How To Find Research Topics (During Your PhD)


 

Searching for a research topic in the social sciences can be a daunting task. The way people behave and interact with each other is complex and the possibilities for study can seem endless. However, it can be tough to identify an original topic in this area that is substantive but also relevant to the lives of real people. Where do you start?

When choosing a research topic, you should first consider what is personally important to you. If you are going to be spending a long time studying a specific topic it should be one that sparks your curiosity and excitement, making you want to dig deeper and discover more.

By examining your own thoughts, passions and even finances you can successfully identify topics that are personally significant to you. Then you can explore further by talking to friends and family, asking questions and letting go of perfect to reach your final decision.

For full disclosure, any article that is written by the R3ciprocity Team (a talented writer), not Dr. Dave Maslach. However, this article was vetted by me (Dave) and based on the following YouTube videos:

A video on why PhD Advisors don’t give you research topics:

Finally, ten ways to find research topics:

 

How Not To Select Your Research Topic.

  1. Don’t select a research topic just because someone told you to select the topic. You are likely not going to find someone else’s idea interesting.
  2. Don’t select a PhD research topic because it is trending or is a hot topic today. Today’s hot topic will quickly fade, and be irrelevant in a few years.
  3. Don’t select a research topic just because it can make you more money in the future (i.e., thinking of some rule to riches in management or finance). Thinking about financial concerns in your PhD research topic is important, but it is only one part of the puzzle. You need to find things that drive you to do research for a long-time.

Examine Your Own Thoughts Over The Past Few Years To Select A Research Topic.

The best ideas are often ones that have been around in your mind for a long time. If you are searching for a Masters or PhD research topic, you will be very familiar with your field of study and research that has already been done. Think about those lectures and seminars, hours in the library and the reading you did for your papers. Examine your own beliefs:

  • That lecture was so interesting but I wish we had talked about ____.
  • When I was reading I kept thinking about ____ but nothing I read really mentioned it.
  • I wish someone had written a paper on _____. It would be so fascinating.

Fill in the blanks and take a moment to think about those topics. You don’t need a fully-fledged research proposal – just the spark of an idea. This is how you start PhD research – it starts very small and simple. Something that once crossed your mind, captured your interest and made you want to know more. A spark that reminded you of the reason you chose this particular area of study in the first place.

Sparks of ideas could come to you in many shapes and forms. The more you study any one of the social sciences the more it influences your perspective on the world around you as you apply theories to real life scenarios. Watching a documentary or a film in your leisure time, talking with friends about current events or overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop: These and the thousand other scenarios you find yourself in every day could all spark thoughts in your mind about a potential topic for your research.

These sparks are often not big grand ideas. Very few of the thoughts that cross our minds are as original, interesting or important as we think they are. Most of the sparks of ideas you will have will fizzle for a moment and then fade. But some sparks have the potential to be so much more, growing slowly at first but eventually becoming huge blazing bonfires of ground-breaking research.

So examine your thoughts for sparks of ideas and keep a notebook or your phone handy to record them when you find them. This is the first step to writing a research paper, or your dissertation (You can read this guide that Dave wrote on writing research papers).

Examine Your Passions During Your PhD.

Job applications the world over declare their writers passionate about things like quality customer service and meeting deadlines. In this sense passion has become a cliché but it is well worth examining how you behave in your life if you are searching for a research topic.

Your topic will be a huge part of your life in the coming months and years. You will need all the grit and determination you have to make it through to the finish line and you will not get there with a topic you aren’t truly passionate about. This is the reason why professors and advisors generally do not recommend ideas to you during your later-stages of the PhD, even though most have a long list of ideas they’ll never find the time to research themselves. Their ideas will not help you. Only your own ideas, fuelled by your unique passions and interests, will keep you focused and motivated enough to keep going in the tough times ahead.

So how do you find what you are passionate about? The great thing is that you don’t need to find out because you already know.

