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Finding, formulating and exploring your topic  

2012-04-02 12:08:09|  分类: 论文写作交流 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Different topic creations
Many students have in mind something that they want to work on; others want to work with a particular scholar or research centre. In the first case, students search for a compatible supervisor. In the second,  for a topic. Regardless of these preliminary circumstances, the topic is very likely only roughly formulated at this stage. This is usually enough to have your enrolment accepted.
Reading the literature
Once you have a general idea, you could start by talking to your supervisor and other scholars. But, most importantly, you have to think why you would like to work on it, or why anyone would want to do so. Ask yourself, "Why is it important? What is interesting about this? Suppose I solve it, or find it, or pull it all together, what use is it? What is its significance?" Then, with some questions such as these in mind, go and read more about it to see what is there and find out what aspects of it have been exhausted, what neglected, what the main ideas, issues and controversies are in the area. It is regarded as your supervisor's role to direct you to the most fruitful starting point in reading and surveying the literature.
Cycle of literature review
All of this is not a once only activity, but is a cycle you go through again and again. So you read, think, and discuss it with your supervisor and then, as a result, come closer to the formulation of the topic. And then with each cycle of reading, thinking and discussing your topic becomes more specific and focussed.                     This is not the final formulation and the last time you will focus your topic. But you could probably let go of this round of general exploration and embark on the next stage. Your supervisor by this time should have enough of an idea of your topic to judge whether or not what you propose to do is feasible within the time available and has the potential to meet the required standards for a PhD.      To see the full potential of your topic or, to the contrary, see that it is not going to deliver what you wanted, you do need to begin doing your research. This, of course, is why pilot studies are often undertaken.

Making sense of the literature

We do truly wish we could tell you about a reliable or simple way to make sense of the literature. We can say, however, that you need to attend to things at two levels:


One is establishing a system that will allow you to organise the hard copies of the articles etc., and develop a data base for references, so you have easy access under relevant categories and don't chase the same references repeatedly.
The other is the more demanding task of understanding and using the literature for your purposes.

Without attending to the first task, you could easily become inefficient and frustrated. However, although it is necessary to have some way of keeping track, don't spend all your energies on perfecting your system. It may be a good idea to attend a course for researchers on handling information. Check whether your university's library or computer centre offers such a course.
The other task ahead of you - of understanding, reviewing and using the literature for your purposes - goes to the heart of your thesis. We consider this in three stages.
Making sense of the literature - first pass
When you first come to an area of research, you are filling in the background in a general way, getting a feel for the whole area, an idea of its scope, starting to appreciate the controversies, to see the high points, and to become more familiar with the major players. You need a starting point. This may come out of previous work you've done. If you're new to the area, your supervisor could suggest fruitful starting points. Or you could pursue some recent review articles to begin.
Too much to handle
At this stage there seems to be masses of literature relevant to your research. Or you may worry that there seems to be hardly anything. As you read, think about and discuss articles and isolate the issues you're more interested in. In this way, you focus your topic more and more. The more you can close in on what your research question actually is, the more you will be able to have a basis for selecting the relevant areas of the literature. This is the only way to bring it down to a manageable size.
Very little there
If initially you can't seem to find much at all on your research area - and you are sure that you've exploited all avenues for searching that the library can present you with - then there are a few possibilities:


You could be right at the cutting edge of something new and it's not surprising there's little around.
You could be limiting yourself to too narrow an area and not appreciating that relevant material could be just around the corner in a closely related field.
Unfortunately there's another possibility and this is that there's nothing in the literature because it is not a worthwhile area of research. In this case, you need to look closely with your supervisor at what it is you plan to do.

Quality of the Literature
This begins your first step in making sense of the literature. You are not necessarily closely evaluating it now; you are mostly learning through it. But, sometimes at this stage students do ask us how they can judge the quality of the literature they're reading, as they're not experts.
You learn to judge, evaluate, and look critically at the literature by judging, evaluating and looking critically at it. That is, you learn to do so by practising. There is no quick recipe for doing this but there are some questions you could find useful and, with practice, you will develop many others:


Is the problem clearly spelled out?
Are the results presented new?
Was the research influential in that others picked up the threads and pursued them?
How large a sample was used?
How convincing is the argument made?
How were the results analysed?
What perspective are they coming from?
Are the generalisations justified by the evidence on which they are made?
What is the significance of this research?
What are the assumptions behind the research?
Is the methodology well justified as the most appropriate to study the problem?
Is the theoretical basis transparent?

