Applying for a PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

3. The research topic

3.1 making the choice

You may not know or be unsure about what topic of research to choose. Making the choice about a topic for research is an important decision that will influence your postgraduate studies, perhaps your employment, as well as your future professional development. It is essential that you choose your topic carefully.

How would you go about choosing your topic? Start with your own ideas and insights. Many students develop a particular interest in a topic during their undergraduate studies, for example, in the works of canonical authors such as Federico García Lorca or film directors such as Jean-Luc Godard or Pedro Almodóvar. There are pros and cons attached to working on particular hub areas: on the one hand their critical corpus may be overwhelming whilst on the other, these topics may be precisely the subject specialisms that university departments wish to recruit lecturers in. Those students who have developed a strong interest in a topic in their BA or MA dissertation sometimes continue working on that. Others may be motivated by a personal interest related to, for instance, their national or sexual identity. Take time to make your choice.

Motivation is very important in order to maintain your drive throughout the process of your research and particularly when you are writing up. Some students fail to complete their research because they have lost interest or motivation in their topic. However, this fact can also be related to other pitfalls such as failing to manage your time efficiently. Evaluate carefully the reasons why you are thinking of choosing that particular topic. Whatever reason may motivate your choice of a topic, you will go through different stages to make your final decision.

What are your personal strengths?

If you understand yourself better and try to take advantage of your strengths, your research topic may emerge sooner. Your strength may lie more in textual analysis than in theory development. Knowing your strengths may make your research process smoother and faster. You might get better results.

  • Which of your strengths are worthy of exploitation? Why?
  • What background experience might you be able to draw upon?
  • Which research method plays to your skills or strengths? Interviewing or close text-based work, for example? 

What are your personal weaknesses?

It is equally important that you are aware of your weaknesses. If you are honest about gaps in your knowledge and skills, you will be able to identify your needs and do something positive about it sooner rather than later. For example, if you have a background in literary criticism, and you need to analyze a piece of visual culture, you can then seek advice from a qualified member of staff. Knowing your weaknesses will increase your self-awareness and help you move a step closer to a better decision.

  • Where are the gaps or limits in your skills or knowledge?
  • Do these rule out certain research topics?
  • Or can you, either independently or with help, fill a particular gap successfully during the early stages of your research?

What skills and knowledge do you have?

It is important that you think about the skills and knowledge you have gathered over the years either through formal qualifications or informal experience. If you think they are relevant for your postgraduate studies you may like to take them into account in choosing your topic and make that explicit in your application for a place or for funding.

  • What courses have you done in the past?
  • What languages do you speak? What is your level of proficiency?
  • What have been your past academic successes?
  • What skills have you acquired in your earlier studies or employment?
  • What has been your previous experience of research writing?

What is the purpose of your research? 

Your research may be for a PhD or an MA. There are time and word constraints attached to both. Your time and word allowance will influence the breadth and depth of your topic. Do you have any specific goals and motives in mind? Your motives and goals for doing post-graduate studies may influence your choice of topic. 

  • Are you doing an MA or PhD?
  • What is your aim in doing postgraduate studies?
  • How long will you be studying for?
  • Do you have any specific career or future personal goals in mind?

Making the choice

Through this process you should have identified your strengths, skills and knowledge as well as those areas with gaps. You can now make your initial choice and identify a potential topic. At this stage, it is crucial that you talk to your tutor or the director of graduate studies. Their advice will help you clarify your thoughts if, for example, the choice is difficult, or the potential approaches are numerous.

  • Will you continue with a topic you are already familiar with and take it to a higher level and explore it in more depth?
  • Will you continue with a topic you know while also learning and applying new skills?
  • Would you prefer to exploit a skill you already have and apply it to a totally new topic?
  • Will you have the time to learn a totally new skill or two and pursue a challenging new topic?