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How to choose a PhD topic

How to decide on a PhD topic

Study tips Published 5 Apr, 2022  ·  4-minute read

Whether you’re diving right into your doctorate after a master’s degree or honours year, or you’re returning to study after a few years out in the field, working out how to choose a research topic for your PhD is an essential first step. We got some tips from two of our current PhD candidates, Sarah Kendall and Chelsea Janke.

Some Doctor of Philosophy candidates are lucky. They start a PhD having already discovered their niche interest area, which means they never need to wonder how to choose a PhD topic.

Does this mean there’s something wrong with you if you don’t already have your thesis locked in?

Not at all.

Many students start their PhD journey with just a pure passion for research – a love for testing theories and making new discoveries – and figure out their specific research topic while working on their proposal . If you’re in this camp, or if you haven’t refined your thesis just yet, these tips can help you get there.

Sarah Kendall quote

Your PhD will take 3-4 years, so it's important that you choose something you're genuinely interested in.

How to choose a PhD topic

Sarah is the first to admit that choosing a PhD thesis topic is daunting. Her thesis examines lawyers’ approaches to prosecuting and defending domestic and family violence cases, but this topic didn’t come to her overnight.

“This can be really hard,” says Sarah.

“It took me years to decide on a PhD topic, and even then, it continued to change after starting my PhD.”

Chelsea, whose research explores ways to keep soil healthy while reducing environmental impact, agrees that your initial thesis may not necessarily stay the same throughout your PhD.

“Keep in mind that, as you progress through your PhD, your topic may change as you make new findings and discover some interesting things,” she says.

“This is fairly normal and is often why PhD topics aren’t always set in stone at the start.”

Remember this if you find yourself getting frustrated with how long it’s taking to pin down your research topic. You’ll be spending significant time ( at least 3 years ) researching this topic, so it’s reasonable to take a while on this decision. Make sure you land on a topic that truly inspires you, as you’ll need that inspiration to keep you motivated for the long haul.

With that said, though, there’s nothing wrong with picking a topic you’re 99% sure of and getting started sooner. As Sarah and Chelsea both say, adapting your thesis along the way is often part of the PhD journey.

Read, read, read

Chelsea Janke quote

Identify the things that really spark your interest and where you can find research gaps – that is, where there are still things we don't know.

Chelsea believes choosing your research topic begins with, well, research .

“Read widely on the general field that you’re interested in,” she says.

“Identify the things that really spark your interest and where you can find research gaps – that is, where there are still things we don’t know.”

Sarah agrees and acknowledges that sometimes this prior research can even translate into a separate project or even a degree.

“Do some research into the areas that interest you – this could take the form of an honours or other research project, or even a mock project that you do in your spare time,” she says.

“This will help you to decide your level of interest in the topic.”

“Remember, your PhD will take 3-4 years, so it’s important that you choose something you’re genuinely interested in.”

Consider your subjects and speak with academics

Sarah recommends thinking about the courses from your current or previous program, as these can shine a light on what aspects of your field ignite your curiosity.

“Consider the subjects that you really enjoyed in your previous studies or those topics that you find really enjoyable to just learn about in your spare time,” she says.

“Narrow this down to a few areas, even if these are still pretty broad, then talk to as many academics as possible who do research in those areas. This is a really great way of finding out more about what’s topical in the area and what a potential project could look like.”

If you already know who you’d like to be your PhD supervisor, they are the obvious person to speak with first about refining your research topic. If not, learn how to find the right supervisor .

Check for openings on existing projects

Sometimes the best way to choose a PhD topic is to let the PhD topic choose you instead. Many academics keep open spots in their research projects for potential candidates to fill, providing opportunities for students to pursue their own thesis while assisting in a larger research team. We call these earmarked PhD projects .

In fact, this is what ended up helping Sarah select her thesis topic.

“Keep an eye out for projects that are being advertised by academics,” says Sarah.

“You might find one that fits with your area of interest, saving you much of the trouble of having to decide on your specific topic – this is how I came to be doing the project I’m currently doing!”

View available earmarked PhD projects at UQ

Ready to start researching your chosen topic? Discover the next steps for your PhD application.

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  • How to Choose a PhD Research Topic
  • Finding a PhD


Whilst there are plenty of resources available to help prospective PhD students find doctoral programmes, deciding on a research topic is a process students often find more difficult.

