Sunday, January 24, 2016

How to Select an MPhil/PhD Research Topic

How to Select the Area of My Research?

Don't spend too much time mulling over which area of research to concentrate on. If you feel that you have entered the analysis/paralysis stage and you are having too much difficulty zeroing in on the topic and finalizing it, then my advice is to just write down the names of areas of research that you are interested and then throw a dart blind-folded. Just start wherever it lands. Of course, I am talking about the sub-areas within the research specialty of your supervisor. 

    What Topic Should I Choose within my Research Area?

    What should be the new idea or topic on which I should work for my MPhil/PhD research?
    Is it necessary to have the new idea encapsulated in a topic before starting the MS/PhD Research?

    Students in the initial phase of their research often waste a lot of time in finalizing the topic and delay the reading of papers. 
    • I think asking this question at the starting stage of your research/thesis work is a bit premature. The time to concentrate on the new idea and the "original" contribution is not when you are starting your thesis/dissertation research, but after you have reviewed sufficient research papers in the area you would like to explore.
    • I have seen several students wasting several months and even years just selecting that great idea that would enthrall the research community and transform the world. This is not the way to go. The problem with this approach is that initially the researcher has no understanding of what is mean by “new idea” in the context of the chosen area of research. What kinds of “new ideas” are presented in this area? Initially the student does not know what are the problem areas in which a “new idea” can make a difference to be considered significant. The “new idea” that solves the problem depends upon the nature of problems being researched currently and which are considered of interest currently. Thus knowing what are the current problem areas and how researchers are approaching the solutions is therefore a pre-requisite to the search of the new idea/topic and your contribution that would make the difference.
    • You may concentrate on the contribution and new-idea-stuff once you have reviewed at least 40 research papers in a given area. Before knowing about your chosen field, the type of problems and issues being discussed, the type of approaches being taken, it is difficult if not impossible to arrive at the “contribution” part of your research.
    • At the time of starting your thesis, you should try to master the "OLD" ideas presented by other researchers in various journals over the last five years and earlier. Only when you have a command on the already existing ideas published in the papers, you would be able to generate some thing new.
    • I expect that the first one-third part of your thesis time should be allocated on understanding and becoming familiar with the already existing ideas in your area of research. Once you have become comfortable with the concepts, issues, and concerns of your chosen area of research, you are then able to identify what is missing. Once you identify a missing requirement, you are ready to propose a solution to satisfy the missing requirement.
    • Please postpone your search for new ideas, breakthroughs, exciting discoveries and quest for a Nobel Prize till after you have done your MS/PhD. Research degrees are only concerned about lifting you up to a level where you can become an active member of the international community of researchers in your chosen area of research.Their objective is to teach you the scientific process of making an original contribution in your area of research. The magnitude of that contribution is not important as long as it justifies the grant of the degree for which you are working. 
    The key idea in this regard is “original”. Thesis and Dissertation strive for an original approach to solving the problem.

    Please remember that you choose to do your thesis in an area in which you are not already a master or an expert. Obviously if you are expert in an area and then choose to do research in that area then that is pointless. The objective of the thesis/dissertation research is to hoist your flag in an uncharted territory, known as an "original" research.

    How to Constrain your Research Area

    • You need to know how to constrain the scope of research. How to limit it to only a small part of the chosen field where you can make some contribution.
      • If you type your selected topic area on google scholar and it pulls out thousands of references then it is to broad. 
      • If you type your selected topic area on google scholar and it does not pull out any or few research papers, then you must rest assured that your choice of terms is not recognized by the community of researchers. The words you have chosen are recognized by different terms in the research community. 
      • Try to have five or six keywords in your research topic that pulls out just enough research papers to give respectability to your areas of research. 
    • You should be able to see whether the chosen topic is vaguely defined or too general.
    • Research is not about covering a very large area, but about going deep down in a narrow and restricted area.
    • How to take help from the topics of thesis done at the other universities while selecting your topic.
      • Make a list of (say) 100 titles of the theses done at some foreign universities.
      • Analyze the topics and see how they have constrained the scope of research and have focused on a very small area.
    • Your thesis proposal may form the first three chapters of your thesis.
      • Have you seen other thesis proposals?
      • Do you know what they contain and what is there structure?


    1. Sir, I really liked this approach of selecting a research topic. I assume that before doing the dart blind-folded activity, student should performed first step (plus three sub steps) of "How to Constrain your Research Area" section. Moreover, I agree with time spending activities mentioned in this article, I personally spent a lot of time in finalizing the research topic and I ended up doing the same activity (pick one topic and starting working on it). I have adopted your approach of keeping PhD research and winning Nobel Prize a separate activity. This really helped me to focus on PhD topic.

      1. As I keep emphasizing as in my post on myths of PhD specialization, PhD is more about the process of research than about the content of research. It is all about following rigorously the science of research as adopted by the community of researchers belonging to your area of research; publishing in recognized journals/conferences of this area.

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