How To Choose a Research Topic For Your PhD Thesis (7 Key Factors to Consider)

How to choose a PhD thesis topic

If you are a PhD student, then you know that choosing a topic for your PhD thesis or dissertation was one of the toughest decisions you had to make.

This post provides guidance to prospective PhD students on the factors they need to consider when it comes to choosing their research topic.

1. Personal interests

The PhD programme lasts on average for 3 years, but varies depending on the school and department. As such, you need to choose a research topic that interests you so as to keep you motivated during those days when you feel like giving up (and those days will be many).

2. The interests of your school’s faculty

As much as your interest is important in helping you choose a research topic for your thesis, it must align with the interests of one (or more) of the faculty of your school in which you are taking your PhD.

This is important in ensuring that you get a supervisor who is an expert in your proposed area of research. In fact, one of the PhD application requirements for most PhD programmes is a concept note, which highlights the proposed research topic. This serves the purpose stated above: ensuring that the applicant will get adequate supervision throughout his or her studies.

3. Your knowledge and skills set

The knowledge and skills you gained during your undergraduate or Masters’ degree, as well as through your job can influence your choice of a research topic for your PhD thesis.

You may choose to settle on a topic that requires your existing knowledge and skills set, or may choose the harder route of gaining new knowledge and skills. The PhD is a great opportunity for the latter option.

For instance, you may be well versed with quantitative research methods, including its practical application, and may decide to choose a topic that renders itself to the use of quantitative analysis. Alternatively, you may decide that since you already know quantitative analysis, it is time to learn about qualitative research methods and choose a topic that will force you to dive deep into qualitative analysis. It is all about your preference.

4. Your career prospects

When choosing a PhD thesis topic, ask yourself what your career aspirations are, and then choose a topic that will give you the opportunity to learn more about your area of interest.

Besides spending a great amount of time conducting research in your research topic, the PhD period will also enable you to network with your peers and experts in your research area.

PhD students are often expected to attend workshops, seminars, and scientific conferences in the course of their studies, and these avenues provide great professional networking opportunities for the students, which can open their doors for their future career.

You therefore want to choose a topic that will significantly contribute to your career growth.

5. Trends in your industry

This factor is closely related to factor number 4 above. If your career prospects are not in academia, then it is important to consider what is trending in your industry and choose a topic that aligns to it. This will offer you with enormous opportunities for career growth.

For instance, in the Health Economics space, digital health is currently trending, and will trend for a long time to come.

A PhD student who is currently focusing on an aspect of digital health is highly likely to “sell like a hot cake” upon completion of his or her studies. That is, as long as he or she puts in the effort to do the research well and network with like-minded people in the industry.

Choosing a topic that is relevant and adds value, especially practically, is important for the PhD student’s career growth.

6. Feasibility of the research topic

It is one thing to pick a research topic that interests you and your faculty. It is another thing altogether to ensure that the topic chosen does not drag you behind as far as completing your PhD is concerned.

PhD is time-limited. You only have 2, 3, or whatever number of years to start and complete your studies. Your topic should therefore be feasible both time-wise and resource-wise.

You need to pick a topic that you can comfortably work on within the time limits of your studies, as well as within the available financial resources.

Consider whether you have scholarship for the study or if you are self-sponsoring your studies, and choose a topic that will not burden you financially.

Another important feasibility aspect to consider is the data requirement for your research. Will you collect primary data or use already available secondary data. If using primary data, do you have the time and money required for the collection and analysis of the data? If using secondary data, do you have easy access (that is, there are no logistical and financial barriers) to the data? You need to have this knowledge before settling on a research topic.

7. Adequacy of existing literature on the research topic

Before settling on a topic, research it widely to make sure that there are enough papers written about it. Remember that you will review hundreds of papers for your PhD thesis.

You can easily find out whether the topic has been well researched by skimming through online journal databases and resources like Google Scholar. Familiarise yourself with what others have written and what gaps exist, and then tweak your topic in a way that will add value to the existing literature.

While at it, also get to know who the experts of your research topic are. Networks such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn and Twitter are great places to know who the giants of your research area are. Remember that you will stand on the shoulders of many giants throughout your PhD studies (and beyond!). Get to know them and their past and ongoing works.

Final Thoughts on “How to Choose a Research Topic for your PhD Thesis”

Your research topic for your PhD thesis will most likely evolve over time. The topic you start with when you join your PhD programme will undergo significant transformations as you undertake courses, read literature, and consult with your supervisor. Don’t worry if this happens, it is the norm.

However, don’t spend too much time thinking about your topic, as the more time you spend on it, the less time you will have for the actual research. Consider the above 7 factors, settle on your topic and hit the road running.

Related post:

How to Write a PhD Concept Paper

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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