start with the methods chapter. That’s fine. Really, whatever works best for you, as we’ve <a href=”https://phdingfordummies.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/the-order-of-the-thing/”>previously</a&gt; covered.

Having said that, perhaps where we really need to begin is with a definition or two.

Method: a form of procedure for accomplishing something.

Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular study.

In other words, you use a method in your work, and those methods make up your methodology.

Some people only use one method for their research study, which is fine. That still makes up your methodology.

Some people use several.

I used four. Never* ever do that.

*No, you can, just realise it’s going to be a headache and a half.

I had two methods for collecting data, one for analysing it, and a method I used to structure my thesis. But I’ve never chosen to do things easily.

I also did not have a methodology chapter. This is more common in the humanities. I had a chapter where I talked about method, but as it was a method taken from a theory, the chapter was more about the theory and why I was using it, and what the method was. More Lit Review than Method in the end.

My Methodology therefore formed a part of my Intro chapter (nearly half of it, in fact). That’s okay too. Whatever works for your thesis is what you should do. Always discuss things with your advisor/supervisor, who can give you direction as to weighting and wordage.

Methodology in the thesis itself is all about what methods you employed for your work, why you chose those methods, and how those methods lead you to your conclusions/results. It’s pretty straight forward, and writing the chapter in that order is best. Usually, the last part of that chapter ‘how those methods lead to results’ is what leads you into the rest of your thesis where you talk about the data you collected and the results of that data. Think of the methodology chapter here as sort of a ‘this is what’s coming’. Your thesis is not about dramatic reveals. You give away your results in your introduction. Usually within the first couple of pages, but at least by the end of the chapter. By the time your reader gets to your methods chapter (generally, but not always, after your Lit Review), they already know what your thesis is about and what your conclusion is. At least, they have if you wrote it correctly!

Don’t stress about this chapter. It should not take that much time. In STEM, methodology is more important and will be a big focus for your examiners, because method is so particular to research. In Humanities, it’s going to be less important than your results are. So focus on your analysis and results chapters (and your intro and conclusion chapters, because those are often what get read first). That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend time on the methodology chapter, but don’t let it run away with you. It should not be overtly long (again, unless you are STEM and even then, most of your thesis will be graphs, charts and other results/findings) or overly complicated.

Straightforwardly tell the reader why you picked these methods and why they worked for your research. Use theory, talk about how other researchers have used these methods, etc., but don’t go off topic into your results or your analysis. That’s what later chapters are for.

 

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Changing the Research Question

I did. No, really, I did. In third year. In fact, as I started writing up. There’s no ‘good time’ to change your research question. There’s no bad time to do it either, except maybe after you’ve written up.

So, you have this moment where you are looking at your ‘thesis’ (whatever stage it’s in) and the only thought going through your head is “it doesn’t work”. We all get to that point. There’s always a stumbling block between having a theoretical idea and making that idea a firm reality in a thesis that other people can read and understand. It’s a huge stumbling block, in some cases, but it’s not insurmountable.

The main point is, if changing your research question makes your thesis better, than do it. Don’t delay! Don’t second-guess. If it’s an improvement then it’s a necessity. If changing the research question is about being unsure if you are asking the right question, though, or has to do with you being bored with your research, then those are other issues and suddenly changing your question is probably a gut-jerk reaction you need to consider for a while.

But if you’ve considered it and you know it’s not the right question: change it. You don’t have to start from scratch. Sometimes changing it just means changing the focus. Maybe you can come at the research another way or from another perspective. Maybe flip the question on its head. There are ways to change the question without changing your research.

I realised after all my fieldwork was done and analysed that I’d been asking the wrong question. Or, really, I’d been asking the less interesting question. So I took what I’d discovered and asked a new question. It still fit the data, but it proved a more interesting hypothesis. This is a great way to change your research question, and might just be the difference between ‘I have tons of data and no idea what to do with it’ and ‘I can now write my thesis’.

I did find that, on doing so, I had to do more research, but that’s okay. You do whatever research you need to in order to be able to back up your work. Sometimes, changing the research question might send you in a new direction for background research, into a field or theory you haven’t looked at before, but may be just the thing you need for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

Because that’s what a thesis is: a puzzle. And without the right research question, it’s like trying to do a puzzle without the finale picture to work from. You try putting together a 1000 pieces with no idea what it’s supposed to be of. But your research question is the fulcrum on which your thesis will swing, and if it’s broken, your thesis won’t swing anywhere, except down. Which is obviously not where you want to be, going into 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. year.

But you cannot just ‘change the question’. What do you change it to? Again, I just came at mine from a different direction. Instead of asking ‘how do these people effect this theory?’ I asked ‘how does this theory effect these people?’ Seems like a simple 180, but it changed everything. And maybe that will work for you.

Talk it over with friends, colleagues, supervisors, family; whoever it is you bounce ideas off. Try to explain what you are thinking in a way that they will understand, and see what they think. If it’s the right way to go for you, you should be able to explain it to someone else (you’ll have to, when you write your thesis). Maybe a 180 is what you need, or maybe a different theory is what would work, or maybe you need an entirely new direction with your field work which you haven’t started yet.

