A practice-based PhD as a basket of things

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I just posted a longer post entitled ‘Practice-based Research – Some new principles‘, but buried in the middle of that is a bit about the basket of things. And the basket of things is so important that it has demanded to also have a somewhat expanded post of its own.

The longer post is various thoughts and points about practice-based PhDs. The one that has emerged as the most striking – perhaps because it is counter-intuitive, or at least challenges an existing model of the ‘ideal’ PhD – is the one about building a basket of things:

A basket of things

Most PhDs, and advice about PhDs and research projects more generally, emphasise the need to choose a single specific project with a precise question, explored through one or two specific interventions. You might spend a year or two on the build-up to the main event: reading, reviewing the literature, developing a question and then your methods. Then there’s a shortish burst of activity in the middle, where you do the thing that you planned to do. And then there’s another long wind-down, where you analyse all of the thing you did and write about it at length. So, it’s all about one thing, that was carefully planned, then done, then analysed.

But the practice-based project, being much more like an unfolding journey, can be treated and presented as a basket of things gathered along the way, with a narrative which tells the story of the research process, and thereby connects the elements.

The basket contains a set of mini-projects, interlinked by the development and emergence of questions. Each one may suggest a partial solution, but this will also lead to more questions and the next mini-project. To present this basket of mini-projects as a meaningful whole, the narrative that goes with it must make clear the research intentions, thought processes and decisions, and conclusions.

The idea of the basket seems to strike students as surprising, perhaps because the explicit journey represented by the basket suggests that you didn’t exactly know what you were doing at the start, or where this would lead. But that’s exactly what we’re looking for.

And you know that this is true because – what is the worst PhD thesis? The worst PhD thesis is one where they knew at the start what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it, and they did it, but then – so what? There’s nothing very interesting about achieving an achievable thing that you predicted even before you began.

If the basket represents some disorder and some struggle, as well as some excitement and discoveries, which led to changes of outlook and approach – that’s perhaps a bit messy, but it’s perfect.

(You can read the longer post, with the other points about practice-based research, here).


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