Finding a suitable research topic is the first step of your PhD journey. It defines your choice of university programmes and may directly inform the willingness of top-level supervisors to work with you on your project. While many students think that this element may be revised slightly over the course of your programme, this approach may not be deemed effective due to a number of considerations:
- Many highly demanded university supervisors only read topic names when selecting potential candidates for supervision.
- A bland topic creates an impression that you do not know what you want to achieve with your research project.
- A poorly formulated topic does not reflect your deep awareness of your subject area.
- A sub-optimal topic does not demonstrate your competence and capability to set SMART research objectives.
Our experience shows that having a well-developed PhD topic allows you to open many doors before you and successfully apply to multiple universities to have a good choice for your future project. This also facilitates collaboration and networking since you can ask your warm contacts to recommend your project to other academic practitioners for supervision or for co-creating research articles or shared projects based on your area of interest. In this article, we will consider the elements contributing to the quality of PhD topics and will develop a checklist for choosing a suitable PhD topic. You can use these ideas in isolation or combine them where possible to create valuable synergies.
PhD Topic Requirements
Most university guidelines highlight a number of elements shared by all strong PhD topics including:
|Significant contribution to knowledge|
|Practical value created for all involved stakeholders|
|Solid theoretical basis supporting the topic|
|Focus on a single central research question|
While some of these elements may seem ambiguous at first, they reflect one central idea, namely the need to create an original piece of work expanding our knowledge of a certain major problem that is relevant for many practitioners. Here are some examples of weak and strong PhD topics:
Wrong: Mass shootings in the US: What can be done to improve the situation
Right: Cultural theory of risk and the gun control debate in the US: The implications of Stanford University MSA Data Project.
Wrong: Homelessness problems in developing countries: The role of government regulations.
Right: The influence of subsidised housing availability on social stratification: A comparison of two UK regions.
Finding such topics may be a challenging task, which is why we would suggest looking for several topics rather than a single topic.
Singular vs Plural
Many guidelines on finding your perfect PhD topic imply that you should be looking for ‘a perfect topic’ rather than ‘several high-quality PhD topics’. This misunderstanding may be extremely costly for you, which is why our writing experts usually offer our clients multiple options right away. Here are some practical benefits of this approach:
- The search for several viable PhD topics does not take much more time than finding a single suitable one.
- Your further analysis of the subject area may reveal greater usefulness of some topics due to the identified research gaps.
- The evaluation of respondent availability and accessibility can make some options more effective than other ones.
- Discussions with prospective universities and supervisors may lead to their readiness to only accept certain topics.
- A list of options grants you sufficient flexibility to proceed with your PhD project no matter what.
Putting it simply, multiple topics allow you to be certain that you always have some viable paths to follow even if you encounter some methodological limitations, competition in some targeted areas or unique supervisor preferences. As discussed in one of the following sections, some universities may offer funding for a number of programmes they deem interesting, which may also convince you to prioritise these areas. Try to find 3-5 suitable PhD topics and work on their refinement using the instruments below. This will ensure that even the worst-case scenario will leave you with some backup options rather than the need to restart your search from scratch.
Many students make the mistake of relying on their own inspiration and knowledge when selecting their proposed PhD topic. This approach seems reasonable at first glance but it has had a highly detrimental effect on the quality of many academic projects according to our experience. The main problem here is the fact that your future thesis has to make a substantial contribution to the existing body of knowledge, close some real research gaps, and create practical value for multiple stakeholders. The problem is, you cannot find your unique niche and achieve all of these objectives without extensive prior research. If you are wondering how to come up with a good phd topic, here is a checklist of activities that may help you find an inspiring topic in your area of interest:
|Start with your targeted field of interest and read 10 articles published within the previous 3 years that raise your interest|
|Record any ideas that emerge from this research|
|Look into the limitations of these articles as potential sources of future investigation areas|
|Appraise the potential scope of this research (it should be sufficient for a 3-4-year project).|
|Make a list of 5-7 topics that you would like to work on|
We advise our clients to always ‘start with inspiration’ before listening to the input of their academic advisors. The idea is simple:
|You are the person doing all the hard lifting in this project|
|Most students find PhD journeys exhausting and tiresome to a substantial degree|
|In your darkest moments, you need to rely on something to keep going forward|
|If your topic reflects the ideas of your supervisor rather than your own genuine inspiration, this leaves you with nothing to rely upon|
While you may choose to slightly adjust your focus down the road to make your project more manageable, there is no sense in pursuing a PhD topic that does not raise your interest. Keep in mind that your research should ideally be intertwined with your career aspirations and your professional development, which is why we always advise spending more time on finding the areas that are appealing to you from these standpoints. Many supervisors are also expecting you to come up with interesting ideas on your own rather than relying on them to do all the hard work. Finding several PhD topics that are interesting to you personally may be a good start.