Some advertised PhD programmes have predefined titles, so the exact topic is decided already. Generally, these programmes exist mainly in STEM, though other fields also have them. Funded projects are more likely to have defined titles, and structured aims and objectives.

Self funded projects, and those in fields such as arts and humanities, are less likely to have defined titles. The flexibility of topic selection means more scope exists for applicants to propose research ideas and suit the topic of research to their interests.

A middle ground also exists where Universities advertise funded PhD programmes in subjects without a defined scope, for example: “PhD Studentship in Biomechanics”. The applicant can then liaise with the project supervisor to choose a particular title such as “A study of fatigue and impact resistance of biodegradable knee implants”.

If a predefined programme is not right for you, then you need to propose your own research topic. There are several factors to consider when choosing a good research topic, which will be outlined in this article.

How to Choose a Research Topic

Our first piece of advice is to PhD candidates is to stop thinking about ‘finding’ a research topic, as it is unlikely that you will. Instead, think about developing a research topic (from research and conversations with advisors).

Consider several ideas and critically appraise them:

  • You must be able to explain to others why your chosen topic is worth studying.
  • You must be genuinely interested in the subject area.
  • You must be competent and equipped to answer the research question.
  • You must set achievable and measurable aims and objectives.
  • You need to be able to achieve your objectives within a given timeframe.
  • Your research question must be original and contribute to the field of study.

We have outlined the key considerations you should use when developing possible topics. We explore these below:

Focus on your interests and career aspirations

It is important to choose a topic of research that you are genuinely interested in. The decision you make will shape the rest of your career. Remember, a full-time programme lasts 3-4 years, and there will be unforeseen challenges during this time. If you are not passionate about the study, you will struggle to find motivation during these difficult periods.

You should also look to your academic and professional background. If there are any modules you undertook as part of your Undergraduate/Master degree that you particularly enjoyed or excelled in? These could form part of your PhD research topic. Similarly, if you have professional work experience, this could lead to you asking questions which can only be answered through research.

When deciding on a PhD research topic you should always consider your long-term career aspirations. For example, as a physicist, if you wish to become an astrophysicist, a research project studying black holes would be more relevant to you than a research project studying nuclear fission.

Read dissertations and published journals

Reading dissertations and published journals is a great way to identify potential PhD topics. When reviewing existing research ask yourself:

  • What has been done and what do existing results show?
  • What did previous projects involve (e.g. lab-work or fieldwork)?
  • How often are papers published in the field?
  • Are your research ideas original?
  • Is there value in your research question?
  • Could I expand on or put my own spin on this research?

Reading dissertations will also give you an insight into the practical aspects of doctoral study, such as what methodology the author used, how much data analysis was required and how was information presented.

You can also think of this process as a miniature literature review . You are searching for gaps in knowledge and developing a PhD project to address them. Focus on recent publications (e.g. in the last five years). In particular, the literature review of recent publications will give an excellent summary of the state of existing knowledge, and what research questions remain unanswered.

If you have the opportunity to attend an academic conference, go for it! This is often an excellent way to find out current theories in the industry and the research direction. This knowledge could reveal a possible research idea or topic for further study.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

Discuss research topic ideas with a PhD supervisor

Discuss your research topic ideas with a supervisor. This could be your current undergraduate/masters supervisor, or potential supervisors of advertised PhD programmes at different institutions. Come to these meetings prepared with initial PhD topic ideas, and your findings from reading published journals. PhD supervisors will be more receptive to your ideas if you can demonstrate you have thought about them and are committed to your research.

You should discuss your research interests, what you have found through reading publications, and what you are proposing to research. Supervisors who have expertise in your chosen field will have insight into the gaps in knowledge that exist, what is being done to address them, and if there is any overlap between your proposed research ideas and ongoing research projects.

Talking to an expert in the field can shape your research topic to something more tangible, which has clear aims and objectives. It can also find potential shortfalls of your PhD ideas.

It is important to remember, however, that although it is good to develop your research topic based on feedback, you should not let the supervisor decide a topic for you. An interesting topic for a supervisor may not be interesting to you, and a supervisor is more likely to advise on a topic title which lends itself to a career in academia.

Another tip is to talk to a PhD student or researcher who is involved in a similar research project. Alternatively, you can usually find a relevant research group within your University to talk to. They can explain in more detail their experiences and suggest what your PhD programme could involve with respect to daily routines and challenges.

Look at advertised PhD Programmes

Use our Search tool , or look on University PhD listing pages to identify advertised PhD programmes for ideas.

