Image via the nonist
Continuing the PhD series, I thought I'd look today at the idea of how to pick an issue to write on, and how to keep to it. This is, of course, only what has been helpful to me. It shouldn't be read as a definitive primer - I'd love to hear about your different experiences.
The best advice I can offer in terms of picking a topic, is that you should be deeply excited about it. You should want to know the answers to the questions you have, it should make you want to move towards a computer and you should want to spend hours thinking about it.
In my own experience, I did have a fairly clear idea of the topic I wanted to focus on, but no idea on what areas within it, nor even which books I'd pick to study. That was a level of vagueness that I could cope with, because I knew with lots of research, I'd find out the books which would help me, (some hadn't been published when I started!) and subsequently puzzle out the tropes of interest.
While that doesn't mean it was an easy road, I have seen some others falter along the way when they have no idea of their scope, and therefore spend a lot of time doing reading which ultimately doesn't help. Often then, there's a subsequent difficulty in finding a framework for an initial idea when that idea keeps changing.
So if you can, focus on one area, and then find a framework for it, you'll be much better off. (Award for most obvious, much?!) Even if you canvas all the options, pick the one you get most joy out of thinking about. My supervisor always says: pick what makes your heart beat faster. She's right!
There's also a big question in PhD-land concerning when to stop reading and start writing. I guess you could conceivably read for the three or four years without writing a thing, both because there's a lot out there, and because it can be intimidating to start writing after reading all the experts.
I was told to start writing really early, but found that to be impossible when I hadn't decided on a defined topic. So for me, I started to write small sections after about six months of reading, just to get my eye in. It was horribly hard at first, but it was as if I broke through a barrier earlier on, and even though I hated what I was writing, I needed to write something.
So write when you feel you have a few ideas - don't pressure yourself, but see it as a positive first step towards the end project.
Next time: organisation and time management. Wahoo!
This post is the second in a series. For the first, have a look at: So You Want to Do a PhD?: Part I