by Lorenzo Piccoli
My PhD dissertation is growing increasingly cervellotic and I find it very hard to explain people what I am actually working on. Which brings me to a great truth by the eternal Bill Watterson.
17/2 edit: I am re-reading a nicely written paper by Jan Erk to lift my morale up. If you are also a Ph.D. student, you might want to have a look.
The growing tendency towards academic specialisation together with increasingly insistent expectations of competent research designs and clear empirical evidence are the motors of scientific growth. But the downside of high academic expectations is that Ph.D. candidates tend to avoid big and difficult questions and instead seek safety in narrow and focused empirical puzzles. Supervisors themselves encourage such research questions that – admittedly – form an important part of graduate training. One should know the debates in the literature and have something new to add to these debates, but what matters at the end of the day is whether you can reasonably demonstrate that your idea is supported by empirical evidence. This naturally requires a narrow and focused empirical puzzle, and most doctoral theses follow this pattern. This should not prevent one from exploring big questions however. As the old Latin dictum goes: ‘sailing on the high seas, however risky, is necessary’ (navigare necesse est). If people with Ph.D.s in political science cannot deal with big and difficult political questions who can?