As a graduate student preparing for your thesis or dissertation research, you may feel overwhelmed by the first significant hurdle — identifying a research topic.
From idea conception, to finding a suitable supervisor, conducting the academic literature search, writing your proposal, and preparing for the dissertation defense, completing your doctorate may feel like a daunting task.
The journey may appear monumental now, but with the right approach, you can transform this challenge into a rewarding and career-defining experience. Here are eight steps to follow for identifying a viable research topic.
Step 1: Discover Your Interest Area
Your journey begins with introspection. What topics in your discipline truly engage you? Do certain classes or readings ignite a certain spark in you? The key to enduring the lengthy process of writing a thesis is choosing a topic that genuinely excites you. You’ll be spending considerable time on this topic, so it’s important for it to hold your interest and curiosity.
A good place to start is by reflecting on your academic history so far. Are there areas you’ve consistently excelled in? You may want to beam your searchlight in that direction. Read up on those areas. Chances are, you’ll find research gaps or opportunities to expand the literature.
Step 2: Conduct a Literature Review
Once you’ve identified your interest area, delve into the existing literature. This exercise serves dual purposes: understanding the current state of research in your chosen field and identifying potential gaps your research could fill.
A literature review gives you insight into the current knowledge in your chosen field.
It helps you understand the related theories and evaluate successful and unsuccessful research methods in your study area. It also reveals the boundaries and limitations of the field and helps prevent you from duplicating an existing study. An effective literature review should;
- Outline trends in the study area.
- Assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing research – individually and as a whole).
- Identify any potential gaps in knowledge.
- Establish a need to add to current or future studies.
Use scholarly databases like JSTOR, Google Scholar, or your university’s library resources to access academic articles, studies, and books related to your area of interest. Here are some tips for conducting a successful literature search.
Step 3: Identify the Research Gap
As you review the literature, be attentive to the research questions that remain unanswered or under-explored.
These gaps in the literature are potential goldmines for your research topic. For example, while there might be ample research on the impacts of poverty on education, perhaps there’s limited research focusing specifically on the effect of poverty on remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This uncharted niche could serve as your unique research gap. The easiest way to find research gaps is to look at the conclusion section of existing research. Research authors always mention considerations or recommendations for future research.
If you’re still struggling to identify a research gap, you may speak to your supervisor and draw from their experience. You can also use a digital tool like Google Trends to analyze trending topics and popular questions relating to your study area.
This will give you some inspiration for what to focus on, and you can then do an academic literature search to explore the scholarly literature in this area.
Step 4: Consider Feasibility
Another step to help you identify a research topic is to consider feasibility. While it’s essential to aim for originality, it’s equally critical to make sure that your research topic is practical to study. Ensure that your topic is feasible based on the resources, time, and data access you have.
The most impressive topic won’t amount to much if it’s not practical to research within your constraints. Some factors to help you gauge research feasibility are:
- Time – Will you have adequate time to conduct the research?
- Scope – Will the scope generate sufficient data?
- Access to academic materials – Do you have access to relevant and up-to-date literature and resource materials from authoritative sources?
- Access to participants – Do you have access to potential participants from the population you want to study? Will you be able to get permission from the study site to conduct the research?
Checking for feasibility helps you decide if you can proceed with your proposed research topic.
Step 5: Narrow Down Your Focus
Topics can often be vast and wide-ranging, especially in the social sciences and humanities. We recommend striving for depth rather than breadth. Narrowing your focus will make your research more manageable and allow you to delve more deeply into your topic.
For example, instead of investigating “mental health impacts of social media,” consider something more focused like “the effect of Instagram use on anxiety levels among high school students in urban areas.”
By narrowing down your focus, you can determine a clear direction for your research. Keeping your research topic very focused will also allow you to investigate in-depth while staying within the confines of your available time and resources.
If your topic is too broad, you could struggle with information overload, and you may run into too many concepts that can’t be integrated into a single research study. Some basic strategies you can use to help focus down your research include:
- Choose a single theory or perspective through which to view the research problem. For example, instead of studying the impact of social media on young adults, you might study the role of Instagram on high-school students using social identity theory as a framework.
- Narrow down the study site. Consider the scope of your study in terms of location. For example, instead of studying international trade relations in South East Asia, you can focus on trade relations between Malaysia and Singapore as a case study to help explain economic issues in the region. Or instead of studying high school students in general, you can choose one high school as the study site.
- Shorten the time period of the research study. Shortening the time period of the research project can help you narrow your focus. For example, you can decide to study trade relations between Malaysia and Singapore after the COVID-19 pandemic up to the present. Or you might study high schoolers’ Instagram usage during a 6-week period.
- Delimit your sample population. Focusing on a very delimited population is another strategy to keep your research narrower. Instead of studying all high school students, designate a specific age or grade range, like students ages 14–16.
Identifying a research topic will become easier as you narrow your focus and zoom into the research problem, also helping guide you to devise a suitable methodology for data collection and analysis.
Step 6: Formulate Your Research Question
Formulating your research question is an iterative and dynamic process that should come after you’ve identified your general research topic.
Having zeroed in on your narrowed topic, now it’s time to formulate your research question, which is the backbone of your research and will guide your data collection process.
Your question should be clear, focused, and open-ended, prompting analysis rather than a simple yes or no response. A well-crafted research question will guide your research and keep you on track.
To formulate your research question, first start with your methodology. Will your study be qualitative, mixed method, or quantitative? For help with this process, read our tips on formulating research questions.
Step 7: Seek Feedback
Before finalizing your topic, it’s important to seek feedback from your supervisor, professor, or colleagues. They may provide unique insights or suggest relevant resources.
Your colleagues can help you see things from a different perspective, while your supervisors’ experience with doctoral research in your discipline will set you on the right path and ensure your research topic is feasible.
When seeking feedback, also talk to more advanced doctoral students who have been through the research process already, or are at least farther along than you. This could be your friends, colleagues, or other professors or postdocs who you work with.
Ask them what worked for them and possible pitfalls you should watch out for. Keep an open mind and filter their suggestions with your own knowledge of your research interests and your professional priorities and aspirations.
Step 8: Refine Your Topic
Based on feedback and further reflection, tweak or refine your research topic as needed. This could involve further narrowing your topic, redefining your research question, or considering different methodological approaches.
Depending on how well-defined your research topic already is, you can either refine your focus by narrowing the scope if you have too much information or broadening it if you have too little information. Check out these guidelines from MIT libraries for deeper insight into refining your topic.
Take It Step by Step
Remember, identifying a research topic is an iterative process. It involves exploration, discovery, and constant refinement. Embrace the process as a journey of intellectual growth and step into your research with curiosity and enthusiasm.
Keep an open mind and always ask for feedback from your colleagues and supervisor or advisor. At each stage, take notes and revisit those notes frequently.
Perhaps most importantly, stay flexible and open-minded as you access new information that might change your perspective or approach to your research. Even if a change feels too late in the process, run it by your advisor and get their input, because it just might make sense.
There’s no denying that the research process is challenging and requires a good amount of time and energy. And at times, it might feel overwhelming.
But with a strategic approach following these steps, our hope is that you’ll soon find yourself deeply engaged in a project that contributes meaningful insights to your field. If you need additional guidance or support, our dissertation coaches and consultants are here to help. Happy researching!