  • What kind of PhD research topics are available?
  • Are these similar to your ideas?
  • Are you interested in any of these topics?
  • What do these programmes entail?

The popularity of similar PhD programmes to your proposed topic is a good indicator that universities see value in the research area. The final bullet point is perhaps the most valuable takeaway from looking at advertised listings. Review what similar programmes involve, and whether this is something you would like to do. If so, a similar research topic would allow you to do this.

Writing a Research Proposal

As part of the PhD application process , you may be asked to summarise your proposed research topic in a research proposal. This is a document which summarises your intended research and will include the title of your proposed project, an Abstract, Background and Rationale, Research Aims and Objectives, Research Methodology, Timetable, and a Bibliography. If you are required to submit this document then read our guidance on how to write a research proposal for your PhD application.

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According to a number of studies, it takes, on average, anywhere between six and eight years to complete a PhD programme . That is a daunting prospect, but it needn’t take that long if you focus at an early stage on identifying your topic. This is of course not the only factor. Several other factors – such as where you choose to take the programme , whether you can secure funding, who your supervisor will be , etc. – will also be highly influential in determining how much time it takes for you to complete your PhD and how effectively you complete it. That said, choosing the right PhD topic is perhaps the most critical factor determining the success of your PhD.

Importance of choosing the right PhD topic

More than any other factor, and one that you will need to persuade others to believe, is your inner motivation to study a specific topic. This motivation is going to be the source of your drive over the next few years. If you are planning to begin your PhD immediately after completing your Master’s, this motivation and planning should even precede your choice of Master’s dissertation .

In this case, you will usually need to submit materials such as a Research Proposal , Statement of Purpose , a CV, your transcripts, etc., as part of the PhD application package before you even write the Master’s dissertation. Therefore, planning at an early stage is of utmost importance.

Tips for choosing your PhD topic

There are a number of stages and elements to consider when choosing your topic.

a. Read on a relevant topic of interest

Read widely around a topic that really interests you. Ideally, though, this should be a topic that has a future ! In other words, it will still need to be relevant and important in the future, a few years down the line when you have completed your PhD work. Additionally, while your interest in the topic is of course an indispensable ingredient for the PhD work to be carried on, do note that the topic should also be able to attract the attention of other researchers in your field. The topic you choose to base your PhD thesis on should ideally be such that the mainstream academic community finds it particularly striking, so much so that a majority of scholars in the field are interested in tracing its progress over time.

b. Read related review articles

As a corollary to the above, find and go through review articles on the topic. These articles sometimes appear in academic journals. They review the current available literature on a topic to map out the research done, while also identifying possible future avenues of research. 

c. Identify topics from courses you have taken

You will probably have had the chance to take courses related to your topic, hopefully even to write term papers using relevant literature. Draw from what you have learnt in these courses to develop ideas for your unique research topic.

d. Identify potential research questions

Write down the questions that you don’t know the answer to at this stage. These are focusing questions so that you can continue to read with a clearer purpose and direction. At this stage, you would be searching for gaps in the literature , and looking for possibilities to expand this area with new data or by bringing in another field to add to this topic.

e. Begin narrowing down researchable problems

From your reading, you can hopefully identify a more specific focus. This could be a particular aspect or problem which becomes more apparent as you read, or some of the questions you have been asking seem to be unanswered. Perhaps you have now identified a gap in existing studies/literature or an area that still feels unclear and therefore merits further research.

f. Choose a topic that allows extensibility across degrees

Most applicants plan to pursue a PhD in the same field or on a similar topic to their Master’s . If so, you will need to identify an area you can successfully deal with within the requirements of the Master’s thesis, but also one that you see possibilities to expand on beyond the Master’s, at the PhD level.

Note : If you decide to do your PhD in a different field than your Master’s, you should explain the reasoning behind this change in direction. The PhD applications committee will want to understand this shift and you can explain this in the Statement of Purpose . Try to put across the logic or need for such a change and your motivation behind this move.

If you are determined, you will find an opportunity to study the topic of your choice. But the ideal situation is when you have a well-thought-out, achievable plan and a strong, genuine motivation that the admissions panel will be able to see clearly throughout your application.

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How To Choose a Research Topic For Your PhD Thesis (7 Key Factors to Consider)

How to choose a PhD thesis topic

If you are a PhD student, then you know that choosing a topic for your PhD thesis or dissertation was one of the toughest decisions you had to make.

