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How To Choose a Good Research Topic


If you're going to devote your time, attention, blood, sweat, and tears to a research project, it makes sense that you'd want to make sure the subject is worth exploring. Some people encounter a topic during their academic careers that piques their curiosity and then delve into that, but a topic isn't necessarily good just because it's interesting. Here are some ideas to consider when deciding on a good subject to explore.

So many options

Rarely does an academic career bring up one solid topic of potential study. A brainstorming session can help you record all of the ideas that might have come up for you over your study, and seeing them all together can help you narrow down (and even combine!) what topics you'd like to explore. Keep your list pretty general, with the knowledge that you will zero in on your focus later. Here are some examples from CollegeRaptor of topics from different fields to give you an idea of what your list could look like:

  • History
    • 20th century
    • 18th century
    • Art history
    • 21st century
  • Religion
    • Christianity and the Catholic Church
    • Monotheistic religions
    • Polytheism
    • Freedom of religion
  • Psychology
    • Body image
    • Gender roles
    • Eating disorders
    • Criminal psychology
    • Child abuse
    • Mental illness
  • Environmental science
    • Environmental issues
    • Climate change and global warming
    • Greenhouse effect
    • Renewable energy
    • Nuclear energy
  • Sociopolitical science
    • Gender inequality
    • Race inequality and race relations
    • Gun control
    • Socioeconomics
    • Affirmative action
    • Welfare reform
  • Education
    • Early childhood education
    • Homeschool learning vs. in-person learning
    • Special education
  • Technology
    • The impact of information technology
    • Future of machine learning
    • Artificial intelligence
    • History of computer science
    • Data science
  • Health
    • Alternative medicine
    • Pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs
    • Health systems
    • Public health
    • Mental health

Having a general list can help you visualize the scope of the work you want to do and identify what stands out for you. And even if you don't get inspired by what you've listed, you could benefit just from organizing your thoughts on paper and reduce some of the mental chatter surrounding this very important part of your career.

Get specific

Upon choosing a topic, you have a tidy subject within which to choose your more exact topic. At this stage, you could perform another brainstorming session if you are juggling with several possibilities, but if you choose your general topic knowing exactly what you want to do, you could skip that step and start examining whether your subject checks all the right boxes.

Look into the future

Extending beyond your own desire to get answers to a question, identify what you want your completed work to accomplish. If you are hoping to bring new data to a community and evoke change regarding a problem, envision whether your subject is going to produce those results. If you are creating a project to give students experience and hands-on research opportunities, maybe the depth and breadth of your subject could use greater focus. Whatever your end goal, take a look at the beginning point and ensure that this path will take you where you want to go.

Feasibility is your friend

Many subjects seem straightforward in theory, but in practice they offer several elements to complicate the research path. The size of your staff, the amount of time you can devote, the advancement of the technology you have available, and the funding you can spend all influence whether your idea is going to work or if you'll come up short before you've reached a definitive conclusion. Give all of your resources a realistic look to figure out if you can truly make this project work.

Who's interested?

Of course, you'll need to have a healthy amount of passion for the problem you're tackling, but you can't be the only one. How will the conclusions you reach affect the world? Even if you feel your work has extensive application to improve the lives of the people around you, the subject needs to grab the interest of policymakers, community members, and other scientists who can run with it and put those solutions into play.

Uri Alon presented the following figure to illustrate how feasibility and interest can help you determine if your scientific focus is a good one to approach:

Feasibility-Interest Diagram
Some of the ideas you'll propose will become points on this graph that end up being thrown out — and that's okay!

The point of examining these elements is to tell you how fitting your topic is to what the world (and your lab) needs and how likely you will be to reach success before you spend a lot of resources on it.

Sleep on it for months

When there's a lot of interest in a subject and your research team is getting excited about a prospect, it can be tempting to dive in quickly. However, your team might benefit from setting a rule for the amount of time you need to think about a subject. This practice helps eliminate the chance that you'll make an impulsive decision and live with lots of regret later. Uri Alon relates the application of this rule as follows:

A common mistake made in choosing problems is taking the first problem that comes to mind. Since a typical project takes years even it if seems doable in months, rapid choice leads to much frustration and bitterness in our profession. It takes time to find a good problem, and every week spent in choosing one can save months or years later on. In my lab, we have a rule for new students and postdocs: Do not commit to a problem before three months have elapsed. In these three months, the new student or postdoc reads, discusses, and plans. The state of mind is focused on being rather than doing. The temptation to start working arises, but a rule is a rule. After three months (or more), a celebration marks the beginning of the research phase — with a well-planned project.

Uri Alon

Go where the process takes you

The fresh motivation you feel at the beginning of your work can only last a while before you encounter obstacles that can be discouraging. The famous quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., relates to this process:

The line of progress is never straight. For a period, a movement may follow a straight line, and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends. It is like curving around a mountain when you are approaching a city. Often if feels as though you were moving backwards, and you lose sight of your goal, but in fact you are moving ahead, and soon you will see the city again, closer by.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

To us humans with limited perspective, a veering path can feel a bit like failure. And sometimes the end result you had planned becomes impossible to reach. In this scenario, you have the opportunity to reevaluate what a successful conclusion will be for your research.

Uri Alon offers a graphic depiction of the research path versus what you might actually experience with the right application and expectations.

The Objective and Nurturing Schemas of Research
Alon presented the path as going through not only twists and turns but also the cloud — a period of time in which basic assumptions break down.

He encourages the implementation of a nurturing model vs. an objective model, the former of which creates an environment in which people and ideas can grow and develop. While some might find it difficult to relax pre-set rules and expectations in order to implement a nurturing setting, the results provide much more rich rewards than one in which control squelches natural growth.

An unexpected result is truly what research is meant to find. If every study went exactly as planned, advancements would be slow, and what then would be the point of conducting research at all? To this end, ensure that your project and the issues you set out to address will help you create an environment that encourages this growth and sets the stage to welcome surprises.

An effort toward research and exploration takes a great deal of courage. Many people face the task of releasing a measure of control, but the resulting findings can come as a gift to those who view them as such. As you approach the task of setting your research topic, keep in mind these perspectives, and open yourself up to what you might not have expected to find. A fear of losing control can feel like a limitation, since no one wants an idea to run wildly off the rails, but taking your time to apply a process of discovery throughout the research process can help you create a true work of self-expression.

Header image by Synthex🇺🇦.

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