Don’t panic if you don’t know how to find a PhD topic. This is a struggle that afflicts many people, and even though you might feel like you are behind, or need to move faster, the reality is that you can and should spend some time working out your thesis.
Still, it’s difficult to advance through your studies if you feel like you are directionless, and it wouldn’t hurt to get a better idea of your PhD topic early on. Every centimeter of your academic path will assist you in your career goals, whether that’s as a scientist, a teacher, or just figuring out .
could help you get ready to write your work, but expert tips will be good preparation, too. In this article, we present a step-by-step approach to how to find a PhD topic so that you can confidently pursue your academic studies.
Key to a PhD topic is the fact that you are contributing new knowledge to the current body of knowledge within your given field. It can be difficult to know what “knowledge” is, just as it can be tricky to discern what is a good, original “contribution,” and that search can be frustrating.
To test whether your idea is worthy, try to answer some questions about it:
At the core of every great PhD topic is research, and lots of it. Your first task – and it is monumental – is to read extensively in your field. Any field is replete with information – tons of research and writings of those who have gone before – and this workload alone can feel voluminous. How do you cope?
Your thesis advisor is your first resource here, and they will make recommendations of materials that you should read. Proceeding from that point is a matter of curiosity. Give yourself over to being curious. Read an article and let yourself become fascinated enough to ask questions. Any key words or phrases which come up in that article – read up on those as well. Search out the sources and citations yourself and read through those. Follow the “rabbit trail” to glean the best knowledge about your chosen subject.
So, outside of publications, academic journals, and full books, where else can you get knowledge? Other theses, of course, but there is another source: conversation.
In a kind of free market of ideas, the most interesting subjects, and the most current, will float to the top of discourse among your peers as cream in milk. Visit some internet forums and message boards, make friends within your department, and go to conferences – just to talk. Talk about whatever is of interest and join conversations. What are the questions and ideas that people ponder over and over again? These are the very edge of your field, because before people even come up with a written idea, they will muse about it – by thinking about it themselves and discussing it with others.
Be careful, though! Some of these ideas will be the thesis topics of other people. Don’t poach or encroach on other people’s topics – especially after befriending them online or at a conference. You don’t want to be an idea thief. You want to contribute to the conversation and move within it, not coopt it or try to dominate it.
So, listen and discuss, but make sure you find out who is actually working on, researching, or writing about what you’re discussing.
What if you pick something and find out other people have already studied it and written extensively on your topic of choice? Don’t despair, just read them as well! Remember curiosity! If you keep stoking the fires of interest, sooner or later, you will go beyond what others have conjured up, and you will find some excellent veins of academic ore.
After all your research, reading, conversation, and contemplation, you are ready to pinpoint what’s missing. Remember: your topic needs to be an original contribution, which means that it cannot be too close to existing research or theses.
It can be difficult to see what isn’t there. Like searching for a lost item that you cannot quite picture, describing a void or gap is never a simple task.
Some tips for searching the limits of the unknown:
- Curiosity is, once again, your friend. Apply the “who, what, where, when, why, and how?” questions to the latest publications in your field. These questions will yield the ideas that are still missing in each publication or paper.
- You also might ask, “what does that mean?” of any publication you read. For instance, you might read a paper on migration patterns in butterflies that accurately describes butterfly movements throughout the year. It might be extensive, examining different years, climates, and types of lepidoptera. But what do those migratory patterns mean? How might they be used for conservation purposes? Could you apply these data to anything else – bees, for instance – to learn their cycles and yearly patterns? By seeking out the implications or possibilities of a publication, you can find some interesting areas worth exploring.
- What’s the counterargument? You might read a fascinating article about an economic theory that sounds great. It might seem revolutionary – the best direction for the economy, in fact! But how do you know? Has anybody considered the opposite theory? Has anybody just decided they don’t like it? Or are there any extant critiques? Exploring opposing viewpoints might be a great way to further the field.
Are you ready for your thesis defense? Check out this infographic:
Once you have allowed curiosity to reign supreme, acquired a list of potential areas to explore, and are brimming with knowledge and possibilities, it’s time to narrow the field. You can’t write eight theses, after all, so you must settle on one main PhD topic to fully explore.
It’s very important to remain flexible at this stage. Don’t rush into one topic that you’ll regret later.
The best tip to winnowing ideas while remaining flexible is to try each one out a little bit. Do a little free-form writing, come up with thought experiments and practical experiments that prove and disprove your idea, and maybe return to some of your favorite forums to bat the ideas around with peers.
By trying to elaborate and explore these ideas in writing, you will quickly find out which ones have weight, which spark your curiosity and interest, and which are dull, flat, or even shallow. You don’t want to accidentally pick a topic that only requires a couple of pages to explain, more or less, because you can’t build an academic paper out of that.
