Choosing a PhD subject

A well-chosen doctoral thesis will have a focus that can be explored in the appropriate time and built on in the future

January 3, 2008
PhD

Choosing a PhD topic is never easy, but that doesn't mean you should make things more difficult than they need to be.

"Choose something manageable," advises Philip Cunliffe, a third-year history PhD student at King's College, London.

Gina Wisker, head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at Brighton University, says you need to define a gap in knowledge – and one that can be questioned, explored, researched and written about in the time available to you.

"Set some boundaries," she advises. "Don't try to ask everything related to your topic in every way."

Instead, you need to focus on your area of work, know how to defend your choice of a particular subject and explain why you are using the methodology you have selected. She says you need to be aware of current and established theories related to the topic so that you can situate your own work and ensure that it makes a contribution.

Cunliffe observes that doing a PhD is one of the few times in your life when you have uninterrupted time for study.

"At an early stage in your career it is very unlikely that you will write a theoretical masterpiece," he warns. "It is better to stamp your name on a body of empirical research that people haven't done before."

But you have to be interested in the topic. "You are going to do this for three or four years and it can get terribly boring if you aren't interested in it," warns James Hartley, research professor in psychology at Keele University.

You then have to find someone else who is interested in it, too. For science graduates, this will probably be a case of joining a team of people working in a similar area. For those in the arts and social sciences it will be a matter of identifying a suitable supervisor.

Hartley says it can also be useful to think about topics that spark general interest. If you do pick something that taps into the Zeitgeist, your findings are more likely to be noticed.

Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics and author of Authoring a PhD, says your choice of topic should be continually updated to keep pace with your findings.

"It isn't just a question of defining a PhD topic," he says. "It's a question of configuring it.” He warns that problems arise when people fail to answer the question they have posed.

Another common problem is ensuring originality. Dunleavy says that you have to think carefully about what the key value-added components of your thesis will be. In a standard eight-chapter PhD, with 10,000 words per chapter, you will usually need an introduction, a conclusion and perhaps a chapter on methods, leaving five chapters in which to concentrate on original work.

“Pick up an idea, take it for a walk and put it down somewhere else. You are moving it around and seeing a new application," he says.

On the other hand, you will need at some point to go out on a limb. "If you want to do original work, you need to understand that you don't understand something and that the rest of the world doesn't either," Dunleavy says.

He advises focusing yourself by reading and discussing things with everyone from your peer group to your partner. "It is very important to articulate what you are trying to do," he says.

Your thesis will be cited in your CV for years to come so it is essential to get the topic and title right. Achieve this, and it could set the pattern for the rest of your career.

Further information

  • Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation, by Patrick Dunleavy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
  • The Postgraduate Research Handbook by Gina Wisker, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001

 

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