Over the past few months, the question of how to choose a research topic has come up casually in conversations I’ve had with several people toying with the idea of starting a PhD. Choosing your research topic is perhaps easier said than done. Monica has already offered some advice on this issue, encouraging readers to remain patient, humble and flexible as they negotiate – and renegotiate – the contours of their topic.
I agree wholeheartedly with Monica that it is important to know that the nuance and emphasis of your research will almost certainly shift as you proceed. This is entirely normal. You might even decide to change the wording or weight of your research question(s). Understanding that your research topic will shift and settle as you go has at least two implications. First, while selecting a research topic is a big decision it is not worth tying yourself in knots over. Second, choose a research topic broad enough to afford you a bit of wiggle-room.
Bearing this general advice in mind, how do you then actually go about deciding on a topic? To some extent, this process will unfold differently for each individual depending on interests, contacts, experience and serendipity. That said, there are a few guiding principles I’ve learned through experience and observation that might help get you started.
First, if you don’t have the slightest idea where to start looking for your research topic, now may not be the right time to start your PhD. Sometimes the truth hurts. If you really don’t know what you want to research, then setting out on a three or four-year research expedition is probably folly, plain and simple. That said, some of us (myself included) choose to start a PhD for reasons that have little or nothing to do with actually wanting to do the research. In which case, there are a couple of options you can consider. One is to look for advertised PhD positions on websites like jobs.ac.uk. Major research grants will often fund PhD scholarships and stipends as part of a substantial research initiative. These PhD projects (reasonably common in the hard sciences, somewhat less so in the arts and social sciences) are designed by the senior researcher who won the grant and then advertised. If you’re really struggling to come up with your own research topic, it might be wroth trawling the internet for existing projects seeking students. The competition for these positions can be fierce. There are also trade-offs to consider. For instance, you probably won’t have very much wiggle room to alter the scope of your research and – for better or worse – you’re stuck with the supervisor you get. Still, this is a good option for some people.
Second, think selfishly. Someone once told me that a PhD is one of the most selfish things you can do. For four years, your ‘work’ is all about you. Embrace this principle when deciding on your research topic. Choose something that is interesting to YOU. Of course, there can be perks if this topic is also interesting to your friends, family, generous philanthropists, and/or research funding bodies. You will also have to find a willing supervisor who shares your niche interest. There is no getting around the fact (if you aren’t working on the sort of funded research described above) that your PhD is almost entirely your own responsibility. You’re setting out to become an expert in a particular area, and odds are very, very few people will understand what you’re talking about once you get started. So, you may as well choose something that you enjoy. (Though this is no guarantee that you will still enjoy it four years later.)
Finally, seek professional help. Cold calling potential supervisors is not the way to go. Before you approach someone out of the blue, you need to have a compelling argument ready for why you deserve this person’s time and attention. You can, however, ask for guidance from academics you already know. Perhaps there was a Masters or even undergraduate course that you particularly enjoyed. Go see that professor and say that you’re interested in doing a PhD in his or her area but are unsure of where to start. Maybe you developed a good working relationship with the person who supervised your previous dissertation and would like to continue working with him or her. Suggest meeting for a coffee to discuss his or her current work and whether there might be an angle that you could pursue in you PhD. You can also look more broadly across departments at your current university. I’ve observed that busy academics seem more likely to take unsolicited meetings from students who knock on their door than people who send them random emails pleading for help.
At the end of the day, if you don’t have the gumption and drive to come up with a research project (either by identifying your own topic or by finding a suitable PhD studentship on a funded project), it seems rather unlikely that you have what it takes (right now anyway) to go the distance. Remember, choosing your topic is the fun part. It is an adrenaline rush that gives way to four years of slogging through on a diet of coffee and instant noodles. Rather than stressing over how to choose the ‘right’ topic, revel in the freedom of finding a topic that really appeals to you.