Analysing the Status Quo
As soon as you have compiled the aforementioned list of 5-7 topics in your area of interest, you need to return to the analysis of academic and practitioner literature on the subject. Allocate 1-2 days per each entry and check the following information in these corresponding spheres:
|What recent projects have been completed in them?|
|What were their findings?|
|What were their main research gaps?|
|How could they have been improved in terms of their focus and/or methodological design?|
|How many papers have been published in your sphere of interest already?|
|Are there any potentially overlapping studies in this field?|
|Are there any researchers publishing repeat papers in this field?|
The checklist in this section is focused on the need to identify whether your topic has sufficient academic novelty. If the targeted sphere has already been covered by multiple earlier studies with a similar focus, you may have to remove such entries from your earlier compiled list. Ideally, you should focus on areas that have not been studied in sufficient detail beyond the point of several pioneer publications showing their high potential value.
Risk of Competition
The world of academia exists in a state of continuous motion, which means that hundreds of new studies are published on a daily basis. This introduces a risk of competition where some other researchers select a similar topic and start publishing articles and/or pursuing a PhD programme based on it. Such rival projects reduce your academic novelty and may even force you to change your focus or PhD topic formulation in the middle of your own journey. The checklist items in the previous section should be thoroughly followed to minimise the risk of competition in your selected sphere. You may also utilise the following methods allowing you to further reduce potential threats in this field:
|Discuss your choice of topic with your supervisor (more on this later)|
|Discuss your choice of topic with thesis writing experts or other academic practitioners who are well aware of the status quo in your sphere|
|Start publishing articles and other presentation materials related to your topic as soon as possible to establish your expertise in this field|
|Take part in conferences and other academic events during your PhD journey to further demonstrate your pioneering role in researching this sphere|
These activities will ensure that your name will emerge after any search related to your topic of interest, which will convince potential competitors to select another research focus.
Research Existing PhD Programmes in Your Field
Many universities advertise PhD programmes with specified research topics. The analysis of such offerings in your field may be a good indicator of potential competition or potential value in this area. This investigation should ideally lead to the following conclusions:
|There are some programmes in this sphere, which indicates its value|
|Their numbers are not extensive, which predicts medium competition levels|
|Such offerings have emerged within the previous 2-3 years, which further reduces potential rivalry|
This analysis will also reveal the universities potentially willing to help you pursue your dream topic right away. If they openly declare their interest in this field and the presence of competent supervisors with sufficient knowledge in it, this may put them on your application shortlist.
Appraise the Funding Availability
The previous section has highlighted the problem of finding a suitable university willing to supervise your project. This challenge is frequently associated with the difficulties of finding and securing external funding. Since this aspect is crucial for your successful PhD journey, you may want to check the following aspects prior to selecting one of the possible thesis topics:
|Explore the possibility of finding teaching assistantships|
|Evaluate the availability of scholarships in your target sphere|
|Consider existing funded programmes with pre-defined topics|
|Appraise your eligibility for student loans|
Not all PhD projects may be able to secure funding from supervising universities or other traditional sponsors. However, this preliminary search can help you identify whether such options are available to you. According to the experience of our clients, this process does not take much time but provides highly positive results in many situations. If you find a programme that is 80% similar to one of your pre-developed topics, it may be reasonable to accept this compromise and negotiate with your targeted university to make your PhD journey a little easier.
Know the Greats
If you start analysing branding techniques, chances are you will have to refer to David Aaker, Jean-Noel Kapferer, and Philip Kotler in your discussion of the current status quo in your area. The understanding of key theories in your field of study is a prerequisite for formulating a high-quality topic. Here are some ways you can incorporate this knowledge:
|Understand key theories and models in your sphere|
|Think of the ones that can serve as a theoretical basis for supporting your topic|
|Explore the academic concepts referred to by the secondary studies you analysed previously|
|If possible, incorporate links to these theories or models in your PhD topic|
While explicitly referring to some theories or models may not be suitable for all PhD topics, this preparation may greatly assist you in refining them and findings the best focus possible. These activities will also be crucial during your first year when you will need to develop the conceptual framework of your study and link it with existing models and theories.
An ideal PhD topic should meet two primary criteria. On the one hand, it must be sufficiently narrow and specific to minimise the risks of competition mentioned earlier. On the other hand, it needs to create sufficient value for a wide variety of stakeholders in order to substantiate the need for your PhD project. Here are some ideas that will help you find a better balance between these two polar opposites:
|Explore relevant issues related to your sphere of interest (e.g. the challenges faced by a certain industry)|
|Consider the impact of the studied phenomenon on different demographic groups (e.g. senior citizens or college graduates)|
|Think about the possibility of using a specific geographic region as the focus of your study (e.g. few projects are conducted in the Middle East)|
|Appraise the possibility of linking your project to certain recent events of major significance (e.g. COVID-19 or Brexit)|
Here are some examples of excessively wide and sufficiently narrow PhD topics:
Wrong: The influence of taxation systems on SME growth rates.