This post provides guidance to prospective PhD students on the factors they need to consider when it comes to choosing their research topic.

1. Personal interests

The PhD programme lasts on average for 3 years, but varies depending on the school and department. As such, you need to choose a research topic that interests you so as to keep you motivated during those days when you feel like giving up (and those days will be many).

2. The interests of your school’s faculty

As much as your interest is important in helping you choose a research topic for your thesis, it must align with the interests of one (or more) of the faculty of your school in which you are taking your PhD.

This is important in ensuring that you get a supervisor who is an expert in your proposed area of research. In fact, one of the PhD application requirements for most PhD programmes is a concept note, which highlights the proposed research topic. This serves the purpose stated above: ensuring that the applicant will get adequate supervision throughout his or her studies.

3. Your knowledge and skills set

The knowledge and skills you gained during your undergraduate or Masters’ degree, as well as through your job can influence your choice of a research topic for your PhD thesis.

You may choose to settle on a topic that requires your existing knowledge and skills set, or may choose the harder route of gaining new knowledge and skills. The PhD is a great opportunity for the latter option.

For instance, you may be well versed with quantitative research methods, including its practical application, and may decide to choose a topic that renders itself to the use of quantitative analysis. Alternatively, you may decide that since you already know quantitative analysis, it is time to learn about qualitative research methods and choose a topic that will force you to dive deep into qualitative analysis. It is all about your preference.

4. Your career prospects

When choosing a PhD thesis topic, ask yourself what your career aspirations are, and then choose a topic that will give you the opportunity to learn more about your area of interest.

Besides spending a great amount of time conducting research in your research topic, the PhD period will also enable you to network with your peers and experts in your research area.

PhD students are often expected to attend workshops, seminars, and scientific conferences in the course of their studies, and these avenues provide great professional networking opportunities for the students, which can open their doors for their future career.

You therefore want to choose a topic that will significantly contribute to your career growth.

5. Trends in your industry

This factor is closely related to factor number 4 above. If your career prospects are not in academia, then it is important to consider what is trending in your industry and choose a topic that aligns to it. This will offer you with enormous opportunities for career growth.

For instance, in the Health Economics space, digital health is currently trending, and will trend for a long time to come.

A PhD student who is currently focusing on an aspect of digital health is highly likely to “sell like a hot cake” upon completion of his or her studies. That is, as long as he or she puts in the effort to do the research well and network with like-minded people in the industry.

Choosing a topic that is relevant and adds value, especially practically, is important for the PhD student’s career growth.

6. Feasibility of the research topic

It is one thing to pick a research topic that interests you and your faculty. It is another thing altogether to ensure that the topic chosen does not drag you behind as far as completing your PhD is concerned.

PhD is time-limited. You only have 2, 3, or whatever number of years to start and complete your studies. Your topic should therefore be feasible both time-wise and resource-wise.

You need to pick a topic that you can comfortably work on within the time limits of your studies, as well as within the available financial resources.

Consider whether you have scholarship for the study or if you are self-sponsoring your studies, and choose a topic that will not burden you financially.

Another important feasibility aspect to consider is the data requirement for your research. Will you collect primary data or use already available secondary data. If using primary data, do you have the time and money required for the collection and analysis of the data? If using secondary data, do you have easy access (that is, there are no logistical and financial barriers) to the data? You need to have this knowledge before settling on a research topic.

7. Adequacy of existing literature on the research topic

Before settling on a topic, research it widely to make sure that there are enough papers written about it. Remember that you will review hundreds of papers for your PhD thesis.

You can easily find out whether the topic has been well researched by skimming through online journal databases and resources like Google Scholar . Familiarise yourself with what others have written and what gaps exist, and then tweak your topic in a way that will add value to the existing literature.

While at it, also get to know who the experts of your research topic are. Networks such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn and Twitter are great places to know who the giants of your research area are. Remember that you will stand on the shoulders of many giants throughout your PhD studies (and beyond!). Get to know them and their past and ongoing works.

Final Thoughts on “How to Choose a Research Topic for your PhD Thesis”

Your research topic for your PhD thesis will most likely evolve over time. The topic you start with when you join your PhD programme will undergo significant transformations as you undertake courses, read literature, and consult with your supervisor. Don’t worry if this happens, it is the norm.

However, don’t spend too much time thinking about your topic, as the more time you spend on it, the less time you will have for the actual research. Consider the above 7 factors, settle on your topic and hit the road running.

Related post:

How to Write a PhD Concept Paper

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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