Posted by: soniahs | July 20, 2010

Strategizing* and mapping, part 1…

One of my major projects at the moment is getting together reading lists for my dissertation candidacy exams. This means looking at two entire (sub)fields of research (as well as the core T&T field), trying to distill those fields down into a set of key publications, and then immersing myself in the ideas contained therein. It’s a big process, but I’m  optimistic about the way it’s turning out.

I’m approaching this differently than the way I generated my reading list for my Master’s thesis, which was not really a focused approach. I remember spending a lot of time in the library (yes, back in the day when journal articles were actually kept in these paper things called “journals” that you went to physically photocopy) looking up the most recent papers on stream algae. Then reading those papers, looking for relevant information, and backtracking those references to find older papers. I suppose this is a pretty typical way to approach research for someone who doesn’t have a well-thought-out research strategy.  It’s not that I didn’t know how to use database for keyword searches, but I was definitely doing some flailing while trying to grapple with the amount of information out there.

That experience with inefficiency taught me that a good research strategy is not something that’s necessarily going to drop out of the sky. There’s a couple of key things I’ve tried to pull out of this experience that have been helpful for me, at this point in my graduate experience:

  • I have a better handle on the underlying subject areas than I did as a beginning Master’s student. Which is important, even though it’s obvious- it leads to the next few things. But the key thing here is being widely-read before beginning focused research.
  • Being able to evaluate scale and scope of a field- helps establish the boundaries and key concepts to focus on.
  • Being familiar with the major arguments/points of contention- key concepts and threads to be aware of.
  • Since I plan to do an empirical study as part of my research, it’s been helpful to talk to people outside of my institution who are doing on-the-ground research. Different perspectives, and it’s useful to see what current trends in the field are.
  • …On the subject of current trends, being aware of what funding agencies are focusing on in is probably a good idea, career-wise. (To clarify: choosing dissertation topic to a specific funding program=bad; shaping research language to fit topic into a broad area of interest=good? This is certainly a topic worth further exploration.)
  • Also, obviously talking to people on my committee has been important in shaping this process.
  • Evaluating impact of specific papers. I’m not sure to what extent article impact factors is a sciences vs. humanities concept, but certainly the level of interest in the specific ideas brought forth in a publication is indicative of the centrality of it to a field (or at least a specific debate in that field).
  • Keeping in mind that this is not all the reading I’ll be doing for my project. Leaving something out does not mean I won’t be using those ideas in the future.

This is pretty basic stuff and not really all that original, but I thought I should try to be introspective about it, with the idea that at some point in the future I might be giving other people advice about this process. It looks like the key things to do are read widely before beginning research, define the scope of the (sub)field, and get multiple perspectives. I’m sure I’m missing some important points here, though. And I’ll probably have different things to emphasize as I make my way through this process.

Well, this turned into a longer post than I thought it would! Next time, I’ll talk about my attempts to use concept maps to actually organize this information…

*”Strategizing”: not a real word, but fun to use…



  1. Those bullet points are good ones, applicable to many young’un grad students.

    Re strategizing: Yes we love verbizing and those resulting verbizations, don’t we!


%d bloggers like this: