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2.3 Researching Your PhD Topic

If you have reached the level of studying for a Ph.D. then you will already be very familiar with the basis of all academic life – research. For a doctorate, you need to read widely and deeply, accessing both ‘ancient and modern’ texts with equal voracity: go for established texts first and then branch out into other reading sources.

A good way to extend your research whilst maintaining a solid base is by using the bibliographies of academic texts you are reading by published scholars – this is not regarded as cheating, knowledge is there to be shared and most academics have a ‘common pool’ of resources which is added to by research such as yours will be.

"You will probably find that most of the first year of your doctorate, if not more, will be spent reading."

It is worth stressing again that you need to immerse yourself in the topic of your thesis, first familiarising yourself with the basic texts then moving on to the less well-known publications. A word of warning, though, do not be tempted to rely too heavily on the internet as sources found there are often unreliable. Of course, there are exceptions to this and it is impossible to generalise but you would be well-advised to check any and all information that you obtain online. In any case, there will probably be a set limit to how many electronic sources can be used in your Ph.D. so check.

As we’re talking about sources, this might be a good time to begin to discuss your bibliography. You might be surprised that this needs to be considered at such an early stage but it is never too soon to begin to plan it and it should certainly never be left until the completion of your thesis; the bibliography has to evolve methodically.

"When you begin to read for your Ph.D. proposal, you should begin your bibliography."

As you read, make careful notes of where you obtained your sources and don’t just include books or journals from which you actually quote, you should include, at this stage, every book you consult, even if you find it to be of no use and you decide to leave it out of your finished bibliography; this should be basic to your methodology.

Something you might like to consider, even at this stage, is making a division in your bibliography between primary and secondary sources and/or between, say, primary texts and critical works. There are many subdivisions you can make. For example, fiction from factual works - like biographies or letters, journals etc. - or books from journals or other sources. This helps you to keep track of your reading and organise your thoughts which is absolutely crucial if you are to stay in control from the first.

Another good idea when reading for your Ph.D. thesis is to make notes of your sources in the style prescribed by your university or college. As you will be well aware, there are many different styles of referencing and using the correct form is essential (see the section in this guide on referencing and citing correctly).

When you begin to read for your thesis in earnest, you should obtain a copy of the style guide for your academic institution and you can then adhere to it from the beginning which will save you a great deal of time later with trying to find elusive sources to cite which you cannot now locate but from which you need to quote.

Another useful tip is to make a list of quotes to be used in your Ph.D. thesis, correctly cited, as you read. This will build up a strong source of evidentiary support to which you can refer as your research progresses and this too saves you valuable time later.

Later, when you are making a plan and writing your thesis, you can decide which quotes can be used most effectively and where. Some students like to ‘colour-code’ their quotes to make a connection between the various themes which can then be cross-referenced from the different sources later and if this works for you, use it.

There are, indeed, many different ways of organising your work and you should stick to whatever is most effective for you. Whichever method you decide to use, remember that the core of your thesis is your reading and you must never leave your bibliography until the end, it must evolve as your thesis does – this is a must.

It is also a useful idea to look for ‘gaps’ when you are reading for your thesis, especially at this early stage because you are looking for ideas that will fill those gaps and that you can produce for your research admissions board as evidence of the way in which your research will provide new information to add to the body of knowledge on the subject. Therefore, when you discover a gap, try to imagine how your research could fill it – this is a very effective way of researching because you are finding a niche and suggesting a way of fitting your work into the body of knowledge simultaneously. Therefore, you should try to read critically, commenting in your notes on where a point has been, in your opinion, left unfulfilled. Close-reading like this can actually help you to define your thinking on your thesis topic and help you towards the formulation of your definitive proposal, which is your goal at this stage, isn’t it?

In many ways, this is the best way to refine your thesis proposal, as you will be able to indicate within it precisely where you have identified the need for further research such as that which you are proposing and this gives you a very strong foothold on current research whilst adding to it – i.e. just what you need, right now, to impress!

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