How to find a PhD/Master’s research topic: By: Dr. Louis Boamponsem

In most cases during postgraduate degree (Masters/PhD) admission application, a student may be expected to provide a preliminary topic which will be further elaborated for their thesis research. Selecting an initial research topic to attract a supervisor is not an easy task. Ideally, the research topic you approach a potential supervisor with should naturally be your own idea and of intrinsic interest to you.  However since the research will be conducted under their supervision, it should also be of interest to them too. Typically personal experiences of the student in their previous field of study or research are the main source for identifying a suitable research problem. It is worth thinking slightly outside the box these days. Practically, the likelihood of a supervisor accepting to consider you as their future student depends on their interest in your topic and not necessarily your interest. How will you predict that a supervisor will be interested in the topic you have in mind? The following suggestions could be followed to identify or locate a research problem:

1.      Check the area of expertise of the potential supervisor (s)

2.      Check and read some of their recent research publications:  Find out about their research history. Going through some of their research outputs could be crucial. Their articles may provide ideas for your research topic. Most researchers conclude their research by discussing problems encountered during the study and suggesting topics that need further investigation. It’s also important to keep in mind that most supervisors have well-defined research programs and they seek out and get funds to support those specific research programs. So, it is important to demonstrate an interest in their research projects, not simply to dictate your own research interests to them.

3.      It’s also worth investigating the topics of past or present Masters/PhD students overseen by the potential supervisor (s) (university websites are a good place to look for this)

4.      Look at their current research activities/group or projects. Refer to their funded projects to determine whether your topic fits anywhere.

If your topic relates to any of the above points, then hurray! you are likely to get a positive feedback from your initial contact with the prospective supervisor (s).   I predict you are reading this article because you do not have in mind a concrete research topic.  Good on you, carry on reading because you will discover the attributes of a good research topic. Note that the topic gives the first impression of you. The following will help you to define a research topic:

Essential characteristics of a good research topic:

Endeavour to consider formulating your research topic using the information from the four points above. However ensure that your topic is:

1. Original: Doctoral work requires the candidate to make an original contribution to the field by empirical investigation, the formulation of theories or the innovative reinterpretation of known data and established ideas. Does your problem display originality and creativity?

2. Novel and ethical. The question of novelty or newness is not merely one of duplication of previous investigations.

3. Significant or relevant. Is the problem really important? Will you learn something new from this problem?

4. Researchable. Know that you may be asked to draft a proposal for your chosen topic.

5. From the field of your specialisation. Think about your existing skills in relation to your proposed topic as it will help you to think about whether your knowledge, experience and skills will help you to address the problem you have identified. As you can probably imagine, it would be quite difficult for a researcher in one field to undertake a research study involving a topic in an entirely different field.

6. Of interest to you and your supervisor: You are going to do this for two, three or more years and it can get terribly boring if you are not interested in it. It can also be useful to think about topics that ignite general interest. One of the personal motives of research widely held by researchers is pure curiosity, accompanied by genuine interest and a derived satisfaction and enjoyment. Some researchers argue that a critical ingredient in developing good research questions is personal interest. In the case of PhD research, your choice of topic may influence the direction of your subsequent career.

7. Clear and unambiguous: words in the topic should be chosen with great care, and their association with one another must be carefully considered. While the title should be brief, it should be accurate, descriptive and comprehensive, clearly indicating the subject of the investigation.

8. void of abbreviations, chemical formulae, jargon and proprietary (rather generic) names.

9. A mini-abstract

10.  paint a clear picture for the reader of the key idea(s) of the research.

11. Could be completed within the allocated time: At the core of any research is a question that the candidate needs to find interesting if not completely fascinating and that is large enough to be worthy of a research degree and small enough to be managed in the allotted time frame.

12. Affordable

It is important to note that the purpose and goal of research is to:

1. provide basis for decision making in business, industry, education, government, and in other undertakings

2. satisfy researcher’s curiosity

3. find answers to queries

4. expand or verify existing knowledge

Bear in mind that in future when you are admitted to pursue the research, your chosen topic is likely to be continually updated to keep pace with your findings.

Summary

The process of developing a topic is ultimately one of establishing a gap in current research that a thesis could aim to address. In this article we have only briefly touched upon some possible sources of research topics. There are obviously many more sources we could have discussed. The important point to remember from this discussion is that research ideas can—and do—come from a variety of different sources, many of which we commonly encounter in our daily lives. Although judging whether a research idea is good may appear to be somewhat subjective, there are some generally accepted criteria that can help in this determination. Is the research topic original and show creativity? Will your topic likely to attract your potential supervisor? Will the results of the research study make a valuable and significant contribution to the literature or practice in a particular field? Does the research topic address a question that is considered important in the field? Think earnestly about these questions.

References

Singh Y K (2006). Fundamental of Research Methodology and Statistics. New Age International  Publishers.

Bruce L. Berg (2001). Qualitative Research Methods For The Social Sciences. Fourth Edition. A Pearson Education Company.

Denise F. Polit, Cheryl T. Beck. Nursing research: Principles and Methods. Seventh Edition.

Catherine Dawson (2002). Practical Research Methods: A user-friendly guide to mastering research techniques and projects:  How To Books Ltd, UK

Chris Barker, Nancy Pistrang and Robert Elliott (2002). Research Methods in Clinical Psychology: An Introduction for Students and Practitioners. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Geoffrey Marczyk, David DeMatteo, David Festinger (2005). Essentials of Research Design and Methodology.  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.