How to research your own PhD — inspired by Scott Young’s ‘Ultralearning’ — Part I

Introduction

I came across Scott Young on the Learning to Learn course taught by McMaster University & University of California San Diego. This was a course designed to provide strategies and the latest research on learning techniques. Young was featured for his work at completing an MIT degree without going to MIT, and in 12 months rather than four years.

He now makes a career out of his entrepreneurship and his latest book is called Ultralearning.  It’s a fascinating read, exploring how people learnt a lot, effectively, and, at times, quickly. He provides case studies and strategies on how to do the learning as well.

Ultralearning: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

I find it inspiring.

Techniques, strategies and perseverance are some of the most important components to learning and excelling. Often, however, these are expected to be somehow ‘internally’ discovered and for people to be born smart. Fixed intelligence is one of the most harmful myths out there. Luckily, more work on neuroplasticity and the growth mindset has shown that people can learn and excel once they know how.

Young shows us ‘how’.

I’ve always wanted to spend my life studying but education is unaffordable in the UK for me in my circumstances. I want to learn from home, at my pace, around my child care, full-time work, and social obligations — and in English.

The main part of this process is learning. I want to learn more about a subject and in great depth. However, the learning part is about methodology. From what I understand, from my years as a social researcher and a one-time PhD student, the process of gaining a PhD is really about learning how to research.

It’s about discovering the following:

  • How to review the literature,
  • Find the best research [most appropriate] methods, and
  • Investigate a topic in a robust way, and
  • Demonstrate that you have contributed to knowledge in your field.

Which topic

The first part of the equation, at which I have failed so far, is to find a topic.
Some I have recently been researching and have found interesting are as follows:

  • Scrutiny in local politics
  • Austerity and the way it has allowed CICs and religious groups to gain control of public services
  • Local literature and how it represents its region
  • Propaganda and local media; coverage and scrutiny of local council in relation to the mayor’s dealings with the churches

My favourite so far is the latter one: ‘Propaganda and local media; coverage and scrutiny of the local council in relation to the mayor’s dealings with the churches’. It also seems to include some of the other topics as well so that’s even more interesting to me.

The Bristol mayor’s involvement with the churches is a subject I have already written about and which has been ignored by the local press. It is almost certainly newsworthy if public money or officials are involved.

Which field

The second question is within which field would this research lie?

Some of the ones I could see fitting in are as follows:

  • Propaganda studies,
  • Local politics,
  • Ethnography,
  • Human geography,
  • Politics –social capital and rational choice theory– and
  • Communications

One suggestion given to me on how to discover further research and where it sits in which departments, was to search Google Scholar. It’s a simple idea but an effective one. Considering that my topic is –temporarily– the affect of the local media on scrutinising local politics especially to do with religious involvement, I searched for “local politics uk media”.

One of the results is “Who Cares about Local Politics? Media Influences on Local Political Involvement, Issue Awareness, and Attitude Strength”. The authors are from the Communications department at Cornell University. The article is about US politics but I’m just looking at which department and research field is appropriate, so the geographical specifics don’t really matter at the moment.

One tip I picked up from Helen Kara, professional researcher, in her book about how to do a PhD was to assess the abstract, introduction and conclusion in order to discover whether the article would be a useful one.

This seems a useful strategy to me for now so I will stick with it.

Literature Review

Another tip was how to work on a literature review. The first time around at PhD research, I saved all my references in an Excel spreadsheet. I also used Zotero for addition of references straight into my Word documents.

I am familiar with Zotero but I last used it over a decade ago so was a bit dubious about whether better facilities were available. Kara mentioned it in her book recently so that seemed to be recent enough to at least make me give it a go. I downloaded and installed it.

I have added the article about local media from Cornell in and was reminded quite quickly of how simple Zotero is to use.

When or if I start with the Excel spreadsheet, I can use it through Google Docs and add a link.

Assessment Criteria

When Young did his MIT degree in a year project, he had criteria by which to assess his level of completion, and access to resources.

In relation to resources, I can probably get access to them at the University of Bristol or University of the West of England libraries. In relation to criteria, however, I will have to do some more reading about what will be required.

Some books to explore:

[End of Part I — TBC]

In the following parts, I intend to explore how to assess criteria for a PhD; Research proposal; Time limits or at least some plan on how to structure my time; …

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