In critically evaluating, you are looking for the strengths of certain studies and the significance and contributions made by researchers. You are also looking for limitations, flaws and weaknesses of particular studies, or of whole lines of enquiry.
Indeed, if you take this critical approach to looking at previous research in your field, your final literature review will not be a compilation of summaries but an evaluation. It will then reflect your capacity for critical analysis.
Making sense of the literature - second pass
You continue the process of making sense of the literature by gaining more expertise which allows you to become more confident, and by being much more focused on your specific research.
You're still reading and perhaps needing to re-read some of the literature. You're thinking about it as you are doing your experiments, conducting your studies, analysing texts or other data. You are able to talk about it easily and discuss it. In other words, it's becoming part of you.
At a deeper level than before,


you are now not only looking at findings but are looking at how others have arrived at their findings;
you're looking at what assumptions are leading to the way something is investigated;
you're looking for genuine differences in theories as opposed to semantic differences;
you also are gaining an understanding of why the field developed in the way it did;
you have a sense for where it might be going.

First of all you probably thought something like, "I just have to get a handle on this". But now you see that this 'handle' which you discovered for yourself turns out to be the key to what is important. You are very likely getting to this level of understanding by taking things to pieces and putting them back together.
For example, you may need to set up alongside one another four or five different definitions of the same concept, versions of the same theory, or different theories proposed to account for the same phenomenon. You may need to unpack them thoroughly, even at the very basic level of what is the implied understanding of key words (for example 'concept', 'model', 'principles' etc.), before you can confidently compare them, which you need to do before synthesis is possible.
Or, for example, you may be trying to sort through specific discoveries which have been variously and concurrently described by different researchers in different countries. You need to ask questions such as whether they are the same discoveries being given different names or, if they are not the same, whether they are related. In other words, you may need to embark on very detailed analyses of parts of the literature while maintaining the general picture.
Making sense of the literature - final pass
You make sense of the literature finally when you are looking back to place your own research within the field. At the final pass, you really see how your research has grown out of previous work. So now you may be able to identify points or issues that lead directly to your research. You may see points whose significance didn't strike you at first but which now you can highlight. Or you may realise that some aspect of your research has incidentally provided evidence to lend weight to one view of a controversy. Having finished your own research, you are now much better equipped to evaluate previous research in your field.
From this point when you have finished your own research and you look back and fill in the picture, it is not only that you understand the literature and can handle it better, but you could also see how it motivates your own research. When you conceptualise the literature in this way, it becomes an integral part of your research.

 

Writing the literature review

What we are talking about here is the writing of the review. We assume that you have made sense of the literature, and that you know the role of the literature and its place in your thesis. Below are links to other sections covering these aspects.
    You will doubtless write your literature review several times. Since each version will serve a different purpose, you should not think you are writing the same thing over and over and getting nowhere. Where you may strike trouble is if you just try to take whole sections out of an earlier version and paste them into the final version which, by now, has to be differently conceived.
     In practical terms, it is necessary to have an overall picture of how the thread runs through your analysis of the literature before you can get down to actually writing a particular section. The strategy which writers use as a way to begin the literature review is to proceed from the general, wider view of the research you are reviewing to the specific problem. This is not a formula but is a common pattern and may be worth trying.
      Let's look at an example taken from the first pages of a literature review. This shows us the progression from general to specific and the beginning of that thread which then continues through the text leading to the aims.

Despite the undisputed success of quantum mechanics, many important fundamental problems and questions remain unanswered (see for example X, 1973): the measuring process cannot be satisfactorily described in QM formalism; there are great mathematical stumbling blocks to attempt to make QM consistent with the assumptions of special relativity; ……….., just to name a few.

 

[This is basically an introductory section, which starts with a statement of the problem in very broad terms, alerting us to the fact that not everything is rosy, and proceeds to sketch in specific aspects.]

Without doubt, one of the most widely discussed of these… is …[this closes in on what the focus of the problem is] Like most fundamental issues in physics, this question leads to challenges at several levels of thought. At the philosophical level this issue poses questions about …. At the physical level we are forced to examine …. At the mathematical level many questions are raised about the completeness and logical consistency ….

 

[The text moves on to specify issues at various levels. Although the focus is sharper, the coverage at the same time opens out.]

