I came up with PhD research topic in the shower.
Over the previous three years, while working as a paralegal, I was given the opportunity to manage my employer’s corporate social responsibility policy. I am not sure why the managing partner decided to select me but I think it might have been something to do with that ‘diatribe’ about cars. Possibly, the biggest challenge was reconciling the tension between my colleagues as particular individuals and the universal goal of environmental responsibility. such as switching off monitors and not wasting paper. I thought there must be a better way to initiate environmentally friendly behaviour than through compulsion or nagging.
But, although I had thought about doing a PhD for a number of years, long before I worked for the above law firm, it wasn’t until I was made redundant that I decided to take the plunge. If I hadn’t been, I could still be working as a paralegal and trying to train as a solicitor even though I actually hated it.
And so it was, during a period of enforced unemployment as a result of the credit crunch, in the shower and wondering what to do, that I had my ‘Eureka’ moment.
You’ll be happy to know that I showed more restraint than Archimedes. I did not run naked through the streets.
My research topic developed out of my own work experience in corporate social responsibility, but I had prior experience in environmental law and, ever since I was a teenager, I have been passionate about protecting the environment. I believe it is possibly the single most important thing we can do as human beings, because, let’s be honest, we’ll be kinda screwed without this planet.
But, I seem to have been quite interested in psychoanalytic readings of Hegel and particularly relating the parent/child relationship to the relationship between the environment, society and law. This isn’t anonymous blog so I am not sure if I want to go into too much detail, it’s pretty obvious to me that my view of the society/law relationship in influenced by my own relationship with my parents, particularly my dad. It is not surprising therefore that I am particularly interested in the feminist critique of the Oedipus Complex – Freud took it to mean the domination of men over women, but the original Greek myth is about the relationship between a son and his father.
I used to struggle with the idea that my reading of Hegel was not particularly objective, but in the course of writing my first chapter I have recently realised that actually no-one can ever look at something objectively. Everyone is subjective. What’s important is that one recognises the limits of one’s subjectivity.
As a result, I have become fascinated by how people comes to pick their research topics. Amongst my own PhD colleagues, there are some whose topic is related to their career: an insolvency lawyer looking into the effect of harmonisation on insolvency law; an architect-turned-construction lawyer researching the arbitration mechanisms for firms involved in building the Olympic stadia; an engineer with experience in development interested in how irrigation technology affects the legal rights of indigenous people at different points on a river. On the other hand, there are others where the origin of the research topic seems kinda random, but it is my ‘hypothesis’ that it is not so random.
One thing that I have noticed from conversations with colleagues and on Twitter is that supervisers seem to exert quite a bit of influence over the direction of phd research, more than just providing research guidance. I have heard a number of people say how their superviser makes it quite clear that they are not interested in research that does not more closely align their own interests. This surprised me because my own superviser seemed to stick to providing guidance and challenging my thinking but not dictating what I should do – even if sometimes I really wished he had. I am glad he didn’t. But, lately, the theoretical direction of my research has started coming close to the specific interests of my superviser.
How did you come up with your PhD topic? How has your life influenced the direction of your research? Please feel free to contribute a post.