The university has started promoting its PhD programme, they’re holding an opening evening this Wednesday to get people interested. If I’ve got to apply in January that gives me little over a month decide on a topic, find a supervisor (at this university or another one), then write up a detailed proposal. To really maximise my chances of getting a place I should apply to several different universities, the scattergun approach. It feels like the whole schedule of my life is accelerating, I only started this degree just over two months ago and now I’m moving on to planning ahead the next three years, with only a very limited idea of whether I’m doing the right thing.
I’m also coming up to some difficulties with the actual PhD research proposal itself. The first of which is that it has to be framed in some way as a question or a statement. I can’t just write ‘I feel this thing is worth understanding and want to learn more about it.’ That’s basically what happened with my undergraduate dissertation and the professors didn’t like it very much.
Then the topic has to be something new, something which pushes the boundaries of our collective knowledge. International Relations students have an easy choice here because there’s always new stuff happening in the world. Also, anything which is popular and new tends to get funding. However, this is also a curse, for example last week I found out that there were over 100 academic articles covering the war on Syria (and more recently, Iraq). As a topic of research that area has already been conclusively mined for information. I haven’t looked but I guess the same is for any current affairs topic, if it’s in the news there’s probably already an army of people working on it. Plus, by the time the PhD is done, your research will be at least a year out of date.
The opposite solution is to turn towards something completely obscure, something important but which doesn’t get media attention because it’s too expensive to cover and/or too boring to hold its place in the news cycle.
It’s clear the answer is to specialise, but my way of working is to find something which piques my attention, study it, then move on. I could return to the topic for my undergraduate dissertation, but I’ve got no motivation to write about the same thing all over again in much greater detail. I’ve already covered it, why go over it again when there’s other exciting things to be studying instead? The masters’ thesis sits in a similar paradox, it could be expanded into a doctorate, but I’ve got the feeling that if you asked me this time next year whether I wanted to continue that topic, I’d say it was unnecessary.
The last thing is that I’ve gotten by so far by following the basic requirements. I read the articles, go to the seminars, sometimes I go over the top and attend a few extra unscheduled lectures or read something which is ‘recommended-but-not-essential’ to the course, and I’m still learning, I’m very conscious of all the things I don’t yet understand.
On my undergraduate degree I wrote some amazing essays, some were terrible, and in the end I got a 2:1. That’s not the best result, nor the worst, it’s just ‘good’. Meanwhile a doctorate comes with lots of assumptions about your ability, you have to be the top of the class, you can’t just be interested in the subject, you need to actually be a brilliant academic. And that’s the final stumbling block: my own insecurities. I might be a decent academic, but I don’t qualify as an outstanding one.
The correct thing to do would be to not think too hard and just pick a topic, anything which looks fun, and go with it. When you have to research something for three years you’ll learn to love it eventually. Or, you’ll just be stressed and unhappy for three years. It’s not an easy choice.