Most PhD students start out with at least a superficial knowledge of the key issues in their chosen research topic. They will already have completed a relevant undergraduate degree to a high standard (usually a first-class or a 2:1) and may also have done a Master’s degree in a related area. The working title of the student’s research topic, and probably the primary research question, will also have been discussed. So where does the student actually start working? Quite frequently, the student exhibits one of two contrasting behavioural states. Either s/he is a bit stunned to find themselves actually doing a PhD and a bit overwhelmed by the task ahead, so they do not really engage with anything very constructive; or else s/he is so enthusiastic with the idea of research that they want to go out immediately start collecting samples, or interviewing, or running an experiment! As is so often the case in life, the reality needs to be somewhere in between these two extremes.
As it is unlikely (possible, but unlikely) that your research student will invent a whole new epistemological discipline, a whole new branch of science or humanities, the supervisor needs to direct the student to obtain a good knowledge about what is already known about their research topic area. There are several ways of doing this, which I will come to later, but the guiding principle is firstly, to read widely and deeply. Starting with a few of the most important papers which have been published in the academic literature, the student needs explore the subject, follow leads (some of which will be a blind alley) and take notes of the salient points. The temptation is to read a few papers then rush out to gather new data, but this would be a mistake. Many research students are surprised (some are delighted) when I tell them to spend the first three or four months (at least) doing nothing but reading and taking notes of what they have read. Slowly, with a systematic approach, a picture will begin to build up. The student will develop a deeper understanding of the subject area, probably discovering whole new areas of subtle variations to consider, and by elimination discovering the important areas of the subject that are less well-known.
This reading is not just for pleasure, and while it should start to tail off as the student becomes familiar with the academic landscape, keeping up-to-date with the literature is essential right up until submission of the dissertation. The first six months are the most crucial, as the seminal papers are identified, read, and critically summarised. This information forms the backbone of the literature review, which in turn is the foundation of the introduction to the research topic. Some subject areas like to start the dissertation with a short background chapter and then the literature review, but for others the literature review is the introduction to the topic, so it needs to be well-considered, well-structured, and reasonably comprehensive. Getting research students to begin their studies by immersing themselves in the literature for months at a time is actually no soft option; systematically done, it’s a lot of hard but essential work.