Tag Archives: research topic

It’s all about the language

by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

My PhD idea came to me after a mugging on a beach in Cambodia.  No, seeing a knife pointed at me didn’t make my life flash before my eyes. The adrenaline didn’t help my brain rush to some shocking new insight.

What changed things was that my passport was stolen. Getting a new copy wasn’t a problem: I had a photocopy and a digital copy saved to my Gmail account. Getting a new visa for China, where I had been teaching English at a university, would prove more difficult. I soon learned that I would have to return to the US and go through the same process I had before to get my visa initially.  It would take more time than was remaining before the start of the semester.

I decided then that my career as an EFL instructor had reached its end and that it was time for me to pursue a PhD. My experience teaching EFL, however, led directly to the project I would propose.

Elizabeth with students

Elizabeth with some of the students of whom teaching shaped her research (Photo submitted by Elizabeth Kate Switaj)

After finishing my MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in Poetics and Creative Writing, I had moved to Japan where I started teaching English at one of the infamous Eikaiwa (English conversation) schools – the one with the evil chicken-beaked pink bunny as a mascot. My experience at the now-bankrupt company was unusually positive: during my first year there, I worked at a small branch with very little supervision and during my second year, I rarely set foot in a branch as I taught in elementary schools through the government contracts program. After I left Japan, I spent about a year in New York teaching English to immigrants in the evening (and writing copy for an online kimono retailer two days out of the week  – but that’s another story). Then, I moved to China where I taught composition, oral English, and movie courses to English majors for three semesters.

Along the way, I continued writing and publishing my poetry. I was checking my email in a (literally) freezing Beijing hostel while on break from the university that I found out that Paper Kite Press was going to publish my first collection. The language of those poems – the language of all my written work – had been deeply influenced by my teaching experience. My understanding of the mechanics of the English language had been refined by having to explain them and by discovering which idiosyncrasies of language produced by my students interfered with communication and which did not. I also found that other poets of my acquaintance who taught the language in which they wrote (many but not all of whom I had met through a monthly open mic in a British pub in Tokyo) could trace similar influences in their writing.

This understanding of how language teaching can shape literary work led me to wonder whether similar connections could be found in the work of earlier authors. And when circumstances convinced me that it was time to return to academia and pursue a PhD, I decided that I wanted to apply this inquiry to the work of James Joyce. Not only did Joyce spend years teaching English to speakers of other languages, but also, his famously unique uses of language made his work seem particularly well-suited to being considered from this angle. Going into the third year of my research, I still think that’s the case, though I’ve also found a related pedagogical streak in his works that goes deeper than I had realized.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast and an Editorial Assistant for Irish Pages: a Journal of Contemporary Writing. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. You can find her creative writing at her website http://www.elizabethkateswitaj.net or follow on her on Twitter at @EKSwitaj



Filed under Education, English

Engineering a research topic

By Jennifer Harlim


A PhD can be a feat of engineering (Photo submitted by Jennifer Harlim)

I wished I had come up with my PhD topic via an Archimedes moment. Unfortunately, the way I ended up with my research topic was pretty unexciting. I came up with the topic because of the supervisor that I chose to work with.

I’m researching in the area of engineering problem solving. Specifically, I’m looking at the transferability and measure of engineering problem solving knowledge. While knowledge management deals with transfer of knowledge between individuals and/or the retention of knowledge within an organisation, I was more interested to see if people having solved problem A, would be able to solve problem B, which is in a completely different field. Modern engineers are expected to be able to transverse between different engineering fields (and even at times outside their field) and the education of engineers are also very much focused on problem solving. So I was curious as to what extent education is successful in creating the ideal engineer. However, like most PhD research, it is starting to evolve into something completely different. To measure transferability, I needed to investigate what it is that young to expert engineers consider being aspects of good problem solving and I think the definition stage alone seemed to occupy my whole research.

