Five key aspects of a PhD first year you will need to know

I passed my transfer examination this week (yay!). In this blog post, I summarise the five aspects of developing a research proposal that defines most of my first year as a fulltime PhD student. If you’re curious about what to expect during this initial year, keep reading.

Time to read:

13 minutes

A readers guide. The five aspect I focus upon are listed next. Each aspect is then addressed sequentially -i.e., one section each – structured: [i] a descriptive paragraph; [ii] a Quick tip! ; [iii] what this meant for me; and [iv] a summary of my research within that aspect, in italics. Happy reading.

The five aspects are:

  1. the problem – what your research is directed toward
  2. the research gap – how the research serves a gap in the literature
  3. the research question – one factor that helps frame the aim, purpose, and point toward the expected contribution to the field
  4. the proposed methodology – justification, philosophical underpinning, pros and cons, and the basis to direct the intended plan
  5. the literature – the clarity of positioning research within the wider academic discourse being engaged.

[1] The problem

[i] Any academic research (including the research that builds towards a PhD) starts with the outline of the problem to be addressed by that research. This is the means to demonstrate, with evidence, that there is something to be concerned about. One possible outcome is a succinct note as a “problem statement” and a series of propositions backed by literature evidence.

[ii] Quick tip! Defining the problem is a harder task than may first be thought. “The problem is the problem” is the mantra I recall most from the guidebooks. However, this addressing of the problem eventually becomes the clear articulation of why something is valid for research and of interest to an academic audience. As the first aspect of learning to engage academically this might be a rude awakening – academic writing is uniquely challenging.

[iii] At a personal level, my supervisors and I spent months kicking “the problem” around. I was also metaphorically kicked around, too – because as clear as I thoughts I was, I really was not. First off, get straight to the point. Make it crystal clear how theory relates to the main issues. Second, know your audience and take their side. Third, win over the audience by strength of argument, not strength of conviction or controversy raised. It’s all about effective communication and knowing how, why, and when to change that tone. Defining the problem with the necessary academic clarity, was devilishly hard. For me at least, the changes in me might have been the hardest part.

[iv] In summary, the problem I am addressing is the regularity and pervasive nature of conflict in interorganisational projects (IOPs). Conflict is largely acknowledged as being a factor of one party’s intentions (needs or goals) being denied by another. Yet diverse intentions of different parties are rarely a factor of the upfront governance that is relating all parties together. Peculiar to construction, the literature is also obsessed with governance by contract. The result is that construction scholars deem the contract as both cause and solution to conflict. Conversely, and more broadly, governance is both a matter of formality and informality; or contracts and relationships; matters of trade and of trust; in the wider interorganisational governance literature. However, even here relationships and behaviours are understood sociologically or economically, and not psychologically (e.g., relating behaviour to intent). My research is therefore connecting those three aspects (conflict, governance, and diverse intentions) to try and understand what governance may be able to do (or enable us to be) differently.

[2] The research gap

[i] The research gap is addressed by arguing (with evidence) that the identified problem is not already understood. In other words, showing the reader that there is a gap to fill. This evidence based address also shows how the wider literature currently interfaces from the perspective of the identified problem.

[ii] Quick tip! My advice is find the journals in your academic field that are orientated towards literature reviews. They typically conclude with express statements about where research gaps emerge. In management scholarship for example, the International Journal of Management Reviews (IJMR) is a must read. All of the papers in this one journal are literature reviews – and generally written by accomplished scholars who are pointing to problems with or gaps in the literature.

[iii] On a personal level, I have learned how to read scholarly materials with more critical perspective. Unusually, that includes the philosophical positioning that often underpins theory and assumed norms. That has enabled some lesser travelled paths to be pointed towards in reviewing where gaps are potentially interesting. However, it has also made the clear definition of contribution to knowledge more difficult to place in one set of literature or another. Luckily for me my examiners agreed, because the “so what?” question (which becomes the contribution to knowledge) is one I am yet to really nail.

[iv] In summary, my research focuses on conflict and how it relates to governance theory. Evidencing the two-fold origin of theory is supported by the literature. I argue that this gap can be explored through psychological and philosophical perspectives, and my cross-over into notions of conflict and intentions support this claim.

[3] The research question

[i] Aim, purpose, and contribution may not be immediately obvious, or easily separated. However, when looked at in reverse – i.e., retrospectively, and informed by each of the other five aspects – these distinctions might suddenly seem obvious. All research will vary, however there will be an aim of any research that is distinct from the purpose. The research question(s) will relate to that aim, and the objectives will build toward that purpose (and develop intended outcomes toward that end). A research title will bring all of this together (or be the start of what each of these aspects become). The contribution is distinct from all of these aspects but will link the research to the research gap and problem.

[ii] Quick tip! Have your individual priority clearly in mind first -i.e., your why for doing a PhD. As I explain next, that factor sits outside of these five aspects but it can profoundly change the basis of what is then asked in the research itself.

[iii] At a personal level, my entire research focus changed once I corrected my declared personal priority. Most people I know are going for PhD by publication, and initially that was my priority, too. Three reasons: [1] future academic careers are dependant upon citation count and publication productivity; [2] the more time spent learning how to navigate those difficult publication hurdles the better; [3] there is increased credibility in the final viva exam if able to point to a portfolio of peer reviewed work. For me however, the monograph thesis emerged as the more appropriate approach. I could spend longer with a development paper outlining the problem – submitted to my first conference. A single research question emerged from that extended time, and thereafter I had more time examining methodology to support that one question. For context, a student going for PhD for publication is likely to have developed three research questions that each support a publication e.g., developing a first question as the literature review [guide here]. This change of personal priority profoundly altered where most time has been spent in the second-half of my first year – and ultimately my research is much changed in response.

