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  • Lakshman

How to Select a Topic for a PhD ?

Updated: Mar 16, 2019

There are a couple of different ways in which a doctoral student may decide on a topic to research. Firstly, a prospective student may discuss with a professor prior to applying for a research what could be the most suitable area to research. This type of topic selection could be possible when a student and an academic get an opportunity to meet (face to face or distantly through social media etc). This approach is more suitable for those who are planning to do self-funded PhDs or where a funder, for example your employer, already has been identified. On rare occasions, the academic may be in a position to apply for a scholarship fund to arrange a placement. 

Secondly, there will be pre-selected topic areas by funders, for example, a University department might advertise PhD scholarships using their own funding to do specific topics of interest. Business Management Department at Heriot Watt University uses this method. For example, I am also one of the possible supervisors for a PhD project on disability and inclusion proposed by the HRM group in our department. This PhD project has now been advertised, so prospective students who like to pursue their doctoral studies on this topic may apply. 

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, is when the prospective student develops their own research idea and find funding or scholarship. This is exactly what I did and I believe that doing your own research can benefit greatly in terms of directing your life to where you want it to be in a few years time. I am going to talk a bit more on this third option so I can share my experiences here. This is not going to be straightforward, quick or easy for an individual to find a scholarship to do a research of their choice, compared to the other two options I outlined.

So, here are some tips: 

Be aware of the cutting edge academic research in the chosen field, read recent publications in the area, particularly in relation to the country in which you wish to do your doctoral studies. This way you get to associate the interests and choices of the leading academics in the field, in the chosen country, giving you an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the work these academics, that you wish to personally associate in future. 

The familiarisation of current research must be then used in conceptualising a research idea for yourself. Keep thinking about a few key ideas that are different to each other. Engage reflexively to further question whether there is a good research waiting to happen in the idea(s) you are toying with

Read about philosophy and methodology. My advice is that you must be clear about what you want to be in terms of philosophy. For example, I am a critical realist. I came upon this philosophical tradition at the very start of my PhD. Prior to this, when I was doing my MBA, I believed in a different philosophy. My subsequent readings convinced me that my early beliefs on philosophy and my life concerns did not match. So, today I am in a very happy place of philosophy. 

The starting point in thinking about philosophy is to identify what makes you happy: quantitative data and measuring the phenomena around you, or qualitative data that gives narratives and rich accounts of phenomena around you? Later, when you are thorough with methodology you will understand what I have mentioned here in terms of ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ but do not worry about this just yet! 

Try to think about what matters to you the most in life: is it your family? Is it work? Is it education? Or is it more of societal concerns, such as serving society? Identifying ultimate life concerns also might direct you towards a topic or at least it will help you to stick with academia. For me, I think, ‘knowledge and my freedom’ matter(ed) the most. The latter, I now see as ‘emancipation’ of myself! 

Also, your topic can be found within some of the unresolved life-long problems, perhaps mental or physical health concerns, family issues, environmental issues, the injustice you witness in society, your own business concerns and so on also can inform your research idea. 

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