Help needed in PhD proposal (Health & Development)

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    I am a public health / health promotion researcher. I am in the process of writing a PhD research proposal.

    I would like to focus on health from a development perspective and work on bridging the gap between the developed and developing countries through capacity building at various levels (global, national, local). I would like to explore the existing situation and reasons why western aid (funding and technical) for health and health capacity building has not been able to bring the desired change in the world inspite of so much advancement especially in communications. 

    I would very much like to explore how internet can be used in
    qualitative research for public health issues in my case. My problem is that I find restricted in using internet as a tool for this research for qualitative methodology as there is almost negligible use of internet in poor countries, and especially in the rural areas I’d be interested in which are so symbolic of areas not being addressed by the development process.

    I am also struggling to settle down on one or mix of qualitative methods like grounded theory, phenomenology, etc. as a basic approach, though case study seems to be appropriate.

    Any suggestions or examples of similar work? And which methods could be used to find my answers?

    Dr Jim Byrne

    What kind of ‘contribution to knowledge’ would you like to make?
    What will be your (potential) sources of data?
    How are you going to ‘negotiate access’?
    When are you going to commit to a small pilot to see what is possible?

    Do those four questions help?
    Best wishes,
    Dr Jim Byrne
    Doctor of Counselling
    ABC Coaching and Counselling Services


    Dear Dr Jim
    Thanks for your response. Can you please explain a bit more about ‘negotiate access’ bit? I think these questions though thought provoking, are quite basic, whereas I am looking out for a suitable methodology to research the issue/s I have stated above.

    Dr Jim Byrne

    Sorry if the questions seemed patronizing. I was trying to say, I suppose, that if you have answered all of those questions, and you have attempted a pilot, then the methodology will ‘fall out’ of that process (but not easily; rather like a baby ‘falls out’ of a very difficult, prolonged labour!). I think – and again this might sound patronizing (unintentionally) – that you may be approaching your research more like a journalist than a ‘lost soul’, and the journey to the doctorate seems to me to be more like the confused wanderings of a lost soul. If you approach your research like ‘a journalist’, you must already know what you are ‘after’. If you approach your research like a lost soul, you might stumble across something unique and novel that is really worth investigating. The doctoral thesis must show a contribution to knowledge and be completely original. If you already knew where you were headed, it would not be completely original, and it would not be ‘a contribution to knowledge’ since it was already known by you.

    Second bit: ‘Negotiating access’ means asking somebody or some organization if you can come in and look around for data. When I worked in Bangaldesh, Thailand and the Sudan, I often ran across PhD students working as volunteers on projects, in the hope that, by shadoiwing the work of a development agency, they might be able to collect some interesting data about what is working, what is not working, what might work better. (Could you work with a medical aid agency, line Meicines Sans Frontiers?)

    You can develop a great research idea, and then fail to get ‘access to the sources of relevant data’, and thus your reserach cannot be done.

    I think the best doctoral research is stumbled upon in the process of trying to get access, trying to collect data about X, and suddenly, an opportunity to collect data about Y falls into your lap.

    What methodology should you use? Again, that is a doctoral nightmare, and has to be wrestled with. As the ‘direction of your stumblings’ changes, the potential methodology also changes. Even when you have identified a viable methodology, you have to wrestle with it to pin it down, and ‘make it fit’. Methodology is mainly a post-facto story about what you did.

    I do not believe anybody can help you to decide what methodology to use, because everything about the doctoral journey is a muddled, jumbled, stumble towards something unknown. That’s what makes it so painful and difficult, and also what makes its outcomes so unique.

    This is my view and my story. I completed my Doctorate in November/December 2008 and got my degree in July 2009. My struggle with methodology was probably the most difficult bit of this jumbled, scrambled, stumble towards some kind of coherence, which I constructed out of the pain of trying to make sense of ‘where I could go’ and ‘what I could do’ given the difficulties of gaining access to any significant forms of data.

    Sorry if this sounds wholly negative. I believe if you know it is going to be confusing and a struggle, you will not suffer as much as if you think it should all be clear and rational and systematic, and flow from beginning to end without encountering several crises and changes of direction.

    I sincerely hope this helps.
    Best wishes,


    Dear Jim,

    Thanks again for an enlightening response. I agree with all you said and especially the ‘lost soul’ approach which I guess is the real way to start an inquiry.

    The dilemma in my case is actually the area I want to focus on and the information I already have on the topic. I am a medical doctor from a developing country and ‘converted’ to health research due to the fact that health in developing countries is essentially a politicized phenomenon instead of a human right. I simply could not follow the ‘norms’ without knowing whats it all about.

    I can very well relate to your idea of being a lost soul and finding one’s own way. But the information I already have has become poison for me (!!) I feel lost in the confines of my own perception of what everything is and trying to prove that. Do I need to have a clean slate?

    I always thought research is picking up a knot in a thread of which one doesn’t know where it starts or ends. But what one actually does is un tangle or loosen or open the knot to give the thread a smoother run. After reading your response I have started thinking its more about one’s own self first rather than approaching an issue with pre conceived notions.

    I wish I had time to decipher all this! Working with a health development agency is a great idea and I already have an option of doing a small internship with the World Health Organisation which will be very useful. I am pressed for a deadline which is giving me very little time to think rationally and I know its wrong.

    Was I aiming for an easy way out? But then there is no end to looking at whats going on. There is an overwhelming amount of information out there and often I have found myself lost! Often I have found myself coming back to where I started. It is a learning by itself but it doesn’t seem to end.

    I dont think your views are negative. It is an agonising process and you are so spot on. This is the right way to start.

    By putting my question on this board, my objective was to see if anybody is involved in similar work and that could help me brainstorm for mine. Especially about the huge development divide. I guess I inherited this from my background of being born and raised in a low income country. This fact has actually never let me think freely like a person from the developed part of the world. After all my education, I have found that I cannot move forward unless I understand this inequality.

    Thanks for making me write all this and I do feel now that my thinking is clouded by my circumstances. Although it has been ‘therapeutic’ but still I have to find a way out of this!

    Kind regards,


    Jim Byrne

    Hi Samir,
    You have done some profound thinking and reached a difficult crossroads. There are huge inequalities between East and West (or North and South) in health care investment. And also within the North/West, there is huge inequality between the social classes in terms of access to health care provision. And this is echoed in the South/East/Developing countries where there is normally an elite that can get more expensive health care services than the masses.

    However! Outside of eradication of certain poverty related diseases:

    Does the Northern/Western health care system promote good health or does it just patch up people who have destroyed their health with obesity, sugary diets, alcohol abuse, smoking, drug taking etc? Does the North/West actually have a superior understanding of human health than the Sough/East. Look at Chinese Traditional Medicine. Look at the traditional healers in some South/East communities.

    Would more cash injected into South/East countries do anything other than reproduce the failing health systems of the North/West in the South/East?

    What would it take to produce a Preventative Medical Ethos on this planet, based on daily physical exercise, organic food, meditation/prayer, reduced stress in work and general lifestyle, clean air, protection from chemical polution, etc?

    Is it possible to conduct a case study of a community in which more of the North/West approach has been introduced, but health outcomes are worse rather than better?

    Is it possible to do a case study of a community in which little new investment was made, but lifestyle changes were successfully promoted?

    Do we know what a ‘healthy community’ looks like?

    Food for thought.
    Best wishes,


    Hi Dr Jim,

    I am thankful to you for your priceless suggestions. Our discussions have been quite a learning for me as they made it possible for me to look at the issue I was pursuing, from a fresher perspective. I am also looking forward to doing some more work, other than the proposal, on our ideas discussed. Thanks again!

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