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The Process of Choosing a Project for your PhD

written by: foreverfrench•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 7/27/2010

Are you planning to pursue a PhD? Then you'll need to know how to choose a PhD project or thesis. Learn about the steps you need to take to choose a topic and plan out your study.

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    So you’ve decided to continue your education and pursue a PhD or doctoral degree? Congratulations! However, before you even begin to look at programs, you need to answer a very important question, one which will come up again and again in the interviewing process for doctorate programs, and one which may determine your entry into a program: what do you want to study?

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    Choose a General Topic

    This may seem a surprisingly simple question, but it is the first step in choosing a project or thesis topic for your PhD. It’s vital to explore and understand your interests at this phase, in a general way. Think about what you’ve encountered in your coursework or your personal reading that has particularly grabbed your attention. There’s no need to worry about details at this phase, just flesh out an idea.

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    Narrow the Scope

    The next step in the process is to narrow this interest scope down. You don’t need a specific topic, but rather a subfield within a field at this point. This will be important in the interview process, as most programs are looking for students who have already invested significant effort and time into thinking about why they want to pursue a PhD, which is a research degree.

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    Determine Program Options and Advisor

    Now you need to consider your program options. If you can’t get into a program doing exactly what you want to do, you’ll need to re-evaluate. Pay particular attention to who you’ll be working with on your dissertation or project. There should be a professor within the department you choose who specializes in something related to your chosen study subject, preferably with some level of experience and renown. He or she should have published a significant body of work on the subject, and have developed some level of respect within the field. Bonus points if he or she is accepted as the authority on their topic, which relates to yours! Finally, consider this often overlooked issue by those who have not entered their program yet: can you work closely with this person for three, four, five, even six years? Your advisor can make or break your experience: he or she may be renowned, but not support you at all in your project, or you may have incompatible personalities. Ask other graduate students what it’s like to work with him or her.

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    Important Questions in the Field

    Once you are in your program and are completing coursework, now is the time to begin further narrowing. You need to ask yourself a simple question: what are some questions within your chosen subject matter that need to be answered, or have not been explored yet? Make a short list, and then begin to research if others have already addressed those issues. Also look at databases of work that are coming out soon, as this may force you to rethink your topic to keep it original. Once this is done, and you have a short list, go talk to your advisor! He or she is there to help you through the process, and will be able to give invaluable advice.

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    How This Affects Your Future

    Keep in mind, what you choose for a PhD project or thesis will determine the future course of your research: are you excited by the prospect of continuing to research and study similar subjects for a large part of your academic career? If not, go back and rethink your subfield options, and think very hard about the applicability and relevancy of your subject to similar issues, to allow for branching out later in your career.

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    The Importance of the Title

    Now it’s time for a title, which will refine your scope. Sex sells, even in academia. Would you rather read a paper entitled “The Etymology of the Use of Gender Specific Pronouns in (insert medieval text title here),” or a paper entitled “Gender Bending: Sexual Ambiguity Through Language in (insert medieval text title here).” These papers could be about the same subject, but the slant will be different. As well, in any subject, be it humanities or sciences, your thesis will primarily be judged by its title and abstract. These will be what your fellow students understand about your project, what your professors take away, and what will hook potential employers. If you’re really on the ball, you can also turn your thesis into your first book or major research publication. Which title do you think will sell or be read more?