bringing the focus back to science


Hi there, I'm ~6 months into my PhD, just finished my first field season, and today I had to have an awkward chat with my sup about whether or not I can continue with my doctorate. I split up with my husband a few months ago and have had ongoing financial and emotional problems. I got all the data I needed from fieldwork but I still don't have a research question and have really disengaged with the work that I do. He's given me three months to focus myself, get a question and pull myself together.

At the moment I'm not sure what to do. I really don't know how to make that 'switch' to being independent. I feel like I've missed some point or skill that everyone else has picked up on.

I really want to do well but I feel pretty stuck. I just don't know how to make that jump to being focused and in control. It still all feels so bewildering, even though I've got a lot of work experience beforehand and have a lot of experience in driving my own (short-term, focused) projects. Any ideas on how to pull myself together?

Avatar for Caterpillar27

Hi, I too am 6 months in. It is a bewildering time trying to find a focus and question/s (particularly when others around you seem to have known their questions from the start!).

To get my focus down to some reasonable questions, I first brainstormed every relevant question possible that came to mind and wasn't answered in the literature.

I then prioritised them. I had to make decisions about what questions could be answered, what needed to be known first, what would be feasible and what was most relevant/worth researching (that "so what?" question).

Then over a few weeks of amending, discussing with sups, amending, focusing, changing wording, checking with sups etc - I finally (only about a month ago) came up with an overall research question and 3 smaller questions.

It is a huge relief when you finally know which direction you are going in and can start addressing methods etc.

I would say go for it over the next few weeks and try to first get a focus area - read up on the types of research questions (maybe different for different academic areas - I'm social science)- why, what, how etc and which methods go best with each. I found it an iterative process between question type and whether the best methods to answer each question would be appropriate/manageable in my area. 

Once you know where you are focusing it's about refining, refining, refining!

Good luck - I'm sure you can do it - it was a slow process for me - but I did learn from it :-)

Hope this helps - others may have a quicker/better way - but plodding worked for me! And feeling unsure seemed to be part of it!!


Hi Cornflower,

sorry to hear regarding your private and financial problems, it is not surprising these have a detrimental effect on your concentration and that is difficult to keep on going regarding your PhdD.

First, remember that many students do not have a completed research question after 6 months into their project, for many it takes about a year. At least for me it took that long. However, based on what you wrote regarding the discussion with your supervisor you will need a completed question over the next few months.

I think it is very important to get a clear head. If you have all kind of issues bothering it is hard to concentrate on academic work. Therefore are there any means of getting your financial problems under control? Can you get a loan? Job? etc. Also for you emotional problems, are you able to talk with friends about what has happened? Can you write to yourself about it (this sometimes helps) or do you need counselling?

Regarding the research question remember that this sets the research method. Vice versa a certain method goes together with a particular kind of research question. As you have collected data already via your fieldwork you could use this. For example if you have done interviews or focus groups the question would be something like: What are the views of....... regarding..... etc.

Do not give up, it can be done!