Forget about the research aspect entirely for a moment and dwell on what makes you excited to be alive and breathing in the world. What energizes and motivates you? What do you approach with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old child? Is there a particular topic that you can’t stop talking about? Write down everything that comes to mind.

Ross Gellar from the popular TV show Friends loved discussing his research on dinosaurs. The rest of the gang were never interested – pretending to fall asleep from boredom – but it didn’t matter to Ross because he was so earnestly passionate about his subject. It continued to interest him throughout his career and he found real success in his field. What is that topic for you? Other people might find it odd, boring or peculiar but don’t let that be the reason you don’t pursue an idea for research that excites you. This is your research after all, not theirs.

And don’t discount your passions if, at first glance, they have nothing to do with your area of study. Putting your research and your leisure time into two separate boxes in your mind can be a useful tool to switch off from work at the weekend but considering both aspects of your life together can help you bring what you love into your research.

What is it about your passions that you enjoy so much? What aspects make them feel fun to you and how could you bring these aspects into your research? For example, someone whose passions are all very social could bring this into their research by conducting interviews and having face-to-face meetings with others in their area of study. Someone else who has a passion for the software industry, might approach the same research topic preferring to use an online questionnaire and specially designed software which analyses the results.

Letting your passions direct or enhance your research journey could help you play to your strengths and set yourself up for success in the years to come. So examine your passions in your search for a research topic and see where the journey takes you.

Examine Your Personal Finances To Find Your Grad School Research Topic.

Bank statements come through the mail marked Private and online banking is protected by passwords – and for good reason. How people spend their money is profoundly personal and an in-depth look at your own finances could tell you a lot about yourself, what you value and perhaps what you should be researching.

Twenty minutes is all you need. Go through your wallet for receipts, search through your paper or online bank statements and examine how you have spent your money the past few months. What you care about and what you prioritize is no mystery when looking through your recent transactions. It is all there in black and white in front of you. In Economics, this is called revealed preferences: The idea that the preferences of consumers can be revealed by their behaviors.

Examining your finances might bring up similar results as examining your passions or it might highlight some completely different priorities. It is all useful information because it is revealing what is important to you.

Did you spend a huge chunk of your take-home pay last month on eating out or put that money aside for a luxury cruise next year? Do you have a hobby that adds up into a big expense? What did you say ‘no’ to in order to say ‘yes’ to these financial priorities? Are you proud of the way you have been spending your money or are there some purchases you regret?

When you have a clear picture of your finances you can consider them alongside your area of study in order to think about possible research topics. No purchase is made in a vacuum and really looking into the ‘why’ behind your spending could yield some interesting ideas. Scrimping and saving in many areas but justifying a hefty price tag for skincare products might highlight a real interest in the complex dynamics of beauty, aging and perceptions around self-image and value. Considering your overspending at Christmas could be the pathway to pursuing research around nostalgia, advertising or the history of a cultural tradition. This could be a really cool PhD research topic in Commerce. So examine your finances and see what you find. It might be a great idea for your research topic.

Talk To Your Friends And Family To Find Research Topics.

If reflecting inwardly on your thoughts, passions and finances doesn’t spark any interesting research topic ideas then it is time to look beyond yourself for inspiration and insight. Your search is all about finding a topic that is important to you and talking to your friends and family, people who are experts in all that is important to you, could be what you need.

Ultimately, what you choose as your research topic is your decision and yours alone. But, being so close to the problem can limit your perspective and leave you stuck in the same patterns of thought around what to choose. If this is happening, you need an outsider’s perspective.

Your friends and family are likely not experts in your field of study and will not be able to tell you what you should be researching. Don’t expect this of them or you will be very disappointed. Simply share with someone who knows you well where you currently are in the process of decision making. Tell them the story of how you came to be at this point. Talk through your motivations for pursuing this qualification and what your hopes are for the future. Explain what is making you feel stuck. Then ask them what they think.

