Breadth vs. Depth


I'm just coming up to 2 years knocked off, about to have my transfer viva onto the PhD programme.

My project is very broad, and by virtue the questions that are being addressed are quite broad. Most of those in my office and research group are focussing on specific problems, whereas mine is more qualitative than quantitative at this stage. The depth I'd hoped I'd get into hasn't really appeared yet and I'm worried that I won't get it done in the remaining year (plus write-up) if it turns out I have to.

Anyone been in a similar situation?

I get a bit anxious when I see other projects heavy into the depth of one particular problem when mine is very broad and so involves a lot of hand-waving and diagrams rather than hard data, and makes me fear that there isn't the level of depth required of the PhD.

Picking which part of my study to look at in more depth is difficult as well, I've kind of covered all bases at the top-level and identifying some problems and gaps where the links don't quite match up, but I find myself flitting between various aspects of my project often and finding it difficult not having a particular, set problem to deal with so I know where I stand.

Who else has had a very open project with very little definition in the beginning? How did you manage it and whittle it down during the 3 years?


Hi Zinar7, I was in a completely different field, and being in the humanities meant that  I didn't have experiments to carry out, lab work etc. Nonethelss, my topic and research questions were quite broad at the beginning, and the obvious problem was indeed how to narrow down the focus.

In the end, the material the I found (e.g. archival documents) provided the focus for my research, although the real meaning and implications of what I had found became completly clear only when I pulled together all the chapters and started to write the conclusion.

So, I wouldn't be overly concerned at this stage. You are still working and getting results, and remember, what you don't find is as revealing as what you find!

What I would suggest is to write as you go along, even if you think that at this stage is a waste of time. Believe me, it's not!


======= Date Modified 13 Sep 2011 18:47:33 =======
Hi Zinar7,
I just saw your post and had to comment, I couldnt agree more with what corrine has said... just write whatever it is that you are doing now it will be soooo worth it at the end .. and not to worry about the depth etc because things only make sense when you are pulling it all together ... you could start out thinking the most amazing idea coming out of your research is x but it turns out Y was the most amazing thing and you will only understand that after undersatnding all the data you have and letting it guide you to whats most important... as one of my examiners told me... sometimes in a phd there are about 10 different things that could be written into a great thesis but you only have to weed out one and all the rest can fall in your conclusion and recommendations chapter.
I wish you all the best....(mince)


Hi Zinar7, I can totally relate to your situation as my project is extremely broad as well. My PhD is in applied physics which involves computer simulations, analytical calculations, measurements, models etc etc. There are quite a lot of tools am using most of which were new to me when I started and the key tool was unavailable until last year. It has been months of hard work putting everything together, validating at each and every step, trouble shooting: "Nothing worked the first time - Nothing worked the tenth time either" :p I had to read manuals/articles, write to people to solve problems. I am someone who wouldn't ask for help easily and hence I always tried and tried and at the very end I bothered people :-(

I like my topic very much as I have gained quite a lot of knowledge working on various things (still jack of all these techniques). The PhD is for three years anyway after which I am thinking about working in a clinic and doing research in parallel where I wouldn't have to worry too much about the time constraints and finance. I have also been involved in another project which will be published soon and I will be the second author (international collaboration) for which I spent quite a bit of time but I learnt a lot.

I don't think I can say much about the anxiousness part as I myself haven't still managed to over come it. It has been an overwhelming three years and am still ploughing on.

It is some times depressing to see couple of other PhD students who have focussed projects progressing at a steeper rate but I have been controlling myself not to compare my progress with others as each and everyone's PhD project is different.

I am sorry for writing so much about myself :-( I am sure all of the difficulties you are under going now will fly away at some point and all the very best to you (up)