My second piece of advice on PhD writing is to think big. Ignore authority figures who tell you to think small. Everyone from your supervisor to your friends will tell you to narrow your PhD topic. This is extremely common advice that is told to all first year PhD programs the world over. There is even a common joke about it: PhD students begin their project wanting to win a Nobel Peace Prize; by second year they aim to do an okay project; by third year they just aim to finish the PhD.
This joke basically summarizes everything wrong with academia. In essence, the vast majority of academics are people who have given up trying to make a real difference in the world and are instead involved in small, irrelevant projects that benefit no-one. Often, they’re so caught up in work requirements and box-ticking that they fail to realize that years and years have gone by since they last did anything of lasting impact.
This is a very scary path to go down. Be very careful that this does not become your future.
Instead of narrowing your PhD immediately, cling onto your initial ideas of a big project. Cling onto whatever motivation you had to begin with, and look back at the ‘why?’ reasons of the previous chapter. If the reason you are doing your PhD is to change the world, then narrowing it immediately will likely go against this bigger goal.
Your supervisors again will tell you to aim small. Ignore them.
Big goals are motivational. Wanting to climb Mount Everest is more motivational than wanting to climb a hill in your local park. In the same way, wanting to fundamentally transform your field is more motivational than working on a small, irrelevant topic.
A key lesson to take from this: your supervisor can be wrong. They are human and they have human limitations. The university system, with its focus on narrowing people and narrowing their intellect, tends to produce conformist professors who impasse the same logic onto their successors. A lot of the time, your supervisors will not have achieved revolutionary work. They will tell you, due to their own limitations, that revolutionary work is impossible.
Be careful of the fifty year old non-achieving academic who tells you to narrow your thinking: almost always they have the wrong idea about how the world works.
A lot of the best ideas in history have begun as vague, large, aspirational and seemingly impossible ideas that at the outset present themselves as absurd. Only with time (say, three to four years, as a random number plucked out of the air) do good ideas have the rumination and possibility of becoming worthwhile.
This is why a PhD is the perfect length of time for a big project. Years of time spent on a single idea can produce something great – but not if that idea is small and irrelevant to begin with. That is why it is important to push for a topic worth writing about – fight for this harder than you have fought for anything else in your life, and eventually the university will relent.
Once they do so, they will often give you the resources to accomplish what they said was impossible. The official documentation can be used to your advantage here – often your university can order books or help with travel or do various other things to assist you in your project. Find out what your university can do to help, and get them involved. Use the resources available as often as possible.
I have seen hundreds of tiny PhD projects that to me seem completely irrelevant to the world we live in. Last year, I read a project on the use of knives and forks in the American Civil War. Tiny projects like this are a waste of your time. They cannot stand up to the most basic of questions. Things like:
- What’s the point of your research?
- Why are you doing it?
- What benefit does it offer society?
At the start of your PhD, ask yourself these questions. Give yourself time to think about the big goals you want to accomplish. If you cannot answer these questions, it is likely because you are thinking too small. If your PhD project has no point and no benefit to society, how will you motivate yourself to complete it in three years?
Motivation is crucial. A lot of people don’t finish PhDs. One of the main reasons is that they narrow their focus down to something they don’t care about. Many people will write large dissertations on obscure historical figures without drawing any relation to current events. Others will research niche aspects of science that present no practical benefit to the world.
I cannot insist on this enough: resist the urge to conform. Resist the urge to narrow your topic. Stay true to your initial urge to work on a project worth doing.
In the early months of your PhD, write down your project proposal. This should be separate from the one you submit to your university. Write down why your project is worth doing and what you intend to get out of it. Some of this will come from your university: your supervisor might put you in touch with the leaders in your field. Others will come from your personal endeavours: maybe you want to publish your research in a newspaper, or you want to make a significant change to the world. Write down all the things you can gain out of your PhD project. Make it a numbered list – and measure your goals of your project in alignment with this list.
Keep these written goals somewhere safe during your project.
Look back at them often.
Keep yourself motivated by taking small, incremental steps towards these goals. If your project aims to change the world – consider how you can make this happen in small incremental steps in the allocated timeframe. Look at opportunities to contact the government, the media and other related organizations who can get you on board and assist you in this effort. Don’t be afraid to cold-email people who are relevant to your project and ask them directly for a chat and for any advice. Ask them to get involved, give you resources or even join up on the project in a collaboration.
- Often in giving advice, people offer to help out in some way or put you in contact with someone who can.
If relevant, try consider your project as advocacy. Use it as a means to convince the public of the benefit of your research. This is particularly relevant in a humanities field, where you don’t have a tangible outcome to the project, but you do have a set of publishable ideas.
A lot of you reading this, particularly if you are a professor, will have objections to what I am saying. Many of you will insist that a PhD should be written on a very narrow topic. You will offer robust, compelling reasons to believe this.
One of the most common reasons is time management.
Firstly, you have ample space in your PhD to reference prior thinkers who have done a lot of the legwork for you. This can drastically reduce the amount of time you need to spend establishing various ideas that back up your conclusion. Wherever possible, use shortcuts in referencing prior studies, prior thinkers and prior academics who have already done the work. Make your PhD about going beyond this research. Do not get trapped into a PhD project that is a giant literature review – this is a waste of your time.
Secondly, the only research worth doing is research that changes the world. Ergo, the size of the project becomes irrelevant to the point of the research. Another way to put this: always look to your aim, rather than your limitations.
When you make a large goal, it can feel overwhelming. Here, it is important to consider the wise words of the fantasy author Neil Gaiman. A goal can seem like a mountain, but so long as you take steps towards the mountain, rather than away from it, eventually you will reach the top.
The pressure placed on you by supervisors and others to narrow down your topic is a force that pushes you away from the mountain, a force that pushes you away from meaningful work. Resist this force as best you can.
When in doubt, look to history.
Leonardo Da Vinci and other famous inventors would have cowed in their bootstraps at the thought of the size of their projects: but instead they focused on an end goal – contributing to art, medical research or philosophical insight. Have your end goal in mind from the start of the project. Take some time to work out what that end goal should be.
It is important to remember that famous breakthroughs like the internet, which came about only in the last couple of decades, were met with condescension at first. Beginning as a university project, the internet was called “vague but interesting” by the relevant supervisors. It has since, obviously, gone on to change the world.
Professors tend to have the view that young PhD students (often in their mid to late twenties) are simply too young to do anything worthwhile. Often they reflect back on their own inexperience and lack of intellect in their younger years. This is their problem, not yours. When people give you personal advice it comes with their own personal limitations. A project that is impossible to one person is possible to another: what matters is your own judgment on your own limitations.
Try to sit for a minute on your own, away from your supervisor, and figure out what your own limitations are in the periods of study ahead. If these are larger than what your supervisor thinks – then fight your case.
The idea that young people cannot do big projects is false. History is riddled with counter-examples. Einstein did his best work in his twenties, as did all of the major philosophers. Instead of seeing this time as a period of ‘growth’ or ‘maturity,’ see it as a time to compete with the greatest minds of history. See it as a time to make your mark in the world. But most of all, see it as a time to do something worthwhile.
This is an extract from my book “How to Write a Thesis Worth Writing”.
You can buy the full book on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Thesis-Worth-Writing-ebook/dp/B0788TGC4M