Upon entering my PhD program, a professor (who later became a member of my dissertation committee) gave me the names of a few students who were in various stages of the program I was starting. I wanted to feel 100% prepared before I started the program and he urged me to contact these students to ask them questions to get the student perspective. So, eager little graduate student that I was, I set out to do just that, and sure enough each had a few nuggets of wisdom that had helped them through the program. It seemed clear that personal temperament made a huge difference in how a student progressed through the program, as their advice differed significantly between them. But there was one thread that existed in the advice from all of them: know your topic ahead of time, and work towards it for your entire program. Start your literature review from day 1. Focus every class paper on a different aspect of an idea you're passionate about to see what the gaps in the literature are and if you can find a place in them. By the time you get to dissertation stage, you should be more than halfway there.
I'm someone who reads reviews for everything I buy before I buy it. I take the experiences of others to heart in making decisions. So having these students, who seemed to be successfully navigating the program, emphasize this single point really made it clear to me that this was something I needed to focus on. The instant the semester started and I was able to access journal articles behind the database paywalls, I dove into the literature in what I thought might possibly be something I was interested in. It's hard to emphasize how little I knew what I was doing at this point. It started with a very broad interest in foreign aid. I knew I had an obvious interest in Palestine, and I knew they got a lot of foreign aid, so that was the very complicated thought process that led me in that direction. While I found the literature fascinating, and certainly learned a lot, it didn't seem to me that this was a topic area that I could pursue to the degree I might want for my dissertation. So, a little smarter, and a lot more confused, I pressed on.
I collected a ridiculous amount of journal articles in that time- just of the ones I liked and saved, I have nearly 900 catalogued. I didn't necessarily read all of these word for word, but I did with many of them, and the others caught my attention with the title or abstract or author. There was a LOT of aimless journal database grinding in this time, as I struggled to find a topic that fit me. One of the first papers I wrote was about health-related quality of life in Palestinian refugee camps. I liked this topic area, but the methodology seemed too complex and the sample seemed very difficult to procure with my limited resources. But, for the first time, I felt I was on to something. I liked researching the paper. I liked writing it. My professor, on the other hand, wasn't the biggest fan of my topic area. But I could tell that this topic might really be something by the fact that I was only very mildly bothered by that fact. Plus, he still gave me an A. I felt validated and motivated.
I dabbled in a few other interests over my first year in the program- community health workers in developing countries, medical tourism, food aid, health system reconstruction post-conflict- and found bits and pieces that I liked. I really liked global health. I really liked studying developing countries. I really liked studying post-conflict countries. I really liked peace studies. Ideas were swirling. Something was happening. But, just as I was formulating an idea that involved not just collecting primary data, but primary data from a foreign country that was (gasp) in conflict, I suddenly started getting a lot of pushback. It'll be too difficult, people said. Too expensive. Too many confounding variables. Too much risk about getting an appropriate sample. Do something local. I won't lie- these naysayers did cause me to hesitate. Some of them were people I respected in my university and community, and hearing their doubts made me doubt myself and my ability to do this research, and do it right. But...a little voice in my head (don't worry, I only hear it occasionally) told me to stick it out. So...I did.
The rest of this riveting tale (humor me) coming up soon!