Take a walk with a simple idea

January 5, 2007

Your PhD does not have to solve the meaning of life, explains Harriet Swain. It is far better to find a gap in knowledge that can be explored in the appropriate time and that you can build on in future

What's it going to be? Solve the meaning of life or find a cure for cancer? 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 but choose something that can be questioned, explored, researched and written about in the appropriate time. "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 advises choosing something that has some kind of empirical basis.

He says doing a PhD is one of the few times in your life when you have uninterrupted time for study so it is more sensible to nail down a concrete piece of research than to try to do something more theoretical.

"At an early stage in your career it is very unlikely that you will write a theoretical masterpiece," he warns. "For that reason, 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 it in," says James Hartley, research professor in psychology at Keele University. He says that you also need to be interested in exploring different methods to research your central question.

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 suggests speaking to staff in your department who will probably know of likely people. He also recommends joining a research group of a few people working in the subject area.

Keep an eye out for posters advertising research areas and gather as much insider knowledge as you can to find the best place to go for research in your field, he says. You also need to be aware of who the leaders in the field are and what they are doing.

Hartley says it can also be useful to think about topics that spark general interest. Choosing something topical is tricky because by the time you finish your research it may not be quite so contemporary. However, 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 is something that needs to 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. You set it up and the thesis does what it says on the tin."

He warns that problems arise when people fail to answer the question they have posed. For this reason, he advises redefining your PhD once you have completed your first draft to tighten the link between question and answer.

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.

"Original research doesn't have to be fantastically difficult to conceive,"

says Dunleavy. "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."

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.

"That's psychologically a difficult thing to handle." He warns that a lot of people come up against an original idea and back off because it looks too difficult. "Give yourself time to think these things through," he says.

He advises focusing yourself by reading and discussing things with other people - from your peer group to your partner. "It is very important to articulate what you are trying to do and not just to have it buzzing around your head," he says.

If your supervisor tells you your chosen topic looks unfeasible, or people start yawning every time you mention your thesis, the chances are that you are on the wrong track.

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. Cunliffe says if you choose something manageable and not too fancy, the chances are that it will provide the basis for more ambitious work in the future. Maybe you could tackle the meaning of life then.

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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