So, test out the ideas and topics and slowing whittle them down to only two or three big ideas that will support the weight of a full PhD topic.
Remember that when you are crafting your thesis, your thesis advisor is going to be involved, both at the proposal phase, and during their review of your thesis before your defense. So, plan for the long term, not the short term. It will take years to bring this about properly. Don’t rush, take your time, and make sure that whatever your topic is, it is something you can love for a long, potentially frustrating journey.
Keep in mind that, given your advisor’s involvement, you need to plan for extra time for review and discussion, as well as anticipate their reactions toward the end of your thesis journey. For example, your advisor might bring up an unforeseen element of your research before your defense, and you will need time to grapple with this advice and correct the thesis. In other words, plan for revision, even at the end of your studies.
Try to anticipate your advisor’s notes, but most importantly, give yourself the time and flexibility to respond properly and thoroughly.
What’s the difference between a Masters vs PhD? Which one should you pursue? Find out in this video:
Curiosity remains your guide. What do you love? Which topic survives the scrutiny of a few test drafts or free-form musings, but also keeps you up at night in the best way?
That’s where you should begin your journey.
Then comes the task of crafting your thesis proposal, which consists of:
- An abstract
- A thesis statement
- The preliminary research you have done
- An explanation of why this topic is important and necessary – why it will be a meaningful contribution to your field
- How you will approach your subject, including any experiments or research you are intending to undertake in the pursuit of your thesis
- A literature review of existing material
- An estimation of your timeline, how you will proceed, and how long it will take
- The reach of this thesis and how it will affect fields beyond the immediate topic
- References and citations
The full process of how to find a PhD topic will never be simple or easy, but we hope these tips and steps that we have provided will make it feel more straightforward. Once you have accomplished them, you will be over the first hurdle, launching you toward your research, your writing, your thesis defense, and beyond to .
1. Can I switch my topic after I select it?
You can refine it, change it, or modify it, but remember that any such modification will set your time frame for your PhD back. The greater the modification, the more work you will have ahead of you to “course correct” into the new topic.
2. Should I switch topics or stick it out with my old one?
Follow what excites you. Your academic career need not be a musty one; don’t pursue something that is dull or uninteresting. So, if you discover a new idea, incorporate it, or pursue it.
You might also find out, after embarking on your research, that somebody else is publishing something very similar. You might want to alter your thesis, or change it, if you find out that others are already working on your topic.
However, this is dependent on how deep into your research and/or thesis that you are. If you are a month out from completing your studies, put the new idea on the backbench and finish your work. There is definitely a time limit here.
If you have any doubts, share your qualms with your thesis advisor, who will be able to help you figure out if you have the time to expand or switch your topic.
3. How detailed does my description of my chosen thesis need to be?
Your descriptions should be very detailed. High academic standards apply to PhDs, and your notes and write-ups need to reflect this. Moreover, you are writing for academics, so there is no need to adapt your texts to use simpler language: give a full and complete description of your topic using current terminology in the field. Outline what you intend to accomplish and how you will fulfill your intentions.
4. When should I be selecting my PhD topic? I feel like I’m behind.
The timeline will be different for every student, which is advice that should encourage you if you feel like you are behind your peers: everybody moves at their own pace.
Additionally, different research areas might require a longer contemplation period.
Finally, remember: your advisor needs to weigh in at both the beginning and the end of your thesis. Budget that time into your plan.
5. What if I can’t think of any original contribution to my field?
No field is exhaustible. There will always be more to learn. Can you arrive at the end of art? Of mathematics? Of history? It seems inconceivable that these areas will be depleted. While it might seem overwhelming – the idea of finding a truly original contribution – you will find one. It might take time, but if you remain curious and keep your mind open, you will arrive at the place you need to be.
6. How much should I rely on my thesis advisor?
As much as you want. They are tasked with helping you and will be glad to be of service. Any time you’re feeling stumped or want to bounce ideas off them, schedule an appointment, or visit during their office hours.
Do respect their time, however. If you’re monopolizing every moment they have, you might be there too much. Respecting boundaries and limits is necessary, but you should generally feel very free to ask for help; nobody faults you for asking.
7. Do I need to know any of this before I apply to graduate school?
No. You need to know generally what you are going to study and why, but you certainly don’t need thesis prep before applying to a graduate program. If you need any help with that, a can help you with your application.
8. Should I fast-track my research to get my thesis done faster?
There is no easy answer to this question. Some theses programs allow for you to move quickly and condense your time frame. Should you try to get your doctorate faster? That’s up to you.
The positive is getting into the job market faster, but the negative side will mean an extremely hectic schedule.
The ultimate answer is to take an honest look at what you want for your future and what you are capable of taking on. Weighing out those two factors will give you your answer.