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Posted on 10 Sep '20

How to Develop your Research Ideas from Masters to PhD

The jump from Masters to PhD can be a strange one, in the words of one my old lecturers, “the Masters is a sprint, but the PhD is a marathon”. Not only is the work style different, but the nature of your research will change too. The PhD requires more detail, contextualisation, and a strong level of originality.

It may seem that your Masters dissertation hit all these points (or is hitting them!). And, in comparison to an undergraduate dissertation, it will have. It’s just that the PhD is another step up again.

But how do you know where to start? I hear you ask!

The answer is, there is no right way. Many people choose to follow on from their Masters research, and some even undertake a Masters in preparation for a PhD. However, as a PhD thesis is a lot longer than the Masters equivalent (as much as 80,000 words longer, in some cases!), your research will need some tweaking.

With that in mind, I’m here to talk you through the step by step process I used to find my PhD topic. Not everyone’s journey will be the same, and some will find their topic a lot quicker than others, but that’s ok. Hopefully, some of these steps might help you along the way.

What have you already done?

Before you start drafting a project proposal, consider what you have already done. Does your Masters dissertation have room for expansion? If you considered your Masters to be a chapter of a larger topic, what might that be? And finally, did you bring anything original to the debate?

After you’ve determined the answers to these questions, you know what you currently have to work with. As a PhD is a much larger project, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to continue with the exact same research. Instead, you’ll need to develop your ideas and interests into a slightly different, more ambitious, topic.

Try noting down the main themes from your research to broaden your ideas, or consider an angle you perhaps you didn’t fully explore. You don’t, however, have to stay with your current specific niche, it’s ok to venture outside of the box and explore related areas.

Make lists

Lists are a tried and tested method for putting thoughts down in front of you. Make a list for what you did and didn’t like about your Masters project. Ask yourself what you might have done differently if you were to start over.

Perhaps staying in the same field isn’t the right path, but if you can figure out what it was that originally inspired you to pursue your current topic then you might be able to make some connections to other areas of research.

Consider the academic market

The main point of a PhD is to contribute something to the academic discussion (this is one of the things that distinguishes a PhD thesis from a Masters dissertation). In order to contribute, however, you need to have an element of originality. Finding your unique perspective can be extremely difficult in certain areas. In history, for example, trying to find a new angle on the Salem Witch Trials or Stonehenge would be a struggle as new books by accomplished academics are published almost every year. The market’s crowded.

That’s not to say if your passion lies with a crowded market you shouldn’t follow it, you’ll just have to do a lot of reading and thinking in order to find your perspective.

Another option is to find a more underdeveloped area. This also requires some reading and thinking as you need to identify a gap. By getting up to date with the latest research in your area of interest you should be able to see where the field is developing. Then, you can start planning out how you might contribute to the growing discussions.

Talk to people

Talk to both staff, family, friends, and, if you can, current PhD students. Ask them about their experience of planning a research project. Talk to your Masters dissertation supervisor about your thoughts and they can let you know if your plan seems too narrow or too broad. They will probably also offer some recommended reading.

Friends and family, though probably not specialists, or necessarily academic minded people, can often help you get your mind out of the details and into the broader picture.

My parents have not studied History since O-Levels were a thing, so I thought they probably wouldn't be very useful. But the thing is, they know me better than anyone.

“You should do the East India Company”, my dad said. As a kid I loved films like Pirates of the Caribbean (lets not talk about the new ones), and Indiana Jones. He knew I had a love for adventure. Historical adventure.

Having previously specialised in early colonial America, my lack of language skills and the limited number of specialists in the UK meant that it would probably be a difficult topic to pursue. . . not to mention it is also a very crowded market.

After discussions with my Masters supervisor about the kinds of sources I like to use and the themes I enjoyed researching, he ended up encouraging me to look at sea travel further afield, something my dad had been talking about for years. So I did. While I now situate my studies in the Atlantic, not really looking at the East India Company, my dad wasn’t far off. . .

Follow the trail

If I was to rank the steps in order, this would be the most important. I fully empathise with the stress of coming up with a project proposal but it’s important to remember why you’re applying, because you love research! And research can take you anywhere.

Try and enjoy the ride. Don’t limit yourself! Just because something doesn’t seem obvious, does not mean it isn’t possible.

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