An important instance in which all of these challenges converge occurs with the concept of 'angle' in the description of quantum systems…

[Thus the text has set up the situation where all aspects of the problem--theoretical, practical, etc.--are brought together.]

Whatever the pattern which fits your work best, you need to keep in mind that what you are doing is writing about what was done before. But, you are not simply reporting on previous research. You have to write about it in terms of how well it was done and what it achieved. This has to be organised and presented in such a way that it inevitably leads to what you want to do and shows it is worth doing. You are setting up the stage for your work.
For example, a series of paragraphs of the kind:

"Green (1975) discovered ….";
"In 1978, Black conducted experiments and discovered that ….";
"Later Brown (1980) illustrated this in ……";

demonstrates neither your understanding of the literature nor your ability to evaluate other people's work.
Maybe at an earlier stage, or in your first version of your literature review, you needed a summary of who did what. But in your final version, you have to show that you've thought about it, can synthesise the work and can succinctly pass judgement on the relative merits of research conducted in your field. So, to take the above example, it would be better to say something like:

"There seems to be general agreement on x, (for example, White 1987, Brown 1980, Black 1978, Green 1975) but Green (1975) sees x as a consequence of y, while Black(1978) puts x and y as …. While Green's work has some limitations in that it …., its main value lies in …."

Approaching it in this way forces you to make judgements and, furthermore, to distinguish your thoughts from assessments made by others. It is this whole process of revealing limitations or recognising the possibility of taking research further which allows you to formulate and justify your aims.

 

Keep your research focused

It is always important to keep your research focused, but this is especially so at two points. First when you have settled into the topic and the time for wider exploration has to end. And then again at a later stage when you may have gathered lots of data and are starting to wonder how you are going to deal with it all.
Focus after literature review

First, it is a common temptation to prolong the exploration phase by finding more and more interesting things and straying away from what was once regarded as the possible focus. Either you or your supervisor could be guilty of this. In some cases, it might be you who is putting off having to make a commitment to one line of enquiry because exploration and realising possibilities is enjoyable and you're always learning more. In other cases, it could be your supervisor who, at every meeting, becomes enthusiastic about other possibilities and keeps on suggesting alternatives. You might not be sure if this is just sharing excitement with you or if you are supposed to follow them all up.
Either way you need to stop the proliferation of lines of enquiry, sift through what you have, settle on one area, and keep that focus before you. It could even be a good idea to write it up on a poster in front of your desk. Unless you have this really specified in the first place, with the major question and its sub-questions, and you know exactly what you have to find out to answer these, you will never be focused and everything you find will seem to be 'sort of' relevant.
You have to close off some lines of enquiry and you can do so only once you decide they are not relevant to your question. We continually meet students who, when we ask, "So what is the question you're researching?", will answer, "My topic is such and such and I'm going to look at x, y and z". Sometimes further probing from us will reveal that they do indeed have a focus, but many times this is not so. Thinking in terms of your topic is too broad. You need to think, rather, of what it is you are investigating about the topic.


Questions force you to find answers; topics invite you to talk about things.

Focus after data collection

Then, at a later stage, you could find yourself surrounded by lots of data which you know are somewhat relevant to your project, but finding the ways of showing this relevance and using the data to answer your question could be a difficult task. Now you have to re-find your focus to bring it all together.
    Again, it is your research question and sub-questions which will help you to do this because your whole thesis is basically the answer to these questions, that is, the solution to the problem you presented at the beginning. This may strike you as a very simplistic way to view it. However, approaching it in this way does help to bring the parts together as a whole and get the whole to work. We even recommend that, to relate the parts to each other and keep yourself focussed , you could tell yourself the story of the thesis.
     Making a deliberate attempt to keep focused will help you to shape your research and keep you motivated.

Apparently I have to write a research proposal. What do I need to do?

The main purpose of a research proposal is to show that the problem you propose to investigate is significant enough to warrant the investigation, the method you plan to use is suitable and feasible, and the results are likely to prove fruitful and will make an original contribution. In short, what you are answering is 'will it work?'
The level of sophistication or amount of detail included in your proposal will depend on the stage you are at with your PhD and the requirements of your department and University.


In initial stages, the document you need to write will probably be three to five pages long. It will give a general idea of what you are proposing to do but it isn't a binding contract. Often it serves as a starting point for discussions with your supervisor to firm up the topic, methodology and mechanics of your research.
Some of you will be required to write a proposal at the time of confirming your candidature (usually at the end of the first year). In some instances, this is a document of four to five pages and may be viewed as a mere formality. In other cases a much more substantial document of 30 - 40 pages is expected. Therefore it is essential for you to check the requirements with your department.