[iv] In summary, I am asking a single research question “how can differences in intentions inform governance approaches and reduce threat of conflict in interorganisational projects?“. That single research question unpacks into three phrases, and each phrase has two objectives identified to answer this one question overall. The six objectives relate to defined outputs. Those outputs collectively provide the empirical evidence to support my final claims in answering that research question. The extra time I have had (i.e., not preparing the three necessary plans for separate publications) was spent with aspects of methodology towards that one question.

[4] Methodology

[i] At post-graduate level methodology should be noted as being distinct from method. Method is specifically the manner by which data is collected (e.g., questionnaires, interviews, case-study, field work etc), and analysed (e.g., coding of transcripts or the chosen numerical evaluation). Methodology is more generally the wider appeal to how empirical method will be related to the grounding of the research and the adopted philosophical worldview that sits within. Put another way, the methodology is what invites philosophical assumptions to be made clear. This clarity then connects to the methods of data gathering and analysis to be applied to the research. By this under-pinning the procedural elements of research can then be critically examined and assessed accordingly. This is what then informs the research plan, sampling strategy, level of analysis, unit of analysis, and the strengths and weaknesses of that positioning in what advanced with evidence at the end.

[ii] Quick tip! There is an easy road and there is a hard road that may be taken when approaching methodology. The less philosophically demanding route is to work backwards from method [Google, YouTube, postgrad blogs, ChatGPT all offer “hacks” to short-cut this way]. An alternative (i.e., more respectable) shorter path might be taking Saunders research onion approach {here}. The hardest road is seeking to understand the philosophical perspective more concretely.

[iii] At a personal level, I took the hardest road here, and I am pleased I did. *By positioning the research needs first and foremost, I was rewarded with insight and justification in rejecting many of the more conventional philosophical approaches in my field. This meant positivist epistemology making way for better means to support exploration. I prioritised human reasoning for action (not a thickening of explanations to support causation) which meant post-positivist perspectives -i.e., critical realism and most forms of pragmatism – each became less appealing. Constructivism also eventually yielding to philosophical positions borrowing more fundamentally from hermeneutics*. Several months of finding deep-seated problems with conventional wisdom changed my research methodology and redefined my entire research priority and plan.

*[practical user tip! – if all of these philosophy terms above are gobbledegook, I have placed two *asterisks* in paragraph 4 [iii] to flag a section of text to cut and paste Have ChatGPT expand that paragraph -i.e., by asking it to explain the key philosophical concepts and justification I have stated between those two asterisks. ChatGPT is fundamentally flawed in many ways but I tested it with this text and it offers reasonable rudimentary paragraphs of explanation. In my opinion that is how to use such tools -i.e., to give basic level explanations to enable you to dig in specific directions it signposts you towards].

[iv] In summary, Martin Heidegger’s philosophical hermeneutics is the unusual choice of grounding selected for my research. I am also persuaded to utilise the interpretive power (albeit philosophically demanding) methodology of phenomenology. Phenomenology can be a powerful interpretative methodology when complimenting Heideggerian ontology, so the pairing is well chosen. Both invite different perspectives and challenge to what is otherwise assumed in project management discourse. Notwithstanding that novelty, my empirical evidence is to be gathered via well-understood methods of semi-structured interview. However, because of this philosophical positioning I will use factors such as author and participant pre-understanding as a key aspect of how I conduct interview and analyse my interview data. The justification for this novelty is therefore supporting exploratory priority and possibility of a fundamentally different way of seeing human interaction in a complex project space.

[5] The literature

[i] The literature review places the key arguments of your proposed research into the context of what is already known -i.e., it is a mistake to this just a regurgitation of existing theory and scholarship. The literature review ends up as an appendix in the year end transfer report, it is also likely to be a chapter of your final PhD thesis. Indeed, if going for a PhD by publication, this may also be the first publication proposed (and likely needing to be ready to submit to a journal soon after that end of the first year).

[ii] Quick tip! Check your field of scholarships journal ranking norms. In management scholarship, for example, the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) provides broad guidance. CABS Academic Journal Guide (AJG) is a means to check quality scholarship by starting with 4* journals. Another example is aforementioned International Journal of Management Reviews (IJMR), as a good place to start literature review grounding; both as a guide towards what a literature reviews looks like, and offering guidance on types of methodology available to conduct a literature review.

[iii] At a personal level, a detailed positioning of research into the wider discourse going on in several fields (i.e., the discussions in the literature one article to the next) became a constant changing perspective. The source of many draft and rewrites – and it will continue to be.

[iv] In summary, the socio-economic division of governance literature and conflict literature are now better understood by finding the origins of theory shared by most scholarship. Furthermore, much of the theory underpinning these positions in these two distinct areas of scholarship (conflict and governance) both trace back to comparable sociological or economic origins. Conflict literature can claim some level of sophisticated when posing questions of psychology or factors prior to action (which variously forms from goals, motivations, and intentions). Governance, however is reliant on economic or sociological theory. This forms a central theme of the arguments and examples presented in my research proposal, the feeds into the gap and the contribution to knowledge I have proposed.

What next?

For me, this first year is at an end. My whole demeanour is changed having been told I can transfer. More general information on transfer exams can be found {here}. This “go / no go” decision is one to have in mind from the start of your PhD. It is a nervous moment, so I hope writing this blog whilst living with that anxiety reveals what is important in the end; and what this transfer hurdle might mean to you.

…to be continued

About Me

“PhD and me” is a blog-series about my later life move into academic research. One mask, among many.

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