By their very definition, PhD studies are seeking to untangle complex ideas and produce original thoughts on the subject matter, which is backed-up by a thorough examination of the evidence available. For this reason, deciding what the research student is actually seeking after is normally rather broad at first. When they start-out and get asked the question, “So, what is your PhD about?” the typical student will give a rather hesitant, half-page explanation. Ask this question again when they are on the point of completing the PhD and the reply is likely to be a very concise and quite specific, single sentence. The process of systematic research casts its net widely, then refines and re-focusses subsequent investigations to reinforce, or challenge, previous ideas and insights. Seeing the process as a little piece of a much larger, complex mosaic of ideas can be helpful, but a bit daunting.
To help the process of the distillation of knowledge, there are some basic techniques that any researcher can use. Firstly, it is wise to recognise that the PhD, as with almost any complex task, can be broken down into a number of smaller tasks, and that the role of the dissertation is to explain these tasks logically and clearly. In compiling the dissertation, the research student needs to effectively present the story of the research, from the introduction to the conclusions, in a way that makes it easy for the reader to understand what might be complicated and challenging issues. To make a start on this story-board, some people might like to utilise the concept of mind-maps to graphically link and make sense of the multitude of tasks that will be necessary to write about. Personally speaking, mind-maps do not really work for me. I prefer to construct a hierarchical list of all the possible sections and sub-sections. This has the advantage that such a list can very quickly be edited to provide the contents pages to the dissertation. For those who like diagrammatic checklists but struggle to find mid-maps useful, another way to help to identify the tasks that are required is to use software such as https://www.draw.io/ to create an easy-to-construct flow diagram which uses simple text and drag-and-drop shapes to (re)organise the sequence in which the research tasks need to “flow”.
Whatever planning style is adopted, and regardless of whether the research student starts with a question, a hypothesis, or simply a broad subject title, the aim of the research planning at this stage is to lay out with a broad brush the likely trend of the enquiry. Obviously the actual course of the research is likely to change tack several times during the PhD as new ideas emerge and light is thrown in some currently-dark corners, but the directional trend of the story, from the first sentence of the introduction to last sentence of the conclusions, should remain relatively constant. To some extent, it helps at this stage to be as specific as possible in the identification of each possible section and sub-section of the future research, but obviously this itemisation needs to be treated lightly so that it is flexible enough to change and modify. Treat it like a story-line which can be embellished or contracted as the research student’s knowledge of the topic deepens and extends. Like all good stories, there should be a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a path to link them up.