PhD student brainstorm

29: Help! How to find the topic for my PhD?

Are you puzzled as to how you’re supposed to find a topic for your PhD project? Feeling buried under a ton of scientific articles or books that you’ve read which only added to your confusion? If it’s been weeks since you started, and one idea after another is running through your head without any clue how to mold one into a project – you’re definitely feeling the pressure!

We’re here to help you cut through the noise and come up with a strategy for a  workable project idea. Plus, we have a detailed super-smart 6-step-guide “Identify your PhD topic” for download.

DON’T PANIC – You’re in good company

If you’re struggling to settle on a topic for your PhD, you’re not the only one. We know that for many PhD students this is their first great challenge. “How do I find my PhD topic” is also a question that we are regularly asked in our course “Completing your PhD successfully on time”. Being able to sort through a vast amount of information and then decide on a final topic for your dissertation is daunting! 

We recently listened to a podcast about the life and achievements of Professor Stephen Hawking, and learned that he, surprisingly, also suffered from this very problem! After arriving at the Cambridge Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 1962, it took him an entire year of restless searching to identify and finally decide on the exact topic for his PhD! But, it doesn’t t have to be this way …!

A frequent reason for delay

Seagram et al. (1998) found that those PhD students who completed their programmes fast found the selection of their dissertation topic easier than those who delayed. Taken the other way round, if you take an overly long time to decide on your topic at the beginning, it can result in a delay for your entire PhD. A simple reason for this is that too much time is ‘lost’ in the beginning and there is no way to make up for that later on. That does not mean you should make the decision lightly or without thorough research. But you should not postpone the decision about your dissertation topic because you don’t feel ‘ready’, or you are afraid of making a decision. For more tips and tricks how to avoid delaying your PhD, see our Free expert guide “5 reasons why PhD students delay & how-to avoid” and the SMART ACADEMICS blog post no. 2: So you want to finish your PhD on time?

What is the ‘PhD topic’?

There are some misunderstandings and ambiguity around the word ‘topic’, and many PhDs seem to think that all they need is the general topic to get started with their research. But that’s not quite right. It’s true that the topic of your PhD is the broad thematic umbrella within which you will carry out your project and write your dissertation. So if you have the topic, you have a clear idea about what your PhD project will be about. But you still have to hammer out concrete research questions that will help you to organise your research. In practice, deciding on a topic and working out your research questions goes hand-in-hand. 

You won’t ‘FIND’ your dissertation topic

It is a myth that you’re able to ‘FIND’ your topic as if one day it will fall out of the sky and manifest itself in front of you. It won’t! Identifying a thesis topic and then developing innovative research questions around it is hard work. It is the first intellectual challenge in your PhD, and it does not come for free! So get rid of the mindset ‘I’ll have to find my topic’ and replace it by the mindset ‘I’ll have to work out the exact topic of my PhD for myself’. If you ‘work’ on it and you invest a considerable amount of focused time, you will succeed in making one for yourself! 

Thinking alone won’t do the job!

Is it up to me to decide on my PhD topic?

We know that you are not operating in a vacuum, but works together with other scientists. Clearly, how much freedom you have to decide your thesis topic depends on your situation, but it is to some degree influenced by how your PhD project is funded. Let us break this down for you:

a) Scholarship or stipend: 

If you apply for funding for your PhD project at a private or public research funding agency or organisation, you’ll likely have a lot of freedom. In this case, it is likely you who wrote the grant application and it’s you who had to suggest a topic in the proposal. If the funding is granted, then you’ll work on your own project. However, as can also be the case, a funding stream can be tied to a certain ‘call’ or purpose, where you may have to make your research fit that purpose in order to be eligible for funding. To give you an example: if a Dutch nature protection agency awards grants for projects working on flood prevention and mitigation in the Netherlands, your project has to do exactly that. 

b) Applying for a PhD position:

In this case you applied for a PhD position that was advertised with a particular thematic focus. The institution or person (professor, PI) who advertised the position has received funding already and they looked for the right person to carry out specific research tasks. Frequently, these are PhD positions within a bigger research project or programme, so yours is not the only PhD position that is part of it. If you apply for the position, the overall topic for the larger project is set, and sometimes the PhD projects are already defined within that framework. Nonetheless, you should still describe in more detail what exactly constitutes your PhD project, while making sure it aligns with the overall goals of the bigger programme. The type of narrowly pre-defined PhD projects occur more frequently in the natural sciences than in the social sciences or humanities. 

