Picking a Research Subject as a New Postgrad

Some people enrol for their research degree knowing exactly what they want to study. They choose a subject area, craft a tight and refined thesis topic, and they complete their thesis on that topic in a timely manner.

I mean – I assume these people exist. I’ve just never met them.

Pictured: all the people I have ever known who decided on their final topic before they started writing

If you’ve always been certain of your research area, then I salute you. But for most of us, there’s a bit of indecision (and possibly one or more changes) before we settle in for the long haul.

It’s not surprising that choosing a topic can take some time. As undergrads, we could just pick from a list of majors; but as postgrad students, we must decide on our own specific subject area and then craft a topic within that subject area.

In my case, my field was English literature (a continuation of my undergrad major). But when I started to do research, I had to winnow down. What aspect of English literature would I focus on?

Confession: I did not follow any kind of rational process to make a decision. I put off choosing a research area until the last possible second, and then picked science-literature criticism only because I’d seen a particularly appealing selection of popular science books at Borders.

Too many of my career choices have been influenced by bookshops.

I’m lucky that it turned out to be a subject I found interest in long-term, and I’ve been able to craft specific topics within that subject area every time I’ve started a new project. But boy oh boy, I could have compromised my whole career with that flippancy.

If I were starting over, there are a few questions I would ask myself before picking a research area. (Refining a topic is another story again, and we’ll post on Thesislink about that later this week.)

What is my background?

If you have a background in botany, writing a thesis in ethnomusicology might be challenging. Not impossible, mind you – it is possible to switch fields – but your background will affect the duration and difficulty of the thesis-writing process. Think about this not only in relation to your research area, but the specific skills required for each aspect of your research. Do you have the knowledge and technical skills and to employ the research methods used in your chosen field? If your subject is interdisciplinary, do you have a strong background in each of the relevant disciplines? If not, be prepared to seek advice and do a little extra work.

Who do I want to work with?

There is not an endless supply of thesis supervisors out there. You will need supervisors to advise on your subject and methods, and their availability is often limited. If you are yet to find your supervisors, do some research on the academics who could supervise the subject/s you’re interested in. Where are they located? What is their reputation? Are they available, and will they offer the support you need? Will a reference from them open the right doors for you?

What will I still care about in one / three / thirty years?

Writing a thesis is a loooong process. Your ability to persevere during the grunt work phases will be determined largely by your personal investment in the subject area. If you pick something that you find only somewhat interesting, you may struggle. If you pick something you genuinely care about, you may find it easier to keep going during long months of research. Plus, if your research field is to become your career field, you may spend decades with the content. It helps to be passionate about it.

What can I comfortably intellectualise?

A caveat to the point above – you will get sick of your research subject at some point. If you pick something you love, there is a risk that the long research and writing process will dampen your affection for it. This is why I didn’t write my thesis on 30 Rock and/or chocolate self-saucing pudding.

What do I want to do after I graduate?

Are you writing a thesis with particular career goals in mind? Your subject can shape your future career opportunities. Academic jobs (especially secure ones) can be very hard to come by these days, so think strategically. If you know exactly what you want to do after finishing your degree, then a targeted niche subject area might be appropriate. If not, you might want to pick a more marketable subject. Interdisciplinary research can open up opportunities in multiple directions. Your methodology can also build skills that are relevant to multiple career paths.

What do I want to learn?

Though it’s important to think strategically about a potential research area, education is ultimately about learning. Where does your curiosity – that most human of traits – lead you?


Check back later in the week for some ideas on how to turn a general research subject into a well-defined thesis topic.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

One thought on “Picking a Research Subject as a New Postgrad

  1. I think one thing to consider carefully is “Will I be happy doing the actual research activity ?” it may not be such a big decision in some subjects, but in computing you may be writing code, analysing data , proving algorithms, talking to people, analysing workflow,running tests on software or with people and much more. If you hate doing any of the research activities then think about how you can chose a topic area that is addressed by what you can do – often you have a lot of choice – e.g. data sciences doesn’t have to be based on algorithms, it could be looking at the usability of analytical tools etc. Don’t chose an activity that will make you miserable. I would also say, slightly differing from the author, you don’t HAVE to stay in the same area or use the same methods in the future.

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