Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Research: Novelty, Process and Panic

It’s been two months since I started my PhD. Two months of living a loop of reading and note-taking, reading and note-taking, reading and note-taking. As it stands I have a document containing some 10,000 words of thoughts, asides, quotes, references, possible leads and half-written sentences. One line simply reads “The”. I’ve drawn on scores of secondary sources – and read (and discarded) a whole lot more – ruining five highlighter pens in the process. I’ve raided libraries at three separate universities, talked to half a dozen academics, and googled every possible variation of the words ‘sport’, ‘independent television’, ‘ITV’ and ‘Channel 4’.

I’m not at all sure what I expected from this initial period, but at the start of the month I found myself in a state of mild panic and confusion. I said I would get back in the habit of writing. I haven’t. I've written nothing of substance. What should I have done by now? Am I on the right track? Should research really make me feel so much self doubt?

The irony is that I should have seen this coming. Research isn’t entirely new to me, and, more pertinently, I’m now in my fourth year of supervising undergraduate dissertations. In pre-Christmas supervision sessions students regularly explain how intimidated they feel by the sheer volume of things there are to read/know/explore/analyse on their subject. They’re worried about not making headway. They’re concerned that, no matter how much work has been done, they don’t even feel like they’ve started. Don’t worry, I say, it’s natural to feel this way. Keep reading. Keep taking notes. Try to write, even a little, as often as you can. It seems supervision, much like my parenting style, is a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

I carried a disconcerted air into my own supervision session. When my supervisors asked how my research was going I was stumped. It was a simple question I found almost impossible to answer. I ummed and ahhed in a five minute, rambling response that seemed to carry on for hours. Every sentence started with something along the lines of “I’m trying to get a handle on…” or “I’m just starting to get to grips with…” Knowledge disappeared, the ability to talk in coherent sentences dribbled away, I forgot what I had read. By the end I was embarrassed. Everything I had done for two whole months appeared as a giant amorphous research blob. Don’t worry, they said, it’s natural to feel this way.

And it’s true. Identifying what is known and what is not – that is to say, reviewing the literature – is an integral part of the research process. Almost certainly there is a novelty to investigating a topic in such depth, even when you think you know it well. There are new writers, new theories, new facts to consider, and digesting it all takes time. Sometimes you read something that opens up a new avenue of research, sometimes you’re led down a cul-de-sac. The research process can be, in turn, enlightening and frustrating. At worst, it can feel as though you’re treading water and each day that passes without writing something – anything – can feel like failure. Yet, whether you are digging down into the archives or conducting a series of interviews, your primary research will build on everything you are doing here and now.

Sometimes you’re not always in the best position to judge how your own work is coming along so my supervision session gave me some much needed perspective. As with plenty of other students, I still wish I was further along and had written more. But this is a feeling of frustration rather than panic or anxiety. The process is moving forward. I now realise that I need to prep for supervision sessions, to know what I want out of them. I’m now in a position to write pieces on particular themes/events and have two (possibly three) planned for the next month or so. In doing so I’m structuring my own thoughts and those 10,000 words. The panic was understandable, but part and parcel of the research process.

So, how is the research going? Better than I thought.