Being a PhD student isn’t easy. It’s especially terrifying right at the onset of your research journey. After wading through the literature, you have some ideas you think might work, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed. What is worth pursuing? Will it work? Will it be publishable? You’re about to spend the next few years working on your research, but you have no idea where or how to start. You need a reliable plan. Of course, you would also love expert guidance. Let’s say that you have identified an ideal research mentor and you have a 30 minute meeting with them to “pitch” (the academic merits of) your idea. Clearly, you want to impress them. What do you do? Panic? … No.
That’s where Faff’s “Pitching Research” paper comes in. It’s all about nurturing worthwhile fledgling research projects. This guide for the early stages of research development aims to produce a well-rounded, effective and achievable research project. It does so by providing a simple mechanism for sounding out a new idea and starting a conversation with a potential research mentor – an expert in the field. At its core, the paper proposes a 2-page template tool which recognizes that the typical research mentor is heavily over-committed – they are extremely time poor, very busy and usually grumpy. They do not want to (and will not) read pages and pages and pages of rambling thoughts – the mentor just wants all the salient aspects, sufficient to make a call on the inherent academic merits of your idea. Something that they can read and digest in 10 or 15 minutes.
For an engaging proposal, here’s what you need …
FOUR elements of “framing”
Working Title: Put it down, however rough, however uncertain. Keep it succinct and make it catchy. Creating a meaningful working title is a non-trivial exercise that will force you to think deeply about what it really is that you want to research. The working title will evolve with your project.
Basic Research Question: Say it in just a sentence. You’ve got to be able to hook a supervisor and rambling just won’t cut it.
Key Papers: Find three papers crucial to your project. If you can, nominate the most critical single paper. Ideally, these papers have been published recently in top tier journals by “gurus” in your field. You’ve got to start with the best.
Motivation: What is fuelling your research idea? Depending on your research field, this should come from a combination of the literature, observed behaviour or industry patterns. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, no one else will.
THREE building blocks: Idea, Data and Tools (“IDioTs” guide).
TWO Key Questions: What’s New? And So What?
What’s New? What’s the novelty? Make sure that you’re not simply replicating previous work. No one wants to read that. Use a “Mickey Mouse” diagram (below) to characterise the intersection of novelty for your proposed study (“X” marks the spot).
So What? How useful and important will your novel research be? How will it advance knowledge in your research field? These are the questions journal editors will ask.
ONE bottom line
Contribution: This is the distillation of your entire research project. What is the primary end point? How will it impact understanding in your research area? It might be a cracker of an idea, or maybe your application of data and tools is truly unique. Whatever, you must identify a primary force that defines why your work makes the relevant academic community take notice.
Other Considerations: Here it’s time to consider a range of miscellaneous factors. Are there any deal-breakers or serious obstacles? Is collaboration necessary? What is your target journal? Is the scope appropriate? What are the (research) risks?
Having done a great job with your research pitch, the busy academic will be well placed to give you instant and insightful feedback – even in the short time remaining in your (first) half-hour meeting together. Moreover, they will not only be receptive to how you deal with the individual pieces of your pitch, the succinct overall format will enable them to readily see how well linked are the component parts. “Connectivity” is crucial. Impressed by your serious efforts, the mentor will be encouraged to help you tweak your proposal and get your project underway. Thus, “pitching research” has not only helped start a conversation, it has potentially laid the foundations for a fruitful longer-term research collaboration.
Pitching Research Resources