By Susan Carter

A potential doctoral candidate choosing their topic might ask themselves: ‘”What are the subjects that interest me—that I want to make sense of?” “Who do I want to talk to about these subjects?” And “What can I bring to the conversation?”’ (Kempe, 2005: 2). These are three pertinent questions that Anne Sigismund Huff saw as initiating research direction. From there, though, it is rarely that simple.

Designing the project can be difficult at the outset of a doctorate. Crotty (1998: 2) believes that essentially two questions need resolving in a research proposal: what methods and methodologies will be used, and how they will be defended. He also notes that “methods and methodologies…may appear more as a maze than as pathways to orderly research” (Crotty, 1998: 1). Indeed. As students read more literature, more possibilities become evident. The complexities suggest many pathways that they could explore. Choices at the outset are hard because so much is unknown.

Yet the doctorate is constrained by time and budget. The first year of enrolment at our institution is provisional, and by the end of it, the student needs to have produced a full thesis proposal of about 10,000 words. So there can be considerable emotional tension when uncertainty delays writing. The choices are significant; it seems unwise to make them hastily, and yet, as weeks slide into months, students can feel increasingly anxious if they have produced only a small amount of writing in the face of this 10,000 word requirement.   Strategies that help students get writing done early, and often, can go a long way to reducing the potentially debilitating results of rising anxiety.

In this post, I report on a set of questions that one student found helpful to prompt early writing. The questions are a subset that were intended to help her to find the answers to Crotty’s essential questions, begin writing her proposal, and escape from anxiety.

I sent the following questions to her in a document ahead of our meeting to allow time for thinking, and at the meeting I typed notes while she talked through her responses to each question.

  • What was your original motivating idea for your doctorate? Was there a problem you wanted to investigate in order to make it better?
  • What has been added to this idea as you have been reading, reflecting and talking?
  • Has anything been cut back? If so, what, and for what reason?
  • Who will be helped by your research findings and in what way? What might be the original contribution and who could benefit from it?
  • What sort of research do you most like doing, or expect that you would like doing?
  • Where is it easiest for you to gather data? (This student was international, and some international students want to make a trip home, whereas others can’t afford to do that. When the home country is part of the study, this consideration plays out in choices about methods.)
  • What work would you most like to do when you graduate? Where would you like to work, for whom, and doing what?
  • We’ve talked about several methods. List the positives and negative of each one, what benefits it would give you and what problems it might cause.

It took us a little over one hour to work through these questions, and immediately after that we worked together on possible research questions. Then we listed what contextual topics would be covered in the introduction, some of which were already written in small pieces of text. We drew up a tentative structure for the full proposal, identifying what could be written immediately because it was known.

The exercise made me think that there may well be other useful questions to prompt decisions, and we’d love to hear from you in a comment if you have further suggestions to add. I’m always aware when making suggestions for supervisors that what works for some students doesn’t for others; nevertheless, it is worthwhile sharing suggestions to accumulate a raft of possible strategies. Can you add to of the list of questions that help the start of the doctoral writing journey?


Crotty, M. (1998). The Foundation of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. Sage.

Kempe, S. (2005). A conversation on conversation: A research journey with Professor Anne Sigismund Huff, Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management, 11(2), 4-12.