an image of the collage britt created that contains a jumble of words and images that characterize her research plan.

Show me your research plan: An abbreviated auto-biographical case study of why visual methods work for me

“Show me your research plan.”

One phrase I’m not actually sure I’ve heard spoken aloud but have certainly responded to (likely will continue to respond to) over the years. I think of all the research proposals I’ve written and revised–during my masters, in the form of a five page short proposal for the thesis research; applying to doctoral study, in the form of a statement of research interests (however preliminary); during my doctoral study, in the form of preliminary papers leading up to the research and effort characterised by the dissertating period; and throughout all periods, graduate to postdoc, in the form of materials included in grant, job, and other appointment-related application packages.

So many opportunities, in other words, to reflect on the question. (Soggy yay here.)

Research plans: I love to have them, but I can’t say I always love to write them.

Un-coincidentally, I’ve also spent much time trying out different approaches to the creation of research plans–leading ‘gamestorming’ workshop at Carleton University back when I was a teaching assistant with the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs (an unusual appointment. Actually, I’d love to learn about what went into this appointment and whether it continues); bringing collage and other visual methods into my work as a writing tutor, researcher, and educator (see here, here, and here).

Thus, I went into the research proposal writing stage of my PhD replete with a wide range of tools, strategies, advice books, materials, mentor texts, phone numbers, and notebooks. Guess what? I still felt as stalled as I did in 2003 when learning to drive a car with a standard transmission up the one hill Ottawa has. (The Gatineau Hills are GATINEAU’S, so don’t at me you locals you.)

Logan Nealis, wherever you are, bless your heat because you must have spent at least 30 of your hours listening to me on the phone as I sang complaining songs and gave you approximately 30 seconds to tell me about you**. Something worked though, because eventually, I realized I couldn’t set about writing a proposal document until I zoomed out a bit more.

To help me ‘zoom out’ and see a bigger picture, I found myself again turning to the method of collage.

** you know, that part during a call where you’ve realised (a) you’ve been talking about yourself the whole time, (b) feel rude, and (c) want your conversation partner to know you value them, so you (d) quickly ask about them. If you are lucky, this will happen well in advance of the end of the phone call, before you cross that hard “I have got to go” line that leads to hanging up. I am not always so lucky.

Visualising my research over the next several years

Here’s a picture of the collage I created back in late 2018:

an image of the collage britt created that contains a jumble of words and images that characterize her research plan.
an image of the collage britt created that contains a jumble of words and images that characterize her research plan.

At the time of creation, I thought I was creating a visual proposal for my dissertation research. But, five or so years later with a PhD under my belt, I have a different perspective: I don’t see a proposal for a dissertation, I see a proposal for a plan of research that could be used to guide me for several years to come.

That strikes me now as typical for anyone starting out on a project, regardless of whether they are graduate students, early career academics, or preparing to retire. A large (often invisible) part of the writing and research process involves this sort of conceptualising work. I think it may be unavoidable. Even if they are handed a project that has already been conceptualised by someone else, writers will still need to put in some effort to help themselves orient to what they are doing. They’ll need to engage in what I like to think of as ‘rhetorical wayfinding.’ (Perhaps I’ll write more about this later, in another piece.)

It’s fun for me to come back to this collage, which hangs on the wall behind my desk, at this time in my life. For one, I work full-time in a position that does not leave me time during the workday to consider my own academic project or reflect on my development as an early career researcher. And, as a parent with a young child, my time outside of the 40 or so hours I spend at work is dedicated to happily playing an active role in my family life. All to say, I’m not sure I would have the time to create a large collage, let alone reflect on it in any meaningful way that would also allow me to then write and blog about it (did I also mention that I am a tired person?).

So I am grateful to past Britt for leaving a trail of collages (numbering in the hundreds!) chronicling my doctoral writing and research experience, because now when I do find myself with two hours alone on a Sunday morning, I can choose to write a reflective style blog post instead of going for the run or yoga practice I promised myself (and feel less guilty!).

Image of fluffy sheep jumping in the middle of a road. The words "Yay!! I shall do my happy dance!" are overlaid in caps-lock.