The further you get into your PhD project, the more likely it is that your research will spark new ideas. This is a natural and exhilarating aspect of pursuing doctoral research. The more you explore one path, other paths of interest begin to open up. What becomes difficult is trying to incorporate all of these new ideas and areas of interest into a project that is by its very nature limited – not just in terms of the words you have to work with and the time you have available, but also the scope of the project. New ideas can often expand the parameters of the PhD to something that becomes overly ambitious, unmanageable, and far beyond what would be reasonable for a single thesis to accommodate.
The reality of being unable to incorporate all of your great ideas into the thesis might become a recipe for dissatisfaction with the final product. When this occurs, it is important to find a way to accept that you simply won’t have the space to say and do everything that you find interesting on your topic. Equally, it is important to have a designated space to record whatever insights flood your mind throughout your PhD research.
My recommendation to help balance this inevitable wave of creativity on the one hand, with the limits of your project on the other, is to invest in an Ideas Journal. An Ideas Journal is a notebook for the sole purpose of storing pieces of inspiration, random thoughts, and creative insights that may be related to your PhD project, but not specifically intended for inclusion in the thesis itself. There are numerous benefits to investing in an Ideas Journal.
First of all, an Ideas Journal can accommodate anything of interest to you on your topic that doesn’t necessarily fit within the confines of your project. By alleviating the pressure to incorporate everything within your thesis, it can help mitigate the risk of your project going off course. As you utilise the journal, you simultaneously reaffirm the boundaries of your research and in so doing, cultivate the necessary focus to complete your PhD.
Second, having a record of ideas that are related to your PhD, but not at the core of your project, can easily be fed into the concluding chapter of your thesis under the ‘areas for further research’ section. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important component of a doctoral thesis, as it allows you to highlight where your work is situated within the broader field and to identify what potential avenues for research it opens up. Having some insights into how future research could build on your specific project will also give you something to discuss with your viva examiners.
Third, it can be a place to brainstorm your plans after the PhD. This can either be some ideas for how you might like to revise your thesis for publication, or alternatively, it could be a few notes which form the basis of a postdoctoral project. Using an Ideas Journal to flesh out prospective post-PhD projects serves as a powerful reminder that there is life beyond your current project. This will go a long way towards helping you escape the type of tunnel vision that is sometimes endemic to the PhD experience.
Finally, even if you don’t have waves of inspiration or insights that might automatically be included in your Ideas Journal, it may still serve a very useful purpose. As you get further into defining your research question, you’ll likely realize what is possible and what isn’t within the parameters of your PhD project. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. While it can be tough to scale back on your original plans, especially if it involves cutting out earlier material that you’ve spent a lot of time on, having a safe space to store this material can make the task of letting it go much more palatable.
Whichever way you decide to utilise your Ideas Journal, you’ll find it to be an immensely powerful tool, not simply for maintaining focus and exercising creativity, but also in terms of tapping into that sense of excitement surrounding your broader subject area. This will undoubtedly serve you well, particularly during the long, and sometimes arduous, writing-up phase.
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