The courage to start a PhD program starts with choosing a topic not just in a discipline but in an area of the discipline you studied at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This article is vital because your PhD would run for three to four years fulltime depending on your institution or more if you are considering a part-time PhD. I have often encountered PhD candidates who abandon their projects because of a lack of interest in their research work. It is therefore very important to choose a topic that you would be passionate about to keep you glued to your research for the duration of your PhD. You should be able to complete your chosen topic within the given timeframe. This article discusses what a research topic is and outlines some steps to enable you to choose a research topic for your PhD.
What is a Research Topic?
A research topic is a subject or issues a researcher is interested in and wants to conduct a study on. A well-defined research topic is the starting point of every successful PhD. Sometimes, your supervisor may assign you a topic, but most often your supervisors require you to select your own topic of interest.
Choosing a Research Topic
When deciding on a topic, there are a few things that you will need to do:
- Brainstorm for Ideas
To brainstorm simply means to think and come up with an idea. However, brainstorming is done individually or in a group whereby participants generate ideas spontaneously by contributing to its members’ topics. When you are brainstorming, create space for more ideas; use your imagination; don’t throw any away immediately. Write them down as they come to mind; note keywords or concepts that may be of interest to you; these terms could help you form a more focused research topic. An easy way out is to get ideas from your previously published articles (if any) or master’s thesis that you may be still interested in pursuing. You can then go ahead and narrow down the topics to two or three.
- Read General Background Information
You can now read general published articles on the top two or three topics you are considering. Reading a broad summary enables you to get an overview of the topic and see how your idea relates to broader, narrower, and related issues. It also provides a great source for finding words commonly used to describe the topic. These keywords may be very useful to your research later. You can use Google Scholar or Researchgate to find the latest research articles on the topics you have selected (I mentioned these online platforms because you do not need to pay to access the articles available. Some of the articles have restricted views limited to the abstracts while some provide the full article for download). Reading through just the abstract (summary) of the papers you gather can give you ideas on current research on your selected topics. Recommendations for future research on the articles could be possible avenues you may decide to focus on.
- Focus on your Topic (Narrow it)
A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad or narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic is to limit your topic by (a) geographical area (b) culture (c) time frame (d) discipline (e) population group. For example, when considering a topic on Environmental Issues, you could narrow it by:
Geographical Area – What environmental issues are most important in Ghana?
Culture – How does the environment fit into the Ghanaian worldview?
Time frame – What are the most important environmental issues of the last five years?
Discipline – How does environmental awareness affect business practices today?
Population – What are the effects of air pollution on children?
- Make a List of Keywords
Keep track of the words that are used to describe your topic. Look for words that best describe your topic. Look for the words when reading published articles and background information. Find broader and narrower terms, synonyms, key concepts for keywords to widen your search capabilities. Make notes of these words and use them later when searching for databases and catalogs.
- Be Flexible
It is common to modify your topic during the research process. This is a normal part of the research process. When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that an aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable.
- Define your Topic as a Focused Research Question
You will often begin with a word, develop a more focused interest in an aspect of something relating to the word, then begin to have questions about the topic. For example,
Idea – Mother tongue biblical interpretation.
Research Question – How have the mother tongue bibles been interpreted by scholars in Ghana?
Focused Research Question – What principles do scholars in Ghana use in interpreting texts of the mother-tongue translations of the Bible?
- Research and Read More about the Topic
Use the keywords you have gathered to scholarly work from online research platforms such as Google Scholar and Researchgate as mentioned earlier. Look for enough information to answer your research questions. Remember, selecting a topic is an important and complex part of the research process.
- Formulate a Thesis Statement
A thesis statement is one sentence that expresses the main idea of a research paper. It makes a claim, directly answering a question. Your thesis statement will usually be one or two sentences that state precisely what is to be answered, proven, or what will inform your audience about your topic. The development of a thesis assumes that there is enough evidence to support the thesis statement.
For example, a thesis statement could be:
Mother tongue biblical hermeneutics is being done by scholars in Ghana. The principles the scholars have used to contribute to Biblical Interpretation.
The title from the above thesis statement could be:
Mother Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics in Ghana: Principles and Practice.
In this article, I have discussed eight steps to help you choose a topic for your PhD research. In the coming weeks I would discuss how to write your introductory chapter. In the meantime, if you are hoping to start a PhD soon you may want to try the following:
- Select a research topic using the eight steps outline above.
- With the aid of Google Scholar and Researchgate search for literature relating to your research topic.
Xun Liu, Research Topic, Definition of. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods, ed., Mike Allen. (New York: SAGE, 2017).www. umflint.edu/library/how-select-research-topic
This article is published with the kind courtesy of the author – Prof. Jonathan Edward Tetteh Kuwornu-Adjaottor. He is an Associate Professor of New Testament and Mother Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics in the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.