Choosing a PhD research topic is one of the most important decisions you can make when starting a doctorate. This is the topic you will be engulfed in for at least three years. It is the one thing that you need to be interested in to guide you through the days that are rough, when you want to quit and just can’t take it anymore. It is the topic that you really want to answer some questions about and to make a contribution to the scientific field. It has to be motivated by curiosity and it will become the reason you wake up in the morning.

There may also be additional reasons for choosing a particular topic. There may be a passion for research to gain knowledge and develop understanding. Or to be intellectually challenged and guided by a world expert in your field. For most people, a variety of reasons are present. Some candidates have already been involved in a research project that can be easily turned into a PhD project or a project is being offered with a topic already created with funding provided and the benefit of collaborating with a wide range of organisations and experts.

The biggest difficulty, whatever the starting point, is to make sure that the topic will continue to motivate during the next three or four years. In reality, at some point you will question whether you chose the right topic. This is part of the process. The PhD process is a roller coaster of emotions and there are days when you will hate it despite the love of the topic you had initially. Although it is important that the topic chosen has been selected based on interest rather than just the interest of a supervisor or just to get a PhD, there are a variety of issues that will impact on the completion of the thesis.

Besides the interest required in the topic, the topic must be viable as a PhD project. Most candidates start their candidature with over ambitious projects and find it hard to choose their specific research question. The overall topic must be turned into a manageable research question. The job of a supervisor is to help the candidate to direct their topic into ‘bite size pieces’. But how do you turn your interest into a specific question that can be answered and tested in real life?

You need to remember that a PhD requires flexibility, patience and humility. It is a fluid process as the research question can change during the course of your project, depending on what is found, how successful the data collection is and how the project is progressing. Even if the funding body has set the research question, the methods used to gather the data can be changed. The topic has to be kept at a manageable level, understanding that it is a process to gather knowledge on something that little is known about. It allows for growth and intellectual challenge. There will also be many obstacles during the project which requires flexibility. Perhaps the method you chose to collect the data is simply not feasible or too expensive, the apparatus you were counting on using cannot be accessed in time or you can’t contact those that manage its use. You may have wanted to compare three sites but could only access two or the weather has destroyed a site and you can’t access it. Being flexible in these cases requires intellectual strength.

Your topic can change based on what you find and how much time is available. This is normal. I remember having definite ideas on what I wanted to pursue in the first six months of the project. By the second year, I had to choose another two questions to pursue based on what I had found and that could be accomplished in the last two years. Luckily, these were questions that could be easily answered within the time frame and were beneficial to the research topic as a whole. Being a scientist in training provides you with the understanding that you are not an expert yet and that being a scientist allows you to create questions and generate answers. 

This is the fun part of the whole process. You get to develop your questions and collect data to answer them. But you need to make sure you know when to change questions or select other avenues of collecting data if your project is not going to plan. You are in control of the process and at the end of the day, your progress is based on how well you can manage the project. It’s all about being flexible.


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