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How to identify a research topic or area

At one extreme some students are given a research topic as a condition of funding. At the other extreme, some students have a completely free choice, within of course the limitations of the institution being able to supervise it. Other students lie somewhere between with, perhaps, the institution providing a list of topics from which students may choose. All students, though, irrespective of the category they fall into, will still have to do a certain amount of refinement of their topic to show their own engagement with it, demonstrated initially in their research proposal. This page is a starting point for you if you have some choice of topic or area. If not, go straight on to the page about research questions and problems.

How to select the general area of your research

1. The first step must be to decide in general terms what you want to do, ie your area of interest - or at least where to start (because the findings from the first part of the work may affect future directions).

2. If you have a choice of supervisors* it should help to find out what you can about all of them. Most will be knowledgeable and helpful, but some may have so many outside commitments that they may not be able to give students the attention that they would like. Good relationships with supervisors are essential for success, so orientate your topic to one that a 'good' supervisor will want and be able to supervise.

3. Capitalise on your skills and interests. For example, if you are particularly good with people, it may be worth orientating your choice of topic to involve, for example, interviewing or training in your general area; if you are never happier than when hiding away with a book, you may prefer a topic which compares and contrasts published works in a particular area; whereas if you enjoy laboratory or field work you may prefer a topic which relies on that sort of data collection. If you spend your hobby time on a particular activity, it may help to see if you can tie it in with a suitable research area.

4. As an illustration of orientating to your skills and interest, suppose - to take an example which can be readily understood whatever your discipline - you are a scout or guide leader and your general area of research interest is the work of a particular author. You could orientate your research project to investigate young people's interests in that author and how these could be facilitated. You will be able to think of similar examples for your own skills, interests and field of study.

More information

Enhance your career prospects by orientating your topic towards something that could help it.

5. Depth, ie detail and significance, is more highly regarded than breadth in all student research projects. So keep your topic small, at least in the first instance, particularly as you will find that once you work on it, new questions will arise which could enable to you to take the work further. In your thesis or dissertation it is always a good idea to highlight these unanswered questions even if just to say that you hope that other researchers will address them, now that your own project is complete.

For limiting the bounds of your topic, it is worth keeping in mind an axiom which carries a great deal of truth, even though it is facetious. Although well-known at the level of doctoral research, it is equally valid for research projects at other levels.

A PhD is about finding out more and more about less and less until you ultimately know everything about nothing.

As an illustration of limiting scope, suppose - to take another example which can be readily understood whatever your discipline - you decide to compare and contrast the works of particular artists. Limit them to, say, two, and limit their works to those which hang in local galleries rather than worldwide. You will be able to think

6. For each of the projects on your shortlist, work out a suitable problem or question(s) that you think you should be able to solve or answer within the time and resources available. It is essential to do this, so you may want to read the page on research questions and problems now and then return to this page afterwards.

7. Imagine yourself actually doing each of the research projects on your eventual shortlist. Look at the various roles in which researchers and research students need to operate in. Then see if this helps you decide what topic is most likely to hold your interest and motivation.

Once you have homed in on your research topic, you will need to write a research proposal for it. There is advice on another page. Do not be surprised, though, when, in developing the proposal, you find yourself refining your topic still further.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.