Doing a PhD is a bit like getting married: it’s a big commitment. Jonny explains, with a little help from an old wedding rhyme.
A PhD begins with history. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel so the first thing to do is assess what research has already been done, when, where and by whom. It means reading widely and deeply on the immediate subject matter you’re interested in – in my case snow leopards – as well as other related material. For me that includes previous work on other big cats species, carnivores and large animals, as well as research on agriculture, mountains, rural development and conservation governance (the different models for managing natural resources such as wildlife). All of that adds up a lot of documents that need sifting. My PhD proposal, which is a plan of how I’ll do my research, has around 365 references. The final thesis will have many more.
A PhD needs to make a completely new contribution to the discipline in question. It is meant to create new knowledge, not just discuss the old. In digesting all of the work that has already been done, you begin to discover what has not been done, whether that’s with a particular species, place or approach. In my case, most big cat conservationists are natural scientists, so most big cat research is natural science. Natural science is necessary. I, however, am a social scientist and so I found that a comprehensive study of human relationships with snow leopards was lacking. Also missing were any tests of two assumptions implicit in snow leopard conservation: that livelihoods diversification improves human attitudes to the species and reduces conflict with it; and that involving people in conservation governance does the same. These are gaps in our knowledge that my research is plugging.
The next bit of a PhD involves figuring out what sort of information you’re going to collect and how you’re going to do it. It involves shameless borrowing from other people’s methods and adapting them to suit your own particular context. I wanted to collect loads of answers from standardised household surveys that could then be statistically analysed to reveal significant patterns or connections, such as if younger people or women are more positively disposed to snow leopards than older people or men. This sort of quantitative research gives you breadth of knowledge in great quantities (700 for this study). But it doesn’t unravel the intricacies of how people think and feel about their feline neighbour. To capture this sort of data, I added some open questions to the survey where individuals are asked why they feel a certain way, as well as interviews (70 of them) that let people wax lyrical. This approach that I’ve borrowed is common elsewhere but fairly new for snow leopards.
So far, all of this makes it sound straightforward, like it’s easy. It’s not. Much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled already getting to the half way mark of my PhD. Much more will be spilled in the latter half as I wrestle with the dreaded statistical analysis and the Herculean task of writing an 80,000 word thesis. And some, especially sweat, will be spilled as I return to Nepal to rejoin the rest of the research team in 10 days to finish up the fieldwork. Later on, there will be endless drafting and redrafting and then redrafting some more. There will be the painful incisions of my supervisor’s red pen and the panicked preparation for the viva, the final oral defence of my dissertation. That’s all besides the peer-reviewed publication process and the academic critique! After all that – the old, the new, the borrowed, the blue – I’ll be done: happier, wiser, wearier, poorer. A bit like getting married.