The development of a consistent research proposal is key for the success of any PhD thesis. That is the process of choosing a topic, doing an exhaustive literature review, identifying gaps in the field, raising research questions, and finally selecting the right method to answer these questions. Anne Galloway – in the introduction of her dissertation entitled “A Brief History of Locative Media and Urban Computing” (2008) – says that a research proposal is a “warm-up stage”.
Based on my experience, I would say that it is through this process that a student becomes knowledgeable and confident about the chosen research topic. Thus, it is advisable to extend this warm-up stage for a good length of time. It is important to have feedback from different professors and colleagues from different universities, not only from supervisors, and to take courses in different fields in order to have a solid and extensive background.
Within eight months, I had to design three different research proposals, all in the scope of locative media. It happened because the first one was refuted by one of my advisors, the second was disrupted because one of the case studies – the hyperlocal service EveryBlock – was shut down, and finally the third was the one, which was presented to and accepted by the research committee. Rather than describing those proposals, I want to highlight what I learned from them and from the experience of the feeling of failure.
First of all, my experience illustrates the difficulties of doing research in the field of digital media, a world where everything is very liquid and transitory. On the one hand, this is positive because it facilitates one to be innovative. On the other hand, one needs to juggle with uncertainty. That is why there is a turn to the construction of prototypes and experiments in social sciences. It seems that there is a call to think in more suitable research methods to study digital media. By doing the literature review, I learned that the research in locative media, for example, is quite interdisciplinary, nevertheless, the empirical research is often undertaken by designers, architects, computer scientists or interdisciplinary groups.
Unlike those researchers, media scholars undertake qualitative studies such as cases studies, interviews, and ethnography. Therefore, the question is: Given that these digital services have a short lifespan, how can one come up with a good case study that keeps its relevance over time? In one of the conversations I had with a professor and expert in the scholarship of locative media, she posed me the following concern: “You have to think that your dissertation has to have an impact int the academic community when you finish it in two years. What if “Foursquare” (a potential case study for me) fades into inexistence in two years?” That was also the concern of my professor who refuted my first proposal. I had proposed to study two cases: the growing Monmouthpedia and the inexistent Manor. Both of them were cities, in which buildings had QRcodes with articles about their places where they were stuck, a phenomenon named “physical geotagging” (see my blog post “Geotagging of Physical Places“). The core of my proposal was to understand why many of locative media projects fails and why they are not reaching the tipping point.
By discussing this concern with a friend of mine, who is a professor in the engineering school, I learned with him that one possible response for this question is to invest in “fundamental research”, without any direct practical application or use in view. After all, there are blasts of new fields of research, that are absorbed by distinct other areas, which demands understanding from the start. For example, locative media ranges from new media arts to journalism.
Over time, I concluded that the three proposals were the bedrock of my dissertation, since they altogether were the source from where my current project germinated. Only now I recognize that, but I have to confess that for a long time I felt sorry for myself for having my first proposal refuted. It is obvious that was not an easy process, neither emotionally nor intellectually. However, I grew mature and stronger to come up with better ideas.
Tips for people who are working on a research proposal:
1) In the beginning, you do not even know the terminologies of your field of research. Type all combinations of words and terms that come to your mind in the library databases search.
2) Once you have read many papers and books, and identified the experts in your field, try to reach them out. The best strategy is to attend conferences focused in your area of research, even if you do not have a paper to present. The experts will be there and you will be able to talk to them over lunch or coffee breaks. Don’t be shy!
3) Make a list of research questions and keep it in your purse or pocket. I know that sounds nerdy, but that is a good way to develop them into better ideas.