Regardless of the above distinctions you should never see writing a proposal as a worthless chore. Indeed, if it isn't formally required, it is a very good idea to write one anyway. You can use it to your advantage. It always forces you to think about your topic, to see the scope of your research, and to review the suitability of your methodology. Having something in writing also gives an opportunity to your supervisor to judge the feasibility of the project (whether it is possible to finish in time, costs, the equipment needed and other practicalities, time needed for supervision), to assess its likelihood of success, and its ability to meet the academic standard required of a PhD thesis.
While there are no hard and fast rules governing the structure of a proposal, a typical one would include: aims and objectives, significance, review of previous research in the area showing the need for conducting the proposed research, proposed methods, expected outcomes and their importance. In experimentally based research it often includes detailed requirements for equipment, materials, field trips, technical assistance and an estimation of the costs. It could also include an approximate time by which each stage is to be completed.

write a abstract

. Indeed, the final version of the abstract will need to be written after you have finished reading your thesis for the last time.
   However, if you think about what it has to contain, you realise that the abstract is really a mini thesis. Both have to answer the following specific questions:



What was done?
Why was it done?
How was it done?
What was found?
What is the significance of the findings?

Therefore, an abstract written at different stages of your work will help you to carry a short version of your thesis in your head. This will focus your thinking on what it is you are really doing , help you to see the relevance of what you are currently working on within the bigger picture, and help to keep the links which will eventually unify your thesis.
Process
The actual process of writing an abstract will force you to justify and clearly state your aims, to show how your methodology fits the aims, to highlight the major findings and to determine the significance of what you have done. The beauty of it is that you can talk about this in very short paragraphs and see if the whole works. But when you do all of these things in separate chapters you can easily lose the thread or not make it explicit enough.
If you have trouble writing an abstract at these different stages, then this could show that the parts with which you are having a problem are not well conceptualised yet.
We often hear that writing an abstract can't be done until the results are known and analysed. But the point we are stressing is that it is a working tool that will help to get you there.
Before you know what you've found, you have to have some expectation of what you are going to find as this expectation is part of what is leading you to investigate the problem. In writing your abstract at different stages, any part you haven't done you could word as a prediction. For example, at one stage you could write, "The analysis is expected to show that …". Then, at the next stage, you would be able to write "The analysis showed that …." or "Contrary to expectation, the analysis showed that …..".
The final, finished abstract has to be as good as you can make it. It is the first thing your reader will turn to and therefore controls what the first impression of your work will be. The abstract has


to be short-no more than about 700 words;
to say what was done and why, how it was done, the major things that were found, and what is the significance of the findings (remembering that the thesis could have contributed to methodology and theory as well).

In short, the abstract has to be able to stand alone and be understood separately from the thesis itself.

Is there a particular thesis structure I have to follow?

There are certain conventions specific to certain disciplines. However, these structures are not imposed on a piece of work. There are logical reasons why there is a conventional way of structuring the thesis, which is after all the account of what you've achieved through your research. Research is of course not conducted in the step-by-step way this structure suggests, but it gives the reader the most accessible way of seeing why this research was done, how it was done and, most importantly, what has been achieved. If you put side by side all the questions you had to answer to finish your research and what is often proposed as a typical structure of a thesis, then you see the logic of the arrangement. That does not mean, however, that you have to name your chapters in this way. In some disciplines, it very often is like this; in others, this structure is implied. For example, in many science theses, the following basically is the structure; in many humanities theses, the final structure looks very different, although all of these questions are answered one way or another.


Why am I doing it?

Introduction
Significance

What is known?
What is unknown?

Review of research
Identifying gaps

What do I hope to discover?

Aims

How am I going to discover it?

Methodology

What have I found?

Results

What does it mean?

Discussion

So what? What are the possible applications or recommendations?
What contribution does it make to knowledge? What next?

Conclusions



Occasionally a thesis is written which does not in any way comply with this structure. Generally the reasons you want to have a recognised, transparent structure are that, to some extent, it is expected and the conventional structure allows readers ready access to the information. If, however, you want to publish a book based on the thesis, it is likely the structure would need to be altered for the different genre and audience.

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