“Boil your dissertation ideas down to a very narrow and doable topic.
Your dissertation is the very beginning of your academic career, not the end!”
Coriander on http://www.phinished.org
Choosing a research topic can be an excruciating and daunting task. What if you chose wrong? The following points might be worthwhile to think about when choosing a topic:
- Interest and Passion
Passion might not be the first thing you associate with science — but you should be genuinely interested in the topic. You will spend 3 to 6 years with it — at least in the beginning you should be interested in it. Ideally you chose something where you have prior experience so that you know you can work with the topic.
- Quick & easy results
Your research topic, especially at the beginning of your career, is only a small piece in the vast net of knowledge. It has to be — you are doing your qualification work and you need (relatively) easy problems that yield (publishable) results quickly. See Alon (2009) on the Paereto front — it is eye-opening.
It is worthwhile to consider the impact of your work. In science, impact typically means the amount of citations a journal gets with the understanding that publishing in journals with higher impact is better. You can accept this argument — and if you want to be successful in science, you should. However, there is another form of impact that you should consider: Does your research has a (beneficial) impact on the lives of other people? Are the results relevant? Do they improve the world?
The actual improvement might be (very) small, but if you are investing a couple of years and a lot of effort (not to mention money), it is worthwhile to chose something where you see the relevance (if you do not see it, who will?). There is an interesting overview of what you can do to conduct your research closer to practice.
- Keep it simple
Do not try to change the world with your dissertation thesis (it usually happens vice versa) or try to solve all problems with one study. Keep it neat and clean. Like the quote at the beginning of this posting says it is the beginning of your career. In almost any case you have to cut down your topic to the really interesting question. Mention what you did not research but could be a very interesting topic in the outlook of your work.
- Synergies and Access to Data Sources
If possible see that you have synergies with other projects, but make sure that your work counts as independent research (if it’s a qualification work) and you could still do the work if your cooperation partner leaves. Esp. if your time is limited, nobody is more invested in your work than you are. Other project partners might lose interest, quit, or even die (happens). Not to mention unforeseen events. For example, one dissertation thesis needed the cooperation of the police, unfortunately, an unforeseen multiple-months event occupied the police force. If you do not have a plan B, you have a problem. This also applies to access to data sources in general. If all depends on one person, make sure you have a plan B.
Make sure you read the guidelines regarding the scope of your scientific work. They can differ from university to university. Then look up a couple of similar works your adviser was involved in — it will give you an idea of what you have to deliver.
- Expert Support
Make sure you have access to someone who knows the topic and who does not compete with you. If your adviser is a post-doc who wants to build a research profile with the topic you are working on, it is hard not to come into conflict with this person. Ideally your adviser is an established researcher who does not desperately need to bump up his resume.
- Take your time … but not too long
Finding a research topic can take its time. It took me a year until my first study (given that nobody knew the topic or the technology), I wouldn’t start until you have invested at least 3 months into literature research (see Alon, 2009).
- Try to do your qualification work in a ‘warm’ research topic in the center of your discipline
Research topics can be hot (intensive research at the moment) or cold (few if any papers). Hot topics will have burned out once you have finished your studies and written up the results, cold topics are also difficult to publish in. Choose a topic that is ‘warm’, i.e., that is of enduring interest. Also make sure you do your work in the center of a discipline. As interesting as interdisciplinary work is, as hard is it to publish your works afterwards. You will be ‘sitting between the chairs’. And you need publications quickly here (see Perry, 1998).
- Explore the topic
Research is not a straight line from A to B (see Alon, 2009). If during your research you come to the point where another problem is more interesting and worthwhile, you might want to switch to this problem (discuss it with your adviser). Note that this is not a “rewinding of the clock” to start anew with another topic, but to make use of the interesting results that come up during your research.
- Alon, U. (2009). How To Choose a Good Scientific Problem. Molecular Cell, 35(6), 726-728.
- Perry, C. (1998). A structured approach to presenting theses. Available on line at http://www.aral.com.au/resources/cperry.pdf
- Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2003). The Craft of Research. (Second Edition). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Ullman, J. D. (2009). Advising Students for Success. Communications of the ACM, 52(3), 34-‐37.
- TED Talks: www.ted.com
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