The PhD chooses the academic, remember?

On picking the right PhD subject

So you have decided that for the next 3-4 years of your life you want to toil over research. To pour blood sweat and tears into a huge piece of work that will be yours and that will serve as (for most of you) your initiation into the world of academia. The first thing you should know is that you have to be prepared to work hard. The second is that if this thought fills you with dread, make sure you are making the right choice to pursue an academic career! To quote Dr. Emily Cross (BangorUniversity), “If research is your passion, this [working 50-60 hour weeks] is actually easy to do. If it isn’t your passion, then you are probably in the wrong field. You should be going to work because you want to, not because you have to.”

Now that I have hammered that point home a little more, time to address a very important question that we have been requested to cover; how do you pick your area and subject for your PhD?? For a few of us, this decision might be a little easier. If you have applied to work on a specific research question, or you have already been working in a lab as an undergraduate, postgraduate student, or research assistant, you might already have the field narrowed down. In general though, even if this is not the case, you want to be able to say with certainty that there is at least one area that you know you could spend the next 4 years of your life exploring.

If however you find the possibilities are endless, and that you have no idea where to start, here are a couple of tips.

1. The first rule of Academia is: You do not talk about Academia.

Err.. I mean, read read read!

No ideas (or no good ones anyway) will come to you if you have no theoretical background to place them in. In order to be able to come up with interesting questions, you need to be aware of interesting things. Hopefully by this stage in your career you will be familiar with reading papers, and if not, make sure you start getting familiar with doing so. Read as much as you can and as broad as you can! Get to know your general area(s) of interest right from the first key papers in the field, all the way down to the newest studies that are currently making waves. Once you start accumulating this knowledge you will naturally find yourself asking questions. These are the questions you want to then continue to explore until you find yourself with a question that hasn’t already been covered. And as soon as you think that you’ve got there, go out and read some more! Change fields, browse biology, marketing and linguistic journals – make sure you have come up with something truly novel, a question just burning for an answer.


2. When life gives you lemons, come up with a badass research question!

Now that you have your golden apple, the hard work really starts. You want to look at this baby from every angle possible, scrutinizing every nook and cranny, poking holes in it and questioning everything about it, until you make sure your Helen is truly safe inside Troy’s walls. Ask yourself why is this an important question? What does it offer that hasn’t already been given? This is not the same as ‘Has this question been asked before’, your question really needs to provide the opportunity of revealing some truly valuable information. And the only way to do this is to make sure you have thoroughly addressed every part of it to make sure that the end goal is a finding that contributes to science but also has implications for real world applications.

3. Bring it all out, and then rein it back in again.

So your foundations are laid, you have your big world changing question, and you’re ready to build your own lab, employ 5 grad students and spend the rest of your life funneling millions into your wonder-project of joy! (Or, you think you have a question that you might just be interested in enough to consider studying for the next 4 years, and that someone might just consider employing you to study). Now comes the real hard work. You need to make sure that your question is actually answerable within the time frame that you have to answer it. No matter how ground breaking your research might be, if your supervisor/program/university doesn’t allow you the funds and time to carry it out, you won’t be the desirable candidate. Your population needs to be reasonable and your methods obtainable; don’t propose an fMRI study if you cannot get access to an MRI machine, and don’t propose a developmental study with 7 month old babies if your university does not have a resource for infant recruitment. Be practical and sensible, make sure you have small manageable projects, suitable for producing a good few studies (at least 3) throughout your PhD, that all tie together to address one big issue.

Next consider the topic of supervision. Here are a just a few things to consider when picking a supervisor that is right for you:

How much freedom will I have to come up with independent studies?

How much guidance will I get given with design, data collection, analysis and write up?

What methods is my supervisor able to use and what will I have to teach myself?

And most importantly, is my supervisor a researcher in my field of interest, and someone who can promote me as a new academic in this field? It is very important to choose supervisors wisely, and whether picking someone to work with is the first or the last thing you do, it should definitely influence and shape your PhD question when that decision is made, based on their interests and input.

Finally, be aware that the chances of you choosing a topic now that you will remain interested in for the rest of your life are pretty slim. But don’t fret! Research isn’t rigid and your idea will almost definitely change from what you originally have planned. Other questions will come up; other areas might become relevant, and your supervisors, research committee, peers or grandma might each offer up some insight that could help keep your interest going for the entire time it takes to finish. Also, know that all PhD students get bored and frustrated with their subjects at some point; it is natural and is bound to happen when you spend most of your time doing one thing.

So, I invite you to join me in some serious studying to find the topic that is juuuust right!


Dr. Neo

More on picking the right poison:

Discusses practicalities of coming up with an original question

Good advice both for choosing and progressing your PhD project

Written for a non-psychology degree but still generalisable

Tips on choosing the right supervisor

*We would like to say a special thank you to Dr. Emily Cross from Bangor University for allowing us to source material from her Introduction to a PhD presentation “Getting the Most Out of Your PhD: Expectation, Organisation & Strategy”. Her presentation has served as an excellent source of first hand information on the PhD process, what supervisors expect from you, and how to make the most of it all, and we’ll be featuring a lot more of it throughout the blog.


1 Comment

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One response to “The PhD chooses the academic, remember?

  1. Thanks for this! I now know that what I really need to do is lots and lots of reading! (I probably already knew this but was in denial). Thanks again!

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