Preparing your PhD application

Selecting your research topic and choosing a university/supervisor

Selecting your field of study/research

Your PhD should be based upon an area you are already familiar with and have some in-depth knowledge of. Above all, you will spend a minimum of three years (probably more) looking at the same thing, day in, day out, so it has to be a topic you feel passionate about and are genuinely interested in. If you lose your interest and motivation, it will be hard to complete your PhD.

Given the high levels of study and research involved in a PhD, you will be expected to have had some formal training and education in the area. As a rule, universities will look at your undergraduate and master’s education records to determine your baseline academic potential, and also any professional experience that will give you further knowledge of your area. Choosing a topic that lies outside your demonstrable experience (or which is only loosely connected to it) may be interesting or attractive to you, but your potential supervisors will weigh up your expertise and experience against what they feel you will need to do to complete the research. As a PhD is a research degree as opposed to a taught program of study, this point will be examined in any application.

Do your research!

When you have identified a specific issue you wish to look at, it is important to be aware of what has been done so far in your research area, as well as to be able to explain what the current situation means for practice. This formulates your research problem which is your starting point. As well as your own observations, media articles, professional magazines, peer-reviewed literature and textbook sources can all be used to provide evidence or argument that a problem really exists and is ongoing, and that there is a justified need to investigate it. Considering the wide range of free online resources and communication channels available, it is fair to expect that an applicant has made reasonable efforts to conduct some preliminary research before applying, and this will be evident in the submitted research plan.

Your research will uncover many issues you may wish to pursue, but one will emerge above all the others to act as your principal research focus. Before choosing this as the topic of your PhD, you should consider how practical it will be to investigate it, and what you would need in terms of time, money, resources, etc. Some PhDs can be followed almost entirely remotely, working from home and with a minimum need for travel or specialist resources. Other topics may require specialist laboratory equipment, clinical medical or scientific facilities, placements, etc., and will be able to be pursued only at specific locations. Programmes that require unique resources and expertise will see a greater competition for places and have more rigorous application processes. So, your choice of topic may be a compromise between what research really interests you, and what you can reasonably accomplish in your personal circumstances. Not everyone can uproot their life to join a specialist research programme on the other side of the world, so it is not ‘aiming low’ if you select a topic that is manageable and suits your circumstances. Other people may be able to suggest a research topic for you (e.g. as part of an ongoing project), but it is important that you have enough interest in the subject yourself to keep you motivated throughout the PhD journey.

By the time you complete your PhD, you will be an expert in your field, and it is likely this will lay the foundation for your future intended career. You will also pick up many transferable skills along the way, such as a mastery of academic methods and analyses, writing reports, communicating information to varied audiences, and critically analysing situations to determine ways of improvement and development. However, without a clearly reasoned and defined topic, there will be no focus for your PhD, and it is this focal goal that keeps you going.

The thinking process for your topic selection can follow the following steps:

  • 1. What main academic discipline (Wikipedia 2020) do you want to research in (humanities, social science, natural or formal sciences, applied science, etc.)? Do you have a background in this discipline (previous studies and/or work)?
  • 2. What main academic sub-discipline (Wikipedia 2020) do you want to research in (e.g. Arts, History, Economics, Psychology,

Earth Science, Computer Science, Medicine and Health, etc.)? Do you have a background in this sub-discipline (previous studies and/or work)?

At this stage, you should already have something in mind that presents a ‘research problem’; in other words, something that you have noticed or heard of that has not been explored in depth and presents an issue for a certain group or community. Often, the trigger for these ideas comes from personal or work experience and observations. As you explore the issue more deeply, you will refine it to a specific aspect that directs the sub-discipline or the approach you choose to investigate the problem.

3. What branch of the sub-discipline do you want to research (e.g. African history, linguistics, constitutional law, ethics, etc.)? Do you have a demonstrable knowledge of this discipline (previous studies and/or work)?

Depending upon the nature of the issue, you will examine it from a specific angle, i.e. the ethical or legal issues of a situation, the way we communicate or think about an issue, how specific scientific processes work, etc. Your final thesis will probably combine a number of approaches and considerations that you will use to explore and answer your main research question. Even if you have no previous knowledge of an approach or method, you will be expected to educate yourself to a level where you can speak with authority when justifying your arguments and choices. Although your university will have taught programs you can take part in, most of your learning will be independent and draw on a range of learning resources. As you gather expertise, you may even add to or challenge existing knowledge and thinking in many areas.

What your research aims to do

Your research topic will aim to make a meaningful contribution to knowledge in the field. It will take the next step in a particular area, and it will produce findings or perspectives that can be used by others to inform future research and practice. Your planned research must be achievable, so while it may be desirable to solve a broad problem, your contribution will at least provide a piece of a larger puzzle. Especially if your research area is new or little explored, you may uncover issues that take priority over your original topic, and you may feel you need to change your central research topic. This is to some degree to be expected and does not necessarily mean that your original topic was

‘wrong’; rather, you have uncovered issues that need to be addressed before your original research topic can be addressed. Research is a sequential process, and part of your developing expertise will be to direct its course to produce the most effective results. This is part of your transition from being a ‘student’ to becoming an independent scholar.

 
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