Community Acuity (16): It pays to be focused and specific when it comes to choosing a PhD topic

Dr Parveen Ali is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield.

Entering into a PhD programme is a big commitment and certainly a step that affects one’s life. Those who want to do a PhD are often ambitious individuals wanting to make the world a better place with their research and innovation. So, there is no doubt that the topics they choose to explore as part of their PhD are often ambitious. At the same time, a purpose of the PhD is to contribute to the body of knowledge by developing new knowledge or challenging existing concept and facts. 

In an attempt to ensure both of these requirements are met, often, candidates come up with too broad a topic and or research question. They also like to use novel and often complex methods to explore their research question and this all is done in an attempt to ensure that their research topic and the research question are unique, significant and something which will make a difference to relevant stakeholders and contribute to the body of knowledge. In my experience of being a research supervisor to PhD (and Master’s) students, they often come up with interesting but very broad ideas and do not always appreciate the implications of that in the long run.

Here the role of research supervisor becomes very important as their job is to help PhD researchers develop a focussed and specific research question which does contribute to the body of knowledge, but is also answerable and researchable in the limited timeframe of a PhD programme. The research supervisors’ job is to help their PhD students to think through various aspects of the question to ensure its developed well, as a good research question shapes the design of the study.

I see this responsibility as a significant but difficult aspect of research supervision as the supervisor has to challenge the student to think about various aspects of their research in an attempt to ensure the topic or research question is contained when the student may think otherwise. Many new researchers and especially those who are really fixed with their topic and research question, find it very hard to understand why they need to narrow down their focus. Many feel that narrowing down is going to make their study less useful. If we are not careful, tensions here can sometimes even result in break of relationship with supervisors or have a negative impact on the enthusiasm of the students with regards to their PhD. They do eventually realise the importance of staying focused; however, often, it is too late. 

I have always been interested in this aspect of study, and therefore often reflect on my own practices used as a student, and then as a supervisor. I also observe practices of my colleagues and compare and contrast between the various approaches. I realise that there are people who are receptive to feedback and then make conscious decisions for themselves; there are others who are less receptive to feedback and find it very hard to change their stance. Finally, there are those who, perhaps, are less confident about their point of view and often would accept the feedback given as it is without critique. In my view, those who are receptive to feedback, but make a conscious decision when making changes are the easiest people to work with, yet we must find a persuasive way to help all students define their project. 

Over the past few years, I have learned certain strategies to enable myself to discuss this issue effectively with my students. With regards to the discussion, I believe it is really important to take time to explore how fixed the student is with their topic and question and if they understand that their research question may need to change considering what is already known about the topic, and what can be explored within the time limit. This discussion also makes student conscious of their research topic and question and that it may need to change or specified – so it’s worth taking time over.

Another important strategy is to help students search and review literature using appropriate review questions. This exercise often helps in realising how much literature is already available out there and what are the gaps in the literature. It also helps the student increase their knowledge of what research designs have been used previously and the challenges associated with the use of each design. 

For those who are less receptive of feedback and reluctant to adapt, it is important to highlight that the PhD is just a starting point and some aspects of the question/topic can be left to explore later as a post-doc project, or future career.

I believe these strategies used in the initial few months of PhD programme really help PhD researchers to understand the importance of staying focused and develop a focussed question, something that has a long-lasting impact on all phases of PhD journey.