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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student Tip: Choosing Research Topics

In this post I throw in some points to ponder for students trying to find research and thesis topics.

As a student, finding research topics can be difficult. First, as as new research student you are not sure of which topics interest you more than others. Second, you have to work with an advisor or mentor (e.g. professor, postdoc or senior PhD student) and sometimes they may be vague about what they want you to do. Third, there are many choices. How to choose?

Needless to say, choosing a research topic is a big professional decision. It will define the scope of your publications, your thesis or dissertation, and later come up umpteen times when you interview for jobs. Remember, if your research career takes off, you may be working in and around the chosen research topic for years to come. So the first and foremost rule is to choose topics that really interest you.

To some extent, the broad scope of research work you start with is bounded by the interest of your research advisor and the research grant that funds your stipend (in case you are hired as a research assistant). Research grant proposals contain the planned direction of research and this information can help you narrow down topics. Your research advisor's recent publications are a good indication of topics which interest her. There are research advisors who give their students a lot of latitude in what they can do but tread carefully - in the end every advisor has a certain vision of what comprises successful research. For example, she may equate success with a publication being accepted to a certain conference. Ask your research advisor about what makes for a successful research topic in her opinion. Then select research topics that have a realistic chance of achieving this goal.

In case you do not have a research advisor and are not funded via a grant, shortlist those faculty and staff members with whom you want to work. Then look at their recent publications and speak with them about possible research topics. Senior researchers usually have a number of research topics in the back of their minds. A motivated student (especially one who has read some of their research papers) is very hard to resist for them!

What do you think? Post your comments below.

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