Magoosh GRE

Deciding on your PhD topic

| May 29, 2013

A PhD proposal is one of the most important aspects in a PhD application. This will be a key determining factor in the success or failure of a PhD application. It gives some proof on the applicant’s research and writing capabilities. Moreover, it can provide insights on the applicant’s aptitude, creativity, and critical thinking.Deciding on a PhD topic is not an easy task. First and foremost, you should look for a project which interests you. It is important to identify a suitable project that you are passionate enough to work on for the next few years. Before applying for a programme, you must be focused on a specific research area. Your research proposal must be an original contribution to a specific field of research. Remember that since a PhD’s duration is three or more years, the identified problem or area of research should be complex enough to be studied throughout this time.[1]

Conducting preliminary research will help you make a decision or at the very least, point you in the right direction.

  • Check the current and past research projects (i.e. last 5 or 10 years) conducted in the department where you will apply for PhD.
  • Perform a preliminary literature review to find out what studies have been conducted related to your PhD field. Refer to dissertations, academic journals, published books, articles, conference presentations, etc.
  • Research the trends and developments in the field which you chose to specialize in.
  • In conducting the research, pay special attention to the recommendations for future studies and gaps in previously completed research.
  • Read as much as you can! Make notes about how each article does or doesn’t fit in with your ideas, how you might use it later, or any other thoughts that you might have.[2]
  • After completing the preliminary research, make a list of topics that you find interesting. Take note of the available data sources for these topics.
  • To narrow down the list, pick topics that will add to the body knowledge. Avoid PhD topics that have been exhaustively researched.
  • Consider a topic that you personally find interesting and enjoyable. Remember that a PhD research will take years to complete so ensure that you will remain interested and motivated by your topic.
  • Think strategically. Your dissertation topic will potentially determine whether you get a job, where you will work after finishing your doctorate, or how your career will advance. Make sure that there is a need for your specific area of specialisation.[3]
  • When deciding your research topic, it is advisable to be in communication with your potential supervisor, who may help with your research proposal by giving valuable advice.
  • Ask other people’s opinions or feedback regarding your research topic.

Foss & Waters (2007) also shares some advice on how to pick a thesis topic. Below are some questions to ask which can help you to decide on your thesis topic:[4]

  • What are your major interests in your discipline?
  • What personal experiences have you had that were particularly significant or meaningful for you that are relevant to your discipline?
  • What coursework did you take that you found the most exciting?
  • What theories and concepts are most interesting to you?
  • Are there some ideas that you have studied that you are curious about and want to explore more?
  • What theories and concepts are most interesting to you?
  • Are there some ideas that you have studied that you are curious about and want to explore more?
  • What bodies of literature have you encountered that intrigue you?
  • Are there some theories you want to avoid?
  • What kind of data do you enjoy working with?
  • Do you have ideas for specific data, texts or artefacts you would like to study?
  • What kinds of methods do you like to use when you research?
  • What are your career goals when you finish your degree?

For help with Phd Proposal Topics, check out our Free Dissertation Topic articles with over 3,000 topics for you to choose from across a variety of subjects.


[1] Espire Education. (2011). Guidelines for PhD Research Proposal. Last accessed 28th Mar 2013.

[2] Academic Ladder. (2013). How to choose a dissertation topic. Available: http://www.academicladder.com/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=183. Last accessed 28th Mar 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Foss, S & Waters, W. (2007). Destination Dissertation: A Traveller’s Guide to a Done Dissertation. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p.1-380

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Category: Phd Writing