By Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell
So the purpose of this blog is to look at where people’s PhD topic ideas came from? I am sure some people had a burning desire to solve certain problems and what they did at the start was very similar to the end product. However, with mine, what it was at the beginning bore no resemblance to what it was at the end. Also, the reason I went looking for a research question was as much because I wanted to be the best, to see if I could pass the ultimate test as I was looking to fill a gap in knowledge.
Why did I want to do a PhD?
I had always wanted to do one, ever since I really knew what one was. According to my mum, that was from a very early age when I had the concept of ‘University’ explained to me. So it was more a personal desire to achieve than a ‘eureka’ type moment. I love ballroom and Latin dancing.
”]I have been lucky enough to watch my idol’s career unfold, and her achievements from World Champion to Strictly Come Dancing champion, and been inspired by her dedication, work ethic and passion for her dancing. I love dancing, but I could never be Karen [Hardy]’s standard. However, I could apply
the lessons I learnt from watching her achieve to something I was good at and, for me, being academically able, it meant scholastic achievements. However, you can’t have a PhD without a subject.
My mum grew up on a farm, so it was no surprise that with her and my Granddad I spent a lot of time out-of-doors in the countryside developing an interest in my surroundings. I loved all things natural and when considering subjects at school I kept floating between Biology and Geography. As I entered my GCSE years I expected to be a Biologist or Zoologist. I was great at science but not brilliant at Geography and initially had not chosen Geography for GCSE. I changed from History at the last minute. It was, in the end, a life changing one. Just before Christmas in year 10, we were given the results of our first exams. Biology, as usual was a strong area for me, and I sat nervously waiting for my Geography result. We were told the highest result in the year was 34/36, I felt sick, until I was told I had 34/36! woo hoo, goodbye Biology hello Geography.
Once I found my ‘favourite’ subject, or subject I found easiest, my academic path was set. I did my GCSE’s and A Levels and by then knew I was a Human Geographer, one interested in people / environment relations, particularly those from developing countries. So it wasn’t a surprise that I did a BA in Geography & Environmental Studies with Development Studies at Sussex University. Studying in the School of African and Asian Studies, my education focused on understanding human and environment interactions in some of the poorest parts of the world. This was fascinating and thought-provoking as it engaged me with the problems faced by these people and environments and the fragility of the ecosystems involved. At the same time, I could see TV and press coverage of international environmental agreements and how they were they supposed to solve, or at the very least ameliorate, the problems / issues I was studying at the local level. But I could see that the politics was somewhat divorced from the realities of local processes. This led to my MA in Environment, Development and Policy. I wanted to understand the political process and how the physical and political supposedly related. This is where I began to explore and question the political structures leading to initial research questions that made me think this is where and what my thesis would be on, I felt as I had so many questions that there was an obvious gap to fill.
From Question to Thesis
Well, it wasn’t as simple as it sounds: formulating an idea requires you, some broad ideas and a someone willing to supervise you. I couldn’t stay at Sussex as they couldn’t provide me with a supervisor so I had to look elsewhere. I systematically approached a range of different institutions which were ‘local’ enough to me as I wasn’t able to move to do it and came across King’s College London. I investigated the department and then made initial contact. My 1st supervisor, although from within the same area, had a very different approach to what I was going to do / or should be doing, so my questions evolved. I went from questions of environmental ethics and economics, i.e. how we value the environment (which was slated on the first meeting, in fact I didn’t think I’d even be offered a place at KCL but I was), to the application of the precautionary principle in the regulation of red and green biotechnology in Europe and the US to its application in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the international agreement regulating the trade in GMOs. This is what I started researching.
I was self funded during my first year and we reapplied for ESRC funding for my second year, which required another application. At this point I felt I wasn’t connecting to the US / EU debate. I knew it was important but I was interested in how it would impact upon African nations suffering from food security issues. With that we reformed the application to look at how the EU / US arguments over GMOs would influence the development and regulation of GMOs in Sub-Saharan Africa. I was awarded an ESRC/NERC studentship and off I went on my work. This really wasn’t what my supervisor was interested in so we added a second supervisor, an African specialist. My focus in this area got
stronger. The more I got into it the more I realised that the reason the local level practices didn’t relate to the international was because of the grey, under researched area known as ‘capacity-development’. Capacity-development is a buzz-word that has been part of international development and environmental politics for several decades without anyone really knowing what it was. In focusing in capacity-development, I could bring together people, environment and development. The thesis I produced at the end was a true reflection of me, my educational experience, and all the people who have inspired me along the way. My examiners stated I had produced a novel way of examining capacity-development and one which should be expanded.
I did at times feel like giving up, when I was at my lowest ebb. What kept me going was my desire to get that PhD, to prove to myself I could do it. To do it you must have a subject you are passionate about but you also need to be passionate about the process and place value, not necessarily monetary value, on what the PhD represents to you and that will always be unique to the individual.
Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained in her PhD in 2010. As well as continuing her research in geography, she is involved in developing social media training programmes for research students and researchers at Kings College London. She is also managing editor of PhD2Published, the founder of the Networked Researcher blog and avidly tweets at @sarahthesheepu.
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