For a Ph.D. student, one of the most challenging, yet underrated key steps, is choosing a research topic. We often invest in choosing a university and/or a mentor neglecting potential projects that would shape our future career.
Written by Mirna Ghemrawi, Florida International University
A simple google search on “how to choose a thesis topic” bombards you with more than 160M results, if you add the words “Ph.D.” and “STEM”, the results are filtered to 22M results. Nonetheless, it is still overwhelming and too broad.
On the other hand, review papers and professional opinions about the above-mentioned challenge often lack a holistic approach that involves real examples and students’ point of view. Being curious myself, (and for the irony that I don’t have a defined research topic yet), I have conducted few interviews with professors and graduate students at Florida International University enquiring about different strategies that mentors and students follow to come up with thesis ideas that turn to be the core of a 3-4 years worth of hard work.
Although student’s perseverance and intellect are an asset to the Ph.D. trajectory, other elements play a vivid role as well: some are specific to the mentor (funding, communicating with students, openness …), and others are related to the university (resources available, quality of the program of study …). Nonetheless, the focus of this blog is on research topic selection: tricks and tips that can be highlighted under three main umbrellas: Passion, Impact, and Funding.
Figure 1. Venn Diagram illustrating the 3 key components to select a thesis topic.
You may be wondering how PASSION is one of the main keys. Well, when you have a desire for anything, you put all of your effort and gut to make it successful. It is the trigger that will push you every morning to go to the lab and run experiments. A big portion of the research is invested in troubleshooting and repeating. Both professors and students agree that failed experiments cannot be avoided. So, your passion is the catalyst for perseverance and achievements.
In fact, failed steps teach you more and build your critical thinking. For that, students should be flexible and have the will to experiment. Through passion for a specific topic, we can delve into its details.
If you are a graduate student and reading this now but you don’t have a passion for what you research on, go and find it. Ask yourself: why am I doing it? Is it only for the degree or family? Or there is a greater purpose?
That brings us to the second key, that is IMPACT. Research would have more value if it contributes to society. If you are researching cancer and potential treatments, you will be contributing to healing cancer patients. If you work on developing methods to enhance finding criminals, you may be saving a potential victim from dangerous people. Or if you focus on health psychology, you are using science to prove effective ways to promote health and self-esteem. And the list goes on and on.
Who would have thought, for example, that a simple invention of safety pins by Walter Hunt would benefit society in such profound ways? Thus, combining passion with impact using logic and rationality refines research focus.
As emerging researchers, we have to keep in mind that we are not trying to solve the biggest questions but rather build our skills as independent investigators. We need to develop a deep understanding of science and technology in order to develop innovative methodologies, products or theories. Funding agencies focus on “State of the art” research, and target projects that could have an impact on society and fill in a gap present in current knowledge.
Since money is vital for materials and supplies needed in experiments, a research topic fueled with passion and encompassed societal impact must be tweaked in order to fit an agency’s funding priorities.
Below is the take-home message (aka steps to decide on a research project):
Identify the area of research that you are passionate about.
Skim through recent articles around that topic and highlight main points.
Attend related webinars or seminars from experts in the corresponding area.
Read funding agencies solicitations (thoroughly) and check for your topics of interest.
Find potential gaps that require more research (there should always be some).
Rank gaps from highest to lowest in importance (subjective) in terms of impact
Have a one-to-one meeting with your advisor and discuss your ideas.
Upgrade your ranking of potential project topics (take out some that are way too far or combine some ideas together)
Set up another pro-active meeting with your advisor with potential hypothesis and ideas
Refine the topic of interest to be feasible and applicable
With that being said, the last step should not be a “set in stone” topic, rather an initial focus. As you write your proposal you will inevitably modify the documents based on needs and preliminary data.
As noted above, right from the beginning, communicating with your advisor is profound and essential. A helpful guide can be found through using a “Student-Advisor Expectation Scales Worksheet” like this one.
Being a student advocate and a graduate student myself, I found that a healthy relationship with your mentor that is based on mutual appreciation and recognition has a big effect on a graduate student progress. Believe me, a small feeling of appreciation from my advisor drives me to work more and prove myself. (As a side note, you just need to find a suitable time to meet, that is definitely not when grants deadline is approaching.)
To sum up, it may be challenging to find the niche between passion, impact, and funding, yet not impossible. Choose a topic that can result in interesting findings, whether it agrees or rejects your hypothesis. Learn to be flexible and to accept failure as a push for success.
Remember that Martin Luther King said: “I have a dream”. He didn’t say “I have a problem”, so try to tackle research challenges with a positive attitude and a drive for excellence.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Bruce McCord, Dr. Lidia Kos, Dr. DeEtta Mills, and Yuk-Ching Tse-Dinh and all graduate students for sharing their experience with me.
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