The Doctor's (not) in (yet): How do I find my topic?


When we decide to take the next step in academia, we also need to come up with a research topic. During a Master programme you don’t have to think about it right away, as it is only the last part of the journey. For a doctorate, however, it IS your journey. And that can be a bit scary because that also means that you will have to stick to this particular idea for quite a long time.

Some topic ideas may come to you naturally, which are the best ones. Because, did you ever urgently need new pants, went to town and then, couldn’t find any? Well, there you go. If you doggedly search for things chances are good you’ll not find them. I know that not everyone can have an Epiphany and actually my topic for my PhD didn’t come to me that naturally either. In fact, it took me nine months to have a rough idea of what I wanted to do. And yes, technically you can compare it with being pregnant: getting in to it was fun at first but then you’re starting to feel unwell, tired and you’re becoming whiny at some stage. The last bit (the actual birth of your thesis topic) needs to be approved by your supervisory team, and that can be really painful!

The most important feature of your topic is, that you feel passionate about it. You’ll stick to it for quite some time, so you better make sure it is something you personally care about. The PhD path can be rough and lonely at times and a positive attitude about your topic helps a lot to get through this. Sometimes you might be even able to combine interests of yours.

Which leads me to the second important attribute that is unfortunately not as sexy: It needs to make a contribution to scientific knowledge! And this is often the challenging part. Will it cover existent knowledge gaps? Will it be useful? Remember, you are not doing this to be called ‘Dr.’ in the end. There should be some sort of outcome. But your supervisors will assist you in this regard. Beforehand, you should find out whether your desired topic has been addressed before which requires an extensive literature review. Sometimes universities provide you with research topics, which is a bit easier because you will save some time and you exactly know what you'll do. Yet the framework is really strict with no room for own ideas and it is not as much fun as finding and defining your very own.

Your topic is your personal decision and you need to feel comfortable with it. You should never get talked into something you’re not really into. However, for me personally it was highly beneficial to listen to my supervisors ;). Suggested aspects of my research I wasn’t really keen on two years ago are now the parts I’m most interested in. So it is okay to have less favoured bits. It may change around after a while anyways with your development as a researcher.