Developing your research project

You will already have some ideas about the area in which you hope to pursue research at Sheffield, but your first task after registration will be to formulate this into a more tightly defined project, suitable for a doctorate. Your supervisors will offer you advice on how to set about doing this, but some general guidance may be helpful.

  • A candidate for the degree of PhD is required to satisfy the examiners that his or her thesis forms an addition to knowledge, shows evidence of systematic study, demonstrates an ability to relate the results of such study to the general body of knowledge in that subject and has produced work worthy of publication, either in full or in an abridged form. You need to bear this in mind when choosing the area on which you will do your research.
  • The project you devise should be broad enough to be explored at some length but sufficiently restricted to be capable of completion and submission within three years if you are a full-time candidate (six years for part-time). This means that you should be aiming, from the outset, to complete at the end of your 36th month of research. You should not plan to extend into a fourth year of research; if you do so, you will have to pay a further fee to the University. (Part-time students should submit by the end of their sixth year of part-time study. Further fees are payable for a seventh or eighth year).
  • Since your thesis should make an original contribution to knowledge, you will need to establish (by consulting bibliographies and lists of theses) that no one else has investigated, or is in the process of studying, the precise area on which you want to work.
  • You must verify that there is sufficient material available for you to seek to answer the questions you want to explore, that you can obtain access to that material (particularly important in the case of unpublished sources in private hands), and that you have the necessary technical and linguistic skills. Your supervisors will be able to advise you here.
  • If you find at this point that there are skills that you do not have (for example, if you need some additional language or palaeography training, your supervisors will advise you and help you to access the training you require.
  • A PhD thesis has a clear argument, a thesis that the candidate seeks to articulate and defend over the course of the 75,000 word text. At this stage you will, of course, have no idea what in the end your research will have enabled you to demonstrate, but you should start your project with a carefully defined question, or series of related questions. If you formulate your project in terms of question rather than at the general level of description, you are more likely to find an area suitable for critical enquiry at this level. This is perhaps the most difficult transition a research student has to make from undergraduate or MA level. You are no longer asked to respond to questions your tutors ask, you now you have to ask the questions for yourself.
  • Ideally, you will choose a project that is sufficiently close to your primary supervisor’s main research interests for them to be able to offer you close guidance and constructive criticism. However, all students are under the care of a supervisory team; your primary supervisor will be in the Department while secondary and co-supervisors may come from History, another Department at Sheffield or even another institution. If you find that your researches take you into new different areas, your original supervisors may well still be suitable advisors. However, if you deviate a long way from your original subject matter, you may feel that another member of staff could advise you better. If so, you may, after consultation with your supervisor and the Director of Graduate Studies, seek an alternative supervisor. If you have any queries or concerns about your supervisory arrangements, at any stage, then you should discuss these with either the Director of Graduate Studies or the Head of Department.
  • Spending time at this stage in planning a research strategy will pay dividends throughout your three years in Sheffield (or six years if you are studying part-time). This is the longest project you will ever have engaged in and you need to pace yourself to ensure that you are able to work steadily and successfully over such a long period. Putting provisional dates by which you hope to have completed each chapter of the thesis into your contents page at the outset may seem a little arbitrary, but having some sense of what you should have completed by the end of each three-month period is good practice and will help you to achieve your year-specific objectives. (Part-timers are advised to work to sixth-monthly deadlines, so should plan their work accordingly).