By Sophie Almond |
Somehow I have survived the first month of my PhD. It has certainly been a baptism of fire – I have presented papers at three conferences in as many weeks, had my first official supervision meeting, and studiously attended all of the recommended postgraduate training days, not forgetting to collect the coveted tote bags and free pens. Rather than sitting in my office reading a mountain of books, and writing so industriously that my laptop starts emitting steam (as I imagine PhD students do), I have so far spent the majority of my time duplicating large amounts of
pointless paperwork, mindlessly staring out of train windows, and preparing for conferences in my pyjamas (not my usual attire of choice, promise).
Now that the inductions are over, and the first-month dust has officially started to settle, I am now faced with the prospect of having to actually sit down at my desk and get started. Knowing where to begin when faced with the task of writing an 80,000 word thesis is difficult and really very scary. Literature reviews are often the logical starting point for many, but for me personally I wanted to really ‘get my hands dirty’, and start forging my own research paths, rather than feeling overwhelmed by all of the brilliant things that others have done before me.
I therefore took the decision to use the time and research freedom that I currently have to boldly go where
no many a PhD student has gone before – down a research rabbit hole.
“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
What is a research rabbit hole?
Research rabbit holes are alluring. Just like Alice, before you realise what you are doing, you have innocently stepped inside and fallen down into its depths, where you will struggle to find a way out again for quite some time. As writers, we are often encouraged to actively avoid and resist them, as they are believed to distract us from our work and are viewed by many as being a waste of time and energy.
I believe that research rabbit holes can actually be fantastic things to focus on, especially for PhD students in the first few months of their studies. At this point in your academic journey, you have the luxury of time and freedom to explore different aspects of your research area, whilst you figure out what on earth you’re going to be doing for the next few years. Now is the perfect time to spend days, weeks, or even months exploring something that interests and excites you, even if it doesn’t end up in your final thesis. Allowing yourself to go on an adventure, and to follow your research wherever it takes you, is a great first-step when it comes to settling into your PhD.
With this in mind, here are my three top tips for fuelling your curiosity by going on an academic adventure down a research rabbit hole:
1. Find an aspect of your thesis which is particularly compelling. If there is a suspicious lack of research surrounding something or someone, ask yourself ‘why?’. Trust your instincts and follow these anomalies up, they usually turn out to be the most exciting. I came across a nineteenth-century woman doctor, Dr Annie Reay Barker, in my own research who was seemingly everywhere but nowhere. Her name cropped up a number of times, but I couldn’t find anything concrete about her life and career, and why she seemed to disappear from all records after 1883. This presented me with the perfect research rabbit hole to go exploring in! Don’t be afraid to stray away from the main focus of your research, you never know what you might find.
2. Take some time to plot out the different ‘routes’ that your research anomaly might take. For example, if like me you find yourself researching someone’s life, perhaps break things down into logical ‘paths’ such as their childhood, education, career, and old age. Mapping out which ‘tunnels’ you are planning to explore will make your research journey easier, and will help you to see where the gaps are. This being said, don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path when you come across something that grabs your attention, relevant information can often be found in the most unlikely of places!
3. Sharing your journey down a research rabbit hole, and asking others in your field for advice and help, is an absolute must. Every scrap of information you can gather helps build the bigger picture. Tweet about the person or thing that you are researching, and openly ask for suggestions from your followers. I have had some fantastic responses on Twitter that have been crucial in my search for more information on Annie’s life. Email archives and institutions if you think that they might hold something of interest (even if there is only a small chance that it might be relevant). If you explore a number of different options at the same time, you will hopefully not be left waiting ages for responses (which can be demoralising). My own research rabbit hole journey has led me to email archivists in Canada, France, and Ireland. Everyone I have spoken to has been incredibly helpful, even if they didn’t have exactly what I was looking for. Don’t be afraid of setbacks!
The first few months of the PhD journey can be incredibly daunting, as you try to find your feet and remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Research rabbit holes are a rewarding way of getting started when you aren’t quite sure where exactly to begin. Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty for straying away from the main path of your thesis- going on a detour down a research rabbit hole doesn’t mean that your work isn’t worthwhile. All research, regardless of whether it ends up in your final thesis, is valuable. Like Alice, you may also learn some valuable life lessons along the way!
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough”.
-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Sophie is a Contributions Editor for Pubs and Pubs and a first year PhD student at the University of Leicester. Her research is investigating the work of the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) between 1879 and 1948. She regularly finds herself going on an academic adventure down a research rabbit hole (often whilst wearing pyjamas). For updates on her search for Dr Annie Reay Barker, follow her on Twitter.
All images: Pexels.