These blogs were originally posted to my Patreon across late 2022. They’re intended as insights into my own creative and research process, and advice for folks who might be interested in getting into Arts research themselves. Enjoy!
For a PhD, you need to be able to argue that your work is An Original Contribution to Knowledge. Now, what on earth does that mean, and how does that apply to a degree in the Arts? And where do you get an Original Idea for your Original Contribution?
Throwing Spaghetti at the Wall
You might think “original contribution to knowledge” means inventing or discovering something, but this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s often, as far as I can tell, less about making something totally new and more about coming up with a new way to look at something. For example, my project is a crossover of three different topics that had not been crossed over before, and an examination of what happened when I did so.
In terms of being “original”, one advantage of mine was that I was writing about contemporary fiction—new books and currently-evolving literary trends that no one had had the chance to write about yet. But you don’t have to be on the cutting edge. Ask things like… has X literary theory been applied to Y topic before? Has author Z been examined through lens A? What happens when we look back at topic B through a more contemporary context and place it in conversation with social and artistic movements C, D, and E?
In my case, I ended up asking “what happens when we do a genderqueer reading of the trickster character type from myth and fiction, and what happens when we examine that in the context of young adult literature?”
(It can be fun to phrase your experiments this way—it makes it feel like you’re dropping different ingredients into test tubes and watching as the liquid turns different colours!)
But that’s what I ended up with. It took me a while to get there.
Burrowing Into a Research Niche
As I said in Part 1, you’re not really expected to stick wholeheartedly to what you pitch in your initial proposal—they expect you to narrow and shift your focus during the research process. So don’t worry about landing on a perfect, snazzy, wicked good idea right at the start. Evolution is part of the process, and finding what ingredients you want to combine—and working out how—isn’t something that distracts from your work, it is your work.
Generally speaking, you’re going to start out B I G and need to whittle down. This was certainly true for me, and is basically true for all my projects be they journal papers of fiction pieces. I mean this in terms of “oh no, I’m way over the word limit and need to edit a buuuunch of stuff out”, but I also mean this on a more thematic level. Again, I ended up in a very specific niche, but I began with a much broader scope. My initial proposal was something along the lines of “uh myths? Retold? But gender-funky?” And yeah, that’s the gist of the final manuscript! But over time that wide-scope idea narrowed, and narrowed, and narrowed until it ended up much more manageable.
I’m kind of A Young Adult Scholar now, but would you believe that initially that wasn’t the focus of my research at all? I found that I kept using queer YA as useful examples of writers being playful with gender roles, queer characters, and retellings, and my supervisor, in her wisdom, suggested that I make that the lens of the whole project.
This was super useful because it let me limit my scope: contemporary queer YA is a much smaller pool than all myth-inspired fantasy fiction ever, and YA with non-binary characters is a much smaller pool within that smaller pool. Going niche is always a better idea than going big: it means you can cover a few examples in depth rather than doing a shallow read of a lot of examples. There’s less room to miss a crucial text and there’s less margin for error.
Getting to the Heart of the Story
The second big narrowing-down is the focus on the trickster character. In my original idea for A Big Book of Gender-Swapped Myths, I had a non-binary trickster figure as just one of many examples. After starting some reading on tricksters in myth and literature, I discovered that I found these ideas deliciously relevant to what I was talking about re: playing with power structures and established patterns. Also, I was just having heaps of fun and found them super interesting. Thus, the non-binary trickster became the central point of my analysis and not just one example of the queer potential of myth tropes.
And this was true for the novel, too. In its original form as A Big Book of Gender-Swapped Myths, this non-binary trickster character was part of an ensemble cast that populated the mythic cycle I was making up. Among other frustrations about the creative work, I realised at one point that it was wigging me out because it didn’t have a protagonist. It was also, just like the research idea, WAY TOO BIG—I was 101% going to go over the word limit, and I was going to have to do a pretty shallow take on all the characters I was chronicling.
Here, that idea of covering a few things in depth rather than a lot of things more vaguely came in handy. In what is probably the most intense redrafting/restructuring I’ve ever done for a creative project, I sliced and diced my original plot outline to make it one third of the size (i.e., the events that were going to be the first act of the story were now the whole story) and to centre on this trickster character. Now the damn thing was not just a pile of cool concepts, it had an emotional hingepoint and a character arc! Lo and behold, it came together so much more easily and with so much more heart and soul. And hey, now I have potential sequel ideas if the need/want ever arises. “Unused” work is never wasted if you tuck it away to be used later!
A Human Being is a Work in Progress
How a project whittles down to its final form will be different for each person—I imagine you’ve all had your own experiences! But it’s a crucial part of the process, and one that will happen somewhat naturally along the way as you a) do more research/writing practice and develop as a scholar, and b) come to realise what exactly you want the project to do and say.
It’s important to keep in mind, too, that any kind of postgrad shenanigans takes years, and you’re going to grow and change as a person across that time too! What you want to explore with your project might change as you gain new perspective. For example, your gender might fall off mid-project. Can’t guarantee that this will happen to anyone, but it did happen to me, so be careful out there.
It’s honestly pretty funny looking back at my original proposal and seeing, well, the broad strokes have stayed the same and I have done what I said I would… but the details are completely unexpected. It’s all one big journey—Hero’s or otherwise.
That journey, though, can sometimes be gruelling. How do you get through it intact? Well, more on that next time.
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3 responses to “The PhDiaries, Part 2: Thesis Pieces”
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I am cleaning my inbox instead of working (as you do) and finally got around to reading this! (I also listened to the podcasts on aroace rep in anime and manga the other day while cleaning and it was really interesting!)
I find it super interesting to compare how you’re doing it vs how I’ve been doing research so far in social sciences! (Also good news update, I learned last week that I had got the PhD position in my department!!)
Aaa congratulations! I wish you all the best on your academic journey! And thank you as always for reading – it always makes me smile to see you pop back up in my notifications ^^