Doing PhD Research While Staying in Place

Apr 2, 2020

Last night, I taught another session of our Dissertation Proposal Workshop class, and the topic was the methodology section of one’s proposal.  That is, how am I going to research this question and how do I justify the choices I made?  This is after going through the other pieces–the question, the proposed answer, what other folks have said about this or have said about other stuff that you want to bring to this project, the theory, and the hypotheses.  How does one test the hypotheses was the question du jour (or nuit). 

Before I start, to be clear, no one should expect anyone to be productive right now. The stress on everyone, especially students, is intense (see this thread for some illustrations). The focus has to be on taking care of oneself and one’s family and friends (and pets!). Universities should (and I expect most will eventually do so) be revising their timelines–for tenure and for graduate student completion. Any that do not are doing wrong by their faculty and by their students. If yours is not, let us know, and we can name and shame them. My own institution has not revised tenure timelines yet because they have to work with our union on that. I don’t expect universities to be quick about this, of course.

Anyhow, as we discussed research methods, the issue of how to do research while self-isolating naturally came up.  In some ways, these PhD students have a slight edge over those who were in the class last year or the year before.  Those other students had plans that they may not be able to execute–they can’t do fieldwork for several months, they can’t travel some place to interview people, they can’t visit an archive, etc. I really feel bad for those students, and, of course, for everyone affected by Corona. 

Students at the proposal stage can adjust their methods before they start their research so that they can make progress without leaving their home.  The question then becomes how to do that?  So, here are some thoughts on this and am looking for suggestions (thanks to many friends who have provided some suggestions with extra thanks to Jeffrey Kosptein for sharing the memo he was asked to write for his place) with the caveat, of course, that the question and the theory determine the method, so there may not be much one can do….

  1. Quantitative work can, of course, proceed if one has a computer at home with the necessary software.  This might be a good time to do what I will avoid–find online courses on how to use R and start figuring that out (and LaTex and the like).  ICPSR and other methods schools will be teaching their stuff online this summer. Maybe your project required hard to get data–now you have a greater incentive to try to get it rather than go into the field. And, yes, quant folks are going to have a bit of a leg up this spring.
    1. Likewise, if one was intending to surveys, one might find a better (although perhaps tainted) response rate since everyone is home.  Of course, that depends on where one is doing a survey. I’d advise students to consult experts on surveys to figure out what they can do and how to do it.
    2. There are other methods for doing research that don’t involve travel or people, such as agent-based modeling and QCA.  Learning online how to do this stuff might be a good use of time if one can’t do the travel/archival stuff.  
    3. Work on your language skills so that you are better prepared for fieldwork when you can do it.
  2. Develop your theory for either the big dissertation project or do some theorizing/conceptual work on other topics. Places do publish theory notes (see ISQ). Also, review essays can not only help you sort a literature but can be a major contribution. We all can’t be Jack Levy, but review essays can be significant contributions.
  3. Get your secondary research done as much as possible from home so that when things open up, one can then be ready to do the fieldwork quickly, keeping in mind that travel may open and close and open and close with waves of the epidemic until vaccination is close to universal.  Be ready to do the research travel in bursts when the windows are open. 
    1. Archives increasingly have stuff in digital form, so you may be able to get what you need without visiting.
  4. Arrange interviews to be done by phone or via skype/zoom/facetime/whatever.  I prefer to interview in person and not just for the tourism benefits.  One can read the non-verbal cues, one can find interview subjects along the way that one would not find otherwise (the Chilean staffer helping us by grabbing legislators as they left the chamber comes to mind), and so on.  This obviously can be problematic for all kinds of reasons:
    1. The interview subjects may not accessible via technology.
    2. The material is stuff that should not be discussed over technology that can be intercepted–research ethics boards may have something to say about this.  
    3. The interview subjects may be worried about who else is listening.  They will certainly not feel as comfortable.
  5. Sub-contract. If you are researching a country that is not locked down, and even if you are, you can hire someone local who can do the research for you. They can contact people, ask them questions from lists you give them, and, if a person really has much to say or wants to talk to you, the local person can help facilitate a skype/zoom/whatever. Of course, principal-agent problems arise, which is one reason why I prefer to travel to do the research. However, in these times, perfect is the enemy of the good enough. Of course, this can be problematic for students, but if one has money for travel, then one can (with the permission of the grant agency) use these funds to pay the agent.
  6. If one is doing a qualitative dissertation, focus now perhaps on the mini-cases.  In my work, I have tended to do larger case studies that tend to require travel and mini-cases to show that the stuff applies beyond the few major cases.  I use secondary research–reading the stuff that is out there–for the mini-cases.  So, I’d suggest working on those while one is cooped up.
  7. If possible, choose at least one of your cases to be local–so that one can do the fieldwork more easily.  This obviously works best if one lives in a national capital.
  8. Write. The one thing one can do at home is write, so write what you can. Write grant applications, write blog posts, write up your proposal as an introduction and a theory chapter and maybe a methods chapter for the dissertation. If you have data from classes or other projects that you did not use, see if you can write something based on that which you already have.
  9. Prepare syllabi, course outlines, and other teaching materials. Most of that is organizing what you already know. If you can’t do research, work on your teaching. When you go on the job market (sorry), you will need to have not just a statement of teaching philosophy but sample syllabi.
  10. Find a flexible, empathetic supervisor as this is going to be very tough. Again, we cannot expect anyone to be productive in these difficult times. Sorry.

What else? Any other suggestions?

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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.