You should view choosing the topic of your project as a momentous step which will determine how well you enjoy the process of engaging with a substantial research project and how much you learn from it.
Choosing an appropriate topic involves thinking critically about a variety of factors that go beyond passion and personal interest. While personal interest is key to determining the general area of research you ultimately select, it is crucial to consider all other factors:
- Scope of the topic
- Feasibility of carrying out the project successfully
- Academic strengths and weaknesses
- Timeline needed to complete a thorough examination of the topic
- Future career goals
- Availability of suitable supervision
- Type of resources/support your department offers
- Personal circumstances and family obligations
Selecting a topic should not be done on an ad-hoc basis; it should be the culmination of a deliberate and exhaustive process.
- Review abstracts of research papers and dissertations in your field. You may also skim through dissertations submitted by former students in your department.
- Review the syllabi of courses taught at your department or at departments closely associated with it. Is there a topic on a syllabus you find worth pursuing? Do you disagree with the way a certain topic has been addressed by researchers in your field? Does the bibliography of a seminar appeal to you?
- Consider the practical implications of the topics you are considering. Do you need to learn a foreign language to access the research? Is the data readily available? Does studying the topic require travelling? If so, what are the costs? Will you receive the necessary funding? Can you address the topic thoroughly before your funding runs out?
- Discuss your preliminary ideas with faculty members working on a variety of research areas. Do not limit these conversations to faculty members whose research interests align closely with yours. Sometimes speaking with researchers who are not immersed in the topic can be insightful.
- Think about the possibility of future publications. Research on some topics will be of special interest to publishers and journal editors. Ensure you are aware which topics are “in demand.” If your topic is “future-proof,” it would make it easier for you to pursue opportunities beyond your current department.
- Evaluate the topic in relation to career options. Does the topic limit or expand these options? Does the topic give you the flexibility to pursue both academic and non-academic careers? Even if you are considering academic careers at the moment, does your topic have applications outside of academia?
- Experiment with delimiting your topic’s scope if it happens to be too broad. Is it possible to reframe the topic as a case-study? Are you able to limit the coverage of the topic by considering a smaller geographical area or a more compact timeline?
- Think critically about the overall objective of the project. Oftentimes this allows you to refine your topic options. Do you intend to challenge a widely accepted view, view an old problem from a new perspective, apply an existing theory in a new context, or “fill a gap” in existing research?
I. Identify at least three areas of interest. You could think of these as unfocused or tentative “topics.”
II. Explore research on the first, second, and third areas of interest.
III. Identify possible topics that fall under each area of interest.
IV. Narrow down the number of topics: consider interest, feasibility, faculty research interests, and relevance to personal career options.
V. Discuss your focused topics with a number of faculty members in your department. List the comments made by different faculty member about each of the feasible topics.