The second year of a PhD, at least in the American system, is the time to narrow one’s interests and define a specific research topic. I ended the spring of my first year on track, with a strong direction and topic: evaluating the social and ecological effects of drought management policies. Unfortunately, over the course of the summer, I realized that it really wasn’t a topic that would excite me enough to do good work for a full five years. So I returned to school in the fall sans topic and basically back at square one. Instead of worry, however, I decided to turn the fall quarter into a prototype. I would carry forward three potential research directions and play with them, trying to get a sense of what sort of academic and practical contribution studying each would entail, and of what my life might look like were I to go down each rabbit hole. My plan for prototyping was relatively simple. I read the literature on each topic to get a sense of the types of gaps that existed and where my research might fit in. I brainstormed potential research questions – generating lists for each research topic – and also the type of research methods and fieldsites that I could use to answer the questions that sparked an interest. I discussed all three questions with my advisors and with new faculty who I hadn’t met but who had expertise in the field or in the theory. I also interviewed practitioners – policymakers and environmental managers – to see what sorts of useful information they would glean if I were to carry forward any of the directions. In other words, I did what any sensible PhD student might do to pick a research question. The difference is that I did it religiously with three questions rather than just one.
One of the key lessons that design thinking teaches about prototyping is to “fail early, and fail often.” When working with something as important as a research direction for a PhD – which will both dictate how I spend the remainder of my 5+ years at Stanford, and will also influence the types of jobs I can have upon graduation – the idea of “failure” is a scary one. I had already “failed” once – I spent upwards of six months researching drought management whole-heartedly, and ended up empty handed, really only having a clear sense that there was one question I could check off of my list. I can’t afford to come up empty-handed again, or I’ll be back to zero after two years of study, and significantly behind my peers. However, having more than one option on the table actually frees up one’s mind and, more importantly, removes some of the all-or-nothing attachment that can come with working on a single project. Inevitably, I would have to choose just one of the three options, but as long as I had three real directions – and treated each one with full, honest intensity – the likelihood that all three would flop was much smaller.
As it turned out, I have selected a direction that wasn’t included in the three initial topics I prototyped, although it does strongly incorporate two of the theoretical directions I would have applied. During the process of prototyping, I heard an incredibly thought-provoking talk about dam removal, chatted with a few faculty who I knew worked on the topic, and realized that it was a direction that would allow me to tackle a lot of the questions I have been grappling with since my master’s and happens to be a hot-button policy issue. Ironically, I studied dam removal as a core part of a hydrology class I took last spring. However, I was in full-blown drought mode during the spring and so dam removal never even crossed my radar as a potential and exciting direction. Being in the prototyping mindset allowed me to be open to new possibilities, since I was honestly invested but not fully attached to the topics I was exploring.
That I have settled on a research topic in no way signifies that I should drop my prototyping mindset. Instead, I have started a new process as I hone in on a specific research question. Rather than run with one question (and run the risk of coming up empty-handed in a few months), I am currently choosing cases, and starting to gather data based on two distinct research questions. Both questions stem from a larger framing question, but as I formulate potential theoretical directions and research design, I am treating both as real options. By playing with possibility, prototyping multiple research questions lets me work earnestly toward my dissertation while giving me the freedom to continue operating in a creative, exploratory mode.