Again, don’t expect easy answers. This is about finding insight and inspiration in order to become unstuck. Your friend might remark on how passionately you speak about a particular aspect of your work, helping you perceive more accurately what it is about a topic that really interests you. They might refer back to an experience you shared or something you once said that gives you a spark of an idea. Or they might tell you something that you really don’t want to hear, making you feel more conflicted and confused than ever.

It is common advice when dealing with criticism to find the nuggets of gold in what people are saying to you: The helpful truths that will help you move forward and improve. The same can be said for the opinions and perspectives of your friends and family on this big decision. Consider ‘what’ they say and ‘why.’ Why is often more important than what. Have a conversation about their reasons for their perspective. Voice your objections or questions if you have them. But search for those nuggets of gold in all they say. Their advice to abandon an idea or focus in on something else might sound awful to you when you first hear it but their perspective might be just what you need to become unstuck and move forward in the process of choosing a research topic.

Ask Lots of Questions to Come Up With Many PhD Research Topics Examples.

There will be a time on your research journey where you will be refining your work, drawing it all together in coherency and order. But if you are searching for a research topic now is not that time. Now is the time to go a little wild with all the possibilities and ask all the questions you would never normally ask. Sticking to safe and well-traveled paths will not inspire you but asking questions often will.

Take ‘love,’ for instance. Love is a big topic even if you are just thinking about how people experience love at a conscious level. But don’t stop there. Change the level of analysis and ask how love works at a chemical level, a biological level or a population level. Bring culture and language and religion and disability into the mix. Look at it all through one theoretical lens and then another, then another. Ask what the world and the lives of individuals would look like if love was taken out of the human experience altogether. Could love be taken out of a baby or a fetus in the womb? Where is it in our DNA? If it is not in DNA where does it come from? Could it be modified for a particular cause? Could it created artificially and given to robots?

Embrace the seemingly impossible in your questions. Our modern world takes much for granted that would have seemed impossible not too long ago. The more questions you can ask around your areas of interest at this stage of the process the better. Have fun with the current theories and research in your field, questioning them and asking how they would play out in different contexts. If something sparks your interest then do some reading around the topic and explore it. Doodle a mind map to help organize your ideas. Get a good grasp on research that already exists in this area, doing some preliminary research before you commit yourself in any way. And, listen to your instincts. The right topic for you should feel right, whether you can fully explain the reasons behind that feeling or not.

Let Go Of Perfect To Start Your PhD Research.

It is a frustrating reality of climbing the academic ladder that the more you discover, the more you realize how little you know and how little others know. No matter what area you study absolute certainties are very hard to come by and the process of researching reveals far more questions than it does answers.

This problem is not unique to the social sciences. It would be easy to think that chemical engineers have it easy with their formulas to follow but that is not the case. Take the ideal gas law as an example: PV=nRT which is a formula that relates pressure and volume to temperature and is the same for all gases. Even this, when looked into, is only a good approximation and has many limitations. The simple, straight-forward world you thought you lived in is much more complex and confusing than you ever knew and even the people at the cutting edge of research are just making it up as they go along.

So don’t be disheartened if you are finding the process of choosing a research topic more complex and problematic than you expected. Similar feelings will most likely follow you through the entire research journey because when you are going where no one has gone before there isn’t a map or a guidebook to help you. Research is a messy process of trial and error, ups and downs often with one step forward being followed by three steps back. It is often great but never, ever perfect. The perfect topic, the perfect paper, the perfect discovery does not exist. Like the ideal gas law any research you will do will have limitations. It will not be perfect. But if you are careful in choosing your topic, being honest with yourself about what truly sparks your curiosity, you are putting yourself in the best position to do research that will be valuable and important to your field of study and the wider world.

If you are currently searching for a research topic, studying for your PhD or considering doctorate study then check out the other posts on this blog for lots of PhD information, insight and support. You can check out these other relevant posts:

  1. How to improve your writing.
  2. Building a platform for online experiments.
  3. Tips to write a PhD statement of interest.

R3ciprocity.com is an online proofreading platform where you can get peer review support and suggestions for your own writing and help others by doing the same for them. Join the r3ciprocity project today and get started.

 

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