Anyway, here’s the interesting bit. I’m not an engineer. In fact, I’ve got a BA (Hons) in Textile Design and Masters in Business Administration. Doing a PhD research within an engineering school was one thing I never expected. However, the journey that got me there was certainly interesting. It’s mostly down to circumstances. After completing my BA degree, I started freelancing as a textile designer and that led me to the decision, to be able to run a freelancing business I needed the business know-how. In my opinion at that time, the shortest possible way to get that knowledge was to do an MBA (1 year compared to 3 years of a business undergraduate degree). After graduating, I fell into research when someone I know asked me if I’ll be interested in being a research assistant for an academic in an engineering school. Coming into the meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an engineer-led research. To my surprise, the research had nothing to do with technical experiments. The research was in the area of engineering education. Specifically, we were evaluating a self-reflection tool as to how it assists with learning.

After completing that contract, I got a full-time research assistant position in the business faculty. Interestingly, again, the project that I got involved in seemed to be in the area of learning. Though the project deals with non-academic learning, it was looking into evaluations of micro-finance programs. I think the defining moment when I decided to do a PhD was when someone said to me since I enjoyed research, I should consider being a research assistant all my life. That thought kind of horrified me. Research is fun for me but, like in any other jobs, things are quite different when you are not the decision-maker. Being a research assistant meant doing someone else’s research. I thought the best way to be able to be a researcher in my own right was to do a PhD.

Initially my PhD topic was in the area of social entrepreneurship within the business faculty. As I had run my own freelancing business, I was interested in business start-ups. Why social entrepreneurship? I think this was more to do with the values I have. I was very much interested in the concept of businesses giving back. I did a number of volunteering placements when I was in school, university etc. I wanted to do a topic on the sustainability of social entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, due to supervisor issues I had to drop the topic even before I started. I ended up choosing to do my PhD with the supervisor that I started with in the engineering school. I felt, given the focus of his research and mentoring style, I would probably gain the best value out of PhD years. So I allowed myself to “find” a topic that would suit his area after my transfer from the business faculty. I don’t have any regrets though about choosing a topic that would suit the supervisor that I chose to work with. At the end of the day, the learning goes on and I’m actually enjoying my PhD despite the ups and downs.

I actually found this whole process writing this blog post interesting. I just realised that despite how much I said, “Oh this topic is because of the supervisor”, perhaps parts of the decision-making was informed by personal beliefs and past experiences. When I was doing my MBA, we had to write down our epiphany stories. It was part of a personal development exercise. I guess that is the Archimedes moment, isn’t it? We were doing all these exercises based on the works of Bandura and Cervone on personality architecture, and how sometimes the choices that we make can be explained by our past experiences. When my lecturer read my exercises, he mentioned to me casually, would I ever consider going into education? I said no, I’m not really interested in academia and I want a job in industry. And yet, here I am, 4 years or so later after doing those exercises, sitting in a university, doing research that covers learning, education, cognition, reflection, etc. When I think back on that incident, where this particular lecturer asked me that question, I thought at that time he must have seen something in my writings that indicated that I am more suited to academia.

If I reflect back on what my research topic is…I actually went through it, didn’t I? The whole transferability thing…I mean I did learn in various different fields. Whether it made me a better problem solver, I don’t know. But the experiences I went through certainly, unconsciously, informed my decisions that got me to where I am today. Also, I seemed to highly value the experience of learning a lot…which again seemed to be linked to my own research topic.

Jennifer Harlim is a PhD Candidate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) in Australia. Her research topic is in ‘Problem Solving for Engineers: Measures and Transferability’. She is also interested in the area of research methods. You can follow her on Twitter at @me_udesign. She blogs about design at http://me-udesignblog.blogspot.com


Filed under Education, Engineering

From Dancing to Doctorate

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.

”]Karen HardyI 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.

Why Geography?

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

Sub Saharan Africa

Sub Saharan Africa: Focus of Sarah's Research

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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Filed under Geography

My Archimedes moment

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.

Archimedes in the bath

Archimedes thinking about the King's problem

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


Filed under Law