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Choosing a Research Topic

It seems like, regardless of where you are in the process of earning your doctorate, there is always stress over selecting a research topic – and for good reason. Good research depends on many factors and having a good idea for a research topic is not enough. You can have a brilliant research topic, but the quality of your study will depend on your execution of a well-thought-out methodology; an average idea well-executed is much better than a brilliant idea executed poorly.

In turn, your ability to conduct the research will depend on your specific set of research skills (those that you have already and those that you can develop along the way), as well as your access to other resources (such as equipment, funding, tech support, and time). Since these factors vary greatly – not just from program to program but from person to person – what may be a great project for one person may prove to be completely unrealistic for another.

It should go without saying that (for various reasons, to varying degrees) your research needs to be of interest to others. This will partially depend on your ability to justify your research and its originality, but it can also come down to timing. New technology is redefining what is possible every day and regularly making older techniques obsolete. Funding can come and go, seemingly, without rhyme or reason. Various theories will be all the rage today and out of fashion tomorrow. Timing is not to be underestimated as a significant factor to determining your topic of study and you earning your degree.

The interest level of your project to others also depends on who your audience is – so be prepared for your topic to be completely fascinating to some and utterly pointless to others. This is something you’ll have to keep in mind throughout the degree-earning process as you present your proposal, defend your research, and maybe even submit your work for publication. Also, remember that the greatest key to a doctoral student’s success is his/her supervisor; so, if your supervisor is merely lukewarm to the idea of your research, you’ll want to consider either changing supervisors or changing topics.

Rather than searching for a gap in the research where there is absolutely nothing to work with, consider searching for an edge to work on where you can take existing research further or into new directions. You know what subjects and articles you found thoroughly interesting – ask yourself, “Is there a way to expand this? Or to approach it differently? Or to apply this methodology to another setting/context?” Odds are high that you’ll find no shortage of possible research topics. And remember – there are no bad ideas to consider. This is important to keep in mind because, often, bad ideas set the stage for the development of good ones. So, allow your creativity to flow without worrying about identifying the one that will lead you to the promise land.

Once you have a potential idea, you’ll want to check the existing literature to find out whether your idea has already been investigated and/or what similar research has been done. Do this (in part) to make sure your work is original and (in part) to help you look at the various approaches others used when researching comparable topics; this can help you determine the methodology you will use in your own research.

The natural temptation is to aim as high as possible and to write the ultimate, comprehensive work on your subject. It won’t happen. This is the first research of this type that you have ever attempted, and there is an exceptionally high chance that this first attempt at doctoral-caliber research will not be the defining work of your career. So, keep it simple and keep it small. You can always add layers of complexity as you go along – but start simple.

While we all want to choose a research topic that is meaningful and personal to us, beware. Using research to prove something you already passionately believe can lead to confirmation bias, where (somehow) only the results that support your existing view are considered/presented. This can derail your entire study, so beware.

In the end, the cliché is true – either write about something you’ll enjoy being “married” to for the next few years of your life or write about something you’ll never want to discuss again once your research is done.

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