Whatever it is that needs to change, if something is wrong, you need to make that change. Don’t keep going along with a ‘it’ll work out’ attitude, because you might end up doing your PhD for ten years. Changing the question, if that’s what needs to be changed, is best done sooner rather than later. But understand that some people change it very late and that’s okay. Better to do it then, then after you’ve submitted your thesis and your examiners have torn it to pieces. As long as you haven’t submitted yet, it’s never too late to take the steps needed to make your research project what it needs to be for a PhD.

 

How to assess progress

Particularly when you are self-monitoring your hours spent working. Which is really the PhD in the nutshell.

You work from home (or the office). You see your supervisor maybe once a month (or less). You don’t really talk to the other PhD students in your department, for whatever reason. You have months at a time working on a single issue: researching a new topic, writing a paper, doing your fieldwork, etc.

So how do you assess your progress?

It’s not easy. You don’t need to worry that it’s not. The PhD is an independent research project. If you’re doing the sciences, you may be lucky enough to have a project that is mainly lab based. You have a series of experiments to run. You know what those need to be; you know you need to get them done in order to move on. You know roughly how long each one will take. You know how many times you need to do them. You can make yourself a general schedule and know that if you are not sticking to it, you are falling behind.

But if you’re in the humanities, you are more likely than not to be left alone for several years at a time, with only brief moments of accountability to others (like your supervisor) and a lot of time to manage yourself.

Setting a schedule year-on-year and then breaking that down into month-by-month is the first step. But within that you are going to have projects and activities that could take weeks and you need to be able to monitor your progress. There’s no point getting to the end of your scheduled three months for researching ‘this particular topic’ and discovering that you really don’t know anything about it, haven’t read the most important book on the topic, and can’t actually define the terms the subject uses.

Trust me, been there, done that.

Let’s break this down into separate issues.

  1. How do you monitor progress when writing?

This is actually the easy one. If you have to write an article for publication, you have an idea of the length it needs to be and a deadline when you need to get it done. Those should be your two main monitoring flags. If you have a paper due to your supervisor, you have a deadline, and if you’re smart, you’ve gotten a word count/page count to write to as well. If you haven’t, ask for one. If your supervisor says ‘however many words you need’ well, set yourself a word count. If you have a month to write it, you probably don’t want that word count to be 10000, so be realistic. That’s longer than most thesis chapters (but it IS doable, if that’s your word count).

First, start with your deadline. If you have several steps to do before writing (research, etc.) then put those into your writing plan. Create a calendar with important milestones, and when you need to achieve each one to move onto the next step. And keep that deadline in mind at all times.

Then, every few days, particularly if your work isn’t going well, look at that calendar again. Do you have time to reach your next milestone at your current rate of progress? What happens if you don’t? Can your other milestones be bumped back? If not, then you need to work on your current milestone. You need to sort out what isn’t working and why. Are you confused? Are you procrastinating? Are you worried about something? If you can find the root cause, you can work to overcome it and get yourself back on track.

  1. How to monitor when researching?

Okay, the hard one. You have a new field of study, or a theory, or a subject you have to learn about as part of your PhD. You cannot leave this until the end. You need to have it researched prior to writing-up. There’s a deadline. If you think the topic will have an impact on your fieldwork, then you have another deadline. Write those into your overall PhD schedule.

It will always take longer to research than you think. You will always get distracted. Keep that in mind. Start researching. Every week or so, come up for air and look at your schedule. Look at how many books/articles/journals you’ve read. Do you feel you’re making progress? Do you have any idea how much more reading you have to do?

Start keeping notes. New terms and definitions, key theories, key authors, key works, etc. Start to form in your head an understanding of the new topic and what you conceive it to be. Don’t understand? Keep reading.

Sometimes, the best way to conceptualise something new is to try to write about it. Even if you don’t need to write a paper or article, try anyways. If you can’t write about the topic, you need to keep reading.

But don’t lose track of your schedule. Focus on the main authors in the area, and read the main articles, and if you find yourself reading an article that has only a very small amount to do with the topic, but it aside and try something else. Don’t let yourself go down those research black holes.

If you know you are going to have to read a lot of articles, don’t let yourself spend three weeks wasting time and then realise you have a week to get through everything. Be smart about it and you won’t have to worry about your progress, because you won’t easily get off track.

  1. How to monitor progress during fieldwork?

This is nearly as easy as writing, and much easier than researching. You have to plan your fieldwork out in advance. You need to know where you are going, who you are going to speak with, how many places you need for case studies. The worst thing is to wake up four months into your fieldwork and realise you are so far behind you are never going to catch up. Plan this stage of your PhD out in advance and you won’t have to worry too much about monitoring progress.

