The last blog post discussed the purpose of attaining a superficial research overview of your area is so that you can identify a gap in knowledge which you can propose to fill. For example, if you were interested in researching the symbolism of flowers in aestheticism, you would need to know key research figures in that movement just as Joseph Bristow because if you can identify key ideas in their work you can ensure that they haven’t already published on your project topic. You need an original research idea which contributes to global knowledge. If someone has already written on your exact topic then your proposal will be unlikely to succeed as it will lack this original element. Today’s post explores how to approach in-depth research.
Once you have identified your research niche it is time for the part which I find most exciting…in-depth research. By conducting this type of research and using the information and insight you gain form it in your proposal, you will be able to evidence your strong research skills to anyone reading and judging your application. In-depth research involves reviewing original material such as manuscripts.
If you are able to access key larger archives like the National Archives at Kew or manuscripts held at the British Library then fantastic, but if you live overseas or are unable to access these centres for other reasons (financial, transport difficulties, inflexible working hours etc.) then you will find an increasing amount of these resources are available online. The website archive.org is a treasure trove of original materials which libraries across the world have contributed to by scanning in manuscripts and rare books for free viewing across the world online.
Libraries are increasingly investing in digitising their materials to reach wider audiences. Many offer a service whereby they will scan and email some materials to you if you are able to specify specific texts/sections so it is always worth making a friendly phone call or writing a polite email if you know there is material you need but cannot easily access.
Remember, what sets your PhD apart from anything you have written before is its original contribution to global knowledge; this means you need to evidence how you intend to find original evidence to support your perspective. Even if you don’t find anything conclusive in this early stage of the PhD process that you think you will use in your final project, having conducted this in-depth research will give you a stronger overall understanding of where/if your project fits the original texts you are discussing and will improve your ability to discuss your project and research skills if you are invited to interview as a part of your PhD application.
It can be incredibly easy to get so caught up in your secondary reading and contextual research that your thesis begins being shaped by those ideas alone. It is vital to keep the tension rope between primary and secondary research taut and not to let one area dominate the shaping of your main argument. Easier said than done.
My advice here would be to plan your research schedule and to allot your time accordingly. For example, if I wanted to research time in the work of James Joyce, I might start by spending 6 hours (spread across as many days as suited my lifestyle) conducting secondary research on the development of standardised time in the UK, and into what Joyce was doing professionally and personally around that time etcetera. Then I might spend 6 hours typing key words like ‘time’, ‘watch’ and ‘clock’ into a digital canon of Joyce’s works and close-reading a few chosen passages to try and interpret how/if the context informs my reading of the text. Such an approach can help you to avoid the classic research pitfall of trying to affix a theory to a text which may not fit.