Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO DOING A PhD IN ENGLISH LITERATURE


There is a sudden rise in the number of PhD aspirants in these parts of the country. This may be because many universities in Gujarat and elsewhere offering the PhD Entrance Test (TET) in a quick succession. It may also be due to the UGC resolution that those who have completed their PhD following 2009 norms will be exempt from National Eligibility Test (NET) for lecturer-ship, and probably also due to the new Academic Performance Index being introduced by the UGC in the sixth pay commission.  However, not many are clear about what research in literary studies means, or why they are doing it in the first place.These dreadful questions may haunt them later in many forms if they jump on the bandwagon hastily.

This lack of clarity shows up in the stock responses to the question ‘why do you want to do PhD./doctoral research?’. The typical responses range from ‘ I want to develop myself further/ increase my knowledge’  or ‘ For intellectual pleasure’ to ‘ for a better job/salary/ status’. Though all these reasons are valid, it should be kept in mind that doing doctoral research is not the only way of fulfilling on these objectives. One could read widely, or clear the N.E.T., or get rich by starting one’s own business or by becoming a religious preacher, for instance. So why should one do doctoral or Mphil research at all? An answer to this question lies in knowing what doctoral or Mphil research is.

So what is doctoral or M.Phil research after all? Well, the obvious answer is that it is a program that trains you to become a systematic and disciplined researcher: it builds the foundation to the later research actitivity. Hence the real reason why should do Mphil or PhD is that you want to be researcher for the rest of your life, and the doctoral research program is the opportunity to equip and train yourself to become a serious researcher. It is a net practice and coaching program if you want to graduate from gully-cricket to international cricket. (Click here to read my other entries on research). 

Research is commonly perceived as as purposive and systematic search for information and knowledge about something. Even the hunt for a date on the Internet can be an example of research. However, research as we understand it academically is not primarily  a search for answers to the personal questions. The whole idea of ‘objectivity’ in research does not imply that you are ‘ impersonal’ but what you are investigating and exploring has value beyond one’s personal quest for answers. Hunting for a date for yourself may also be research, but gathering information about pretty girls in your surrounding locality has relevance to more than one person and hence of greater social value.

So what is research, especially in literary studies, after all? In very ordinary language, research is a contribution to a particular domain of knowledge. By contribution, I mean addition to what we already know about the particular area. If I want to write one more thesis on ‘Postcolonialism in Amitav Ghosh’ ‘ Spirituality in Sri Aurobindo’ or ‘ Feminism in Shashi Deshpande’, I am not really adding to what scholars already know about these things. Research which provides knowledge which is obvious and already known is of little use to anyone.Reinventing the wheel may earn you a degree (very often in our universities we keep doing that) but that would not prove that you have done research.

By ‘particular domain’ I imply an area of research which is sufficiently specific and sufficiently narrow enough to be ‘ do-able’ within time and space of the thesis. Yet it should not be so narrow that the generalization we make would be nullified. 'Postcolonial consciousness in Indian Writing in English' would be too vast an area, and probably an analysis of a  single novel by Salman Rushdie would be too narrow for making valuable generalizations about either Salman Rushdie or Indian writing in English.


Learning how to develop an argument is a crucial research skill-after all, the term 'thesis' means 'a position.' It is very important to understand the logical movements from specific and particular to generalized knowledge or theoretical knowledge ( inductive approach) and from generalization ( theoretical) to particular and specific ( deductive approach) in your exploration. You may start with a general understanding of the area and form a hypothesis which can be verified by analysis of specific texts or patterns or else you may start with particular observations about the patterns in the texts/ authors and then generalize and theorize them. Which approach is suitable for your purpose depends on your research question. If you want to examine ‘ Representations of Masculinity in the post-independence Indian novels in English’, you may start with the hypothesis that the representation of masculinity in the post-Independence  Indian novels in English differs significantly from the representation of masculinity in the pre-Independence Indian novels in English, and that this shift occurs because of historical reasons.  The logical movement of your argument would largely be deductive. ‘Archetypal Patterns in the Post-nineties Indian Poetry in English by women’ may start with an analysis of patterns in various Indian women poets in English writing in the nineties and then may move on to theoretical generalizations in an inductive fashion. Though usually it is a combination of both logical processes, one process is often primary.

The key to successful research lies in asking a valuable research question, an important question which is not often asked or not sufficiently  explored regarding the area of research. ‘The Elements of Grotesque  in Sri Aurobindo’s Poetry’ or ‘ Folk motifs in Shashi Deshpande Short Fiction’ would be yield knowledge that is not very common and hence,interesting. ‘Surrealism in Arun Kolatkar’s poetry’ is an obvious observation, the research,  however,  begins when you want to understand why surrealism is found in his works, how does he deploy surrealistic devices, what does it do in the particular cultural context and what is its significance. (Click here for my blog on using the theory of interliterariness in the study of Indian literatures)

