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How to identify a suitable research topic?
I get this question a lot when visiting universities and talking to PhD students and early career researchers.
Choosing a topic is part of the research process that I described last week and is really a game-changer that will significantly impact someone’s academic experience. Here, I want to share a few tips to make the topic selection easier.
Research doesn’t have to be boring
One easy starting point is to start from what we like or our personal interests.
From the Masters level, you have enough experience to know what you like doing. This might be related to a specific field. What topics/subjects make you want to learn more? Doing research takes time. If I know that working on a research project will take several months, then I better choose something I like and inspire me.
Personally, I think about my personal work experiences as a consultant in scientific research, my conversations with research stakeholders, or past consulting projects that pushed me to go beyond. All of this forms the basis of what I like.
Doing research on topics we like is great. But it’s important to consider the relevance of topics from one’s field/academic community perspective.
Something that I learned during my PhD was simply to ask myself whether my topic addresses a current problem, fills a knowledge gap, or investigates issues that researchers are actively exploring. That’s where I know I can make a meaningful impact.
I guess that I have an unfair advantage on this. Working as a consultant, my research aims at solving issues faced by my customers. This is where I would often start because I know there are unanswered questions.
Another way to find current issues is to read scientific literature. In another post, I provide some guidance on how to do a literature review, identify research gaps and define research questions.
Reading papers and attending conferences give you an indication of the current knowledge on a specific topic. Also, authors would propose or suggest ideas for future research, usually in their discussion/conclusion sections. This is definitely a good starting point.
News, expert blogs, and forums are also valuable places to spot trends.
By selecting a topic at the forefront of your field, a researcher stands as a contributor to ongoing discussions and stays updated on the latest developments.
Doing something we like and relevant is great but it must be feasible with available resources, time, and expertise. A PhD is a 3-5 year project, not a life’s work.
There are several factors to consider:
- Access to Resources: How will you get the required data to answer your research questions? Are materials, equipment, and facilities needed? Here, I feel lucky to have access to several electronic resources at Clarivate and CWTS (Leiden University). Again, an unfair advantage that helps me overcome the access issue.
- Timeframe: In my previous post, I mentioned that this was my main issue since I was doing my PhD next to a full-time job. When we start something we also usually tend to be too ambitious. It’s perfectly fine to begin with a huge list of potential projects. With time, the list will get smaller. Also, complex topics that require extensive research and data collection may not be suitable for short-term projects.
- Expertise: Some topics require specific knowledge and skills such as programming. Again, this is where personal interests and past experiences may play a role. However, it’s also fine to take some training, and receive some guidance to get up to speed.
- Budget: Money can also be a feasibility breaker. If your topic has associated costs, you might look into potential funding sources. By the way, I’m conducting a webinar about tips on identifying funding sources in science on Thursday, November 2nd at 1pm (GMT+4). Participants will receive a certificate. To register: https://bit.ly/ClarivateGrantSuccess23 (personal email addresses allowed)
Feedback and Guidance
Seeking feedback is essential when doing research. Professors, supervisors, colleagues can all provide valuable insights, suggest potential areas of interest or help you refine your research questions and objectives. During my PhD, I had regular meetings with my supervisors to discuss my progress, and get feedback on my data, analyses, writing and potential challenges. This was where I made sure I was on the right track and also the occasion to develop my critical thinking and go deeper in my research.
Setting up regular meetings with your research group is also a good way to exchange ideas, and present initial results or challenges. They might also advise on the feasibility. This is where conferences are key to building your network outside your lab/department/institution that could also potentially end in collaborations.
Advisors and mentors can also help you refine your research questions and objectives, which are essential for a successful research project.
This is something that I also learned doing in my PhD. Before going all-in into a research topic, it’s good to conduct a small study, explore the data and test the research questions. The goal here is to check the topic’s feasibility. If I find that I cannot study it, then there is no point in starting that research project.
Choosing a research topic isn’t a one-time decision. There are several reasons why someone needs to adapt.
For instance, I keep an eye on what colleagues in my field do. I have set up some alerts on journals in my field that would send me a brief summary of the latest research without spending a lot of time doing literature searches. If I see that a published paper already tackles my topic of interest then it’s time to adapt. Another reason could be that the topic is simply not of interest anymore.
Selecting a research topic is a process that can change as the researcher progresses in his scientific career.
Taking time is a must.
Explore various options and stay free to make a real impact.
I hope these different tips will help you.
Ps: As mentioned earlier, I’m conducting a webinar about funding in science on Thursday, November 2nd at 1pm (GMT+4). Certificates of attendance will be sent to participants. To register: https://bit.ly/ClarivateGrantSuccess23 (personal email addresses allowed)