Applying for a PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

3. The research topic

Deciding on a specific topic for research is one of the first tasks you will have to accomplish when embarking on a postgraduate degree. It is crucial to find a topic you have a real interest in, one that will keep your attention and enthusiasm for months or years and may form an article or book or take you towards your career of choice.

How do you 'find' your topic? Often the process is one of surprises and accidents. You have a previous qualification and you are drawn to a topic or question that has puzzled you intellectually for some time. A piece of work or author that you respect and cannot let go. A problem or dilemma. Perhaps a lecturer or your supervisor has a specialism that appeals to you. Or maybe you need to go through different steps assessing, including/excluding and selecting certain ideas until you come to a decision.

You will begin engaging with the process of research and discover that at different stages you may need to reevaluate your choice, modify it and redefine questions in order to move forward in your research. You may need to revise, modify or even negotiate changes in your topic. You will keep making changes according to the material you may or may not find. You will start understanding your subject of investigation and developing a strategy to tackle it.

While deciding on a topic you should always be aware of rules laid down by, for example, your department, your university or your funding authority regarding time allowed and word limits. In your decision, you should also consider the future possibilities of producing conference papers and articles or publishing a book.

If you are planning to apply for a PhD and write your research proposal you are expected to have a fairly clear idea of your research topic right from the outset.

Whatever level you are researching and writing at, it might be useful to consider the following steps: