How to Develop Your Research Ideas for PhD
by Dr. Sriyash Mangal, PhD
How to develop your research ideas for PhD: The progression from Masters’s to PhD can not only change the work style but the nature of your research too. The PhD requires more detailed analysis, contextualization, and a high level of originality. You may think that your Master’s thesis fulfills these requirements, but the PhD is another step up again. Often the project that you do during the Master’s degree is merely a rivet that is required to support the bigger PhD or postdoctoral research.
While you have little to no say in choosing the topic for your Master’s thesis, you are in charge when it comes to research ideas for PhD. Not only it is addressed to potential supervisors and funding agencies, it will also act as a guideline for your overall doctoral research by outlining what you want to do and when. Therefore, choosing a research topic that you really like and are passionate about is important for your academic success.
Choosing the right research idea for PhD is quite often a daunting task for the PhD applicants. While thinking about a research topic, it is necessary to strike the right balance between curiosity and the significance of potential outcomes of your research. But, how to come up with a topic for doctoral research? This question gives hard time to all PhD aspirants. In this article, I will discuss some strategies that will help you to finalize a research topic for PhD studies. The content of this article is based on my own experiences as well as on the experiences of the students I have mentored so far.
Follow on your Master’s research
Many students choose to follow on their Masters’s research and this approach has been very successful for most of my students. While thinking about a topic, consider what you have already done in bachelor’s or master’s research. Think about whether your Master’s thesis has scope for expansion? If you imagine your Master to be a chapter of a larger topic, then what might that be? Asking these questions to yourself will definitely help you to identify a research area/ topic for PhD.
As the PhD project has a much broader scope than masters, it is unlikely that you will be able to continue with the exact same research, unless of course, you are continuing your PhD under the same supervisor. Instead, you will have to develop your ideas and interests into a slightly different topic. Note that your master’s supervisor won’t allow you to work on the exact same topic in a different research group as this would create unnecessary competition for him/her. Therefore, you will have to broaden your ideas. To do this, you should analyze the main themes from your previous research and consider a direction you did not fully explore. It is not necessary to continue in the same niche, so feel comfortable to explore other related areas.
Find gaps in current knowledge by literature survey to identify research ideas for PhD
Another option, which also works for a lot of students, is to find an underdeveloped area by doing a thorough literature survey. This requires rigorous reading of review articles and primary research papers followed by a proper analysis to identify a gap in the current knowledge of a specific field. This method works quite well when you combine it with the previous approach of “following on your master’s research”. By combining these two approaches, you can come up with specific research questions in a topic that you have previously worked on. Moreover, since you already have basic understanding of that field, it won’t take you much time to do the literature survey.
In case, you want to do something completely different, then too this method works wonderfully. Going through the published literature will update you with the latest findings and widely accepted hypothesis in your area of interest and you will be able to see where the field is developing. This meticulous literature survey will help you identify the research gaps and, then you can come up with specific questions you would like to address in your PhD research and devise strategies to tackle these questions.
Choosing the right research question helps PhD students to stay focused and motivated throughout their doctoral research. In “Graduate Research: A Guide for Students in the Sciences” (ISI Press, 1984) Robert Smith discussed 11 questions that every student should ask before finalising the topic for doctoral or postdoctoral research:
- Can you enthusiastically pursue it?
- Can you sustain your interest while pursuing it?
- Is the problem solvable?
- Is it worth pursuing?
- Will it lead to other research problems?
- Is it manageable in size?
- What is the potential for making an original contribution to the literature in the field?
- Will the scholars in your field receive the results well if you solve the problem?
- Are you (or will you become) competent to solve it?
- By solving it, will you have demonstrated independent skills in your discipline?
- Will the necessary research prepare you in an area of demand or promise for the future?
Keeping these questions in mind while developing a research question can set the stage for a productive and fulfilling career.
Dr. Sriyash Mangal
Ph.D. Cell biology from LMU Munich, Germany
MSc Biomedical Sciences, University College London, UK
Dr. Sriyash Mangal has been mentoring Ph.D. aspirants to secure fully-funded Ph.D. positions abroad for more than 5 years. He has lived in the UK and Europe for over 7 years and completed his higher studies with 100% scholarship. He is an expert in applying to highly competitive Ph.D. programs and scholarships/ fellowships.
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