Conducting research in a PhD program is one of the most defining and important aspects of pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy. A PhD is a research degree that provides the challenging but rewarding opportunity to contribute to and expand your field of study. One of the most difficult parts of PhD research projects is figuring out what research question you should ask and how to develop an original and engaging topic. Here’s our walkthrough for finding the right PhD research project and successfully navigating the research process.
Choosing the Right PhD Research Project
When beginning a PhD program, you probably already had a broad dissertation topic idea in mind, but very quickly you must narrow your focus and turn it into a manageable research question. Identifying a faculty member with similar interests and meeting with them to discuss your ideas and the existing scholarship is key. Faculty are an invaluable resource. They are experts in their fields, know what research has been conducted already, and understand where future research is trending.
You need to do a serious literature review. You need to understand where your PhD research fits within the current scholarship. You need to know what’s been written so far, the research trends, and ultimately if your PhD research project is original and how it will contribute to the intellectual conversation. A literature review shouldn’t only be done through reading (although you will do a lot of it), you should also speak with other scholars (both at your university and beyond), attend conferences, and engage the public. Present your work and ideas as much as possible, whenever and wherever possible.
An important factor to consider when conducting research for a PhD program is whether your research project is manageable. Make sure that whatever research you need to conduct is accessible to you and is, in fact, do-able. Consider travel and research costs, availability of sources and resources, and time constraints. After all, you want to finish the dissertation in this lifetime, right?
Your PhD research project will consume your life for the next three or four years, so make sure that your topic is one you’re passionate about. It needs to genuinely interest you. Ask yourself, will I still enjoy doing this research and discussing it two, three, four, ten years from now? The answer must be “yes.” Your topic should be manageable, original, and able to take you to the research frontiers of your discipline.
Conducting Your PhD Research
You’ve started to understand the current literature, determined where to conduct your research, worked out the logistics, examined your topic in classes and with your advisor, narrowed your topic, and now it's time to start digging deep.
While researching, it’s very easy to get sucked in to your work and isolate yourself in the academic ivory tower. Don’t do it! The best way to do research in a PhD program is to maintain an open dialogue with both your advisor, your fellow students, and broader community. Communication is a vital part of PhD research projects and discussing findings and bouncing ideas off of people can lead to new insights and constructive feedback. You should also present your ongoing research and findings as often as possible. By presenting new and exciting research, you can gauge the response of others in your field and adjust your focus as needed.
Along with soliciting feedback from professors and peers, seek out funding in the form of grants and travel support. There’s a host of grants available for doctoral research both through national and more local organizations. Part of your development as a professional in your field is being able to identify and secure funding for the research that’s most important to you. And if you’re aiming for a career in academia, your ability to secure grants will be tied to landing that first job and to advancement through the faculty ranks.
Don’t be afraid to expand your resources beyond what’s available to you on campus. Write grants, apply for travel funds, and find other ways to venture out and broaden your research.
Finally, remember that the topic that you painstakingly refined may change completely, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. Once you start getting into the data and primary sources, you’ll learn new information and make discoveries that will shift your thinking. This evolution of the topic can be confusing and challenging at times, but your scholarship will be all the better for it.
Why Is Research so Vital?
Choosing the correct PhD research project is no easy feat. It will influence your PhD experience and career trajectory. When determining your PhD research focus, do not make the decision lightly. Educate yourself on the current pillars of thought that exist within the field already, communicate extensively with faculty members, student peers, industry professionals and scholars in the field, and finally pick a research project that truly interests and invigorates you.
Doctoral research projects fuel the academic, technical, and professional development of our global community. Thus, the research project you choose for your dissertation is more important than getting a degree. You’re contributing to the global accumulation of knowledge, and that knowledge is put to use in astounding and groundbreaking ways. Whether its advancements in chemical engineering that teach us new ways of recycling waste, or a re-imagining of societal structures based on a history dissertation, doctoral research is vital to our collective betterment as a society. So, let your passion for research direct the changes in our community.