There are two reasons why someone may want to start a PhD. On the one hand, there may be a passion for research, for developing understanding and knowledge. It may be due to a desire to be intellectually challenged and guided by a world expert in your field. On the other hand, there may be a particular topic, theory or issue that really appears to motivate your curiosity.
For most people however both reasons are present. In some cases, there may even be the situation where the future PhD candidate has already been engaged in academic research (perhaps as a research assistant for a project) or where the candidate has already carried out extensive work on that topic. In such cases, choosing a topic appears as a straightforward matter with the ensuing complication of making it viable or finding a suitable theoretical and methodological framework.
Whatever the starting point, the first difficulty everyone appears to encounter is how to make sure that topic X will continue to motivate me in three or four years time. The answer is that on some days it certainly won’t. There are days, even weeks, when most PhD students feel that they chose the wrong topic. That is inevitable and part of the process. Therefore, whilst it is important that the topic you choose has been selected freely and out of your own interest, rather than your supervisor’s, there are many other issues that will impact as much on your ability to complete your thesis.
The first issue to bear in mind when considering a topic is how viable it is for a PhD project. Generally speaking, most PhD students appear to start their PhDs with over-ambitious projects and find it difficult to focus their initial research question. The key is to ensure that the big topic can be turned into a manageable research question. That is what time and time again supervisors and other successful academics will tell the poor PhD candidate. And yet, how do you actually do that?
Patience, humility and flexibility are key. Patience to understand that your research question can, and probably will change during the initial stages of your research. It is not written in stone (unless of course the research question has been set by your funding body) and the beauty of research is its ability to change things, including your very own research process.
Humility to keep your chosen topic to a manageable level, even if that means that, at times, you are not being loyal to your initial ambitions. In fact you are more than likely not going to be. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Humility also matters in realising that although you already know a lot about your topic before you start, in fact, you know very little. That is what will allow you to grow and be challenged intellectually. What’s the point of doing a thesis if you already know the answer?
Flexibility can be a very useful attribute to have during a research project, and even more during such a long project as a PhD. You will find many obstacles during your thesis. Many will be unsolvable and you will need to be flexible with your topic. Perhaps you planned to use a particular conceptual framework but you realise that it will not work with your particular case (or cases). A decision has to be made to either change the case or change the framework. You may have wanted to compare two or more cases and either time concerns prevent it (after all you want to finish your PhD!) or you may realise that such comparison may not make theoretical sense and therefore you will need to change your original research design. Being flexible in such cases will not be a reflection of weakness, but rather one of intellectual strength.
Your topic will not only change, it will also confuse you. That is natural. That confusion is the state that follows from being immersed in a topic for long periods of time. I often remember the start of the PhD, eager to tell everyone what my PhD was about. By the time I reached my second year, that was the topic I was hoping to avoid in any conversation. I was too confused to be able to offer a concise answer to the innocent question “What is your PhD about?” It helped to realise that many other PhD students also felt that way. It was the process of realisation that I was not yet an expert.
The point really is to get started and to be willing to develop your research throughout the process. By all means, try to be faithful to your initial topic and research question when they have been well designed and work well. But make sure you are able to act promptly when they don’t without feeling that you are betraying your initial project.