New research students

Am I the right supervisor for you?
Whether you’re doing honours, a project unit, or a PhD, you’re going to be working closely with your supervisor for a long time. It’s a good idea to make sure that your supervisor is someone who you can work well with, who knows your area of interest, and who can help you achieve your goals. If you want to work with me, consider:

  • Having a look at my publications to check whether they overlap with your interest area, and also noting that I’m particularly interested in research on climate change action at the moment, although I’m also willing to take on students whose research interests overlap with my work more broadly.
  • Consider whether my research methodologies (which focus on qualitative methods) will be a good fit for you. (In other words, if you need a supervisor who’s great at statistical analysis, you may want to consider someone else as your primary or secondary supervisor.)
  • Reflect on your experience of me as a teacher and/or my teaching approach and consider whether it’s a good fit for you. If you have questions about how the supervision relationship might work, it’s a good idea to raise them! You’re usually expected to show much more initiative as a research student, which means that you’ll have a more collaborative relationship with your supervisor than you may be used to as an undergraduate.

There are many different resources available for research students, including those available specifically for Curtin University project, Honours, Masters, and PhD students. I’ll be adding to the brief outlines below when I find that I’m consistently having to cover the same ground with students, or when I find useful resources.

Where do I start?
There are lots of different ways to choose your research focus. Some people want to focus on an area of research that might be relevant to their work. Some people try to be tactical, focusing on an area that seems likely to get funding in the future. Some people do research on an area that they have a deep passion for, whether or not there’s a clear outcome at the end. You’ll be spending anywhere from months to years on your research project, so personally I think the most important thing is that your topic is something you care about and will remain interested in.

How do I develop a research question?
Your research question needs to fill a gap in existing knowledge, be of a manageable scope for the timeframe of your project, and be a question you can answer with your available resources. A big, broad question (eg. “Is the Internet good or bad for activists?”) is not helpful. A more specific question is better (eg. “How are Australian climate activists using [particular social media platform] in the campaign against coal?”).

Some models of research require you to come up with a firm, falsifiable question which you then rigorously test. In my research approach, there’s considerable room to shift your question as you go in response to new evidence. However, you do need to start with a reasonable scope and a methodology that matches your question.

How do I develop a methodology?
Your methodology needs to provide you with a way of answering whatever question you’ve set. For example, if you wanted to know more how activists are using a particular platform you might draw on interviews, gather material associated with a hashtag, run focus groups, or do some combination of all of these approaches (and more).

You may find that thinking more about your methodology makes you rethink your question. For example, you might start off wanting to ask “How are Australian climate activists changing public perceptions of coal?” and then realise that the resources necessary to answer that question (for example, broad surveys of public perceptions) aren’t available to you.

You’ll also need to think about the ethics of different methodological approaches. The latest AoIR ethics guidelines are a good starting point.

What’s a literature review?
A literature review is the part of your writing where you show that you understand relevant research that’s already been done on your topic. It’s also a way of positioning the particular approach you’re taking to your topic by making choices of the scope of relevant literature. For many topics, the range of potentially relevant literature will be huge and you’ll need to narrow it down. Consider the theories, methodologies, key definitions, and case studies that you’ll be drawing on.

Your literature review needs to have an argument, along the lines of, “Existing research has done […] well, but there are some important gaps in the area. I’ll build on previous work by […] which will make a new contribution to knowledge by […].” It’s not a description or a list, it’s an analysis of important concepts, approaches, themes in the literature, and case studies.

This section isn’t always titled ‘Literature review’: I often prefer more descriptive titles. For example:

As you’re doing your own research, take a look at the texts you’re reading. Do they have a section titled ‘literature review’? If not, which part of the text provides an overview of existing research in the area, and what arguments are they making? How do the authors define the scope of relevant literature?

Some frequently asked questions:

  • How many sources do I need to include? There’s no easy answer to this! It depends what you’re researching. Rather than thinking about this in terms of numbers, try to ensure that you’ve defined your scope well, set up the background to your research question(s), and discussed the most important and recent studies.
  • Do I need to read every source in detail? No. Some sources you’ll read, and write about, carefully, especially those that set out important approaches. Others you might scan quickly and mention in passing (for example, if you want to say something like, “there’s a lot of research on this aspect of my topic [cite some examples quickly], but few that take my particular approach”.)

Other helpful resources

  • Alison Phipps has some excellent guidelines on getting through your dissertation, many of which are also available in infographic format which you could print out or put on your desktop.