There’s so many, many books on the market that claim to help you with your PhD – which ones are worth buying? I have been thinking about it this topic for some time, but it’s still hard to decide. 1. The craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Greg Colomb and Joseph Williams. I wish I owned the copyright to this one because I am sure they sell a shed load every year. Although it seems to be written for undergraduates, PhD students like it for its straight forward, unfussy style. Just about every aspect of research is covered: from considering your audience to planning and writing a paper (or thesis). The section on asking research questions is an excellent walk through of epistemology: an area many people find conceptually difficult. I find it speaks to both science and non science people, but, like all books I have encountered in the ‘self help’ PhD genre, The Craft of Research does have a bias towards ‘traditional’ forms of research practice.
You creative researcher types might like to buy it anyway, if only to help you know what you are departing from. This was the first book I ever bought on the subject, which probably accounts for my fondness for it. I have recommended it to countless students over the 6 or so years I have been Thesis Whispering, many of whom write to thank me. The appealing thing about this book is that it doesn’t try to do too much. I used it to write a project based creative research thesis when I did my masters and found the advice was still valid. Oh – and the price point is not bad either. If you can only afford one book on the list I would get this one. I won an award for my thesis and this book is why. In Helping doctoral students to write Kamler and Thomson explain the concept of ‘scholarly grammar’, providing plenty of before and after examples which even the grammar disabled like myself can understand.
I constantly recommend this book to students, but I find that one has to be at a certain stage in the PhD process to really hear what it has to say. I’m not sure why this is, but if you have been getting frustratingly vague feedback from your supervisors – who are unhappy but can’t quite tell you why – you probably need to read this book. It is written for social science students, so scientists might be put off by the style – but please don’t let that stop you from giving it a go. Physicists and engineers have told me they loved the book too. If you want a bit more of the conceptual basis behind the book, read this earlier post on why a thesis is a bit like an avatar. I love this book because it recognises the social complexities of doing a PhD, without ever becoming maudlin. Indeed it’s genuinely funny in parts, which makes it a pleasure to read. This book is great because it doesn’t try to teach you how to write – you already know how to do that. What you need more is something to help you tweak your writing and improve it. This book is basically a big list of strategies you might like to try when you are stuck, or bored with the way you are writing. This book is so useful I have literally loved it to death – the spine is hopelessly broken and pages are held in by sticky tape. There are many wonderful tips in here from ‘free writing’ and ‘write it backwards’ ideas, to diagramming methods and analytical tools. Opening it at almost any page will give you an idea of something new to try.
When you complete your research, it is important that you have something specific and definitive to say. Otherwise, you may be left with broad, vague conclusions that provide little guidance to scholars who follow you. Include a title on your proposal. I’m amazed at how often the title is left to the end and is then somehow forgotten when the proposal is prepared for the committee. A good proposal has a good title, and it is the first thing to help the reader begin to understand the nature of your work. Work on your title early in the process and revisit it often. It’s important that your research proposal be organized around a guiding set of questions. When selecting those guiding questions, write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with the literature. Those questions establish the link between your research and the research that preceded yours.