‘I can’t find a theory that’s relevant’

I hear this all the time. A common misconception amongst PhD students is that there always exists a magical, off the shelf theory or framework that will be perfectly tailored to your research questions, aims and objectives. Because of this misconception, students panic when they can’t find one. 

That isn’t to say that they don’t exist – they do, but rarely. 

More often than not your job when building a conceptual or theoretical framework is to borrow and steal concepts and ideas from elsewhere – sometimes from multiple theories and even from multiple disciplines – and construct your own framework. You draw on a range of influences and construct a theoretical picture tailored to the unique context of your PhD. 

There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s all part of the process. 

Your ability to do this effectively comes down in large part to confidence. It takes guts to construct a framework in this way because there’s an inherent risk in doing so. The risk is you combine ideas or concepts that share different roots or talk different languages, or that you zone in on concepts that aren’t relevant to your context. There’s a risk, in other words, that you’ll mess it up. 

Because of this, it’s hard to find the confidence you need. But try you must, because a key outcome of the PhD journey is having well trained academic muscles that allow you to put your views and ideas out there, even though you might be wrong. 

The less fear you have of constructing your own variety of theoretical ideas, the more confidence you’ll gain. 

Good luck!

Hello, Doctor…

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