Right: Ability-to-pay and the Laffer curve: The influence of progressive tax practices in the UK on fintech relocation intentions.
Wrong: Problems of single mothers: Practical evidence from the UK.
Right: Tailored support schemes for single mothers of colour: The problems of social workers in West Sussex.
Finally, analyse the existing gaps in the literature related to specific methods. Judging from our experience, many potentially interesting areas have only been studied using qualitative methods such as small-sample interviews due to respondent availability issues. This opens great opportunities for PhD researchers able to access specific population groups and collect larger quantitative and qualitative samples. The suggested strategy may be especially suitable for people with good industry connections or persons residing in such areas as the Middle East that remain out of the reach of many western scholars. Here are some examples of words and phrases making your topic context-specific:
- …on the example of Serbia.
- …influence on small manufacturing SMEs.
- …professional activities of university teachers.
- …in the post-COVID environment of Croatia’s tourism industry.
The Role of Your Supervisor
This aspect has been one of the most controversial ones in modern discussions in PhD thesis writing. On the one hand, your supervisor effectively becomes your ‘family member’ for the following 3-4 years and seeks to ensure the success of your shared endeavours. On the other hand, there exist many ‘toxic’ practitioners in academia who may be willing to ‘bend you to their will’ in many spheres including your style of work and your creative inputs. This may be caused by a number of reasons including:
- Their lack of expertise in your area of choice.
- Their willingness to supervise a topic they are more familiar with.
- Their decision to have input even if your research topic is realistic and researchable.
While this may not be the case in all situations, you may choose to follow the steps below to ensure that your supervisor is really criticising your topic due to its problematic nature rather than their own subjective judgement:
|Apply to several universities to have a choice from multiple practitioners who may have different levels of competence in your sphere of interest|
|Ask your supervisor why these adjustments are necessary (e.g. the emergence of competing projects, an excessively generic topic or poor topic formulation)|
|Discuss your concerns with several academic practitioners from the same sphere to get their uninfluenced opinion about the quality of your topic|
|Contact a professional PhD writing agency with a good industry record to obtain an independent evaluation of your topic and/or potential ways to improve it|
Keep in mind that student-supervisor conflicts are widespread in academia. It may be a challenging experience but the lack of attention to your opinion and an excessively directive style of cooperation may become even more problematic down the road. Hence, the inability to get clear answers related to your topic change or reformulation may be a red flag for some students who want to maintain a certain level of independence in their projects. Keep in mind that your supervisor will effectively become your ‘family member’ for the following 3-4 years in terms of time spent with each other. If you cannot promote your own vision in choosing a suitable PhD topic and feel that their opinion is biased, this may be a good motivation to look for a more suitable person to direct your project.
Choosing the Right Research Method
Your conversations with your supervisors and the conducted analysis of secondary literature on the topic should lead you to the final aspect potentially informing your formulation of a PhD topic. Your research method may be largely dictated by the following aspects you must appraise first:
|The phenomena you are planning to investigate|
|Your available resources|
|Respondent accessibility and availability|
|Identified research gaps in secondary studies in your sphere of interest|
If you are planning to use such analysis methods as linear regressions or correlations, you may choose to include some of the following words in your PhD topic to make it more focused:
- …the impact of… on…
- …the links between… and…
- …how… influences…
- …the interaction between… and…
These links make your topic more focused. They allow supervisors to immediately understand the methods you are planning to use and appraise the quality and viability of your project.
The analysis of the methods above suggests the following key methods you can use to create a suitable PhD topic:
|Develop several topics simultaneously to have a more balanced choice|
|Conduct an extensive literature review prior to formulating your topics|
|Only select the topics that inspire you personally|
|Look for existing research gaps that may inform the decision to narrow your topic down to a particular niche or research method|
|Appraise the risks of competition|
|Look for funded university programmes that are similar to some of your topics|
|Try to use demographic, geographic, industry-specific or event-specific factors as a way to narrow down your analysis perspective|
|Discuss your topics with multiple practitioners to obtain balanced and unbiased opinions about their quality and viability|
These instruments can be used in isolation or combined depending on your research focus and area of interest. The main thing to keep in mind is the need to avoid ‘inspiration barriers’ that are usually associated with the lack of background reading or an excessive focus on a single topic. The strategy aiming to arrive at multiple entries is preferable due to the lack of this fixation since you do not need to create one ultimate option. As you work in several areas simultaneously, this expands the number of identified research gaps and the overall number of topics you can discuss with your prospective supervisors. This flexibility allows you to select the best programme possible and obtain a superior knowledge of your targeted area, which facilitates further adjustments and negotiations with your university of choice.