Choosing a Research Topic

My best advice for students on choosing a research topic – Don’t! 

If you can at all avoid it, do not choose a research topic at the very beginning. Instead, read – and read a lot! Pick a different subject every few nights and read everything you can about it. Read textbooks, websites, journal articles, review articles, MS theses and PhD dissertations. Talk to people about different subjects. At this phase, only read the stuff you enjoy and that excites you.  Stop reading stuff that bores you. Keep reading and perhaps start focusing on some of the subjects you find most interesting. At some point, you will find it difficult to find new information on the topics you have read the most. You will be left with curiosities and unanswered questions. Let these be the seeds of your eventual research topic.

Here are the attributes to consider when looking for the ideal research topic. Don’t be too worried about finding a topic that meets all of these criteria. If you have chosen a good advisor, talk with them and lean on them to help point you in directions for research topics.

Find a subject that intensely interests you

Getting a PhD will involve an unbelievable amount of work and commitment. You are going to have a miserable time in graduate school if your topic bores you. People work harder and better at topics they are passionate about. You will be more successful working on a topic that interests you.

Pick a subject that provides plenty of opportunities to generate new knowledge

One of the main requirements of a PhD is that you must generate and disseminate new knowledge to the world. Picking a topic where there are plenty of opportunities to generate new knowledge will make your graduate research easier. Creativity, resourcefulness, and a good advisor can help identify how you can generate new knowledge in an area.

Choose an emerging area

Choosing a topic that is in a new and emerging area will create more opportunities for funding and to develop a career after graduating. If the topic you choose is slowing down, you may find yourself with limited options for employment after graduate school.

Opt for a significant topic that has lots of interest from others

Even if you choose a research project that is in an emerging area, that does not necessarily mean your specific research topic is significant or of interest to others in that emerging area. The greater the interest from others, the greater your chances of securing external funding and getting a job after graduating. This is a good time to be ambitious with the topic you choose or you will risk being in graduate school for a very long time in order for your work to be significant enough to earn you a graduate degree.

Verify your university and/or advisor has the resources you need

If your university and/or your advisor do not have the resources you need to perform the research you want to do, you will not be able to finish. It is best to go with a topic that your advisor’s specific lab has all the resources you need. Depending on others for critical resources makes you vulnerable to bad things happening, such as souring relationships at the university, university politics, not getting access to equipment when you need it, shifting priorities, and more. If you absolutely must pick a topic where the resources are not available on campus, you could look into collaborating with other universities, government labs, or industry. Still, your graduate research now depends on other organizations that may close, get suddenly reprioritized and can no longer help you at a critical time, and other troubles.

Make sure your university or mentor has a strong reputation in your topic

If your university and/or advisor has a strong reputation in the area that you want to work, you will have a better chance at securing external funding, getting connected to other professionals in the area, and finding a job after graduation. Your advisor will be better able to mentor you, advise you, and introduce you to people.

There are also other things that you may think are signs of a good research topic but are not. Be cautious of these:

Choosing a mature subject area

If you choose to work in a mature subject area, you will probably have a lot more to learn before you are in a position to generate new knowledge. This will create more work for you and extend the duration of your time in graduate school.

There are lots of learning materials available

This goes along with the item above. If your subject area has lots of learning resources, you will probably have to learn most of it before you are in a position to generate new knowledge. Like the item above, this will create more work for you and extend the duration of your time in graduate school.

There are lots of people working on the subject at your university

Seeing lots of people and groups working on the same topic may seem exciting…and it is…but this will make it more difficult for you to find a niche, and all these people and groups may become competition for you.

There is a low risk of failure

Nothing is scarier than the prospect of working on something for a long time and failing in the end because your hypothesis was incorrect. It is a very safe and satisfying feeling knowing you have a topic with near 100% chance of success. There is a saying that is usually true – “All the easy stuff has already been done.” A low-risk project may also be low interest and low significance. These can affect your chances of graduating without having to do additional work and lower your career opportunities after graduate school.

Want to learn more about choosing a research topic? Check out my latest video:

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