One of the hardest things to do in graduate school is to choose a subject for one’s thesis or dissertation. With little or no training, students are expected to identify an issue of profound importance and present a solution or analysis that has never been proposed before. That’s quite a tall order, especially considering that most grad programs do not teach students how to do it. Most likely, this happens on such a wide-scale basis because university culture has always pushed the idea that being an academic is an identity—not a job. Therefore, anyone who wishes to pursue a Master’s or PhD degree must already be an academic at heart, so the conventional wisdom goes, and doesn’t need to be trained how to act like one. Of course, this isn’t true, and this misconception causes unnecessary anxiety for most graduate students. In my own case, choosing a subject for my Master’s thesis was an ongoing struggle, and I didn’t settle on the final topic until about a month before I graduated.
Enter the new book by Thomas S. Mullaney and Christopher Rea. Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters To You (And the World), published earlier this year, is a practical guide on how to choose a subject for a major research project. It is mainly aimed at graduate students, but aspiring and current researchers of all stripes can benefit from it as well.
Where Research Begins is a much-needed guide on choosing what to write about.
The book is structured as a chronological tour through the early stages of the research process, helping the reader move from a general topic of interest (for example, “I am interested in Brazilian history” or “I am interested in ancient Greek art”) to identifying a core problem and developing a project to explore (or, hopefully, solve) that problem.
Although it is written in an eminently approachable way and is delightfully concise (around 200 pages), this is not a casual read. It is a manual, full of exercises and thought experiments that the reader is meant to spend a considerable amount of time on, and so the book is best read in short bursts. Likewise, do not expect immediate answers. The reader must invest a good amount of time performing the exercises and engaging in deep reflection for the book to truly work. No one can tell you what you want to research, so the book tries to guide the reader through their own self-examination process.
The core of Where Research Begins is its exercises, and they are exceptional. One of my favorites is called “Go Small or Go Home” (p.36-40), in which the authors encourage the reader to start with questions of minute detail rather than those of world-shattering importance. The example they provide asks us to imagine a photo of the post-WWII Nuremberg war crimes trials and to ask questions based on the photo. The authors argue that instead of asking the impossibly broad question, “What effect did the trials at Nuremberg have on post-WWII Europe?” we should ask much smaller and more specific questions, like “Who took this photograph?” “Who paid to transport judges, lawyers, and witnesses to the city?” or “How were the delegates chosen?” This is important for two reasons, according to the authors: first, we start by following our curiosity and gathering the necessary facts before we jump to any conclusions; and second, this basic brainstorming process is far more likely to generate an original angle on the subject matter than immediately turning onto the most obvious route toward an apparently important pre-ordained conclusion.
Don’t jump at the obvious, broad, “important” questions. Ask your own questions, as specific as possible, and follow your real curiosity. Facts first, conclusions later.
This exercise, and the others in the book, presents a clear step-by-step path by which aspiring researchers can overcome idea paralysis. Most graduate students ask themselves, “How on Earth am I supposed to write a research project that changes how my research field see my subject?” Under severe stress and impending deadlines, they jump to the first thing they can think of, which often ends up being the equivalent of “What effect did the trials at Nuremberg have on post-WWII Europe?” With a question of such gargantuan scale and of such low-hanging fruit that it has probably already been asked and answered, these graduate students are only digging themselves into a deeper hole.
The book’s other exercises are equally effective. One, the “Cereal Box Challenge,” has readers generate as many different types of questions as they can about one of their primary sources, to reward curiosity and encourage originality. Another, the “Change One Variable” exercise, illustrates how to identify one’s core research problem and look beyond the confines of a solitary case study.
One could probably count the number of books ever published about choosing a research project on one hand. With its insightful advice, brilliantly written exercises, and accessible text, Where Research Begins is now undoubtedly at the top of this list. It is a well-crafted book on a desperately needed subject, and should be required reading in every graduate school and for all aspiring researchers and journalists.
Where Research Begins should be required reading at every graduate school.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book.