Tuesday, 3 December 2013

How to choose a PhD topic

Posted by Heather Yoeli

A few of us were discussing recently how and why we had chosen the PhD topic we did.

Firstly, you won’t necessarily have the opportunity to choose. Increasingly, PhD studentships from the major research councils and other funding bodies are being advertised with fairly tightly-defined research questions and with methodologies already pre-determined. These studentships tend to suit both students seeking a clear assignment and those already confident of the area and approach with which they want to work.

Secondly, you might not necessarily want to choose. Some prospective PhD students may not necessarily know precisely what they want to study but are keen to work with a specific supervisor and therefore ask or allow their prospective supervisor to determine their topic. Within most areas of academia, the person by whom you’ve been supervised can count as much as or even more than your PhD topic or institution itself. It may be helpful to your career aspirations to decide in whose reflected glory you’d hope to bask.

Thirdly, your discipline or subject area may have an obvious current ‘issue’ which will make your work more timely/popular/publishable/trendy. In public health, these ‘issues’ tend to be determined by government policy ‘directives’ and ‘agendas’, which are determined by wider political and social trends and can be hard to predict in advance. If you’re looking for a PhD topic which will be the significant ‘issue’ on your submission date in three or four years time, you might benefit from a daddy who in the highest echelons of the power in determining such things... or alternatively, a crystal ball.

Fourthly, you might have something in which you have a very personal and passionate interest and therefore wish to study. There’s a prevailing view within academia that we should all be ‘detached’ and ‘objective’ and therefore not too emotionally invested in our topic, so by deciding entirely to ‘do your own thing’ you may risk being seen as a bit odd, but equally, it’s hard to remain focused and motivated if you don’t have a certain level of geeky fascination for what you’re studying. Academics have a time-honoured reputation for being somewhat eccentric, and with enough charismatic charm you can work that to your advantage. However, in today’s difficult economic times, you may have to find your own funding.

Most often, I think, people come to their PhD topics by a mixture of all of the above strategies. I applied for and was awarded a Fuse studentship which was very clearly about public health in marginalised communities, but have worked with successive supervision teams to develop a research approach of interest both to them and to myself. For me, this has worked well, and five years later I’m still every bit as interested in the subject as I initially ever was.

Many of my colleagues, though, have had very different paths. Many have come to their PhD topics through very novel routes or for fascinating reasons; many have started with one topic or approach and changed their thinking quite radically.

So, how did others come to be doing the PhD they are doing, or planning, or did...?

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