Research, by its very nature, is a step into the unknown
and therefore open-ended; there are no guarantees. As such your supervisor(s)
will not know the answer to your research questions (research is not the
same as coursework). This step is usually guided by the results of previous
in the field.
Such previous work "sets the scene"/points you in the right direction/tells
you where to look. Steady, methodical and persistent effort on your part is
then necessary to reach your research goal, often employing the scientific/experimental
method(s) (e.g. hypothesis testing). Of itself, this might not be sufficient;
genuine insight, serendipity and unexpected "connections" from
seemingly unrelated areas are often necessary. These can neither be anticipated
at will. Many scientific breakthroughs come from the most unexpected sources.
The first six months of a 3-year PhD programme should be
devoted to a literature survey; the second six months to replicating previous
work. By the end of the first year, it should become clear as to how the earlier
work can be extended/improved, thus enabling a detailed research proposal to
be formulated. Naturally, the remaining two years are spent in following these
ideas (and periodically backtracking and revising your research plan in the
light of your findings).
In order to (a) become familiar with your chosen area
of research, and (b) to ensure you don't "reinvent the wheel" and
commence working on a topic which has been previously researched, it is essential
to become familiar with the published literature in the field. A good way of
doing this is to write your own literature survey/review article, perhaps even
presenting a seminar/conference paper on your findings. This helps you not only
to familiarise yourself with previous work, but also to highlight what has yet
to be done/what problems remain to be solved in your chosen field. It also helps
to identify areas in which you are perhaps weak and need to learn and/or improve
In order to conduct a literature survey, you will need to
hone your library skills, specifically: (i) how to track down survey papers/introductory
books, (ii) developing the art of quickly reading and evaluating
least - entire papers if appropriate), (iii) identification of the classic
references in the field, and subsequently tracking them down (in
hard copy form, either
within the UoW Library, or via Inter-Library Loans), (iv) use of the UoW on-line
Library resources, as well as more general searching of the World
& (v) the ability to critically evaluate what's been done previously. In
short, who are the key researchers in the field? What are the seminal works/books/survey
papers? What are the most important journals in your chosen area?
For Research Masters (and undergraduate Honours), it
is quite valid to work on a topic which has been researched previously, but
from a different perspective/extending it in some manner. For a PhD, an original
contribution to knowledge is required - establishing what has been done previously
and identifying a substantial problem to tackle is even more critical here.
Successfully applying new/different (and better) techniques to problems previously
solved by other means is still a valid approach for a PhD however.
It is very important to keep abreast of the latest
developments in the field, especially if someone publishes what you are currently
working on. If this happens, you may need to take a significant change of direction
with your work. Thus periodic updates of your literature survey will be necessary
during the course of your study.