I had never studied Arthur Conan Doyle until I started researching to find my thesis. I knew I was interested in the turn of the century era, and the impact of technological advances on identity construction and perception. However, I did not know which authors and texts, if any, embraced these ideas. It was only through researching for my proposal that I discovered the synergy between this writer and my research interests.
Talk to professionals
If you are no longer an MA student and wish to dive back into the world of academia, then I would suggest reaching out to professors you had a good rapport with during your undergraduate and/or postgraduate studies. If it has been many years since you graduated, then you may wish to begin a step ahead of the game by conducting preliminary research to identify significant academics in your research area and politely requesting a meeting or advice via email or telephone call. If you are currently undertaking an MA then, once you identify a general topic area you are interested in, your first point of contact should be your personal advisor or course convener. Part of their role in supporting your studies involves being able to, at the very least, point you in the direction of academics or texts which may help you to develop your idea. Hopefully, these academics will have taught you or be familiar with your application to undertake postgraduate study and will be aware of your particular research interests and strengths already.
Having said all of this, it is very important to remember that everyone you discuss your project with will be looking at it from their own research perspective. In one way, this approach is helpful because it opens up avenues of inquiry which you may not have considered, and which may add depth or breadth to your thesis and proposal. However, it is important not to let your project become someone else’s idea of a great project and too far removed from your personal research interests. Whatever you decide to write on, you will be buried in that research topic for a minimum of three years. To ensure success and any sense of enjoyment from your work, you need to be pursuing something which truly interests you. In my first proposal I was encouraged to discuss ‘cultural geography’, a topic I am not particularly personally interested in, because an advisor told me I would be more likely to receive funding if I reoriented my project in that direction. Fortunately, in my final research proposal (which I will discuss in detail in later posts), I only included what I was truly interested in and still managed to receive a full scholarship. Do not compromise your research interests for fear of not receiving funding!
Your initial research should focus on breadth not depth. When you submit your research proposal you need to evidence how your research will be filling a gap in global knowledge. No small feat. Of course, to be able to prove you can fill a gap, you need to know where the gaps are. For example, I knew I wanted to look at communication technologies at the turn of the century, so I spoke to academics I knew who specialised in that era and asked if they knew any academics working in that specific technology-based area. After being given a few names I Googled them and began reading their summaries, reviews and excerpts from their books and articles. An important step in this process is to look at the references and bibliographies these writers provide and to identify which names recur frequently. In so doing, you will begin to establish the ‘big names’ in the research field you wish to enter. In your final proposal you will need to identify these individuals and any seminal works in the field to demonstrate that you have a concrete understanding of the foundations of current research. The next step is to identify a timeline; who of the big names published their theories first? Who published their work most recently and/or is at the cutting edge of the field’s development? Discussion of these names and their associated work will serve as the evidence you need in your proposal to prove that you have done enough research to know that no-one is discussing in enough depth the specific topic you wish to research. In the next post, I will be discussing your transition from preliminary to in-depth research, and the process of identifying potential supervisors and research centres.