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.

How I Write Now

Okay, I might slightly have taken that title from a Saoirse Ronan film.

If you look back on your writing, from high school (or the equivalent in your country) to your last paper in your MA or PhD (depending on how far into your research you are) you will noticed a lot of change. Well, hopefully. If you don’t, you were either an amazing writer when you were in your teens, or you’re still a bad writer now. It’s likely to be the first of those. It’s hard to get through undergrad being a bad writer and still make a high enough grade point average to get into a PhD program. And if you’ve been out of school for a while, your career has no doubt taught you a great deal about various forms of writing.

So, hopefully, you’ve improved. Naturally, practice makes – if not perfect – at least it improves it. The more you write, the more this will happen.

They tell people who want to be authors that they best way to do that is two things: write a lot and read a lot. The same is true in academia. Write a lot (get a lot of feedback) and read a lot of academic publications. Learn how other academics (particularly the successful ones) write. How they use words, how they use voice, how they deliver impact and provide evidence. You are welcome to copy these sorts of writing devices from any one you find, without giving credit! But, especially look at authors in your own field, as they will give you the best idea of how your subject is discussed in the academy. The more you read, the more you’ll know. And you’ll spend a lot of your first year reading anyways, so instead of just reading about the topic, read the writing too.

But write yourself. Even if your course doesn’t involve much writing in your first year or two, you can write short summaries or critiques and share them with other PhD students. Ask them to critique and feedback; you’ll both learn from the experience. I found it particularly useful to take short articles from known authors and critique those, get a few other students to do the same thing, and then sit down and discuss it and our differing points of view. It’s a hugely useful learning experience, and worth the time.

If your supervisor isn’t one to ask for writing from you until you start on your chapters, ask if you can start writing anyways. I wrote 35,000 words for my supervisor in the first 9 months of my PhD. I used about 3,000 words of that in my final thesis, but all of it was useful because it taught me how to write about my topic, it gave me good feedback to critique my writing, and it helped me wrap my head around the topics I was working through by reading. It may sound like a lot of work, but I did it. And before I did that 35,000 words, I research three different topics I knew virtually nothing about. So, it’s entirely doable. And just reading can sometimes feel like a lost cause; writing about what you’re reading gets you to think.

So think about that. Reading and writing. It’s like kindergarden. Except a lot harder. But you’ve gotten to your PhD now, and that means you can do this. It just takes practice.

Lots and lots of practice.