Why do you work on that? Explaining how we arrive at our research topics

Today’s post is by Sam Grinsell, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.  His research interests lie in colonial cities and the built environment more broadly, and he also maintains a strong interest in digital pedagogy. His current research on British imperial architecture in the Nile valley is funded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain

When I tell people that I work on British imperial architecture of the Nile valley, they often ask me how I came to be working on that topic. I generally give an answer based on my path through my Master’s degree, and the search for a specialist niche. I might also mention the Sudan Archive at Durham University. If they dig deeper I might even give a political response as to why I think studying the history of empire is important. Today I want to reflect on the different forms this question can take; how we might go about answering them; and how this can help us think more clearly about our own projects.


Why do you work on that? Sudan Khartoum Gordon College 1936, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

What does the question mean?

‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’

‘What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!’ said Gandalf. ‘Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.’

– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

There are many contexts in which we might be asked why we study what we do, and the answers will differ accordingly. Consider the person asking the question: this could be anyone from a kindly relative to the leading scholar in your field. If the former, it’s likely that they mean the general subject area in which you work more than your highly specialist research topic. For the scholar, on the other hand, it’s likely to be precisely the specifics of why you are working on your particular project that interests them. Most people who ask you are going to fall in a spectrum between these two attitudes.

While most people who ask this question and its variants are probably just interested in getting to know you and your work a little better, there’s no denying that some people use it as a way to call into question the validity of your research. This is probably particularly true for those of you working on more innovative, less traditional subject areas. This is terrible scholarly etiquette, and belittles the questioner far more than it does the researcher facing the question. I should say that this is not a situation I have faced, though I do know others who have.

How should you answer?

If the question is given in good faith, then really it is a matter of working out what the best kind of answer is for that questioner and the setting in which it is asked. If the question is asked during the discussion following a presentation you’ve given, you should stick to a scholarly answer justifying some of the specific decisions you made in framing what your research is and is not about. You can think of this as practice for arguments that you will use in your introduction and literature review. You could also include personal details, but it is this scholarly justification that is important in a public discussion. If you’re asked in a less formal, but still academic, setting, then you can give a similar reply but with more personal details and more about what makes you especially passionate about this kind of work. If you are asked by someone outside academia, then really you are being given an opportunity to share your passion for your discipline as a whole, and you can get straight into that without giving too much detail about the exact design of your project.


Using collections or archives to help explain your research choices. Palace Green Library, Durham University, home of the Sudan Archive. Photo by Sam Grinsell.

If, on the other hand, the question seems to be phrased to undermine your research, then it may be that you should concentrate not so much on the questioner but on the other people present. In most circumstances, other people in the audience will have picked up on the tone of the question, and will immediately be inclined to sympathy with you. Most of the time the best option is probably to reply as if the question was asked in good faith; after all, it’s possible you may have misinterpreted the questioner. This will make you appear dignified and in control, and can still be a useful opportunity to share aspects of your research design that others in the room may find interesting. If the question is phrased more directly to undermine the field in which you work, you may want to give a pithy defence of that general area as offering some unique insight into the human experience. Again, remember that it is the questioner who has overstepped the bounds of academic etiquette, and you are defending a respectful approach to scholarship.

Becoming a researcher

The first few times you face this question, it can be difficult to know how to answer. As you gain more experience, however, you will develop a set of stock answers that come to mind more or less immediately when people ask you why you research your topic. If you are still developing this, it may be worth using the question as a writing prompt: set a timer for ten minutes, and write without stopping on the question ‘why do I research [your topic]’. This not only helps you prepare for those questions, but, more importantly, can help you begin to structure arguments that may ultimately form part of your thesis. Part of the function of both your introduction and literature review is to convince people of the value of your research, and this all starts with answering the basic question of why you started the project in the first place.

Thank you to Sam for this really interesting post. If you have something to say about your research, the PhD experience, or the arts and humanities in Scotland, please get in touch! You can email me lucie.whitmore@sgsah.ac.uk or find me on Twitter @luciewhitmore


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