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Choosing the Right PhD Topic

According to a number of studies, it takes, on average, anywhere between six and eight years to complete a PhD programme. That is a daunting prospect, but it needn’t take that long if you focus at an early stage on identifying your topic. This is of course not the only factor. Several other factors – such as where you choose to take the programme, whether you can secure funding, who your supervisor will be, etc. – will also be highly influential in determining how much time it takes for you to complete your PhD and how effectively you complete it. That said, choosing the right PhD topic is perhaps the most critical factor determining the success of your PhD.

Importance of choosing the right PhD topic

More than any other factor, and one that you will need to persuade others to believe, is your inner motivation to study a specific topic. This motivation is going to be the source of your drive over the next few years. If you are planning to begin your PhD immediately after completing your Master’s, this motivation and planning should even precede your choice of Master’s dissertation.

In this case, you will usually need to submit materials such as a Research Proposal, Statement of Purpose, a CV, your transcripts, etc., as part of the PhD application package before you even write the Master’s dissertation. Therefore, planning at an early stage is of utmost importance.

Tips for choosing your PhD topic

There are a number of stages and elements to consider when choosing your topic.

a. Read on a relevant topic of interest

Read widely around a topic that really interests you. Ideally, though, this should be a topic that has a future! In other words, it will still need to be relevant and important in the future, a few years down the line when you have completed your PhD work. Additionally, while your interest in the topic is of course an indispensable ingredient for the PhD work to be carried on, do note that the topic should also be able to attract the attention of other researchers in your field. The topic you choose to base your PhD thesis on should ideally be such that the mainstream academic community finds it particularly striking, so much so that a majority of scholars in the field are interested in tracing its progress over time.

b. Read related review articles

As a corollary to the above, find and go through review articles on the topic. These articles sometimes appear in academic journals. They review the current available literature on a topic to map out the research done, while also identifying possible future avenues of research. 

c. Identify topics from courses you have taken

You will probably have had the chance to take courses related to your topic, hopefully even to write term papers using relevant literature. Draw from what you have learnt in these courses to develop ideas for your unique research topic.

d. Identify potential research questions

Write down the questions that you don’t know the answer to at this stage. These are focusing questions so that you can continue to read with a clearer purpose and direction. At this stage, you would be searching for gaps in the literature, and looking for possibilities to expand this area with new data or by bringing in another field to add to this topic.

e. Begin narrowing down researchable problems

From your reading, you can hopefully identify a more specific focus. This could be a particular aspect or problem which becomes more apparent as you read, or some of the questions you have been asking seem to be unanswered. Perhaps you have now identified a gap in existing studies/literature or an area that still feels unclear and therefore merits further research.

f. Choose a topic that allows extensibility across degrees

Most applicants plan to pursue a PhD in the same field or on a similar topic to their Master’s. If so, you will need to identify an area you can successfully deal with within the requirements of the Master’s thesis, but also one that you see possibilities to expand on beyond the Master’s, at the PhD level.

Note: If you decide to do your PhD in a different field than your Master’s, you should explain the reasoning behind this change in direction. The PhD applications committee will want to understand this shift and you can explain this in the Statement of Purpose. Try to put across the logic or need for such a change and your motivation behind this move.

End note

If you are determined, you will find an opportunity to study the topic of your choice. But the ideal situation is when you have a well-thought-out, achievable plan and a strong, genuine motivation that the admissions panel will be able to see clearly throughout your application.


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