How to Choose a Good Research Topic for Your PhD

Choosing the right research topic is quite often a daunting task, especially for PhD students. However, developing a good research question has a positive impact on students’ research careers. Thesis advisors offer help during this initial stage. Later on, PhD students are expected to choose their own research topic for subsequent studies.

When navigating through several interesting research topics, it becomes necessary to strike the right balance between curiosity and societal needs. Moreover, funding agencies fund compelling research proposals based on meaningful and highly relevant research topics. Selecting a good research topic can, therefore, increase the odds of academic success.

PhD Research Topic and Your Career

Performing a meticulous literature survey helps researchers identify existing research gaps and devise novel strategies for addressing them. Once the research gap is identified, it becomes imperative to choose a meaningful research question. A well-chosen research question can lead to a compelling research proposal. In fact, doctoral researchers can positively shape their entire career by finalizing a good research proposal. Researchers are expected to choose topics that can potentially lead to impactful publications. Good publications fetch good citations. Well-published and well-cited researchers can easily find satisfying jobs in academia or industry. Choosing the right research topic, thus, can open doors to satisfying job opportunities worldwide.

Pathway to Success

There are several ways to ensure success in research. When in graduate school, students need to undertake several measures to identify a compelling research topic. Although conducting a thorough literature survey certainly facilitates this process, it is virtually impossible to choose the right research topic solely based on literature surveys. Students and early-stage researchers, therefore, need to brainstorm thoroughly with their advisor, talk to experts, and attend research seminars/conferences to listen to (and network with) established researchers. Quite often, taking up the relevant coursework (especially for interdisciplinary research areas) simplifies the process of research topic selection.

Choosing the right research question helps researchers stay focused and motivated throughout their career. Meaningful research questions eventually lead to meaningful discoveries and inventions. Robert Smith presented in Graduate Research: A Guide for Students in the Sciences (ISI Press, 1984) a list of 11 research questions to consider:

  1. Can you enthusiastically pursue it?
  2. Can you sustain your interest while pursuing it?
  3. Is the problem solvable?
  4. Is it worth pursuing?
  5. Will it lead to other research problems?
  6. Is it manageable in size?
  7. What is the potential for making an original contribution to the literature in the field?
  8. Will the scholars in your field receive the results well if you solve the problem?
  9. Are you (or will you become) competent to solve it?
  10. By solving it, will you have demonstrated independent skills in your discipline?
  11. Will the necessary research prepare you in an area of demand or promise for the future?

Keeping these questions in mind while developing a research question can set the stage for a productive and fulfilling career.

Common Mistakes

There are several mistakes that students and early-stage researchers commit during the process of research topic selection. Some of the most common mistakes include:

  1. Extending thesis work even after graduate school: If researchers choose topics that are direct extensions or clear derivatives of their thesis work, then they do not make significant value addition to the respective field of study. Choosing a radically new research topic, while still embarking on the broad area of specialization is indeed the key to success.
  2. Choosing an obscure, irrelevant, or non-compelling research topic: This can adversely affect the researcher’s motivation levels and can drastically decrease their odds of attaining success.
  3. Letting PhD advisors choose research topics for you: Although researchers often pursue work within the same field even after earning their PhD, they are less likely to conduct research on the same exact topic. For this reason, letting your advisor tell you what to study rather than you developing a question based on your own reading and experiences in the laboratory is another common mistake that can have lifelong consequences.

Finally, scientists should work in an environment that nurtures the natural chaos of developing a research direction. PhD advisors should also make it a point to thoroughly groom and mentor their PhD students. A good thesis advisor enables his/her students to choose good research topics.

Did your thesis advisor choose a research topic for you? Did he/she train and mentor you well? Were you able to choose your own research topic? Are you happy with your chosen research topic? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!

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