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
Consult with Faculty
When beginning your PhD program, you likely had a broad dissertation topic idea in mind. Now, you’ll need to narrow your focus and turn it into a manageable research question.
Identify a faculty member or two who have similar interests and meet with them to discuss your ideas and the existing scholarship. Remember, faculty are an invaluable resource — use their expertise wisely! They know what research has been conducted already, and understand where future research is trending.
Review the Existing Scholarship
A serious literature review will tell you where your PhD research will fit 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 be done through reading alone — though you will do a lot of reading! Be sure to talk with other scholars and attend seminars and conferences, both at your university and beyond.
Getting involved in a conversation about the future of your field and talking about your ideas as much as possible are crucial parts of choosing a good research topic.
Identify What’s Doable
Your criteria for selecting a research topic should include travel and research costs, availability of sources and resources, and time constraints. After all, you want to finish your dissertation in this lifetime, right?
A dissertation research topic that is a good fit for you will be manageable, original, and able to take you to the research frontiers of your discipline.
Your PhD research project will consume your life for the next three or four years, so make sure that your dissertation topic is one you’re passionate about.
Yes, there will be days you’ll feel less enthusiastic about working on your dissertation — that’s all the more reason to start out with a topic that genuinely interests you.
Ask yourself: Will I still enjoy doing this research and discussing it two, three, four, 10 years from now? The answer should be “yes!”
Conducting Your PhD Research
You’ve started to understand the current literature, determined how to conduct your research, examined your topic in classes and with your advisor, and narrowed your topic. Now, it's time to start digging deep.
While researching, it’s very easy to get sucked into your work and isolate yourself in the academic ivory tower. Don’t do it! The best way to do research in a doctoral program is to maintain an open dialogue with your advisor, your fellow students, and the 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. When you share your research developments, you can gauge the response of others in your field and adjust your focus as needed.
Expand Your Resources
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 through national, regional, and more local organizations.
Identifying and securing funding for research will display your project management skills to future employers, and is an important part of your development as a professional in your field.
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 look 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.
Stay Open to Change
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. Doctoral research projects fuel the academic and technological developments of our global community.
Educate yourself on the current pillars of thought that exist within the field already, and communicate extensively with faculty members, student peers, industry professionals and scholars in the field. That will help you pick a research project that truly interests and invigorates you.
When you find yourself having doubts on the long hours you’re putting into your dissertation, remember that your research project is about more than just getting a degree. You’re contributing to the global accumulation of knowledge, and that knowledge is put to use in astounding, innovative, and groundbreaking ways.
Whether you work on advancements in chemical engineering that teach us new ways of recycling waste, or a re-imagining of societal structures in the Francophone world, doctoral research is vital to our collective betterment as a society. So, let your passion for research direct the changes in our community.