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What is research? And what makes a PhD a research degree? – The question of the research proposal

The question is not as stupid as it might seem at first glance. Most people, most non- academics and many academics, would just shrug and say: research is what academics, or researchers, do. That, however, is not a very satisfying answer, and, if one of their own students would try that one on any other term, the same academics would get very annoyed. So what is research? And what makes a PhD a research degree?

Research is the quest for knowledge in transparent, preferably replicable, but most importantly unbiased, ways. What this sentence tells us is that the means to the knowledge are just as important as the end product of furthering human understanding of a certain topic.

So, is coming up with a research question already research? Yes, definitely. Seeing a problem and having an idea how to approach it means you have to have some knowledge about it. Strangely, this is the part most students struggle with most – the research question. Not because they do not know what they want to ask, but because they are afraid to trust into their own knowledge. No matter what, there is little debate over the fact that a proposal, a question and a path to the answer for that question, is part of your research.

So is a research question and proposal necessary for a PhD? Yes. Does the student have to develop it him or herself? And this is where the opinion separate and tempers clash. As a social scientist, I would say yes. But that would mean that most PhD’s in the hard sciences, for example, do not constitute research. They are based on the research question and often the proposal is written by an academic, not a student.

However, this seems a little preposterous. No one would deny chemistry or medicine the label research, would they? Even in the social sciences with rising costs and limited resources, it is increasingly the case that PhD topics are proposed and tailored by academics who need help for a certain project. So we are not even left with the answer that a proposal developed by the student is a necessity for the social sciences, but not the hard sciences. And, by the way, why did we accept that argument for so long?

Back to the topic at hand: does there need to be a research question and a proposal in order to do research? Yes. Is there one true way to actually get there? No. If you have worked months, often years, on your proposal or have accepted one from a supervisor who needs help with a project makes neither PhD more or less research. One could argue that the first has a step up because they already know a lot about their topic – but they both constitute research.

But then, we all know that a proposal is only the first step. What about data? I will get to that next week.


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