Whether you’re diving right into your doctorate after a master’s degree or honours year, or you’re returning to study after a few years out in the field, working out how to choose a research topic for your PhD is an essential first step. We got some tips from two of our current PhD candidates, Sarah Kendall and Chelsea Janke.
Some Doctor of Philosophy candidates are lucky. They start a PhD having already discovered their niche interest area, which means they never need to wonder how to choose a PhD topic.
Does this mean there’s something wrong with you if you don’t already have your thesis locked in?
Not at all.
Many students start their PhD journey with just a pure passion for research – a love for testing theories and making new discoveries – and figure out their specific research topic while working on their proposal. If you’re in this camp, or if you haven’t refined your thesis just yet, these tips can help you get there.
How to choose a PhD topic
Sarah is the first to admit that choosing a PhD thesis topic is daunting. Her thesis examines lawyers’ approaches to prosecuting and defending domestic and family violence cases, but this topic didn’t come to her overnight.
“This can be really hard,” says Sarah.
“It took me years to decide on a PhD topic, and even then, it continued to change after starting my PhD.”
Chelsea, whose research explores ways to keep soil healthy while reducing environmental impact, agrees that your initial thesis may not necessarily stay the same throughout your PhD.
“Keep in mind that, as you progress through your PhD, your topic may change as you make new findings and discover some interesting things,” she says.
“This is fairly normal and is often why PhD topics aren’t always set in stone at the start.”
Remember this if you find yourself getting frustrated with how long it’s taking to pin down your research topic. You’ll be spending significant time (at least 3 years) researching this topic, so it’s reasonable to take a while on this decision. Make sure you land on a topic that truly inspires you, as you’ll need that inspiration to keep you motivated for the long haul.
With that said, though, there’s nothing wrong with picking a topic you’re 99% sure of and getting started sooner. As Sarah and Chelsea both say, adapting your thesis along the way is often part of the PhD journey.
Read, read, read
Chelsea believes choosing your research topic begins with, well, research.
“Read widely on the general field that you’re interested in,” she says.
“Identify the things that really spark your interest and where you can find research gaps – that is, where there are still things we don’t know.”
Sarah agrees and acknowledges that sometimes this prior research can even translate into a separate project or even a degree.
“Do some research into the areas that interest you – this could take the form of an honours or other research project, or even a mock project that you do in your spare time,” she says.
“This will help you to decide your level of interest in the topic.”
“Remember, your PhD will take 3-4 years, so it’s important that you choose something you’re genuinely interested in.”
Consider your subjects and speak with academics
Sarah recommends thinking about the courses from your current or previous program, as these can shine a light on what aspects of your field ignite your curiosity.
“Consider the subjects that you really enjoyed in your previous studies or those topics that you find really enjoyable to just learn about in your spare time,” she says.
“Narrow this down to a few areas, even if these are still pretty broad, then talk to as many academics as possible who do research in those areas. This is a really great way of finding out more about what’s topical in the area and what a potential project could look like.”
If you already know who you’d like to be your PhD supervisor, they are the obvious person to speak with first about refining your research topic. If not, learn how to find the right supervisor.
Check for openings on existing projects
Sometimes the best way to choose a PhD topic is to let the PhD topic choose you instead. Many academics keep open spots in their research projects for potential candidates to fill, providing opportunities for students to pursue their own thesis while assisting in a larger research team. We call these earmarked PhD projects.
In fact, this is what ended up helping Sarah select her thesis topic.
“Keep an eye out for projects that are being advertised by academics,” says Sarah.
“You might find one that fits with your area of interest, saving you much of the trouble of having to decide on your specific topic – this is how I came to be doing the project I’m currently doing!”