Over the first few weeks of my journey to PhD I had a notebook with me at all times, scribbling down notes to myself that I thought may in some way be of benefit to my research. Whilst this was a good way of reassuring me I was engaged with the topic, there’s only so much sense you can make of a few scribbled words written with a pen that doesn’t quite work anymore. Writing a PhD protocol has been the best way of focussing my thoughts, cementing my aims and understanding the scope of the project – yes, I did use those scribbled notes, but more often than not it took me longer to decipher my own handwriting than it would’ve taken me to remember what I thought in the first place.
Here’s a few things to think about if you’re about to begin writing your own PhD protocol.
- Make sure you understand your research question
This sounds daft, but you need to really get to grips with your research question as it will drive the methods you use to answer it. Tailor your question and make it SOAR – Specific, Original, Answerable, Relevant and you’ll be well on the way to building your PhD project.
- Document everything
Once you’ve got your research question set you can begin to tackle the design and methods needed to answer your question. Write down each of the options you’ve considered – qualitative vs. quantitative for example, and then note why you chose or rejected them. I’m sure this will be useful for later on the course of my PhD but even now if my supervisor asks me why I’ve made a certain choice, it’s much easier to have a prompt to jog my memory.
- Don’t be afraid to go back a step
A protocol is a core part of the PhD process – it’s essentially a timeline of the next 3 or 4 years if you’re working on the project full time, so you want it to be right. I’ve never dealt with qualitative research before and I know my research question would be best answered through this method, so I’ve enrolled on anMSc taught module at my university. Originally this felt like I was going back a step, back to lectures instead of focussing purely on my research, but I’ve realised now this isn’t the case. I’m simply making my research as good as it can be by working hard on the foundations, making sure the methods are right and fit the question well, and ensuring the protocol isn’t just an amalgamation of scribbles but a piece of work in itself.
I’ve used my PhD protocol as a way to really get to grips with my project, I’ve been working on it for around 7 weeks now and it’s not finished, but I do understand a whole lot more about what the next 3 years (should!) look like.