One of the most important questions of writing a research paper or thesis is the question of  language of research. What is the appropriate ‘register’ for the language of research? What is the place of technical and theoretical vocabulary in the language of research? What about the jargon? The answer becomes clear when we understand that a research thesis is a serious dialogue or a conversation between two experts and scholars, and not between two M.A. students or even between a postgraduate student and the examiner, or even worse, between a teacher and a student.  In your research paper or thesis, an expert speaks with an expert. Hence the language has to be technical ( remember two lawyers discussing law in the court or doctors discussing a disease or treatment?). This does not mean that you should use the technical terminology to show-off your learning ( pedantry) or obscure you own ignorance (cheating). Bad research today often suffers either from naivete ( as if a teacher talking to her student) or from the other extremity- pedantry, obscurantism and masking of ignorance ( brahminism). ( Click here for my blog on the use of semiotics of culture as a theoretical framework in the study of Indian literatures)


When we understand that in research writing, an expert is talking to another expert, we can also cut down and structure our thesis in a better way. What is already well-known is usually not elaborately discussed, and is often reduced to minimum. So the things like biographical details, details of various works or well known facts and information occupies minimum space.

This brings us to yet another important and problematic question: what is the place of ‘theory’ in the period which is ‘post-theory’. Theory as we know is not vaseline or Tiger Balm to be ‘ applied’. Theoretical approaches ( Psychoanalytical, Marxist, structuralist, postcolonialist,  Feminist,subaltern, LGBTs, poststructuralists etc etc) are perspectives, points of views, ways of looking and conceiving the object of our research. ( Click here to read my blog on various theoretical approaches) Today, we know what ‘IS’ our object of research ( what we once knew as ‘literature’ in our good very old days) has become more and more problematic and contested, and what is literature often depends on how we look at it. ‘What’ we see is very often a function of ‘How’ we see it, and so it is not as simple as there is preexisting ‘literature’ “ out there” and we use theoretical frameworks as aspects to see it. You cannot imagine literature existing independently of a conceptual frame, and when you claim that you are not using any theory, it is very likely that some theory already is using you. Today, if you are honest, you have to be self-conscious of which the theory is using you, and you are using which theory, and you should have an awareness of advantages and limitations of your own conceptual frames ( those which are using you and those you are using). Literary research today has to be autocritical.

Besides, I have also often heard complaints that too much criticism and theory is  spoil sport and it takes away ‘fun’ from reading literature. You don’t need to ‘study’ literature in order to have fun and enjoyment. You may enjoy watching flowers, but you don’t become botanist in order to enjoy flowers. You may get pleasure and enjoy studying plants, but you need not produce a body of knowledge about plants to enjoy viewing them or tending them. You need not be an expert in evolutionary biology to enjoy playing with your cat. The same thing applies to the study of literature. When you ‘study’literature, you are engaging with a vast body of knowledge about literature. That it provides a distinctive type of intellectual pleasure  may be a bonus, but it is more likely to produce lot of pain in some unmentionable parts of your body.You HAVE to go beyond your personal likes and tastes , and you HAVE to read plenty of difficult theoretical writings, if you want to be a serious researcher. Reading Lacan, Judith Butler or Spivak is not an enjoyable pastime, but then research in literature is not a pastime.  

I want to end this longish entry by recommending two very useful books for the beginners here: i) Research Methods for English Studies by Gabrielle by Gabriele Griffin and ii) Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler. Critical comments, suggestions and feedback on my blog entries are welcome.

Useful Links ( click on them):
i)  Choosing a Topic for the Research Project in English Studies: Some Tips
ii) Writing a Research Proposal for English Studies: Some Hints
iii)  Comparative Literary Studies
iv) Translation Studies in India: A Brief Overview
v) How to Read Translation

61 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you sir...
The article is very informative for the beginners in Ph D research....

Vinoo J. Massey said...

thanks a lot for such a good and helpful article...

Anonymous said...

thnk u soo mch for ur valubl infrmtns

Anonymous said...

good some supervisors / guides too should read this , atleast they will stem their decay

Anonymous said...

very informative. give the list f the new areas f research. then it will be more helpfull, i suppose.

Anonymous said...

do i need an m Phil to do my phd. pls provide an answer

Sagun said...

Sir...provide me with research areas in this field...

yadhav said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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Anonymous said...

Sir I m interested in studying the translation works because personally i feel that translation of any literary work makes it lose the essence of the original work. so I want to do research in this field of translation of literary works. Pls help me choose the subject of research

nailah riaz said...

Encouraging to research: easy approach indeed

Ayon Halder said...

insightful entry...

Anonymous said...

thank u sir u r article is very useful.

ataullah said...

Thank u very much sir, as I am enlightend after readin your page. Now i got an idea in my mind and conclusion what to do.

The Perfect Rain said...

Thank a lot.
very very very good introducation for a begginer...

Anonymous said...

sir

will u guide regarding the research topics in indian literature in english specially related to the fiction and yet the new one

Vikramaditya Priyadashi said...

Thank you for such productive and reflective, critical narration.

poonam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
poonam said...

thank you so much sir

Anonymous said...