But you can get so into fieldwork that you kind of forget you have to do something after it’s all over with. If you are mainly interviewing, keep an interview schedule and don’t forget to look ahead to see how many people you have left. If you are doing other sorts of qualitative research, try to keep to your schedule as much as possible, but don’t forget to take a deep breath every few weeks and seriously critique where you are and where you need to be. How much more data do you need to collect and how much time do you have left? If you find your progress seriously impeded, you may have to reconsider the types of data collection you are doing.

If you are doing quantitative data, then this might be even harder. There’s the sense in quantitative data research that more is better, and sometimes that leads to an endless amount of collection. Remember, you have to analyse this at some point and the more you collect, the more you need to analyse. It’s useful to start off your fieldwork acknowledging how much data you usefully need to collect for your study, and try not to get too focused on ‘as much as possible’, but rather ‘this is what I need’. In your first days doing it, think about how much data you are getting, and then work this out over the long term. If you can collect this much in one day, and you have thirty days of data collection, is that enough data for your project? If not, you have probably overestimated the amount of data you need and should reassess.

A lot of monitoring progress is looking forwards and backwards and not just focusing on the now. How much have you done? How much do you (realistically) still need to do? How much can you do today? How much did you do yesterday?

Critique yourself. Be willing to admit to yourself when you are not handling things. When you are behind. And be willing to do something about it to catch up. But the key is to not get too far behind in the first place. Keep your head above water, regularly look at your schedule (have a schedule), and don’t get too bogged down in the day to day.

Why Field Work Is Fun – and Isn’t

Let’s talk about field work. It’s the thing you look forward to all the way through first year. It’s the thing you are jealous of everyone else who is off doing it. It’s what you really ‘wanted’ to do when you started your PhD.

It has its ups. It has its downs too.

Field work is individual. Your project may require you to do field work locally, or regionally, or even internationally. Those doing fieldwork locally will have a very different experience to those doing it internationally.

There’s a lot to think about when you plan a PhD project. It’s best to give some thought to this before you even start your PhD. Do you want to research a particular region? Do you want to look outside your region, or at another country? Or compare two countries? Can you afford to do research in another country that might require months spent away or long airplane rides?

When you start to develop your project in your first year, planning your field work is an important part of that. You may only need to do a bit on ‘field’ work, or you may need to set aside an entire year to do so. Much of this will be dependent on what type of research project you are doing, and your supervisor will be the best person to suggest the practicalities of this, so talk to them about your concerns and expectations.

I was so excited to do my field work. After more than a year stuck behind a desk with my nose in a book, writing papers, I just wanted to get out there and do something! It wasn’t that easy though. Planning for my field work took months of emails and contacts and research in and of itself. It took a pilot study that lasted a month. It took a lot of reassessment. The original field work I’d planned to do ended up being useless for the project (and exasperatingly difficult to do in the first place) and I changed strategies part way through 2nd year. It meant an ‘easier’ method of field work, but just as much ‘on the ground’ work.

Because of finances, I was restricted on travel. I wanted to do my field work regionally, in the country where I was doing my PhD, but the cost of train tickets limited me even more than that. I spent hundreds of pounds just travelling to my sites that were all within an hour’s ride! If I’d had to go further, and stay over night in hotels, it would have been too expensive for me. And I had to justify that in my thesis, of why I limited it to the English midlands. But it was a good way to limit it…

Give careful consideration to your limitations and understand what impact they may have on your thesis. Understand that the field work you intend to do may not end up being the best for your research question. Acknowledge that things may change while you are doing your field work. You may have a moment of ‘ah ha!’ or you may have a moment of ‘oh, bugger’. You may have both of those! Be willing to be flexible, and to change tactics if needed. Be willing to take the time to step back and re-evaluate and talk to your supervisor. They are ‘on the outside’ and may have suggestions you haven’t thought of.

I also found it particularly useful to talk to people who had done the same type of field work. I had never done qualitative research (without any quantitative study) and so I asked researchers who did this method. I asked them about the risks and the pitfalls, and also about the joys. It meant that some of the things that went wrong I expected to go wrong, and some things that could have gone wrong I stopped before they happened. That saved me time and money. It’s always best to get a personal account of what hands on research is like, particularly if you’ve never done that type of research before.

Also keep in mind yourself. My qualitative study involved travelling to new cities and talking to people. A lot. About things they maybe didn’t want to talk about. It meant asking strangers to open up to me. I’m inherently shy and I was way out of my comfort zone. That might be too far out of your comfort zone for you. Or it may be just right. Or it may be a way to challenge yourself and develop a new skill (interviewing!). Give some consideration to that.

My ‘old’ method of research had involved talking to rather a lot of children. It was only after my pilot study I realized how much I hated that! I had no desire to spend months doing it and the answers I was getting were useless for my project anyways. I nixed this early on and never regretted it. As it turned out, it shaped my research into a much stronger – though more theoretical – project that opened up whole new worlds I wasn’t expecting.

There is always a silver lining, and no research is useless research. Sometimes, you just need to change tactics. And sometimes you need to play to your strengths. And sometimes…you just need to have some fun. Try to build that into your field work and make it something you look forward to doing at the end of a long year one of research. Because writing-up? Isn’t nearly as fun as field work.