Is it good to have a lot of freedom to define my PhD topic?

If the topic is more fixed, you have less room to manoeuvre, and we’ve had PhD students in our courses who find this advantageous. The day their PhD starts they have a project topic and a fairly clear idea what they are expected to do, so they can start with their research right away. 

Conversely, the advantage of having a great deal of freedom is that you can influence and decide what you’ll work on. You can mould your project to fit your personal research interests, skills and abilities. But we’ve encountered PhD students who find it overwhelming at the beginning, because there are so many choices and they feel they don’t know the consequences of picking a certain topic. 

So for everyone who finds it difficult to identify a topic for their PhD project, take the opportunity to download our free and failsafe 6-step-guide: “Identify your PhD topic.”

Below you’ll find a short summary of its key-points: 

Step 1. Research the state-of-the art in your field

  • Identify 5-10 relevant keywords for a literature search. 
  • Specify your search further regarding literature databases you search, publishing dates, geographic areas, or applied methods and approaches. 
  • Collect notes and summaries of the articles you read as you go, keeping reference numbers with your notes so you can always revisit articles.

Step 2. Brainstorm project ideas

  • Find a quiet spot and write out all project ideas that come to your mind. Just collect all your thoughts, without critically evaluating them.
  • A few days later revisit your ideas and start reviewing, crossing out ideas you don’t think are worth pursuing and highlighting those that are.
  • Continue adding ideas and refining your list, as you go on reading. 

Step 3. Narrow down your ideas

  • After working on this for a while, go through your brainstormed list and narrow it down to the best 2-3 ideas.
  • Expand on each promising idea, brainstorming on one per day. 
  • Jot down obvious research questions or knowledge gaps, ideas for experiments, how to gather empirical evidence, hypothesis you’re having etc.

Step 4. Prepare “project-sketches”

  • Create 1 page “project sketches” that flesh out more of the specifics of the project like the relevance, methods, projected outcomes. 
  • Use this stage as a test of how you feel about the topic – positively or indifferent? You’ve got to work on the final topic for the upcoming years. Ideally, you’re enthusiastic about it. 

Step 5. Discuss with supervisors

  • Give your supervisors a chance to look over your “project-sketches” and set a meeting.
  • Ask your supervisors for their opinion of the topic’s originality and feasibility (regarding time, funds, facilities & methods available).
  • Incorporate their feedback on your “project-sketches” to further refine them.

Step 6. Decide and develop into statement of objectives

  • During this process, one topic may start to stand out as the one with the most potential. Go for that one! If not, carefully weigh the pro’s and con’s of the remaining options. But eventually make a decision and move forward. 
  • For the final topic, create a “statement of objectives”: Elaborate 3-6 objectives of your topic which concisely add up to an overall project goal. Include research questions to answer or the hypothesis you’ll work with.

Make sure you’ll download our full 6-step-guide: “Identify your PhD topic”!

Conclusion:

If you’re among those PhD students who can or have to work out their project goals for themselves, you’ll likely fill the first weeks of your PhD focussing on that. As we always say: Until you’ve identified the goal for your PhD, identifying the goal is your goal! It won’t come down from heaven, and you won’t ‘find’ it (it’s not an easter egg hunt after all). We know that it is hard work to hammer it out, but with the six steps above you’ll definitely find it easier to crack and come up with a sweet topic! 

Related resources:

More information: 

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