Lots of appreciation sir, i blong to the category of phd aspirants........suffer lots of weakness in terms of economy, exposure but equiped with confidence,dedication,determination which ll overcome weakness.....but need guidance for selecting topic, so may God bless u to turn ur eye towards me. Looking for valuable guidance..... ,tnvroo15@yahoo.in

Virgie Murphy said...

This would certainly help a lot of people who are pursuing study in the same field as you. And I think this can serve as a dissertation help that can boost their research, especially for those who are having trouble and facing a blank wall on their dissertation journey.

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Its a great article and you have provided valuable information..

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Tinoki Rodrigues said...

Your article has helped to sort out the many aspects related to research work. This article is like a torch for research aspirants groping in the dark

Anonymous said...

Why don't you come up with a book on this title? I searched the internet and found no book on this subject!!!

Muhammad Shafi said...

Very informative

Anonymous said...

Thank u sir. would u pl help me in guiding a research topic in indian writing in english particularly in the domain of fiction

Alina SUSAN BIJU said...

thank u soooo much for ur infrmationss,i am sure tht this vil giv me a gud starting for my resrchs

Anonymous said...

good, the article is an eye opener for who think that everything can be manipulated. Coz, many Ph.D s are for increments or promotions. A research work should be a real contribution to the field either you apply a theory or not, must be an ORIGINAL brain child of the scholar.

Anonymous said...

good, the article is an eye opener for who think that everything can be manipulated. Coz, many Ph.D s are for increments or promotions. A research work should be a real contribution to the field either you apply a theory or not, must be an ORIGINAL brain child of the scholar.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. This article cleared many of my doubts regarding PhD.

Anonymous said...

thank you this is helpful, i am applying for PhD and i need to attach a piece of write up in the field that im interested to do my research...and m so lost about it...il be so grateful if you could suggest me and guide me to what topics should i go for

Anonymous said...

I'm touched by your blog page sir . Siddeshwara mpm from karnataka. Phd beginner .Bellary Univrrsity 2014. Plz suggest me a research topic....

Anonymous said...

Well said sir...Could have added a word regarding plagiarism as well.

Raichel Kumaresh Babu said...

Raichel: Your words are true..Thank you so much.. such a informative thing for all beginners...

Bhaktipriya Bhargava said...

A very informative article Sir; and every beginner must know that research means 'a serious approach to something unknown not re-writing something what has already been said'!

Anonymous said...

Sir the article is really very helpful. But I m stuck with the topic selection. Can you suggest as to how should I go about it?

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Anonymous said...

great ideas

Navaneetham B said...

Great job that you have done keep posting more information. Thanks a lot for sharing such useful information.
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Niroj Pahi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

you have given me a new perspective with which I can can persue my phd. Certain literatures may not be much fun to read but they help to shed light from different angles giving you an 'aha!' moment - with reference to Lacan especially.
The lesson I learnt from your article- I need to discover a theory that is using me! :)great sir!

Sailasree-శైలశ్రీ said...

Sir... What can I say. Its like finding an oasis by someone who is on the brink of collapse, on his desert/ deserted way of Research.. Very helpful to the beginners.. Thank you very much for your selfless service.. Regards

Sujan Singh said...

Very thanks to you sir for this knowledgeable article.It's really useful for a serious scholar like me.

SUJAN SINGH

jaison said...

Thank oyu sir.Your blog is a kind of guide to the beginners

saikot said...

I'd say that writing a phd research proposal is not always easy and required specific skills to done inside a proper format. So, I would say that rather than trying it yourself better should you go to some dependable writing a phd research proposal and complete the job in a professional method.

Kusuma Narsimha said...

hai sir. your web page looks very interstig for upcoming scholars in english like me to do ph.d in english. thanks alot . surely I well be with u in ph.d program
yours truly
k narsimha

Ravi Meti said...

It not only useful to scholars even though guides who are giving guide ship to scholars also thank you

Ravi Meti said...

thank you

sneha thomas said...

thanks a lot for sir.. i found this article useful..

sneha thomas said...

thank you sir.. i found this article very useful... indeed a good guidance for beginners..

Lakshmi Pramod said...

Thanks...you have spelt out the true meaning of the term Research...Looking forward to more enlightening tips and articles as im a beginner in PhD and am looking for all sorts of guidance.

Priya Rajan said...

Can truly relate and retain this outstanding post. Very well written.thesis editing

Pooja Patel said...

Recently I have done my dissertation in Masters. This post I can completely relate to myself. Well written and put forward the true meaning of 'Research'. More such piece awaited. Thank You

Anonymous said...

The article is quite informative. Thank you!

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Thank u Sir for a valuable information sharing.
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Anonymous said...

It is an excellent introduction to identifying why we should take up research and how to approach the whole exercise. Thank you very much.
However, it was not in good taste to note how you have used the example of religious preachers as those wanting to become rich and referring to theterm brahminism to indicate masking of ignorance.
Apart from these, I loved your article.
Thank you.


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Jane said...

Thank you for an inspiring post. Wanted to share some of the topics for PhD in English literature Also, I definitely agree here: "The key to successful research lies in asking a valuable research question, an important question which is not often asked or not sufficiently explored regarding the area of research." Happy writing everyone. You will do great!