Developing your PhD research question

PhD student Alan Taman discusses the challenges of developing your research question and explains why it's important to embrace change. Now in his second year, Alan provides us with an update on his original blog – and why it’s important to throw away old ideals and embrace change.

BCU Seacole exterior.

Your original PhD research question will change

Cleaning out the garage was long overdue and nowhere near as painful as I feared it would be. There comes a time (in our case, a skip hired during building work) when you realise all those old photos, those objects I kept ‘just in case’ – they were never going to be looked at again, handled again, find application again. The only meaning they had or are ever likely to have was to my perceptions of the past. And even then, most of them failed to live up to the memory. I was really surprised at just how out of focus, grainy and not particularly memorable most of those images now appear. Of course there were exceptions. But that’s the point: they were the exceptional, quality minority. Not clearing the rest out meant it would just be another job for the kids when we moved on. One way or another. 

After 12 months of my PhD - which involves me looking at perceptions of the causes of health inequality and possible solutions - a lot of the first year feels like that. The initial euphoria and elation, with disbelief that I actually got this thing, were soon replaced by a harder reality: this is what you have to throw away now. I felt someone should have named the first semester ‘you could have warned me’ – I was roundly gob-smacked by the sheer number of choices there are for governing philosophy: positivist to constructionist, grounded theory to critical realism and every choice betwixt. And you thought you had the question right in your head? Think again. And again. And again. Just think. Throw out the old assumptions; they will not serve you. What’s valuable? The mental skip threatened to overspill.

I landed on critical realism in the end. With the rationale to justify it. Another important lesson: don’t just assert something, explain why. With evidence. I love it.

Adapt your research question, don't give up 

Then there was the scoop (a term borrowed from my own background in journalism). I’d carefully set up the groundwork for a brilliant and incisive systematic review, mastered the databases, set the criteria, started the write-up: and one of the first papers my perfectly accurate search criteria unearthed was a just-published systematic review looking at almost the same area. Scooped. On the one hand, flattering: this was by senior researchers at a Russell Group university (who hadn’t logged their review on the review site Prospero, but I’ll let that slide). One the other, now what? Frantic discussions with my supervisors ended with one resolve: change direction, using what this paper had concluded. Think again.

I have. It’s looking better for it. On the cusp of going out to the public and asking them what they think. Generating data no one has done before. To boldly go?  Well, I’ve spent a lot of time seeing strange worlds and new (reinventions) of civilisation, if only in my own head. The question has been framed, knocked down, and built again. It will keep doing that. You know why? Because this is research. That’s the way it is. The only sure way of achieving is to embrace the uncertainty. Learn how to. I really would wish to be nowhere else. No matter how many skips it takes.

Alan Taman is in his second year of his PhD. His background is in health journalism and health campaigning. He lives in Birmingham.